• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November – December 2008 • 

In 2009, the Texas legislature will find itself at another historical crossroad. Does it strive to provide equitable and high quality public education for students, or does it settle for more gloss-over Band-Aids that merely give rhetorical cover for its leaders? The challenges range from funding equity to dropout prevention and from serving limited-English-proficient (LEP) pupils to high-stakes testing.

More specifically, the state is facing the need to improve educational equity in the funding system that was revised in 2006 and left uncorrected in 2007. It needs to deal with its failure to effectively monitor programs for LEP pupils and its woefully inadequate secondary level English language learner programs. In fact, the state’s perpetual failure to address, let alone to close, the achievement gap between LEP and non-LEP students has once again put it in a position of having to respond to a court mandate to address the issue.

In addition, the state faces its continuing need to address the dropout problem, which recent IDRA research indicates remains at levels comparable to those found in our 1986 study. Additional reforms are needed in the state’s ever-expanding and dysfunctional disciplinary alternative education program. There are needed changes related to high-stakes testing and in-grade retention. And finally, the state faces opportunities created for under-represented schools and students in the face of persistent pressure from suburban interests to weaken if not eliminate this reform.

These are but a few of the major challenges confronting the 2009 Texas legislature. Whether they are up to the task remains to be seen. Following is a brief overview of each issue.

School Finance Reform

Testimony presented at hearings convened by the education committees of the Texas House and Senate indicates growing pressure to improve the public school funding system in at least four areas. Evidence suggests that the use of what is referred to as “target revenue” has grown to totally disrupt the relationship between local tax effort and local per pupil revenues mandated in the early Edgewood court rulings. Target revenue is a hold harmless mechanism created in the 2006 special session to ensure that no district receives less funding per pupil than was provided prior to those reforms. This makes the target revenue mechanism a shadow funding plan that over-rides the existing finance formulae, and it is contributing to growing inequality among the state’s high and low property wealth school systems. Finance experts also agree that the state must increase its share of funding lest it invite new challenges that will once again claim that the system does not provide sufficient support to implement even an adequate educational program.

A second school finance issue is the recognized need to limit or eliminate the inequity created by the re-introduction of unequalized enrichment where some school districts are allowed to generate and keep significantly more revenue than other systems. Because of great differences in local property wealth among Texas school systems, it is this portion of the Texas public school funding system that contributes greatly to the school funding inequality that has re-surfaced in the state over the last few years.

Third, Texas educators will press for increases in salaries that have begun to lag notably behind other states.

And fourth, special program funding for programs serving students in the process of learning English or who meet free- and reduced-price lunch criteria will be carried over to 2009 education discussions.

For more information on school funding issues in Texas, see “The Status of School Finance Equity in Texas” in the May 2008 issue of the IDRA Newsletter.

Bilingual Education and Secondary Level LEP Programs 

Texas has been ordered by a federal district court to revise its bilingual education monitoring system and significantly improve the educational services provided to pupils who are identified as LEP at the secondary (middle school and high school) level. While an appeal is expected in the case, the evidence presented at trial (including data provided by IDRA) clearly demonstrated that the existing monitoring system fails to deal with under-identification of LEP pupils by school districts or with excessive requests to opt-out of the recommended bilingual or English as a second language (ESL) programs; that the current practice of aggregating LEP scores for students in grades three through 11 tends to mask notable student under-achievement at the secondary level; and that after 25 years of an obviously ineffective secondary level ESL program, major improvements are needed at that level.

The state is required to come up with a plan to address these issues by January 2009. It is rumored that the state will request a stay of the Judge’s order. But mandate or not, it is expected that some efforts will be mounted legislatively to address the issues raised in this federal court ruling.

For more information on other issues in Texas regarding serving English language learners, see “Bilingual Education in Texas.”

Student Dropouts

Though the state of Texas has continued to focus some energies on addressing what is recognized as one of the worst dropout rates in the country, IDRA research finds that the state of Texas continues to lose one of every three students who enroll at the ninth grade. The year 2007 witnessed a first-time investment in dropout prevention and recovery funding in a new allocation labeled the “high school allotment.” Unfortunately, the same monies were allowed to be targeted for enhancing college prep curriculum or college enrollment efforts, which created internal competition within districts for the same funds.

