• By Albert Cortez, Ph.D., and Anna Alicia Romero • IDRA Newsletter • August 2007

As the Texas legislature opened in January of 2007, state education advocates were buoyed by news that state revenues would be substantially higher than what had been projected. Shored up by increasing economic windfalls from strong markets and higher than expected oil and gas revenues, many hoped that the monies available would provide the resources needed to increase overall state education funding above the modest improvements provided during the April 2006 special session.

But, as the Texas legislature wrapped up its work in the final days of the 2007 legislative session, the education community’s general mood varied from resignation to indignation. And few, if any, saw much cause for celebration.

School Finance and the Status Quo

Hopes for increasing state investment in public education were dampened by the state’s policymakers’ continuing dysfunctional emphasis of pitting lower property taxes against improved public education. Following the path laid by its expansive special session commitment of state funding for mandated reductions in local property taxes, the legislature predictably chose to allocate the majority of new state funding to pay for the reduced local property taxation.

With the adoption of House Bill 1 last year, the legislature required local public school systems to reduce local tax rates to a maximum of $1 by 2008-09. To offset reductions in local school revenue, the state increased state aid formulas so that schools would wind up with total revenues similar to the amount that would have been available before the mandated tax cuts.

This state dollar for local tax dollar exchange resulted in no additional funding for local schools. But it cost the state about $8 billion in new state revenue commitments.

Going into the 2007 regular session, concerns about the need for increasing state taxes (over the increases that already had been adopted during in the 2006 special session) were allayed. But political leaders made it clear early on that nine out of every 10 new state tax dollars would be required to cover the property tax cuts, thus leaving a fraction of the surplus to cover a list of long-deferred needs that included much overdue improvements in state funding for children’s health insurance.

Teacher Salaries vs. Incentives – Teachers were understandably disappointed as efforts to increase salaries for the state’s historically under-paid teachers produced a net gain of $425 per teacher. One teacher advocate observed this “windfall” would provide enough money for a “weekly hamburger and coke at any local eatery.”

Rather than increasing salaries, the legislative leadership, led by the governor, allocated an additional $300 million to fund teacher “incentive” grants. This “pay for performance” approach to salary improvements often results in very uneven distribution of revenues across schools in the state. And it tends to reward school systems that already have numerous resource advantages over their neighbors.

The emphasis on these “performance” programs persisted despite the observation that numerous schools have opted to reject the special funding to defuse the internal conflicts that the program has created by making local school staff battle over how the allocation is to be divided among a school’s staff.

Other critics have expressed concern that basing pay on performance provides additional incentives for cheating on measures that determine who gets rewarded, a problem that has been extensively publicized in state and national media.

While proponents, most notably the state’s governor, keep promoting the concept, emerging research suggests that such approaches provide little overall improvement in student achievement and may exacerbate an over-emphasis on teaching only what is tested to the exclusion of all other content.

Funding Levels Stagnate – The education community’s pleas for funding increases for the state’s basic allotment (Tier 1), Guaranteed Yield levels (Tier 2) and school facilities went largely unheeded. None of the major state school formula components provided any meaningful revenue increases for a third straight session.

Calls for increased funding for special programs – including bilingual education and special education – also were ignored, with state leaders choosing to expand the Rainy Day Fund rather than dealing with the present day flood of school funding concerns.

Following the recent Texas Supreme Court ruling indicating that mediocre funding for Texas schools was sufficient, few state leaders have advocated increased funding for public education, reinforcing a long-held belief that Texas policymakers will take no decisive action unless required to do so by some state or federal court. Some reminded state leaders that while the courts had indicated that the marginally acceptable level of support was sufficient in 2005, continuing disregard of increasing local school funding needs could well trigger a return to litigation to seek a new ruling based on the costs of current school operations.

Public Funding Stays with Public Education

Several voucher proposals were introduced in both the House and Senate during this Texas legislative session. To the good fortune of public school children, all voucher proposals failed. IDRA believes that public funding should not be diverted to private businesses and that the state must tend to providing an excellent public education for all of its students.

The two proposals filed in the Senate received public hearings and much of the attention during the session. They would have affected large numbers of Texas students. One, authored by Senator Janek, would have supported a 10-year “pilot program” affecting counties with populations greater than 750,000 (Dallas, Houston, Bexar). Within the affected counties, it would have targeted the largest school districts with 90 percent of students identified as economically disadvantaged. The proposal received a hearing, but was left pending in committee.

The other Senate voucher proposal, authored by the Senate Education Committee chairperson Shapiro, was different than those filed previously because it targeted one specific group: children with autism. Voucher proponents and opponents alike predicted that this measure would gain more traction than other measures because of the recent attention given to autism in the popular media. Additionally, children with special needs often have very organized and vocal advocates, and in recent years, other states passed voucher bills for autistic children (Ohio and Utah). Despite claims that voucher proposals would help the neediest children, the proposed measure would have given a voucher to any family regardless of its ability to pay for private schooling. While the autism voucher proposal was passed out of the Senate Education Committee (with a vote of 5-3), it was blocked in mid-April from being heard on the Senate floor and remained inactive.

