• By Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2009
Editor’s note: IDRA policy staff review and monitor policy alternatives that affect schools and children. The article below presents perspectives on the ideas relating to education in the 2009 Texas legislative session. The infusion of close to $2 billion in federal stimulus funding prevented major cuts in many education programs. Yet, overall, it could have been better. But it also could have been worse.
The Texas Legislature gathered for it biennial session in Austin this spring amidst growing clouds resulting from the nation’s recession. Though spared some of the worst effects compared to other parts of the country, state leaders were faced with limited revenues and critical issues that had been deferred in earlier sessions.
Among the challenges was the need to improve the state education funding plan, respond to court orders involving secondary language-minority students, respond to growing pressure to revise the state’s assessment and accountability systems, and address higher education access issues that included tuition de-regulation and financial aid. In each area, the state made some improvements. Though sometimes, these steps forward were accompanied by a few steps back.
Texas School Finance Reform
During the special legislative session convened in 2006 in response to a Texas Supreme Court ruling, a number of changes were introduced into the state funding system. Foremost among them was the concept of funding some schools on the basis of “target revenue” (rather than the equity formulas), with the amounts for school districts based on 2005 funding levels.
During the 2009 session, responding to school leaders’ complaints about the effects of target revenue funding, the state eliminated the mechanism.
Unfortunately, carryover effects of prior funding decisions still require the use of hold harmless clauses to ensure that many school districts (including a mixture of wealthy and average wealth districts) continue to receive a least as much state and local revenue as was provided in prior sessions, even when those amounts were inequitable.
Changes adopted earlier called for schools to reduce tax efforts from a maximum of $1.50 down to $1.00 by 2009. To ensure that this tax effort compression did not result in reduced funding for schools, the legislature increased the basic allotment from $3,218 to $4,765 per student (based on the weighted average daily attendance or WADA) or a greater amount if the state average property wealth per student times 0.0165 produced a larger figure, which is not expected to be the case in 2009. Because state aid is tied to a combination of school district property wealth, the number and types of students educated in a school district, and local district property tax levels, the new allotment produced about the same amount of revenue as before.
This combination of requiring school districts to reduce taxes while increasing the yield per penny of tax effort can be seen as the equivalent of taking 8 ounces of water from a tall, slim glass and pouring that water into a short, wide glass. The containers differ in shape, but both still hold the same 8 ounces of water.
Proponents of reform had hoped the state would actually increase state funding to schools by more significantly increasing the basic allotment. Policymakers were reluctant to alter existing funding levels for most school districts. This led them to continue use of hold harmless funding for high wealth school districts and to reject the idea of providing greater unequalized enrichment proposed by some school districts.
All the proposals to increase the state’s special population programs – including recognized shortfalls in funding or bilingual education and English as a second language (ESL) programs and state compensatory education – were turned away. Instead, a series of state studies on the cost for providing specialized programs will be conducted between 2009 and the 2011 legislative session. The new research is intended to inform the 2011 education funding deliberations on these longstanding issues.
When surplus state revenue was projected to be higher, some equity proponents had hoped that the legislature would provide a substantial infusion of new state revenue into the state funding plan. But policymakers put off increasing guaranteed yield funding. Tier IIa funding for the first 6¢ of enrichment tax effort remained tied to the Austin ISD yield level per penny of tax effort (about $57 in 2010) and the per penny yield for Tier 11b, that allows school districts to levy an additional 11¢ of enrichment effort, remained unchanged at $31.95 for each penny of tax effort.
Recapture was reduced because fewer school districts are above the property wealth levels that trigger it, thus reducing the number of actual Chapter 41 school districts to less than 100. This simultaneously required the state to use state-generated revenue to make up for statewide funding that had been supported by recaptured funds.
To ensure that all school districts got some additional assistance, each was guaranteed to get a minimum of $120 per student (WADA) in increased funding. For low and average wealth school districts this meant increases in state aid, while high wealth school districts were allowed to retain monies that would have been returned to the state in the form of recapture.
