The 1999 Texas legislative session opens on January 12 facing a host of issues. IDRA has identified some key issues that will impact equity in education. This article outlines these issues of concern for all children.
As Texas educators have seen a slide in the state’s rankings in expenditures per pupil and teacher salaries, advocates have begun to call for increases in minimum teacher salaries and for a significant increase in funding of the state’s basic educational program. There is also growing pressure for increases in state funding for school construction due to deteriorating school facilities, rapid enrollment increases in suburban schools and rising voter resistance to additional property taxes.
Some people in the state resent the state funding mechanism that requires wealthy districts to share their resources. This will no doubt lead to wealthy districts’ renewed assaults on the state’s education finance recapture provisions. The center of the debate about the future of education, however, may involve proposals to create a state-funded voucher program that will funnel state tax dollars into private and religious schools.
With a projected surplus of approximately $2 billion, educators – along with advocates of many other state-funded operations – will battle for revenue. As has been the case in past sessions, the 1999 Texas legislative session promises intense competition among varying interests. Educators battle lobbyists for highways, state employee groups and a host of other major interest groups when it comes to claiming their share of state funding. They will also quarrel among themselves for priority within the education budget.
Teacher groups will support a substantive increase in teacher salaries, which will probably include language that requires local districts to “pass through” additional percentage increases in those many school systems that already pay above the state minimum salary levels. This guarantee is seen as critical to ensuring that when the minimum salary is increased, teachers employed in districts that pay above that minimum level receive similar pay raises.
Administrator groups will most likely support an increase in the basic allotment, which gives them more flexibility in the way money is allocated within school district budgets. In addition to those who will promote more funding for operations or salaries, other education advocates will lobby for funding that is more targeted.
Equity proponents (groups that have historically pushed for greater equity in school funding) are turning their attention to three areas. One calls for increasing funding for the state’s facilities funding allotment, which was created during the 1997 legislative session but funded at too low a level to allow all eligible school districts to benefit from the formula.
A second priority is to resist further erosion of the state’s equalization formula components by supporting increases in Tier 2 or equalized enrichment funding – that portion of the state finance system that attempts to equalize the amounts of money local districts can raise to supplement the basic state program.
A third focus will center on fixing glitches in what s referred to as state set-aside programs – formula adjustments that wind up cutting into some districts’ equalization funding.
We may also see some special program advocates push for increased funding for specific programs serving special populations. Since special program allotments are calculated as a percentage of the basic allotment, a simple increase in that allotment can result in a domino effect in funding for all state special programs. If the legislature proposes a basic allotment increase, legislative analysts should expect some discussions about program weights as well as some possible moves to include or exclude these components from percentage increases.
While the 1997 session was marked by a major attempt to revise the state’s antiquated tax system, including modifying the tax code to lessen reliance on the local property tax, the idea that entered like a lion turned into a sacrificial lamb by the session’s end. Many parties agreed that the Texas taxing schemes needed a major facelift. But most felt that interests other than their own should take more of the tax burden. Even with the support of the former lieutenant governor – one of the most powerful and skillful in recent history – the tax reform package floundered and died, to be replaced by a one-time cutback in local property taxes through an increase in the homestead exemption. While some may try to revive the discussions about state tax reform, many legislators learned important lessons that will most likely preclude any serious attention to this critical issue in the upcoming session.
Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs
Rising concerns about the state’s disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEPs) will lead to proposals that seek much more data on these programs. Such concerns will also push for the inclusion of these programs into the state’s regular accountability system. According to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) data, approximately 74,000 pupils were referred to DAEPs, which are usually located away from the regular campus.
Although often thought of as places to send serious offenders who pose a threat to the safety of other pupils, the limited data available on the programs for the first two years of operation reveals that three-fourths of the students referred are not referred for serious offenses outlined in the law. Rather, the offenses involve violations of local school codes of conduct that include behaviors such as speaking out of turn and other less severe offenses.
Of major concern to minority advocates is the data that shows minority pupils are overrepresented in DAEPs and the lack of data on the academic effectiveness of many of these new campuses.
Growing concerns with TEA’s methods of calculating and reporting student dropout rates may lead to a proposal that will tighten district reporting requirements and modify the state’s procedure for calculating the longitudinal dropout rate. A longitudinal dropout rate refers to the estimate of the number of students who fail to get a high school diploma from Texas public schools. This method uses an approach that tracks the number of students enrolled over time up until the point that they actually graduate.
Current state dropout rates involve developing an estimate of the number and percent of students who drop out in a single year. This approach compiles information on school “leavers” for a particular period (usually one year) and divides that number into the total number of students enrolled in the grade spans covered in that particular year. For example, in XYZ ISD the number of “leavers” in 1998 was 100 pupils, with most being enrolled in grades six to 12. One calculation method would take the district’s total enrollment of 1,000 pupils and calculate an annual dropout rate of only 10 percent (100 ÷ 1,000). However, another method would involve considering the enrollment in grades six through 12 alone, which entails only 500 pupils and derives an annual dropout rate of 20 percent (100 ÷ 500).
