In January, the Texas legislature began its 75th biennial session. State lawmakers will attempt to deal with an array of issues ranging from highway funding to welfare reform. While all of the issues that will be addressed are important, IDRA believes that no issue is more critical to the well-being of Texas than public education.
Between 1970 and 1994, Texas was the fastest growing state in the country, with a population growth of almost 40 percent (Center for Demographic and Socio-economic Research and Education, 1996). Though much of the state’s growth resulted from in-migration by adults, a significant portion of the new residents were children – either new additions to Texas families or school-age youths who migrated to Texas with their parents.
The Center for Demographic and Socioeconomic Research and Education estimates that roughly 51,000 additional students will enroll in Texas schools each year from 1990 through the year 2030 (1996). IDRA will focus its state policy monitoring efforts on specific issues that affect critical sub-groups of children in Texas. These policy focal areas are discussed below.
School Finance Equity
In 1995, the Texas Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Texas public school finance system. The ruling was based on projections of educational funding proposed under Senate Bill 7, adopted by the 1993 Texas legislature. While the state has made some strides in narrowing the gap in spending – particularly in the early 1990s, its most recent efforts have served to maintain, rather than reduce the gaps in funding equity created by the state funding system.
Two years after the court ruling, research conducted by IDRA on the status of the funding system indicates that there are significant differences in funds available to educate children in the state’s wealthiest and poorest school systems. Even at similar levels of tax effort, school districts can have up to a $374,040 difference in the amount of money available to educate children.
In spite of continuing disparities, many people contend that the system is equal enough, and others would say that the state went too far and would propose changes to the court-approved plan.
Proposals that have been mentioned in policy deliberations include (a) increasing the basic allotment, which is the fundamental building block of the Texas public school funding system; (b) changing the manner in which compensatory, bilingual education, gifted and talented, and migrant education programs are funded; (c) modifying the state’s funding formula for small and sparse school systems; and (d) altering funding levels for transportation allotments.
Even as the gap in program funding remains constant, the state has done little to reduce the gross inequalities in funding for school facilities prevalent in Texas school systems. In 1991, the state subsidized a research project to assess the extent of local public school facilities’ needs in Texas. The study determined that hundreds of school buildings in the state were in need of major repair or replacement (Texas Education Agency, 1992). Rather than creating a comprehensive solution, the legislature opted for band-aid approaches that provided “emergency facilities funding” for school systems in most critical need.
In the interim, many schools continue to face overcrowding due to enrollment growth, and others struggle to maintain outdated facilities. Additionally, local property taxpayers continue to shoulder unequal burdens associated with local unequalized facilities funding expenses. While no new proposals for funding facilities have yet surfaced, a group of fast-growing districts has recently organized to promote their unique issues, including the creation of a state plan for equalized funding of school facilities.
In a policy research effort conducted by the staff of the Legislative Budget Board, staff members chose to forego conducting research on the current condition of local school facilities, citing limits in funding as the justification for ignoring this critical issue. Even in the absence of more recent data, existing evidence points to a critical need for a comprehensive state initiative to address this long-neglected aspect of local public school funding. Continued state inaction invites a new court challenge modeled after the original Edgewood lawsuit, with facilities funding serving as the major focus.
IDRA will evaluate proposals relating to school finance on the basis of the following principles:
- The plan should have a positive impact on the level of school finance equity created by the existing funding system.
- The plan should not result in a decrease in funding levels for low wealth school systems.
- Proposed changes in special program weights should not diminish the resources available to educate students and adequately address each of their unique characteristics.
- The provision must be made for state participation in facilities funding.
- Facilities funding provisions should make a separate allocation for facilities, rather than forcing school districts to choose between using Tier II funding for programs or for facilities.
Property Tax Relief
An increase in the tax rates charged by many school districts was caused by major changes incorporated into recent school finance reform in Texas. One change involved the recognition of higher local tax effort at Tier II of the state funding system (the portion referred to as guaranteed yield) and the provision of additional state aid in proportion to that higher tax effort. Because districts were able to generate significantly more money for this higher effort, many took advantage of this option, and local district tax rates rose across the state.
