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February 7th, 2013:

This time it’s different

Why is this school finance ruling different from all other school finance rulings? For one thing, it was way more comprehensive.

The changes needed to correct the constitutional violations [Judge John] Dietz identified could comprise the most far-reaching overhaul of education policy the state has enacted in more than 40 years, said Lynn Moak, a school finance veteran who has testified in all six of the school finance lawsuits dating back to 1987.

“I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that the bill that resolves yesterday’s decision is going to be one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching pieces of legislation that we have seen in the education system certainly over my lifetime,” Moak said.

[…]

Dietz’s decision Monday looked much like the court order he issued in 2004, when he heard the previous legal challenge to the school finance system.

At that time, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with Dietz’s finding that the Legislature had effectively imposed a statewide property tax in violation of the constitution. The high court rejected his conclusion that the Legislature had failed to provide adequate resources to meet the state’s academic standards.

This time around, Dietz also declared that the funding differences between school districts are now constitutionally inequitable. He had turned aside that claim from property-poor school districts in 2004.

The funding gap between property-rich and property-poor school districts has grown since the previous case from $965 per student to nearly $1,600, according to data from the Texas Education Agency.

“The facts scream out that there is an equity violation,” said Richard Gray, a lawyer who represented more than 600 property-poor school districts.

The court has said that districts that tax the same must have access to essentially the same amount of funding. It is the state’s constitutional obligation to even out the differences among property-poor districts and their wealthier peers.

The fix implemented after the last lawsuit, which involved freezing the amount of per-student funding each district got, contributed to the inequity problem that Dietz ruled was unconstitutional. If the Supreme Court upholds this, it’s going to be a big effing deal.

On a side note, please read this. The key takeaway:

Bottom line: While the claim that the state has increased spending on public education is technically correct, data from the Legislative Budget Board, which accounts for inflation, shows that state spending has largely flat-lined — even before accounting for the roughly 70,000 students who enter the school system each year.

That was a key aspect of Judge Dietz’s ruling as well. The budget cuts of 2011 exacerbated the problem, but it was a problem even before that. Assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t gut Judge Dietz’s ruling, it will finally be time to fix this.

Finally, the Chron prints an excerpt of Judge Dietz’s remarks from his ruling.

Finally, I would point out the simple truth: We are in competition with 195 other nations and their economies. If I ask the 20 million Texans who are not in school right now whether they agree that we should have more rigorous and challenging standards for our education systems, what would their answer be? I believe a vast majority of Texas would say “Yes” and that for our students to successfully compete in the future, we must have tougher, higher standards now.

So with this vast majority of Texans in support of higher standards, I now say, “Great, we’re going to have to develop a new curriculum, we have to substantially upgrade our technology in schools, we have to increase training for teachers, we have to hire some new teachers in complex content areas that we will be teaching and we have to provide more tutoring and remediation to our challenging population. We need to have evaluation and accountability to make sure we are meeting our goals concerning these increased standards. Finally, we need some public outreach to make sure the parents buy into this new program. I think we can do all of that for an additional $2,000 per student, or in other words, an additional $10 billion to $11 billion. You support this tax increase, don’t you?”

Suddenly, my vast majority becomes a minority. Now, what I begin to hear from my vast majority is, “You can’t solve the problems of education by throwing money at it.”

As the economists put it, there is no free lunch. We either want the increased standards and are willing to pay the price, or we don’t. However, as the economists point out, there is a cost to acting, namely the tax increase, and there is a cost to not acting, namely loss of competitive position. So, we as a state and as a nation are wrestling with this question of priorities, and our leaders are looking for direction from you, the public.

The full decision will be released later this month. Given the price tag suggested, you can see why most Republicans are eager to appeal this, and not so eager to do anything until the Supreme Court has ruled.

City wants the Lege to deal with payday lending

That’s what came out of the presentation to Council on payday lending on Tuesday.

Houston leaders say they will wait to see whether the Legislature acts during its current session before voting on their proposal. Mayor Annise Parker has said the industry “cries out for regulation” and called the state’s failure to do so “disgraceful.”

[…]

Houston’s proposal would cap payday loans at 35 percent of the borrower’s gross monthly income for single-payment deals, which are intended to be paid back in a lump sum.

For multiple-payment loans, each installment would be capped at 25 percent of the borrower’s monthly income. Auto title loans could not exceed 6 percent of the borrower’s gross annual income or 70 percent of the car’s value, whichever is less.

