Major public education issues that could affect Cy-Fair ISD are expected to be at the forefront of the conversation when the state Legislature convenes for the 85th legislative session Jan. 10.
In the last few months, a historic Texas Supreme Court decision critiqued the school finance system, test glitches this spring caused delays in the release of statewide standardized test scores and new talking points have emerged for school choice. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said these three issues are likely to consume this legislative session.
“There is no question that those three topics are recognizing the obvious—that Texas taxpayers are all interested in improving the state education system,” he said.
Meanwhile, CFISD officials are gearing up for major decisions in these areas and are sharpening their advocacy efforts.
“There needs to be a recommitment to universal public education,” Superintendent Mark Henry said. “It is the backbone of democracy, and the further we get away from believing all children should have the opportunity to succeed, the closer we get to having an unstable country.”
Teresa Hull, associate superintendent of governmental relations and communications, said school finance remains at the top of CFISD’s legislative priorities.
“We can’t do anything without being adequately funded and making sure we have support from the state,” she said.
In the 2016-17 school year, CFISD projects to receive $377.3 million of its $894.6 million total funding from the state. That is roughly $35.5 million less than the previous academic year and almost $50 million less than in the 2014-15 school year, despite the addition of students.
In May, the Texas Supreme Court responded to a lawsuit involving two-thirds of Texas school districts, including CFISD, which argued the state’s funding scheme did not fulfill the constitutional requirement of providing suitable support or maintenance of public schools. The Supreme Court said the existing funding scheme was constitutional, but also “Byzantine” and in need of reform.
Some lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, said the decision put an end to debate on school funding. However, public school officials still call for reform in this upcoming session.
Stuart Snow, associate superintendent of business and financial services for CFISD, said he would like to see two changes to funding in the next session.
“One is to develop a school finance system that is systematically transformed to one that is less complicated and one that is equitable,” he said. “And two, legislators [should be] funding schools at a level that exceeds the minimum standard and that includes changing technology and programs that are mandated by the Legislature.”
Snow said it would be challenging to pass the comprehensive change he believes is necessary just by working in the confines of the upcoming session.
“In order for [legislation] to be comprehensive and transformational in nature, I believe it needs to be a system that has been developed and studied over a long period of time,” he said.
Snow and several other school district finance officials have been meeting since November to create a suggested framework for a funding scheme. The group’s findings are still in progress and are not ready to be released, he said.
Ray Freeman, the deputy executive director of the Equity Center, a statewide school finance and research advocacy organization, said inefficiencies imbedded in the funding scheme make it detrimental to public education.
“An efficient system means it is devoid of waste,” he said. “Until we get rid of things with no basis in cost, we won’t have an efficient system in public schools.”
These inefficiencies include the provision for target revenue, which dictates that districts will receive the same level of funding as they did more than 10 years ago, regardless of whether the district has changed in size or needs.
Freeman said this specific provision will reportedly cost Texas $350 million next year and is not based on any justified cost. He said any solution must start with removing noncost-based provisions.
Patrick charged the Senate Education Committee, of which Bettencourt is a member, to study performance-based funding, another proposed solution for improving the school-funding scheme. Bettencourt said state funds should reward districts for high performance.
“I think we are taking a look at how you incentivize people for good behavior and not reward people for poor performance,” he said. “There should be a big push for financial accountability.”
One methods for holding schools accountable, standardized testing, could also be revamped this session.
STAAR testing has experienced numerous challenges in the past year. In April, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced that technical difficulties caused more than 14,000 exam results to be lost. None of the affected tests came from CFISD.
As a result of the errors, the Texas Education Agency announced in August it would be fining the STAAR testing administrator, Educational Testing Service, more than $20 million. This breaks down into a fine of $5.7 million and a directive to invest $15 million more in online testing system enrollment, shipping, online testing, precoding, scoring and reporting. This past academic year was the first in ETS’ four-year contract to administer STAAR tests.
The mistakes have led to a discussion among legislators about what to do going forward. Some legislators are calling for STAAR’s abolishment entirely. State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, said schools should be given the choice of standardized tests used elsewhere in the United States and not be hampered by one with so many flaws.
The Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability focused on this topic in its meetings over school accountability this summer. It was tasked with finding solutions to these problems and present recommendations to Gov. Greg Abbott by Sept. 1. Some recommendations include using year-round computerized testing and aligning state standards with national ones.
Linda Macias, associate superintendent for curriculum, instruction and accountability, said it is important for CFISD to fix the problems brought about by STAAR testing.
“Certainly we are not opposed to testing as we have to be held accountable for our student’s learning, but it is how those tests are administered, how they are used,” Macias said.
The two priorities Macias identified are aligning testing subjects with federal requirements and allowing local control over nonfederal requirements, such as social studies and writing.
Another key element of accountability revolves around the new rating system for public schools that is set to go into effect in the 2017-18 school year.
In the 2015 legislative session, House Bill 2804 passed, introducing an evaluation process that would more specifically identify differences between schools and the quality of education they are providing. Although this system is set to go into effect next year, CFISD officials said they are hoping legislators will do away with it in the upcoming session and maintain the existing rating system.
As it stands now, the new system will designate an A-F grade for both individual campuses and districts, replacing a system that marked schools as “met standard” or “improvement required.”
District officials and trustees have both expressed concern over the proposed A-F grading system. CFISD trustee Bob Covey said the system would devalue communities, and grades could possibly correspond more to student wealth than performance.
“I think there is an interesting correlation between ‘A’s equaling affluence and ‘F’s equaling free and reduced lunch,” he said.
Covey said he would like to see legislators repeal the law entirely.
School choice funding
State legislators will also consider legislation surrounding school choice—a concept based on the idea that students at failing public schools should have the ability to attend school elsewhere, typically at private or charter schools.
Debate focuses on the best way to fund school choice. Bettencourt said a number of options will be considered.
“There is everything from the
$100 million in the pilot program on tax credit scholarships all the way up to full blown education savings accounts,” he said.
In 2015, Bettencourt introduced legislation to establish tax credit scholarships. These scholarships would be funded by donations from businesses and distributed by nonprofit organizations through grants. Businesses that participate would receive a tax credit for their donations. The bill passed the Senate but did not make it out of the House.
“It is a way to bring new money into the system,” Bettencourt said. “I think it would be very popular. If you can donate money to a nonprofit and get money back for it, who wouldn’t?”
States such as Nevada and Arizona offer education savings accounts. These accounts take the average amount Texas spends per student—roughly $8,500 in Texas—and puts it into an account that a student or parent can spend on educational costs, including private school tuition or homeschool curriculum.
Thomas Ratliff, vice chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, estimated it could cost Texas an extra $4.7 billion not already spent on education.
Public school officials said legislative efforts to expand school choice will take money away from public schools.
However, Stephen Novotny, executive director of Cypress Christian School, said he believes parents should have the right to use state funds to pay private school tuition should a public school not be the right choice for their students.
“We advocate for freedom of choice for Texas parents,” Novotny said. “If the state has designated a set amount of dollars to educate their child in a public school, the parent should have access to those dollars the school is no longer using.”
Bettencourt hailed school choice as families’ ways to find the best education.
“We want public education to do a good job, but we also need to recognize that we have charter schools, districts of innovation, homeschoolers, parochial and private schools,” he said.
Henry said regardless of any specific debates, the Legislature should focus on creating positive educational experiences for students at all levels.
“Everything that goes on in Austin will be about providing opportunities for all students, not just some students,” Henry said.