A second change raised the minimum tax effort required of all districts in the state. As a result, many high wealth school districts were forced to raise what had been relatively low tax rates to levels more comparable to those charged in average wealth school systems. This combination of increased local tax efforts in high wealth districts and incentives for higher local school taxes in low and average wealth school systems resulted in notably higher school taxes in all parts of the state. While above average tax rates had long been the norm in property poor districts (even before the latest state funding reforms), the increase in tax rates in above average and wealthy school systems attracted the attention of influential political leaders who have now chosen to make “property tax relief” their goal for the 1997 session.
To assess the public perspectives on the issue, an interim legislative committee conducted hearings and submitted its report to the legislature. Committee recommendations included a reduction in local school property tax rates and a replacement of this revenue with alternative revenue sources that could include, but were not limited to, an increase in the state sales tax, a corporate profits tax or a value added tax (Citizens’ Committee, 1996). Preliminary recommendations were incorporated into a proposal that has been drafted for consideration by the upcoming legislature.
IDRA will monitor these proposals to assess (a) the extent to which current and historical tax efforts are considered in any tax relief proposals and (b) the impact of proposed school tax reductions on local school revenues, focusing specifically on the impact of any tax “relief” on the extent of finance equity in the state’s public school funding system. IDRA will evaluate property tax relief proposals on the basis of the following principles:
- The plan should recognize and make provisions for current and historical above average tax rates and districts’ property wealth per pupil.
- Alternative tax proposals need to be more progressive than the current school property tax approach (i.e., do not require lower income persons to pay out a higher percentage of their income).
- Alternative tax options must be as stable a revenue source for education as the local property taxes.
Public Funding for Private Schools
A movement supported by small but influential interests distributed throughout the state is continuing to call for public funds to be used for the education of students who are enrolled in private schools. Public funds are being used to finance public “charter schools.” These schools are specific in their mission and have limited enrollment but must loosely comply with the standards for all public schools in the state. The governor and a small group of legislators are strong proponents of both concepts. The 74th legislature passed laws allowing for the creation of 20 charter schools, though it eventually rejected the concept of providing state funding for private schooling.
Proponents may once again attempt to secure state support through vouchers or so-called “choice” programs. Proponents of charter schools will push for an increase in the number of charter schools that are eligible to receive state funding.
IDRA will evaluate proposals for using public monies to support private schooling and will assess the following:
- the extent to which the “choice” plan ensures that all students (rather than schools) have equitable access to the schools of their choice; and
- the extent to which proposed alternatives are required to comply with federal and state requirements related to non-discrimination and provision of equal educational opportunity for all students.
IDRA will also assess charter school proposals regarding the extent to which they are accessible to all students served in public schools and the potential contribution that such alternatives can make to improving instruction for all students in public schools.
State Language Policy
Recent attention to language-related policies stemming from the last federal congressional session will likely be raised at the state level. Nationally, efforts to cut funds for bilingual education and to make English the official U.S. language were among a myriad of heated issues with adverse repercussions for non-English speaking residents of this country. It is possible that legislation will be proposed to reduce funding for bilingual education in Texas or to modify current state law relating to the education of limited-English-proficient (LEP) pupils. Certification of bilingual education teachers may also be addressed, after the much publicized problems with the certification process in California and Texas and with recent reports citing the need for more bilingual teachers.
Texas enrolls the second largest number of children who speak a language other than English. In 1996, a total of 479,576 Texas pupils were identified as being limited-English-proficient. Of the total, only 240,538 were enrolled in a bilingual education program. Some critics of bilingual education propose to limit the amount of time students can participate in a bilingual education program, while others would eliminate the programs altogether.
Federal requirements specify that schools must address the language-related needs of their students and that simply providing an all-English instructional program does not provide equal access to education for such children.
Critics of bilingual education are often misinformed about its purpose and operation. Others simply oppose the idea of teaching in a child’s first language, despite much research evidence that supports bilingual education as the most effective way to ensure students’ academic progress while at the same time learning English (Cárdenas, 1995).
As the number of LEP students enrolled in Texas schools increases along with the general population, so will the need for well-prepared teachers. Recent research, however, indicates that the state still lags far behind others in supplying the numbers of bilingual and English as a second language (ESL) teachers needed. A recent Texas study found that in 1996 almost one of every three teachers working in these programs was not certified to teach in that specialty area (Gold, 1997). Special programs that provide new incentives for teacher education candidates to consider bilingual or ESL specializations may be proposed.