According to an IDRA analysis of state-generated estimates of increased funding resulting from the bill, 756 school districts – almost three out of four – received the minimum increase of $120 per WADA; only 51, or 4.9 percent, received the maximum of $350 (with school district increases capped at that maximum in order to cut the cost of the changes) and the other 218, or 21.6 percent of, school districts received between $121 and $299 per WADA.
Influential teacher groups had pushed for across-the-board increases in salaries, even though they had been the beneficiaries of the greatest percentage of new state aid in the preceding biennium. Their persistence was rewarded with an $800 annual increase for teaching staff and selected support personnel. Unfortunately, this across-the-board raise did nothing to decrease the teacher salary disparities between those in poor urban and in rural schools and those employed in the state’s more affluent communities.
It was largely acknowledged that the infusion of close to $2 billion new state dollars into the school funding system would be paid from federal stimulus allocations that were to be made to the states. Rather than invest more of available state revenue into a funding system that had provided meager increases over the last few years, state leaders instead chose to pay for most of the teacher pay raise out of federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (AARA) stimulus monies. The several hundred million that were therefore made available were in turn used to supplant state investments in these areas. The multi-million dollar state surplus was then diverted over to the state’s “rainy day” reserve fund, which was originally created to sustain state spending in the event of future funding shortages in education and other state-funded programs.
Bilingual Education and ESL Program Reforms
In July 2008, Judge William Wayne Justice ruled that the state’s Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System (PBMAS) was insufficient in ensuring that school districts were properly identifying all English language learners. The court found that the state’s secondary-level ESL instruction was woefully inadequate in addressing the needs of these students.
The state waited until December 2008 to file a request for a stay of the order requiring it to submit a plan on how it would address the issues raised in the court decision. The stay was granted in the weeks following the opening of the 2009
Texas legislative session. A hearing before the Fifth Circuit was scheduled for early June, the week after the close of the Texas legislative session.
Hopeful that the legislature would initiate some action to address the question and resolve the issues before court intervention, State Senator Judith Zaffirini submitted a plan to the legislature to address the need for improved monitoring of state bilingual and ESL programs in Texas, including the disaggregation of English language learner state testing data at the elementary, middle and high school level.
State Senator Leticia Van de Putte introduced a proposal that was designed to strengthen the operation of the state’s ESL programs serving Texas middle and high school limited-English-proficient (LEP) students. Both state leaders worked with bilingual program advocates, who engaged in coordinated efforts to support the plans.
Both plans were given hearings before the Senate Public Education Committee, with witnesses testifying in favor and no observable opposition to the plans surfacing during those sessions. However, bilingual proponents were advised that some of the state’s political leadership had reservations about making changes to the state plan in the absence of a court order to do so. Others, including some teacher and administrator groups, voiced quiet opposition. Teachers reported concerns with the professional development that the plans required for content area teachers serving secondary level English language learners. In a similar vein, school administrators expressed some reservations about requiring additional teacher training – though it was noted that some could be provided in lieu of training in other areas.
One plan would have expanded monitoring requirements that would include review of school district LEP student identification processes and examination of school districts with excessive numbers of parent denials of bilingual or ESL services. State officials complained about staff implications involved and administrators who were not keen on the idea of anyone looking too deeply into local school operations serving English language learners. Attempts to convene discussions with the groups opposing the reform plans were unsuccessful.
Last-minute efforts to append the monitoring and secondary-level programs to other legislation were resisted by state political leaders. Both measures died in the crush of proposals impacted by the voter registration battles that ensued in the last weeks of the session. Given a unique opportunity to address an issue raised in pending litigation, the state’s political leadership failed to take even minimal action, setting the stage for the upcoming hearing on the issues at the Fifth Circuit Fifth Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
The appeals court hearing was convened in the summer with both attorneys for the plaintiffs (MALDEF) and the state attorney general. Each was given a few minutes to present oral arguments encapsulating the issues raised in legal briefs that had been submitted. As a result of numerous questions raised by the justices, the oral arguments took a good deal longer than the conventional time provided. Some questions were directed at the district judge’s rationale for ruling in the case, others questioned what authority the Texas Education Agency (TEA) had to require school districts to improve local practice.