The city’s proposal also would bar refinancing of multiple-payment loans. Single-payment payday loans could be refinanced no more than four times, and no more than six times for title loans. If a borrower cannot pay after the rollover maximum is reached, he must be offered a no-interest, no-fee payment plan with at least four installments.

Rob Norcross, of the Consumer Service Alliance of Texas, which represents all but 150 of the state’s 3,400 licensed payday and title lenders, said Houston’s proposed ordinance “is not perfect, but it’s a significant step in the right direction.” The group has agreed not to sue if the city adopts its ordinance largely as drafted, he said.

Consumer groups said the proposal is focused on what the industry could stomach, not what is best for the community.

They prefer the ordinance adopted by Dallas and other cities, which sets lower caps than the Houston proposal on the amount consumers can borrow, allows the plans to be refinanced fewer times, caps the number of installments that can be offered in multiple-payment deals, and requires the principal loan amount to be reduced by 25 percent with each refinancing or, on a multiple-payment deal, with each installment.

Allowing unlimited installments on multiple-payment deals, as the Houston draft does, is particularly problematic, said Texas Appleseed policy analyst Ann Baddour, since one such deal can contain the fees associated with 10 to 12 rollovers of a typical single-payment deal.

“The payday lenders are not likely to sue on this ordinance because it really doesn’t hurt very much,” said Mark Wawro, a Texas Appleseed board member. “It doesn’t address the cycle of debt. We want to see real change.”

This mirrors the comments I got on Tuesday’s post about the presentation. Clearly, a more comprehensive reform bill than what we got in 2011 is preferable to piecemeal action, and the story indicates that Sen. John Carona will be filing his own bill on payday lending soon. I would like the city to be prepared to take action on its own in the event that the Lege fails again, but I agree with Texas Appleseed that it would be better to follow in the path of cities that have already done this. Speaking of which, according to Texas Appleseed, the city of El Paso joined Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas in taking action to regulate payday lending in January, following the Dallas model. As for Dallas, the lawsuit filed against it by payday lenders over their ordinance was dismissed by a District Court judge on Tuesday, so if there’s a fear of being sued in Houston, this should help allay that.

Further reading, courtesy of Texas Appleseed: A 2012 Houston MSA fact sheet about payday and auto title loans; 2012 statewide data on same; and a copy of the proposed Houston ordinance, so that we all know what we’re arguing about. If nothing else, if Houston joins the other cities that have done this, it will be that much more pressure on the Lege to do something. It’s fine for Houston to give the Lege a chance to act first, but let’s be prepared to take the most effective action ourselves in case it’s needed. PDiddie has more.

Here come the STAAR reform bills

Fire one:

State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, the newly appointed chairman of the House Public Education Committee, filed legislation Wednesday that would restructure the state’s high school graduation and student testing requirements.

Aycock’s proposal, House Bill 5, would move public schools to an accountability system with grades of A through F, a concept that has drawn support from Sen. Dan Patrick, the Houston Republican who chairs the upper chamber’s education committee, and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams. It would also significantly reduce the number of standardized tests students must pass to graduate.

The legislation removes a requirement that graduating students must achieve a certain cumulative score across 15 end-of-course exams and changes the number they must take to five in reading, writing, biology, Algebra I and U.S. history. Students would be able to count satisfactory performance on Advanced Placement, SAT, or ACT exams toward graduation requirements. It also expands the diploma options available to high school students, allowing them to earn “endorsements” with focuses on areas of studies like humanities, science, engineering, technology and math, or business and industry.

“House Bill 5 will improve education in Texas by better equipping schools to meet students’ individual needs,” Aycock said in his announcement. “The filing of this bill is the first step in a very important conversation about the quality of both our schools and our workforce.”

He said that every member of his committee had signed onto the bill, which is co-authored by two Democrats and two Republicans.

Here’s HB5, which has a lot more to it than just STAAR reform. I suspect this will be the marquee education bill, at least in the House, this session. The Observer has more on HB5.

Fire two:

The Senate launched its effort to roll back high-stakes testing requirements in Texas schools on Wednesday, approving a bill that would scrap the state rule mandating that new end-of-course exams in high school count as 15 percent of the grade in each subject tested. The measure was approved unanimously and sent to the House. Sen. Dan Patrick, author of the bill and chairman of the education committee, said the change was “widely requested by parents, students and educators across the state.” The rule had been suspended last year and this school year because of vigorous objections by superintendents, concerned over the large number of students who failed one more of the EOC tests last year.

