This may be the session of the Texas Legislature where the people in Austin make a serious effort to correct some of the problems facing the state’s public schools and the sometimes-challenging children they are trying to educate.
Speakers at a Jan. 25 forum in Fort Worth were cautiously optimistic that the elected representatives in the Capitol have recognized that they can no longer shift more and more of the costs of schools to local taxpayers.
The program, Smart Money: Public School Funding, Taxes & Economic Growth, was staged by the North Texas Community Foundation, the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, the Early Learning Alliance, the Texas Education Grantmakers Coalition and Leadership ISD.
The ideas discussed are not new nor are they breakthrough concepts. But the political will to accomplish them has sometimes been lacking and the votes to execute them have often been elusive.
One answer, of course, is more money for public schools. But that’s only part of the answer.
It’s not just money, but money focused on tactics that are known to work. And a focus on early childhood education so young people can graduate from high school ready for the work force or for college without needing remedial education.
Other parts include establishing – and funding – clear operational goals for education while maintaining local control of public schools; ending unfunded mandates passed down to local schools whose only recourse is to make cuts elsewhere or raise property taxes to pay for them; and recognizing that public education has both societal and economic implications for all of Texas.
The language in the Texas Constitution in Article 7, Section 1 seems to be clear, at least to lay people:
Sec. 1. SUPPORT AND MAINTENANCE OF SYSTEM OF PUBLIC FREE SCHOOLS. A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.
“So why is so darn hard, why is it so difficult, to wrestle this beast to the ground?” said Jimmie Don Aycock, former chairman of the Texas House Committee on Public Education. “It began with our constitution, with the concept that the state is expected to provide a free and efficient system of public schools. And it's the state's responsibility to do that.”
Add in court decisions that say “efficient” also means “equitable” but that education cannot be funded by anything that looks like a statewide – and unconstitutional – property tax and the result is “complexities that are in here that are difficult to get past,” Aycock said.
Also add in the hard pledge many legislators have been following for years of no new taxes of any kind, and the result has been a steady decrease in the state’s share of education funding.
Fort Worth Independent School District Superintendent Kent Scribner said that the funding formula in the past was 60-40 state-local.
“That has shifted,” he said. “Just two years ago in Fort Worth ISD the local paid 51 percent. Last year 56 percent. This year we will be paying 60 percent. … So there's a great conversation that needs to happen there around who is responsible, looking at the Texas constitution, for supporting public education.”
County Judge Glen Whitley has been an outspoken critic of the state’s performance in funding schools.
“The formula is broke. It has been broke for as long as it's been a formula,” he said. “In 2007, it got way out of whack. … By 2017, it's gotten $8 billion — with a B — out of whack, and you and I are paying $8 billion dollars more of the total funds than what the state is. So, just to be an equal partner, they've got to put up an additional $4 billion per year – $8 billion per biennial,” Whitley said.
The problem is not, speakers said, that the state is not flourishing and – and there’s probably some disagreement here ¬– that residents are over-taxed.
“The Texas economy is booming. The business climate is positive. … Everyone worries about property taxes, but the overall tax burden is relatively low here. The regulatory climate is positive,” said Scott Orr, vice president of government relations for Fidelity Investments.
“Dozens of corporate headquarters have moved to Texas. Texas has received more corporate headquarters than any state in the country. North Texas is now home to 23 Fortune 500 companies. That's third in the country, just behind New York and Chicago. We have three of the top 10 now,” he said.
Whitley said that depending on the study, Texas is 28th, 29th or 30th in money raised via state and local taxes compared with other states.
“I'd be willing to move down that list a little bit if we were funding more for public education,” he said. “But you know, they [legislators] sign that little pledge with the Empower Texans group that says, ‘We will never raise taxes or increase anything.’
“So what do you do? Do you break your pledge? Or do you represent your constituents? And maybe that's the question we ought to be asking. ‘Who are you representing? Are you representing Empower Texans, or are you representing the folks that are sitting in this room?’ ” Whitely asked.
