• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 1999

Dr. Albert CortezAs the Texas legislature heads into the last days of its 120 day-biennial session, many of the major issues remain on the table.

After hours of public testimony, hundreds of pages of texts, and countless hours of committee and individual deliberations, no major legislation has yet to make it all the way through the policy formation process.

Social Promotion and Retention In Grade

The session opened with Governor George W. Bush unveiling a proposal touted to eliminate social promotion in Texas schools, coupled with an ambitious proposal to improve reading achievement in early grades. The proposal’s primary alternative to social promotion however was in-grade retention. The plan was quickly adopted in the Senate with a rare unanimous vote. But the proposal encountered more strenuous examination in the House of Representatives.

Last February, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) released a policy brief on the ineffectiveness of in-grade retention (McCollum, et. al., 1999). Key findings of Failing Our Children – Finding Alternatives to In-Grade Retention* include:

  • Retention is strongly associated with dropping out of school in later years. A second retention makes dropping out a virtual certainty.
  • The cost of retaining students in Texas in 1996-97 was $694 million.
  • During 1993 to 1997, retention rates in Texas have steadily risen.
  • Retention rates in Texas for Hispanic students and African American students are over two and a half times higher than the rates of White students.

Given these and other concerns, the House education committee shifted their focus away from retention and high stakes assessment for young children. They focused instead on whether smaller class sizes, better prepared early childhood teachers, and/or state mandated and subsidized full-day early childhood (pre-kindergarten to kindergarten) programs would produce the desired outcomes.

The widely diverging perspectives created something of an impasse. Given the importance of the social promotion issue in the context of upcoming political races, some type of compromise on the issue of early childhood programs, high stakes testing and in-grade retention may result. But no one in Austin is laying odds on the resolution of this issue.

School Dropouts

IDRA released data at a meeting of the State Board of Education in January indicating that more than 1.2 million students have been lost from Texas public schools to attrition from 1985-86 to 1997-98. In that time, the state of Texas lost $319 billion in foregone income, lost tax revenues and increased criminal justice, welfare, unemployment and job training costs. The data is summarized in IDRA’s policy brief, Missing: Texas Youth – Dropout and Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools* (Supik and Johnson, 1999). It is presented against a backdrop of the 1986 legislation that mandated schools and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) ensure that at least 95 percent of Texas’ youth receive their high school diplomas. The latest findings include:

  • Two out of every five students (42 percent) enrolled in the ninth grade during the 1994-95 school year failed to reach and/or complete the 12th grade in 1997-98.
  • More than 100,000 Texas youth did not receive their high school diplomas last year, yet they were not counted as dropouts.

These numbers are in stark contrast to those calculated by TEA that show the state’s dropout rates improving. This is due, in part, to the state’s loose interpretation of the dropout definition, counting and reporting methods.

In response to these concerns with the accuracy and integrity of Texas school district dropout reporting, Senator Gonzalo Barrientos introduced SB 1561 to improve the manner in which dropouts are defined and the procedures used to calculate annual and longitudinal dropout rates in Texas.

The Texas Attorney General’s office has also raised concerns with this issue. Coupled with the Sen. Barrientos’ own research (that revealed wide discrepancies between state-reported dropout rates and alternative estimates of actual numbers of school leavers), the need for major revisions of state policies has become obvious to many.

At this writing, the Texas Senate has adopted major changes to the school district and state level dropout definition, annual and longitudinal dropout rate calculation, and dropout reporting requirements. Among the changes being proposed are the calculation of annual and longitudinal dropout rates involving the tracking of cohorts of pupils. The proposal also restricts the types of students who can be considered as non-dropouts (e.g., students who pass all courses but not all portions of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills [TAAS] and thus are denied a high school diploma). The proposal expands requirements for schools to document the status of students who have left their school campuses. The measure also includes provisions to provide financial awards to districts that reflect the greatest decreases in their dropout rates.

House action of the legislation is still pending, however given growing public awareness and concern with accuracy of school dropout counts in Texas schools, the adoption of some reform is likely.

School Funding

The Texas legislature also has grappled with school budget concerns. A major issue involves the amount of the state contribution to the teacher retirement system. The state is faced with an aging teaching force and understandable concerns about the adequacy of funding provided to retiring educational personnel working in Texas public schools. State leaders were proposing to increase the amount of state funding by about $1 billion. While the actual appropriation may well turn out to be less than this, a bi-partisan consensus about the need to increase state participation in the teacher retirement system may lead to some state funding increase in this area.