A more sophisticated approach involves the actual tracking of an individual student over his or her entire school career and determining what number and percentage of pupils in a particular class actually earns a high school diploma. In this example of a longitudinal rate, the class of students who enter sixth grade in 1990 would be followed over time and then in May of 1998, the state would identify the number of pupils that are still enrolled in a school and estimate the dropout rate.
Given the sophisticated nature of the Texas student tracking system, such a process for tracking school completion seems not only feasible but also essential to arriving at estimates of Texas schools’ holding power. Regardless of what formula is adopted, many see that a change is essential if the state is to start working seriously on reducing the statewide dropout rate, a rate IDRA estimates is approximately 40 percent.
Earlier this year, Texas Gov. Bush announced his commitment to creating schools that had the majority of Texas children reading by the third grade. Legislative analysts expect the governor to convert his vision to a legislative proposal that will outline strategies for achieving that objective. Questions concerning how students with special needs will achieve this task – including those who have limited English proficiency – will be worth watching as the legislation evolves.
A related question involves what will be done with children who are unable to demonstrate mastery on the state-mandated reading test before the end of the year. While the proposal made references to intervention and intensive remediation for those who had not passed the state test, some suggest that pupils who have not passed the test by year’s end will be subject to retention in-grade. Many advocates do not support either retention in-grade or social promotion. But it is currently unclear whether third graders will continue to receive an opportunity for additional help to pass the exam over the summer (by attending alternatives to retention programs created in previous legislation) or whether they simply will be held back. Research noting the ineffectiveness of retention in-rade, coupled with research linking retention to over-age factors in grade and school dropouts, support a need for careful structuring of such reading-related initiatives (see article Retention Fails…).
Public Money for Private Schooling
While intra-family fights over public school funding may dot the legislative landscape, the major battles may well involve a war over the future of public education itself. In a previous legislative battle over the issue, the Texas House deadlocked on a proposal to adopt a pilot voucher program. Under that proposal a group of low-income Texas students would have received vouchers that they could use to purchase educational services from private school providers. Buoyed by a growing national focus on the CEO Foundation’s targeting of the Edgewood school district (the lead district in the state’s hard-won battle for funding equity), voucher proponents will try to convince a majority of the state’s legislators that Texas should provide public tax dollars to finance enrollment in private and parochial schools.
In 1999, pro-voucher proponents will attempt to convince legislators that it is time to begin the abandonment of public schooling by creating a pilot program involving the provision of state tax money for private education. Though touted as an “experiment” designed to “challenge” public schools into improving, this strategy is a common first step among those who propose to replace public schooling with a network of private for-profit school operations, working in tandem with private not-for-profit schools. Led by a handful of wealthy corporate leaders who have decided to write off public schooling and partnered with advocates who support plans to have the state assume the cost for pupils already enrolled in private schools, voucher advocates have used the cause of low-income, minority pupil underachievement as the cover to promote their agenda.
It is not accidental that vouchers as a funding approach have come on the heels of major victories in moving the state toward equalizing funding in all public schools. A review of past voting records also reveals that many voucher advocates are the same leaders who vigorously opposed proposals to equalize funding in Texas public schools. Encouraged by efforts in other parts of the country and inconsistencies in state court rulings challenging vouchers in other parts of the country, voucher advocates are geared to create the most serious challenge to this state’s educational operations since the creation of public schooling in the state. If voucher proponents are successful, many of the issues cited earlier become moot as privately operated schools, free from most state regulations, undo more than 150 years of public education reform in Texas.
Another issue of concern is affirmative action in higher education. The impact of the Hopwood decision and interpretation and a serious minority “brain-drain” from Texas schools has led many Texas advocates to encourage state policy-makers to explore ways of effectively recruiting and retaining diverse students at the state’s major universities. Recommendations from a legislative interim committee include increased funding for a myriad of programs ranging from enhanced scholarship support to incentives for universities to recruit and graduate greater numbers of minority pupils.
There is also some interest in assessing the effects of earlier higher education reforms that called for the automatic admission of pupils graduating in the top 10 percent of Texas high schools and the policies encouraging local colleges and universities to diversify the criteria used for making admissions and financial aid decisions.
Faced with a second consecutive budget surplus and a myriad of conflicting priorities, it is impossible to predict which proposals will make it through the process. But as is the case in most Texas sessions, monitoring the process will be crucial to those impacted by what happens in Austin.
María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is the executive director of IDRA. Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be sent to them via e-mail at email@example.com.
[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November – December 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]