With the 2019 Texas Legislature set to convene Jan. 8, local school district leaders are keeping tabs on bills that could affect finances, security and accountability.
Several legislative committees are tackling these issues, said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood. Changes to the school finance system, incentives for high-performing schools and enhanced security resources are all on the list of priorities, he said. As of Dec. 5, more than 100 of the nearly 700 total filed dealt with schools and education, but more could be filed in the coming months.
Here is a primer on the three top concerns facing local districts: school finance, accountability and safety.
School districts will see bills proposing changes to the school funding system, Taylor said. For both Friendswood and Pearland ISDs, reworking Robin Hood is a major priority.
The Robin Hood system redirects local funds from property-wealthy districts as a way to establish equity statewide and is addressed in House Bill 443, which proposes a limitation on how much property tax revenue is subject to recapture.
Local revenues are projected to make up 55 percent of school funding in 2019—9 percent more than they did in 2010, according to data from the Texas Legislative Budget Board.
The financial system places too much emphasis on recapture and property taxes, FISD Superintendent Thad Roher said. His district loses hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to recapture.
PISD Superintendent John Kelly also believes the funding system needs to be restructured.
“The state has neglected their responsibility and has instead increasingly over-relied on local property taxes and an unfair ‘Robin Hood’ system,” Kelly said in an email.
The solution is both more funding and fewer unfunded mandates, Kelly said.
“Every session, our legislators add little and big mandates that are either unfunded or partially funded,” Kelly said in an email.
Alvin ISD echoes Kelly’s opinion on unfunded mandates, Assistant Superintendent Daniel Combs said.
“Over time, autonomy is being limited for the overall board as mandates continue to occur and funding is not provided,” Combs said. “Many of them are good, but it limits the district’s discretion to determine what is the highest priority. ”
In addition to potential reforms, a finance committee put together a plan that includes incentivizing schools that perform well and funding successful programs, Taylor said. The committee also discussed putting more resources into more dual-language programs rather than bilingual programs as well as prioritizing preschool programs.
“We have recognized the value of early-childhood education. So, moving our money to target those areas, particularly having our kids reading by third grade, at the third-grade level, is very important for their educational future,” Taylor said.
The A-F rating system has been divisive among school districts since its implementation for the 2018-19 school year. However, the system is here to stay, Taylor said.
“We are not backing off the A-F,” Taylor said.
However, school districts may see changes to incentivizing schools that perform well, Taylor said.
“One thing we hadn’t really thought of is recognizing districts for doing well. We haven’t been recognizing these high flyers,” Taylor said.
High flyers include those helping marginalized students improve performance—even if they do not receive an A, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-League City, said at a forum on Dec. 3.
“You are not going to get them to perform at the highest level, but if you can advance their skills and their knowledge base, you should be recognized for having done a great job,” Bonnen said.
The system rates school districts with a score based on student achievement, progress over time and educational equity. The program will apply to individual campuses for the 2019-20 school year.
School districts such as Alvin and Friendswood ISDs do not think the system gives a comprehensive and transparent rating of districts, both Roher and Combs said.
Alvin ISD was not rated this year, as the overall score may have been affected by Hurricane Harvey, according to the Texas Education Agency.
While FISD received an A, the district is placing a higher importance on improving the district in the eyes of the community, rather than the state, Roher said.
“When you give Friendswood Junior High a grade, you’re basing it on one test on one day. There is so much more to Friendswood Junior High for our parents and our staff to hold ourselves accountable to,” Roher said.
PISD, which also received an A from the state, is happy with the existing system, Kelly said in an email.
“The new A-F system is the fairest one devised thus far—and even many critics acknowledge that,” Kelly said in an email.
With the Santa Fe school shooting just occurring in May, the legislature is focused on increasing safety measures across districts, Bonnen said.
“There is no question this is going to be a priority,” Bonnen said.
HB 357 addresses tighter measures for carrying firearms.
Security measures discussed in Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan, which may lead to legislation, include hard security measures, increasing school resource officers, and adding mental health counselors.
“We need more folks on the ground at these campuses to react more quickly to any type of incident that does arise,” Taylor said.
FISD agrees mental health is the first step in protecting students, Roher said.
“When you have students who have relationships, are involved in a community of some kind … when they are a part of those different programs, then they don’t want to harm a school. They’re not isolated. They are part of a team. Anytime that happens you have very positive things,” Roher said.
FISD, along with other Galveston County schools, would also like to see a fund set aside for safety with the freedom for districts to use it how they see fit, Roher said.
Combs said he would also like to see more money allocated toward safety.
“There is a finite amount of resources. Allocating those funds to safety ultimately pulls them away from other measures,” Combs said.
There may be money in the Rainy Day Fund for one-time safety expenses, Taylor said.
Kelly also supports additional funding for school safety, he said. However, local control is necessary, he said.
“There is no one-size-fits-all law that will answer the safety and security needs in the 1,000-plus school districts of Texas,” Kelly said in an email.