The effectiveness of the new effort also was somewhat neutralized by its distribution outside the wealth-adjusted state funding system. This resulted in equal allocations to all school systems based on average attendance in grades nine to 12, though their local capacity to address the issue varied greatly and the extent of their dropout conditions differed.

While there have been some discussions about expanding the level of funding for the allotment, the legislature will have to deal with its lack of equalization features and lack of targeting if the funding strategy is expected to work as intended.

For more information, see IDRA’s latest attrition study, “Texas Public School Attrition Study, 2007-08 – At Current Pace, Schools Will Lose Many More Generations,” in the October 2008 issue of the IDRA Newsletter.

Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs

IDRA and Texas Appleseed research on the state’s disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEPs) suggests that, despite some prior reforms, these efforts have evolved into a largely dysfunctional response that is creating a tracking mechanism to push low-income and minority pupils out of Texas public schools. The fact that these programs impact more than 100,000 students is in itself cause for concern. Add the over-representation of African American pupils at the elementary level, the over-representation of low-income and minority pupils at all levels, the large gaps in achievement and dropout rates between DAEP and non-DAEP pupils, and it becomes understandable why these programs have been called a “lawsuit waiting to happen.”

Continuing emphasis on improving coordination efforts between sending schools and DAEPs, placing stronger emphasis on more in-school based interventions and making DAEPs a tool for addressing only the most serious offenses will no doubt re-surface in the 2009 session. The success of proposed reforms will again hinge on the extent of resistance from some groups that have seen any change to these provisions as encroachments on local power arrangements.

For an overview of IDRA’s recent research findings on Texas DAEPs, see “Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs in Texas” in the May 2008 issue of the IDRA Newsletter.

In-Grade Retention

In an unexpected development, an interim committee has announced its intention to recommend de-linking Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAKS) test performance to in-grade retention. Testimony and related research indicate that such linkages are an ineffective response to student under-achievement. Discussions recently arose to return promotion and in-grade retention decisions to the local educators who are closest to the student setting involved.

There is a possibility that the recommendation will be opposed by some who insist on blaming and punishing students for what may really be caused by ineffective instruction. The extent of how much opposition may surface is as yet unclear.

For background information on the ineffectiveness of in-grade retention, see IDRA’s policy brief, Failing Our Children – Finding Alternatives for In-Grade Retention, which is available free at IDRA’s web site (www.idra.org).

Texas Top 10 Percent Plan

Higher education advocates from around the country will continue to monitor the effects of the Texas Top 10 Percent Plan, a law that requires automatic admission of all students graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class into a state-funded institution of higher education. This promises to be another battleground in 2009 due to continuing pressure from the University of Texas to alter the plan to limit the number of Top 10 Percent Plan students it must include in its freshmen admissions, countered by recognition that the plan has worked well by increasing both the number of rural and inner-city high schools represented in the entering classes and by growth in the minority enrollments.

Compounding the debates is the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s move toward requiring use of a standardized approach to computing high school grade point averages for college admission purposes. Growing resentment from local school districts of increasing state encroachment into some local policies and ongoing controversies over what is to be included or excluded in a new GPA calculation are likely to make this a point of friction in the upcoming legislative session.

If the new GPA is tied to moves to modify the Top 10 Percent Plan and to use the state standardized GPAs to determine admission, one can expect major debates on the effects of these new mandates on different schools.

For more information, see IDRA’s recent research, Ten Percent Plan in Texas – Policy Brief, which is available free at IDRA’s web site (www.idra.org).

All of these deliberations will be set in a context of lower than expected budget surpluses. Short on money and long on needs, state leaders will be once again charged with making difficult decisions. Whether they reflect the vision and courage that the situation requires, as noted earlier, remains to be seen, with those answers probably not available until the early days in June.

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

[©2008, IDRA. The following article originally appeared in the November – December 2008 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.]