In addition, some state leaders are proposing to increase the state prescribed level for minimum teacher salaries. While the goal of some proponents at one time was as high as $6,000 per teacher, recent reports estimate that the average salary increase will be closer to $3,000. In contrast to other years, educator salaries and benefits top the priority list for many state lawmakers.

School Facilities

Another set of school finance discussions involves proposals for increasing the amount of funding for school facilities, upgrading the level of funding for Tier II or the Guaranteed Yield portion of the state funding system, and requiring local property tax cuts tied to increases in state funding for local schools. Related changes would reduce the number of districts that are required to share their wealth (known technically as recapture or Chapter 41 districts). They would also extend the hold harmless provisions that allow the state’s wealthiest school districts to continue to spend amounts per pupil that are comparable to their expenditures during the years preceding the Edgewood school district equalization decision.

At the time this article was written the Texas Senate had passed SB 4, sponsored by Senator Teel Bivens. This measure incorporates retirement, tax relief, increased teacher salaries, increased funding for facilities and other aspects of the state funding system.

On the surface, the increased funding for education seems positive, but analyses call in to question the extent to which the plan will enhance equity in the Texas funding system. Reacting to an early draft of the proposal, the Equity Center (an organization representing the state’s poorest school districts) observed that it provides more funding per pupil for the wealthiest districts than for the poorer districts that qualify for Guaranteed Yield funding.

At this writing, the Senate has adopted a plan that provides for increasing the basic allotment to $2,345, increasing the guaranteed yield level to 23.10 per penny of tax effort, and raising teacher salaries by an average of $3,000. New features call for a special “new school allotment” for fast-growing districts that are building new schools and additional funding for the state’s facilities funding component. Total new funding for public education that is included in the measure is $1.156 billion in 1999-00 and additional $1.27 billion in 2000-01.

The House version of the school finance bill differs significantly from the Senate version. The House plan includes provisions for increasing teacher salaries and instructional improvement, campus staff development, Guaranteed Yield funding increases, a fast growth allocation, additional funding for state support of school facilities, and funding for “program improvements” including the Texas reading initiative, after-school initiative, student stress initiative, kindergarten and pre-kindergarten expansion, and second chance high school programs.

Due to the controversial nature of the proposed revenue distribution, and emerging House and Senate differences, it is not yet clear how these proposed funding concentrations may change. Regardless of the final configuration, it is clear that this legislature intends to increase the level of state funding provided for public education.

School Vouchers

As public school forces compete for available surplus monies, voucher proponents have stepped up their efforts to get the state to adopt some variation of a state funded voucher plan to provide public tax monies to private schools, including religiously affiliated schools. The original proposals would have involved hundreds of thousands of pupils and many of the state’s largest school systems. Several voucher bills mandated participation by all major urban districts and involved low-income pupils who failed one or more portions of the TAAS or who attended low performing schools.

Voucher supporters, however, were forced by major opposition to scale down their proposals to limit the voucher “experiments” to smaller numbers of students and a handful of districts that would be designated by the state Commissioner of Education.

In contrast to previous years when voucher proponents took a low profile stance to add voucher language as amendments to existing legislation, the 1999 voucher battles have become high profile affairs involving high powered lobbyists and strong support from the Texas republican leadership who were recipients of significant campaign contributions from pro-voucher forces.

Although the Senate education committee approved an experimental voucher plan on a 5 to 4 vote, voucher proponents have thus far been unsuccessful in forcing a vote in the full Senate.

In the House, strong support for public schools and opposition to vouchers has created a relatively cool climate among many House members, making the adoption of a even a so-called “pilot” voucher program less than likely.

Across the state, community leaders, parents, teachers, children, youth, advocacy organizations, educators and policy-makers have rallied against school vouchers. In San Antonio for example, individuals and organizations (including IDRA) have joined together to form the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Public Education to support the use of public money for neighborhood public schools and oppose any effort to divert public tax funds to subsidize private education. The group is dedicated to improving neighborhood public schools by helping to channel the community’s support for public education.