Related to the issue of language policy is the attempt to make English the official language of the United States. Throughout the country, there are factions of advocates who support a monolingual society. The English Only movement uses several arguments. These arguments include the view that the common language and culture of the nation is in jeopardy due to the multilingual population and the language needs of recently immigrated residents and citizens. Other English Only proponents argue that, since English is already the dominant language, it is only logical to have the government “declare” it the official language for US citizens. Warnings that the movement to secede Quebec from Canada could happen similarly in the United States are often used by English Only groups to portray non-English speaking immigrants as a threat to this county.
But many other people realize that there is a great benefit to not restricting fluency in more than one language. This is especially true in Texas, a major player in the free trade occurring between the United States and Latin American countries. Governor George Bush, Jr., has publicly spoken out against adopting English as the official language stating:
English plus recognizes the important richness that other languages and cultures bring to our nation of immigrants…As the world becomes smaller and trade between countries becomes freer, the ability to speak several languages will be an important plus for our citizens (Bush, 1996).
IDRA’s concern also revolves around the impact of language on effective learning for students and the need for effective communication between the school and the child’s guardian. Any bills that would affect the transitioning of non-English speaking students into English should consider the following principles:
- Programs must foster learning for children whose primary language is other than English.
- Language policies must not arbitrarily limit the extent to which students are permitted to maintain a language other than English.
- The language policies must not arbitrarily restrict or limit a person’s opportunity to function in more than one language.
Access to Public Education for Immigrant Students
Another controversial issue debated during the 104th US Congress was the education of immigrant students in public schools. A measure was considered that would allow states the option of turning away children of undocumented workers from public schools and virtually would turn teachers into INS agents by having to verify students’ citizenship status. Proponents of the bill heralded it as a money-saver for taxpayers. They overlooked the impact such a measure would have on children who have no control over their citizenship. The constitutionality of such a proposal is also questionable (see Cortez and Romero, 1996).
If Texas legislators attempt to adopt restrictive admission policies in our public schools, they must be reminded of the US Supreme Court opinion in 1981, Plylar vs. Doe. According to that landmark ruling that challenged Texas’ exclusionary policies, no child can be denied a public education based on the citizenship status of his or her parents.
The debate in Texas might assume a different tone because the current political leadership has made public statements against denying children, regardless of citizenship status, the opportunity to receive an education.
In the long run, making education inaccessible to children of undocumented workers would likely increase the cost to taxpayers due to the need for citizenship verification. It would likely also increase illiteracy rates and lower employment rates for children left without an education and without career prospects for the future. Various religious, civil rights, education and law enforcement groups have spoken out against measures to turn children away from our public schools.
Despite such opposition, there are those who would deny children access to a basic education or would impose requirements designed to actively discourage immigrant parents from enrolling their children in school.
IDRA will assess immigrant education proposals based on the following principles:
- Any proposed legislation must re-affirm all children’s right to an education.
- Request for supplemental funding to offset the impact of immigrant pupil enrollment, which may require identification of such pupils, must ensure no chilling effect on immigrant student enrollment.
- If supplemental funding is allocated, it must target the unique needs of immigrant students (i.e., students transitioning to US culture), and it must consider the impact of immigrant students on local facility needs.
Access to Higher Education
The Hopwood vs. The State of Texas case (coupled with the highly publicized passage of California’s Proposition 209 that did away with state affirmative action policies) will undoubtedly bring forward the issue of minority access to higher education during the upcoming state legislative session.
In the Hopwood case, four Anglo plaintiffs filed a suit against the University of Texas Law School on the basis that the school had in place a “discriminatory” admission process at the time that the plaintiffs applied for admission. The federal appeals court struck down the admission policy and, later, the US Supreme Court chose not to hear the case (see Kauffman, 1996). Some critics of the appeals court decision have expressed concern about its impact on affirmative action, particularly related to the stated commitment to diversity expressed by most state-funded institutions. While some schools will propose policies to support the achievement of student diversity in Texas higher education, others will attempt to codify the Hopwood ruling to restrict efforts to implement affirmative recruitment and admission policies in state institutions.
Principles that IDRA will use to guide assessment of access to higher education include the following:
- Proposed changes in an institution’s admission or financial aid policies must support inclusion, not exclusion, as the means to increase student diversity.
- Proposed policies must encourage consideration of multiple factors for admission and financial aid.