[…]

A bill filed in the House Wednesday by Aycock also calls for scrapping the 15 percent rule – and all members of the House education committee have signed on as co-authors. Aycock’s measure also would reduce the number of EOC tests that would have to be passed to graduate from high school – from the current 15 to five. Patrick said he plans to file legislation that would also reduce the number of exams for graduation, but he has rejected the idea of a moratorium on the EOC tests or dropping the requirement that students pass some of the exams to earn a diploma.

Patrick’s bill was SB135. The 15 percent rule appears to be history, and the number of end-of-course exams will drop, but there’s still a lot of room for debate as to what else happens.

Along those lines, one of the things Dan Patrick wants to make happen may have a hard time in the House.

Speaker Joe Straus warned the Texas Senate on Wednesday that if it passes a divisive school vouchers bill, the measure might not reach a floor vote in the full House.

Straus, R-San Antonio, didn’t rule out the possibility of a so-called school choice bill’s passing this session.

But he urged Senate GOP leaders “not to go full bore on something that’s an exercise in futility.”

Straus, appearing at a Texas Tribune TribLive event with the online politics outlet’s CEO and editor in chief, Evan Smith, stressed the state’s diverse educational map. That’s code for: Be careful with my rural Republicans.

Still, he did not shed a single watt of light on a specific approach that might fly in the House, such as open enrollment within a school district, or across school district lines.

“We’ve seen this before,” Straus said, recalling the House’s defeat of a voucher pilot bill in 2007, which was his first full session as a House member.

Resistance from rural Republicans as well as perceived hypocrisy by proponents, who declined to nominate their own school districts to be the site of pilots, killed the measure. In the eyes of many, San Antonio hospital-bed inventor James Leininger’s hands-on lobbying in behalf of the bill didn’t help. At the time, the House was run by Speaker Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican whom Straus forced to the sidelines in 2009.

“It just exploded in front of our very eyes,” Straus said of the 2007 bill.

The speaker said a 2013 revival has to have broader support.

“If there’s a school choice option that members, representing their districts, can support, then we’d certainly be open to it,” he said.

You can see more about what Straus had to say here. He’s not declaring a voucher bill dead, but he seems disinclined to go to the mat for something divisive. We’ll see what that ultimately means. It would be fine by me if a voucher bill never made it out of the Senate in the first place, of course.

UPDATE: Hair Balls has more.

On encouraging jury service

District Clerk Chris Daniel notes that many people do not get paid when they take off work to serve on jury duty, and that therefore they generally choose to ignore their summonses.

District Clerk Chris Daniel

During the upcoming session, the state Legislature can address this issue and ensure that jury pools include a true cross-section of county residents by passing a law allowing businesses that pay workers during jury service to receive a discount on the state business margins tax.

State law prohibits companies from firing workers who are absent due to jury service. But it does not require employers to pay workers – only five states impose such a requirement.

But there are ways for government, without being intrusive, to provide businesses with incentives to pay workers absent because of jury service. Lawmakers will consider passing House Bill 433, which would allow employers to claim a 15 percent discount when calculating their state margins taxes if they pay workers who are out for jury service.

This law would have far-reaching benefits:

  • More people, including low-wage employees, would appear for jury service.
  • The public likely would have increased confidence in the judicial system knowing that a more representative cross-section of society was serving on juries.
  • Taxpayers would save money because the District Clerk’s Office would mail tens of thousands fewer jury notices.
  • With more people appearing for jury service, residents would be called to serve less often.

Here’s HB433, authored by Daniel’s co-writer, Rep. Debbie Riddle. If I’m reading the text of the bill correctly, a company can apply for the credit for each day on which an employee served jury duty if the employee was paid for that day. The bill directs the Comptroller to come up with rules for how this will be implemented, so it’s a little hard to fully evaluate this. My first thought is that there ought to be some limitation on what kind of company can apply for this credit, lest big businesses that have routinely paid their salaried employees when they do jury service apply for the credits. It’ll be interesting to see what the fiscal note is for this as well. Beyond that, it seems like a reasonable idea to solve a legitimate problem, but more details are needed before I can say with any confidence whether this is a good and workable solution or not.

Texas blog roundup for the week of February 4

The Texas Progressive Alliance congratulates the Baltimore Ravens on their Super Bowl win as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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