In unexpected developments, the appeals court requested additional briefs from both parties addressing related issues raised during the questioning of the two attorney’s legal arguments. The supplemental briefs were due to the court in mid-July. One judge advised the attorneys not to expect a quick ruling. A ruling may not be forthcoming until some time in the late-fall of 2009.
Responding to a few legislators’ insistence on modifying the state accountability and assessment system, a group of influential policymakers developed an accountability reform plan that went well beyond adjusting rating and reporting requirements. It also included changes in high school graduation requirements, in-grade retention policies, assessment procedures, and the state accountability and related sanctions issues.
Approved reforms included controversial changes to state curriculum requirements. Differentiated curriculum tracks were created for minimum, college bound, and career-technical students. The “minimum” program is designed for students who have been retained at least once prior to the 10th grade and will require parent approval to opt-out of recommended program requirements. The “college bound” track requires four years of English, math, science and social studies as was previously required for all students. The newly emphasized “career-technical” track diverts students as early as the 11th grade and involves fewer and less stringent courses in math and science in the upper high school grades, with substitution of CTE math and science course, through variants would enable students to meet the 4-by-4 graduation requirements in the college track.
Despite the new labels, the differentiated curricula resembles tracking that previously placed minority and low-income students into vocational curricula, while more affluent students were routed into the college-bound track.
Responding to complaints about state infringement on local decision-making, reform proponents succeeded in removing the tie of promotion requirements at the third grade level to performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAKS). While school districts may develop local promotion criteria, the prohibition against promoting students who fail one or more TAKS exams at the fifth or eighth grade level (unless the local grade placement committee unanimously agrees to promote) remains in place. Efforts to reduce the number of end-of-course exams were rebuffed, but there were minor changes made to the process used to determine if a student has performed at sufficiently high levels on the collection of mandated end-of-course exams required to meet graduation requirements.
Another change created school progress measures to be used over three years, as an alternative to one-year performance statistics, to determine a school district’s accountability rating. Proponents for the change successfully contended that a one-year snapshot did not give school districts credit for making improvements from one year to the next. Unfortunately, it also has the effect of masking actual annual performance and can delay pressure to make improvements.
More stringent state interventions were set up for school districts that are determined to be low performing for several consecutive years. Among the interventions is school reconstitution, which requires extensive school staff turnover.
Policymakers also modified how state standards are to be determined, creating a complex process for upgrading curriculum standards based on studies conducted every few years. No doubt that these increasing standards will pose a difficult challenge for many Texas schools in the coming decade, more so because the legislature failed to provide commensurate increases in funding to help schools meet those increasing performance levels.
The more than 100-page accountability plan contained so many modifications that observers noted that even at the end of the session few were thoroughly familiar with all the changes that had been incorporated into the measure adopted by the legislature.
Top Ten Percent Plan and Other Higher Education Reforms
Among the more contentious debates that took place in the 2009 session were the deliberations involving proposed caps to the state’s Top Ten Percent Plan, which guarantees all Texas high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their graduating class admission to any state-funded college or university. There had been a combination of loud complaints from wealthy suburbs that had lost their long-standing advantages at the state’s top universities and from University of Texas at Austin leaders who claimed that Top Ten Percent students were accounting for “too many” of the freshmen students admitted to that university.
These spurred state policymakers to limit the proportion of Top Ten Percent Plan students admitted to UT Austin to no more than 75 percent of new enrollees for the incoming freshmen class of 2011 (see Update on Texas Top Ten Percent Plan for Your Students for details). The 75 percent cap was substantially higher than the 40 percent and 50 percent caps initially proposed by some state policymakers and a far cry from the call to eliminate the plan that had been promoted by some in 2007.
The resulting compromise enables students currently enrolled in high school to anticipate the changes to be made and provides some “relief” to university officials who complained about the loss of their authority to make admission decisions for incoming freshmen.