Orr has been is his current job at Fidelity for seven years and an advocate for public education for close to 20 years.
“We all know the system's broken,” he said. “It's woefully broken, and everyone just says, ‘Well, we just can't fix it. It's too much.’ I think we're finally at the point where we realize things could really change.
“Call me an optimist, but I really think this may be the session where something happens and real change occurs,” Orr said.
The Center for Public Policy Priorities says that by 2020 – next year – 65 percent of the jobs in Texas will require some kind of postsecondary education – certifications, community college associate degrees or college – but only 39 percent of Texans are expected to have that level of education.
“Only 22 percent of Texas 8th graders in 2007 obtained a postsecondary credential – degree or certificate – six years after leaving high school. Unless we change our trajectory, by 2020 the state risks not having a well-educated workforce,” CPPP said.
Another part of the solution is for companies to get their fingernails dirty – after all, they depend on local schools to supply their workers, Orr said. The same can be said for chambers of commerce and trade associations across the state.
“I'm not trying to get political here. My job is to be very apolitical and be very bipartisan, but where there's more balance, more people come to the table and you have to listen to everybody in the room,” Orr said.
“I think everyone agrees that part of this problem is it's not just big city versus small city, rural versus urban, wealthy versus those that are in more need. It's about how to come together and say these [funding] formulas need to be re-examined,” he said.
Fidelity talks the talk and walks the walk locally with involvement in a number of schools including Dunbar High School.
“A lot companies do that,” he says. “The first layer of a lot of this conversation is that companies do need to be involved. It's one thing to get up and say it's important, but it's very important for us to be in there, in the trenches with the administration, with the teachers, with the kids themselves to try to make a difference.”
Sagar Desai, chief operating officer of The Commit Partnership, a publicly funded partnership of about 200 organizations in Dallas County, also is optimistic.
“Public school finances, we continue to hear, has become the No. 1 topic. The newly elected speaker of the House [Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton] said that the top three priorities for the house are public school finance No. 1, public school finance No. 2, and public school finance No. 3.”
The Texas Tribune reported that Bonnen replaced the drinking cups in the House members' lounge with new ones reading "School finance reform: The time is now."
Bonnen’s election marks a new era of leadership in the lower chamber for the first time in a decade. He succeeded Joe Straus, who announced in October 2017 that he would not seek re-election. Straus, a San Antonio Republican who was elected in 2009, served a record-tying five terms as speaker.
“I share Scott's optimism because this year it doesn't sound like we're talking about unfunded mandates. It sounds like we're talking about funding what works. And we already know in Fort Worth what works,” said Scribner. “What works is having a clear focus, narrowing your focus, aligning your resources, and focusing on a very small number of goals.”
In Fort Worth that translates to third-grade reading and middle-years mathematics – both predictors of whether students will drop out – and college and career readiness by decreasing the percentage of students who need remediation.
“There are many high-skilled, high-wage jobs for high school graduates here in Fort Worth,” Scribner said.
Aycock said the Texas of today is not the Texas of the 1950s. For one thing, the job requirements for employers are vastly different.
“Informational technology kind of folks. Down on the coastal areas they want people who can operate a petroleum plant. Out in West Texas they want people who can operate wind farms and wind turbines,” Aycock said.
And there are a wide variety of students and schools. He said Texas has a little over a thousand school districts but just 40-something educate over half of the students in the state. Some 600 of those districts combined teach less than 10 percent of the state’s students.
“So, what really works? We heard the superintendent of what works,” Aycock said. “Providing high-quality, well-trained, motivated teachers surpasses everything else.”
And, he said, to reach the goal of third-graders reading, providing full-day, well-funded pre-kindergarten classes is the prerequisite.
“Step up to the fact that difficult and challenging students need to be given a boost early in life and move them toward that goal to read in third grade,” he said. “We know that if a student does not read from the beginning of third grade it is very difficult to remediate them from that point forward.”
Jennifer Esterline, president of the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium, said foundations are reluctant to talk about policy and advocacy work because of IRS guidelines for what they can and cannot do in that regard.