Simultaneously, several other senators and representatives looked for public school solutions. They collaborated on a package to fully address the needed support for autistic students and the personnel working with them. Except for one, the various proposals made their way through the process but were stalled in the powerful House calendars committee.

Few attempts were made in the House of Representatives to advance any of several measures to publicly fund vouchers. None received a public hearing, and there was one unsuccessful attempt via an amendment on the House floor to create a voucher pilot program.

The House chamber’s sentiment on the privatization schemes was best articulated with a resounding rejection during the floor debates on the state budget. A bipartisan-supported amendment prohibiting the Texas Education Agency from allocating funds for any private school voucher program passed overwhelmingly (129-8).

School Holding Power

Education advocates were initially encouraged by increasing pubic concerns about the high numbers of school dropouts and by the emergence of new coalitions bent on improving state counting and reporting procedures and on supporting expanded dropout prevention efforts.

In January, a number of organizations hosted a legislative briefing on the Texas dropout issue with the intent of educating legislators and their staff. The groups included the Center for Education at Rice University, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Children At Risk, IDRA, and the Texas Center for Educational Policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

The groups noted that in more than 20 years of studying the issue, Texas high schools have been ineffective in guaranteeing graduation for all its students. The advocates emphasized the need for immediate changes in the way public policy identifies students who prematurely leave school without a diploma and the urgency of instituting systemic changes to public education that will engage students, schools and families for student success and college preparation.

HB 1, passed in May 2006, included a specific allotment for secondary level schools to keep and graduate students. In 2007, various proposals were filed in both chambers that would address dropout prevention and high school readiness.

In the session, the early optimism was quickly dampened as key state political leaders expressed their opposition to any substantive reforms in this area, based on the contention that the state was “doing enough” in the area of dropout counting to satisfy NCLB requirements.

Despite the expressed resistance, Rep. Noriega filed a proposal to improve dropout counting methods and reporting, and others pushed for allocation of funding for prevention and recovery efforts. Unfortunately, the method of counting who is a dropout was not addressed. Current methods used by TEA still sets aside many students to slip away between the cracks and become forgotten.

In the end, one measure, an amalgam of several different proposals, made it through the process to final passage. The measure provides numerous opportunities for grant funding and new laws for dropout prevention, high school reform and college/work readiness. Some of the programs to be offered include the following.

  • A study of best practices for dropout prevention that would examine best practices of campuses and school districts around the country. A report of findings would then be prepared for the Texas Legislature by 2009 that would identify high-performing and highly efficient dropout prevention programs, identify the dropout prevention programs that have the most potential for success in Texas, and recommend legislation or other actions necessary to implement a dropout prevention program.
  • Grants for student clubs meant to engage students will target those who are considered at risk of dropping out, not including athletic activities, and require matching local funds.
  • Personal graduation plans may be developed for students beginning in the ninth grade, if districts choose, to outline a path for students to take courses necessary for graduation and for entry into the workforce.
  • Collaborative dropout prevention programs for school districts or open-enrollment charter schools to work with local businesses, local government agencies, non-profit organizations, faith-based organizations, colleges and universities for research-based intervention programs.
  • Funding for science labs for smaller school districts in need of renovating or constructing facilities where students can experiment and learn about science.
  • Professional development for public school teachers and administrators to train public school teachers on “implementing curriculum and instruction that is aligned with the foundation curriculum… and standards and expectations for college readiness.”
  • Mathematics instructional coaches pilot program for teachers in under-performing schools.
  • Teacher reading academies for teachers in an academically unacceptable campus teaching reading, mathematics, science or social studies in grades six through eight.
  • Mathematics, science and technology teacher preparation academies established by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to improve the instructional skills of teachers.?
  • Reading assessment and intervention for students in seventh grade who do not master the TAKS reading portion in the sixth grade.
  • College readiness standards and expectations to be incorporated into the state curriculum for courses in grades nine through 12.
  • College preparatory courses to be developed and offered by the 2008-09 school year. The State Board of Education and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will develop and recommend the essential knowledge and skills for new college preparatory courses in mathematics, science, social studies and English language arts.
  • High school completion and success initiative council will be created, headed by the education commissioner, and include the commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, three gubernatorial appointees, two members appointed by the lieutenant governor and two appointed by the speaker of the House. In December of every even numbered year, the council will prepare a report for the legislature that includes recommended changes in law that would promote high school completion and college/workforce readiness.
  • “Education: Go Get It” week for middle, junior and high school students to impress upon students the importance of higher education.

Limited grant funding for dropout prevention and college readiness programs and for teacher professional development are a step in the right direction, but many of our schools will be left without much needed support to direct their students toward academic excellence.

Immigrant Education

This session was especially politically charged with the issue of immigration. Even before the legislative session began, a number of proposals were filed affecting various aspects of immigrant students’ lives, including their education, from pre-kindergarten to higher education.

One proposal would have required public schools to report students’ citizenship status for “statistical purposes” and place them under one of the following categories: U.S. citizen or national, legal alien, or illegal alien. Legal questins regarding the state role in immigration enforcement caused this proposal to fail to move along through the process.

