• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November – December 2006 •
Although the Texas legislature’s actions in the area of education have proven predictably unpredictable over the last decade, the upcoming 2007 session may be considered one of the most difficult to forecast in recent history. Much of what the legislature will consider related to education (for public schools or higher education) may be impacted by budget projections.
Early fiscal projections developed by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which is expert on state economic issues, estimate there will be a small surplus. But, most of this surplus will be needed just to cover enrollment growth in Texas schools and to deal with critical issues, such as restoring children’s health insurance funding.
Although many groups were beginning to project higher revenue streams as early as the summer of 2006, significant state or national events could easily alter those expectations. This article describes possible 2007 legislative developments that we have discerned from conversations with policymakers and their staff members as well as interactions with various groups active in Texas educational policy reforms.
For the first time in many years, public school finance will probably not occupy the high priority it has in past sessions, in large part because of the adoption of House Bill 1 and the funding provided to Texas public schools in the last special session. Most of that funding was used for tax reductions and very little for actual increased spending. A few clean-up items related to that newly adopted legislation may be addressed.
One issue that may be the focus of some discussion involves levels of funding provided to special needs pupils in Texas schools. It is expected that anti-special needs forces will push for setting a fixed level of funding. This would dismantle the current feature that provides automatic increases in these programs by tying them to any funding increases provided to non-special needs pupils (through the basic allotment portion of the system).
This current feature is called weighted funding, through which funding levels for certain programs are calculated as a percentage of funding provided to non-special need students. Prior to the adoption of weighted funding, programs for special populations (gifted and talented, special education, bilingual education, and compensatory education programs) were funded on a fixed dollar basis. As a result, programs for these students would remain at fixed low levels for several years, often at times when regular program allotments were increased significantly.
Opponents of such automatic increases (mostly from suburban school districts with few special needs pupils) favor fixed funding so that future allocations can more easily be reduced or maintained at locked-in low levels.
School districts with large numbers of students and with special needs pupils (including urban districts) will have reason to oppose such changes that eliminate automatic adjustment features in the current system.
Other districts that get automatic increases based on district weights also may have cause to oppose such changes, since any erosion to the concept of automatic adjustments has long-term implications for other features that are based on a similar concept, including such features as small and sparse school adjustments, and cost of education factors built-in to current funding formulae.
Funding for School Facilities
With the recent release of a state-funded facilities study that documented extensive unfunded facilities needs in Texas public schools, it is expected that the legislature will have a difficult time ignoring the issue as it has in past sessions. The recently-completed report, Current and Future Facilities Needs of Texas Public School Districts, was mandated by the legislature. Preliminary data indicate that many Texas school children are provided instruction in portable buildings or in structures in need of repair. The study of more than 5,000 campuses reports the use of more than 10,500 portable facilities. School districts also report that, of 3,550 campuses rated, only 62 percent were considered in good to excellent condition, while the remaining 38 percent are rated as fair to poor. (Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, October 2006)
Having failed to provide substantive levels of state aid for facilities for many decades, the state of Texas will need to do more than create short-term band-aid responses. The state will need to incorporate state facilities funding into the overall school funding system. Failure to do so will invite yet another court challenge that will, for the first time, be based on concrete evidence of the state’s long-standing neglect in this area.
Keeping the Public in Public Education
Proponents of privatization through vouchers have made it clear that they intend to spearhead another effort to divert public tax monies to fund vouchers to subsidize private schooling. Voucher proponents are expected to promote a “pilot” project involving only large urban districts (no one has questioned why wealthy suburban schools are spared the privilege of having their children become subjects of state experiments). But opposition is still likely from all major education groups, parent organizations and minority communities that are more committed to improving their neighborhood schools than to pursuing promises of presumably better schools built on the other side of town.
Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs
Recent research conducted by IDRA on the status of disciplinary alternative education programs indicates that many of the reforms recommended in our 1999 policy brief have gone untended. Our research indicates that the number of DAEP referrals has increased to more than 100,000 students, that minority students remain over-represented among those referred, that four out of five referrals are for violations other than the serious offenses that served as the basis for creating these programs, that the number of days placed has mushroomed to more than six weeks, and that DAEP students are performing at levels of more than 20 points lower than state averages in math and reading.
Data on coordination between the sending schools and DAEPs is still not collected, and no information on the quality of staff available is summarized or reported at either the state or local levels. If serious reforms are not considered and adopted in the 2007 session, it is probable that these dysfunctional responses to what are essentially teacher and administrator discipline management issues will be challenged in state or federal courts.
Improving access to higher education may be one of the key issues debated in 2007. Increased college fees and other charges coupled with stagnant state financial aid programs have no doubt contributed to the state’s inability to meet its “Closing the Gap” targets especially those targets set for increasing minority student enrollments. Minority students constitute the majority (61 percent) of all Texas students in public schools, while White students account for the remaining 39 percent. Demographers warn that continued failure to increase Hispanic and African American enrollment and graduation spells disaster for Texas’ future economy.
In a preview of such developments, the new Toyota plant in San Antonio announced that it had gone outside of Texas to recruit candidates for its higher level jobs due to the lack of qualified workers produced in Texas schools and universities.
Though there may be debate about changing the 10 Percent Plan that guarantees state university enrollment to top graduates of all Texas high schools, any proposed reforms will have to address the need for improved minority and low-income pupil recruitment and financial aid support as a critical feature of any new initiative.
School Holding Power
Recent evidence that verifies that Texas official graduation rates are inflated creates possibilities for reform in 2007. Given the fact that Senator Gonzalo Barrientos – the most persistent voice for reform in this area – will retire in December 2006, new leadership will be needed if the issue is to be addressed.
All of these prospective conversations will take place in a climate in which other state services, including children’s health insurance and similar critical infrastructure issues that have been long neglected by state government, will be demanding a place at the table.
No doubt some efforts will claim to improve Texas public schools. Many of those efforts would be dysfunctional, such as expanding incentive pay, excluding certain children from public schools, and eliminating programs that provide comprehensible instruction to children learning English. Perhaps we need to focus on less – less testing (and start using a sampling approach that yields insights into school performance without punishing students or teachers), less emphasis on blaming students or families for failing state tests (and more providing the resources they need to learn), and less effort to disenfranchise communities by re-directing public money to fund private schools (and more investing in our public schools while continuing to hold them accountable).
Developments over the next month will yield clearer indicators of leanings of the 2007 legislative session. In the absence of court-mandated reform, it will be interesting at best to watch what emerges – the good, the bad and perhaps, with continuing lack of state leadership on the issues, perhaps even some ugly results.
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. Current and Future Facilities Needs of Texas Public School Districts (Austin, Texas: Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, October 2006).
Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2006, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November – December 2006 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.]