Recognizing that the University of Texas was the only institution complaining about a large number of Top Ten Percent Plan enrollees, the legislature chose to apply the cap only to UT Austin, thus retaining the automatic admission requirements for all other state-funded institutions. The reforms also called for closely monitoring future enrollments at UT Austin, with provisions for eliminating the cap in 2015.
Despite the success of the Top Ten Percent Plan, recent rapid increases in tuition and fees at state schools created greater financial challenges in covering college costs for students and their families. To help cover increasing expenses, the legislature increased funding for the Texas Grant Program, which will serve several thousand more students who had qualified but not been awarded Texas grants due to lack of sufficient funding.
While the funding was increased, attempts to convert the Texas grant program from a need-based to a merit based plan were rejected. Proponents of the change proposed that concentrating grant funding on the highest achieving students would ensure a better return, while supporters of need-based funding successfully argued that the Texas grant program had been intended to support students with the greatest financial need. Analyses of the possible impact of proposed changes had indicated that the modification of criteria would have resulted in the re-distribution of the funding from high need to moderate and low-need students.
A third major development in higher education was the legislature’s adoption of a plan to expand the number of top tier universities from two to eight over the next two decades. Debates on the measure centered on the criteria to be used to identify top tier candidate institutions, which institutions were to be included and timelines for achieving the new targets. A major factor in the deliberations involved assessments of the costs involved in upgrading eligible universities from their current levels to Tier 1 levels. The need to expand the number of options available to students in different parts of the state and the need to upgrade the number of state residents with under-graduate and graduate degrees to remain competitive in a global economy were cited as major factors supporting the significant expansion of Tier I universities in Texas. Leading candidates for eventual Tier I status are Texas Tech University, University of Houston, University of Texas at Dallas, University of North Texas, University of Texas at Arlington, University of Texas at San Antonio, and University of Texas at El Paso.
Compared to past legislative sessions the most recent was not great in the area of education, but not as bad as it could have been. While initial revenue estimates had led some school leaders to hope for a substantive improvement in school funding, this proved overly-optimistic. Rather than adding substantive increases in state aid to schools, the final plan provided a minimum allocation to three quarters of Texas schools. Though teacher salaries were increased by a very modest amount ($800 per year), the provision meant that monies needed to fund increases in all other areas were not available.
Unfortunately, this force choice approach continues a dysfunctional tendency among state leaders to pit education interests against one another for limited funding. IDRA has contended for decades that rather than causing education advocates to fight over small slices of the funding pie, legislators should create a larger pie that provides what is needed in all major education areas so that all students are served appropriately.
Compounding matters was the fact that the state relied on one-time stimulus funding from
Washington, D.C., to cover the great majority of the cost of increases provided, leaving state leaders with a projected $2 billion shortfall going into the next session just to stay at current funding levels.
The state’s failure to address badly-needed improvements in its secondary English language learner programs and the continued masking of low performance in some schools serving English language learners will only come back to haunt schools as future accountability features serve to uncover their under-performance.
Accountability changes that only upgrade standards but fail to provide funding to support the needed improvement in schools will only serve to label more schools as needing improvement, without improving quality of schooling for the majority.
Finally, as the state struggles to improve quality and access in higher education, it may find that the pool of students needed to populate those new programs has not kept pace as the state continues to under-educate the new minority majority that will be the emerging reality in most Texas schools.
More than a decade ago demographer Steve Murdock warned state leaders that unless the educational status quo was substantially improved, Texas faced a crisis where by the year 2050 the mean family income could fall to $3,000 below current levels. As the window of opportunity narrows, our state continues to be led by a political leadership that insists on idling when we should be accelerating, gazing at the pretty views through side windows rather than peering at the challenges on the road ahead.
If one were to assign a grade to our current leaders for their most recent efforts to improve Texas education, one would be hard-pressed to offer anything more than a C-.
Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the director of Policy. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2009, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2009 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.]