Texas: Legislature avoided extremes in reforming public education

By Editorial Board -American-Statesman

What a difference a legislative session can make regarding public education. Much of that difference, which yielded more money for public schools, less state-mandated testing for students and an expansion of Texas’ independent charter schools, was spurred by external factors — the courts, pressure from parents, teacher organizations and business groups as well as grass-roots activism. It helped, too, that the state’s economy has rebounded since the 2011 legislative session, making more money available for public education.

But clearly, outside pressure made a huge difference — for the better — in shaping reforms and increasing resources for Texas’ 5 million students.

The state budget for 2014-15 includes an additional $3.4 billion in basic per-student funding for public schools over the next two years. That is good news. In 2011, the Legislature, in a rare move, cut $4 billion from money schools historically received to cover enrollment growth. Other cuts, totaling about another $1 billion, also were made to public schools. Those cuts intensified widespread dislike of Texas’ school finance system, which relies heavily on local property taxes to finance schools and requires so-called property-rich districts like Austin to send tens of millions of local dollars a year to the state. The state uses the money to help balance inequities between property-wealthy and property-poor districts. Lawsuits were filed by poor and rich districts, which won a legal judgment against the state.

There is little doubt the school financing case, on appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, was on lawmakers’ minds as they added money to public schools, using formulas that steered more dollars to property-poor districts. Austin, considered property-wealthy, will get $11 million a year over the next two years — just 23 percent of what was cut. By contrast, the property-poor Bastrop school district will recover everything it lost in 2011 and more money to make up for years of getting by with less.

Public pressure from school advocacy groups, such as Houston-based Raise Your Hand Texas and Austin-based Save Texas Schools, helped balance influence of conservative groups, such as the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation, that asserted that cuts forced schools to be more efficient. There is little doubt schools can be run more efficiently, just as there is little doubt Texas schools overall are not adequately funded to meet state goals. Participation by both sides resulted in a better outcome for public schools.

Public pressure — especially from parents mad about the amount of high-stakes testing and its influence on their children’s grade point averages and college prospects — dramatically changed the standardized testing protocol for students, and for the better we might add, just two years after the state began the new testing system, called the STAAR. Lawmakers reduced from 15 to five the number of end-of-course exams needed to graduate from high school.

Also, the so-called 4×4 graduation plan — four years each of math, science, social studies and English — will be revised so that students have more flexible options so they can take workforce, career or college-relevant specialty courses, such as business and industry or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Changes to the curriculum were supported by some business groups, while other business leaders insisted that changes would water down graduation standards. Again, the voices of all sides were important in crafting a thoughtful approach that aims to keep standards high but provide flexibility and prevent overkill from high-stakes testing.

Competing interests and voices also helped shape a charter school expansion bill that didn’t, as some conservatives wanted, eliminate all caps on charters schools and didn’t, as some liberals called for, continue to limit charter school expansion. So for the first time since 1995, the state cap will be lifted, permitting charter school contracts to increase by 15 a year to 305 by 2019. The debate exposed flaws with the current system that were cleaned up: The Legislature gave the Texas Education Agency greater authority to crack down on low-performing charters. Changes also shifted oversight of charter schools from the fractious and hyper-partisan State Board of Education to the Texas Education Agency.

Of course Gov. Rick Perry has the last say on the aforementioned initiatives with his veto pen. And he would be wise not to use it. Those initiatives, including a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise for teachers, avoid extremes. Instead, they represent measures that were put together by compromise, bipartisan efforts and respectful debate. Participation by the many diverse voices paid off.

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