“The big issues at the session—I think it’s going to be budget issues; it’s going to be virtual and remote learning and how we fund that and open it up statewide; it’s going to be about the state assessment with A-F [accountability ratings for districts]; and there might be some discussion on charter schools,” he said.
In 2019, House Bill 3 increased state funding per student in Texas and provided $5 billion in tax compensation and supporting programs, including the expansion of prekindergarten services and teacher incentives.
This year, Austin ISD is supporting legislation that would sustain the funding given through HB 3, according to a presentation given this fall by AISD Policy Oversight Director Edna Butts. However, the coronavirus pandemic has shrunk the estimated funding available for all state programs, she said, which means cuts may be coming. In the current budget, lawmakers will have to make up a $1 billion shortfall caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and Popinski said the state could look to reallocate education funding to fill gaps elsewhere.
AISD is also asking legislators to increase transparency in the process that charter schools follow to expand into new areas and “level the playing field” by making per-student funding equal for public and charter schools, Butts said.
Outside of school funding, Popinski said some of the more heavily debated topics might involve expanding virtual learning as a more permanent solution beyond the pandemic and adjusting accountability measures.
“Student performance and virtual learning is going to be a fairly huge issue, primarily because COVID-19 forced this emergency response learning to happen and [forced] schools to move to remote instruction,” he said. “Studies have shown that if you have remote learning full-time, you're going to see learning loss, just like what you're seeing now due to COVID-19. The debate that's going to be had during the legislative processes is, 'How far do we swing this open in the future?'”
Popinski said that the state has paused the A-F accountability ratings for schools and districts again in 2021. However, STAAR testing is currently still scheduled. How the test will be implemented and scored for the current school year could also be determined this session, he said.
“We're pleased there was a pause of the A-F ratings for schools and districts during the pandemic, and we should keep pausing it as long as the pandemic continues,” he said. “We do think it’s a good time to rethink our accountability system again and look for different indicators other than just the tests.”
This story is part of Community Impact Newspaper's Annual Community Guide, which takes a look at the biggest development, education, health care, education, government and local business stories for the year ahead.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the name of nonprofit organization Raise Your Hand Texas.