- Proposed student recruitment policies should be accompanied by commensurate emphases on strategies that promote retention and graduation.
- Ultimate accountability should rest with the institutions of higher education and should include quantitative measures of success.
Alternative Educational Placements
Responding to increased concerns about teachers’ abilities to maintain control over their students and about the high numbers of school expulsions, the 74th legislature adopted policies requiring local school districts to establish “alternative educational placements” for students considered disruptive in conventional school settings. Though well intended by some, data compiled by the state education agency has found that the number of students being referred to those settings has been increasing.
Critics of these programs have cited concerns about the new limits on students’ due process rights and have questioned the legality of requiring minimal curricular or staff certification offerings in these alternative settings, thus setting up student tracking situations in many schools. Some once-supportive lawmakers have begun to question the operation of these alternative programs. Others have taken note of the absence of much needed data about who gets assigned and what happens to students who are tracked into these alternative placements. IDRA will monitor proposals relating to alternative placements using the following guiding principles:
- Proposed alternative education policies must improve the quality of education for students referred to such programs.
- Changes in data collected must contribute toward better profiling of student referrals to such settings and, adequate procedures should be in place for reporting such data to the Texas Education Agency and the local community.
- The curricular offering should facilitate student graduation not encourage student in-grade retention.
- Proposed changes must create or enhance provisions for re-entry into the regular campus after completing referral to the alternative setting.
- Policies must increase access to data relating to the impact or effectiveness of alternative educational settings on students referred to such programs.
- Costs associated with creating and maintaining alternative educational settings should be computed and compared to other options.
A recent Education Week study of state education policies gave Texas a grade of “A” for its comprehensive student and school accountability system (Ramos, 1997). While many are pleased with the current situation, others would modify existing state policies in numerous accountability-related areas. One concern is the number of students that may be exempted from the state testing program and its implications on the comprehensiveness and accuracy of school accountability ratings (Texas Education Agency, 1996). Another complaint is about the use of student “sun-group” data in the assignment of ratings of school district performance on the AIS indicator system. Some feel that the state requires too much standardized student testing, while others feel it does not require enough. IDRA will continue to monitor proposed policy changes that impact the accountability system. Principles that will be used to guide our analysis include the following:
- The proposed policy changes should make the schools more accountable for producing acceptable student outcomes.
- Proposed changes should contribute to improving the amount or quality of information available to guide instructional improvement.
- The policy changes must allow for improving the alignment between curriculum, instruction and assessment practices.
- Changes in analyses or reporting should contribute to increased public understanding of school performance.
IDRA believes that the issues outlined above are among the most critical facing the Texas legislature. IDRA staff members will monitor development in each area and provide information and technical assistance to those involved in the policy-making process. Future issues of the IDRA Newsletter will report on the outcomes in the organization’s major focus areas.
Bush, George. Office of the Governor. (Austin, Texas: August, 1996).
Cárdenas, José A. Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy. (Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon & Schuster Custom Publishing, 1995).
Center for Demographic and Socioeconomic Research and Education. Texas Challenged: The Implications of Population Change for Public Service Demand in Texas, report for the Texas Legislative Council. (College Station, Texas: Department of Rural Sociology, Texas A&M University, February 1996).
Citizens’ Committee on Property Tax Relief. Final Report if the Citizens’ Committee on Property Tax Relief. (Austin, Texas: Office of the Governor, 1996).
Cortez, Albert and Anna Alicia Romero. “Public Engagement Results in Support of Education for All Children,” IDRA Newsletter. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 1996).
Gold. Russell. “Teacher Training Under Fire,” San Antonio Express-News. (January 17, 1997).
Kauffman, Albert. “The Hopwood Case – What it Says, What it Doesn’t Say, The Future of the Case and ‘The Rest of the Story,'” IDRA Newsletter. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 1996).
Bush, George. Public letter. (Austin, Texas: Office of the Governor, 1997).
Ramos, Cindy. “Accountability Rates Well; Funding Doesn’t,” San Antonio Express-News. (January 17, 1997).
Texas Education Agency. Assessment System for Limited English Proficient Students Exempted from the Texas Assessment Program at Grades 3-8. (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, December 1996).
Texas Education Agency. Draft 1992 Report on School Facilities. (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, June 1992).
Dr. Albert Cortez is the director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Anna Alicia Romero is an education assistant in the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be sent to them via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 1997 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.]