“But one of the things that we know was really important was to speak with our legislators. Not to lobby them, but to serve as a resource to them to come down to the Capitol and talk about the role of philanthropy in the world of education,” Esterline said.
One role is to provide good data to legislators. Her group now has 49 foundations across the state involved in the effort.
“So we try to commission good, credible, objective data that lawmakers can use. And that can be difficult in a really partisan environment,” she said. “The second thing we do is we partner with really smart advocates.”
Esterline said the group of foundations is “the R and D, the research and development, the innovation to seed best practices to figure out what works. And then it's up to the state to fund it. And to scale it right so that all students across the state can benefit from it.”
Desai said a school finance commission was created after the 2017 legislative session, following a 2016 Texas Supreme Court decision that said that while the school finance system was legal, there was significant work to be done.
“In summary, their report was, it is lawful but awful. And they asked the legislators to spend time to really reform the system,” Desai said. “They couldn't get this done in 2017, but they decided they really wanted to study the issue.”
Top state leaders appointed 13 House leaders to listen to districts and community partners from across the state.
“Over 100 hours of testimony, over 80 different people that brought in data and effective practices to help this group understand what it is that we can be doing,” he said.
The report was 160 pages with about 35 recommendations.
“But the key thing that they really centered on is what are the most critical levers that we can be funding? Are students ready to learn?” Desai said. “Is every student taught by an effective educator?”
Data show, he said, that replacing an average teacher with an effective teacher can increase lifetime earnings for a student's classroom by $250,000.
Desai said the recommendations were split into four areas: Can we improve third-grade literacy? Can we grow post-secondary readiness, access and success? Can we attract and retain effective educators? And can we address outdated school finance components?
The commission recommended $1.4 billion focused on third-grade literacy, with $780 million of that for students in K-3 who are low income or are learning English.
The second recommendation, he said, was about $400 million in outcome-based funding.
“These would be dollars that districts would get day one, that would be equitably weighed,” he said.
A district that serves a high population of low-income students would get a certain amount, about $3,400 per low-income student who reads at first-grade level in third grade and $1,400 per non-low-income student who reads at first-grade level in third grade.
“That's about a two-and-a-half multiple, but it takes a lot more to educate a low-income student. And we want to be able to then use that so that districts can expand their practices and even grow access to funding as third-grade literacy improves,” Desai said.
“And then there was about another $150 million that was allocated to an extended school day, and then an allotment for students with dyslexia, so that districts have the funding necessary to provide the supports needed.”
Another recommendation was around increasing secondary readiness and access.
“I think principals are often making very rational decisions. You have limited resources. When you have limited resources, you're really focused on high school graduation, because that's what you're held accountable to. It's a rational decision for a principal,” he said.
“What the commission recommended was about $400 million in outcome-based funding toward college career/military readiness. This would be very much connected to accountability systems, but the idea being that every district then would get new dollars on day one and would be able to allocate those dollars appropriately,” Desai said.
“To give you a sense – $400 million – if every high school in the state of Texas added one counselor, so we went from our counselor ratios, which is 1 to 500, and we went to 1 to 250, which is what national research says we should be closer to, that would only cost $45 million total. So districts would still have a ton of new dollars that they could spend toward other efforts like college and career/military readiness within their schools,” he said.
Whitley ended the program with a challenge to audience members, and by extension, to others.
“When we talk about local control, we mean the teachers, we mean the school districts, your board of trustees. We also mean your city councils, and we also mean your county commissioners court,” Whitley said.
“So here's the message that I think you need to send. Each one of you in this room has one representative. Each one of you in this room has one senator. Each one of you in this room has one lieutenant governor, and each one of you in this room has one governor. That is four phone calls, that is four emails. Is that too much to ask?” he said.
He said the message needs to go to Democrats and Republicans because public education is nonpartisan and apolitical, and the message should be that legislators need to increase the funding for public education and to be an equal partner they need to be putting in at least $8 billion more in the biennial budget.
“It's more money than any of them have talked about,” he said.