The coalition has continued to voice its concerns regarding publicly-funded vouchers and sponsored a letter writing campaign that generated more than 4,000 letters by parents, children an community members that were delivered to policy-makers in Austin.

At a separate event sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network, more than 100 religious leaders traveled to the capitol to voice their opposition to any form of publicly-funded voucher system.

This month, IDRA released a policy brief, Students for Sale – The Use of Public Money for Private Schooling*, that outlines the dangers of vouchers and their potential impact on Texas children (Cortez, et. Al., 1999; see “Students for Sale”).

Strong political pressure from conservative leaders has the voucher issue lurking in the shadows of education discussions. We will not know if vouchers will be thrust upon the Texas education system until the session is completed.

Student Discipline

Even before the tragedy in Colorado, some Texas lawmakers had expressed concern about youths who are considered potentially a threat to school staff and fellow students. Others however based their concerns on emerging evidence that some aspects of Texas’ alternative education programs were not working as originally intended.

Policy-makers in state capitals have tried to create ways for schools to deal with violence and criminal behavior. One of the newer methods has been to separate offending students by placing them temporarily in alternative settings where they are supposed to receive personalized support. The Texas legislature established such a policy in 1995 requiring school districts to have an “alternative educational setting for behavioral management.”

This spring, state lawmakers spent several days dealing with disciplinary alternative education issues, including (1) procedures for referring and placement of pupils who commit serious offenses while off school property and (2) policy reforms to improve the quality and accountability of alternative education operations.

The latter efforts were triggered by statewide reports of alternative education programs that were warehousing low-income and minority pupils and where little or no communication occurred between the student’s home and the receiving alternative campus.

IDRA’s policy brief, Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs in Texas – What is Known; What is Needed*, examines the details of how this idea has been carried out in Texas (Cortez and Robledo Montecel, 1999). Findings include:

  • Minority students are over-represented in removals to these alternative programs.
  • The primary reason for the removals involves violations of school districts’ codes of conduct instead of the major offenses in the Texas criminal code.
  • These programs serve more than 90,000 pupils a year and cost millions of state taxpayer dollars. But we know very little of what they do, much less how (or how well) they do it.

While many recognize that most alternative program educators are doing the best they can under difficult conditions punctuated by minimal local support, a growing number of families impacted by these alternative settings are raising significant concerns. Lawmakers were also confronted with horror stories of alternative education operations that dressed pupils in orange prison-like garb and provided minimal actual classroom instruction during the course of the school day.

Though perceived as a means of dealing with seriously disruptive pupils, what actually emerged was a picture of a good idea gone awry that required more extensive state supervision. Though it is too early to tell how policy reforms in this area will actually be framed, changes will probably be adopted.

Student Achievement

An observation by many who follow Texas legislative sessions is that it is always easier to adopt funding reforms when there is extra state money available. Given the projected multi-billion dollar state surplus, it is clear that more funding will be provided for different aspects of public education. Texas continues to be committed to maintaining students and schools to high standards, with the ultimate criteria tied to student-based outcomes that include student performance on state tests, attendance, in-grade retention and dropout rates. It is also evident that – although Texas is being lauded as a leader in school reform and improvement, outperforming many comparable states on measures of progress and/or student achievement – state level data indicates that Texas still has far to go before it is truly a place where equal educational opportunity exists for all pupils.

Despite the potential for some improvement during the current session, it is clear that much more will remain to be done after the year 2000.


Cortez, A. and M. Robledo Montecel. Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs in Texas – What is Known, What is Needed (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).

Cortez, A., et. Al.Students for Sale – The Use of Public Money for Private Schooling (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).

IDRA. “For Our Children: Preserving Our Neighborhood Public Schools,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 1999).

McCollum, P. and A. Cortez, O.H. Maroney, F. Montes. Failing Our Children – Finding Alternatives to In-Grade Retention (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).

Robledo Montecel, M. “Lost: $319 billion and 1.2 Million Students,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 1999).

Supik, J. and R.L. Johnson. Missing: Texas Youth – Dropout and Attrition in Texas Public High Schools (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

* IDRA’s series of policy briefs on four key issues in education, developed by the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership, is designed to inform community and policy decisions during the Texas legislative session and beyond. The policy briefs are available for $7 each from IDRA and are available free on-line at www.idra.org.

[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1999 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.]