Five measures were filed in the House to repeal legislation authored by Rep. Noriega and other members in 2001 that allows immigrant students who are Texas residents and in the process of achieving U.S. citizen status to pay in-state tuition to institutions of higher education. One of the measures was passed out of the state affairs committee and was later defeated during House floor debates on a point of order.

Clearly, policymakers were trying to test the limits of the 1982 Supreme Court ruling in Plyler vs. Doe (a Texas case), with the aim of promoting a politically popular agenda, rather than being mindful of the court ruling stating that immigrant students are protected by the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Public schools must be about the business of educating and preparing our students to achieve academically and for being capable members of the workforce. They must not be relegated to being extensions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Ensuring Student Access to Instruction

The lackluster funding atmosphere in Austin contributed to lack of support for much-needed increases in bilingual program funding. The current leadership was not inclined to do much in the area of increased education funding beyond meeting obligations reflected in the school finance and tax related legislation adopted in the 2006 special session.

However, bilingual advocates did ensure that no major detrimental revisions in the current program requirements were given serious consideration in either the House and Texas Senate.

Efforts by dual language program advocates did lead Senator Shapiro to call for a moratorium on any new policies related to Texas’ limited-English-proficient students until an interim study on best practices can be conducted and used to guide potential major reforms in future sessions. Toward that end, the legislature funded a study comparing the effectiveness of bilingual program models.

In other last minute developments, dual language advocates also won approval for implementing a number of pilot dual language, local option enrichment programs in 30 selected communities around the state.

IDRA has some concerns with unintended consequences that may result from both the comparative study of different bilingual models and dual language enrichment initiatives and will monitor both closely in anticipation of the potential impact on existing bilingual program requirements.

Ensuring Access to Quality Teaching

IDRA staff monitored proposals focusing on improving student access to high quality teaching. One such effort was a proposal by Rep. Hochberg that placed restrictions on the number of lesser experienced and uncertified teachers in schools identified as low performing on the state accountability system. Another proposal by Rep. Alonzo sought to provide accelerated certification paths to increase the number of fully certified bilingual and English as a second language teachers. Neither plan made it out of the House public education committee.

Instead, the governor’s strong support led to the adoption of increased funding for pay for performance incentives, despite lack of evidence that those efforts resulted in sustained student improvement.

Accountability and Testing

State policymakers also opted to change the way student achievement is measured and how schools report it.

A 15-member select committee on public school accountability will oversee a process for a comprehensive review of the accountability system for public schools. The committee will review current policies, explore how other states report school data, hold public hearings around the state and produce a report with recommendations by December 2008.

End-of-course exams will be administered in high schools replacing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills beginning with entering freshman students in 2011-12. High school students will need to pass a series of 12 end-of-course exams in order to graduate with a diploma. These tests, to be administered by computer, will be developed for the following courses: algebra I and II, geometry, biology, chemistry, physics, English I, English II, English III; world geography, world history and U.S. history. The test will make up 15 percent of the student’s final grade in each of these courses. Students must make at least a score of 60 and, if failed, may retake it several times. End of course exam grades will be combined, with a score of 70 required for graduation. TAKS testing will still be a reality for students in grades 3 through 8.

College readiness concerns were addressed with the legislature’s commitment to pay for the administration of either the SAT or ACT, depending on which the student chooses. Students in the eighth grade will be able to take the practice form of the ACT, and students in the 10th grade will be able to take the practice form of the SAT.

Increasing Minority Students’ Access to College

IDRA also continued to conduct research designed to inform policies for improving minority student access in Texas higher education, analyzing data on high school feeder patterns to the University of Texas for the years spanning 1996 to 2003. A summary of findings was compiled in a policy brief, and major findings were disseminated to state policymakers, selected school leaders, and targeted urban and rural communities. IDRA analyses predicted that major changes or limits to the plan would result in reductions in the number of students with access to the state’s major universities directly as a result of the Ten Percent Plan.

IDRA helped coordinate multi-organization efforts to defend and preserve the existing Ten Percent Plan despite a major push by the University of Texas at Austin to impose a 50 percent cap on automatic Ten Percent Plan admissions.

Coordinated efforts by MALDEF, IDRA, the NAACP, the Urban League, Texas Association of Black School Educators, Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education, and LULAC, led to consideration of various alternative plans that included keeping the existing plan intact, providing for a much higher limit and a sunsetting provision on the limit if the universities adopting a cap did not improve their minority and rural enrollment performance.

IDRA released key data reflecting benefits derived from the current Ten Percent Plan by historically under-included high schools from around the state (see “Ten Percent Plan in Texas – IDRA Releases Policy Brief” in the June-July issue of the IDRA Newsletter).

While differing measures were approved by both chambers, the House rejected the conference committee report very late in the session. Thus, no changes were made to the Ten Percent Plan after all.

Final Words

As the clock ticked away the final minutes of the 2007 session, advocates of public education once again came away disappointed at the legislature’s lackadaisical performance during its latest 180-day run. Many would have given the state’s leaders an F for effort, but minor enhancements to state educational policy may have helped raise the grade all the way up to a D.

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is director of IDRA policy. Anna Alicia Romero, is an IDRA education assistant. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2007 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.]