The Chron has a couple of stories focusing on area legislators and their priorities for 2013. There will be many new faces in the Lege and the Senate in this session, so the more we know about what these folks have in mind, the better. This story is about Pearland Rep. Ed Thompson (R, HD29) and Sen. Larry Taylor (R, SD11), who was previously the State Rep. in the Friendswood-anchored HD24. The story covers a lot of ground, but I’m primarily interested in their thoughts on education.
District 29 State Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, said the state’s growing population is an indicator of economic strength.
“People are coming to Texas, because it’s a pro-business state,” Thompson said. “And our unemployment is dropping. It proves that our economy in Texas is improving.”
Thompson hopes these indicators will translate to a higher budget for the next biennium.
“With the economy doing better, revenues are going up. How much there’s going to be and what we’re going to do with it, that’s the question,” he said. “There will be a lot of discussion going back and filling holes in the budget from our last biennium.”
Taylor is optimistic that a stronger economy in the state will prevent the budget shortfall and resulting issues from last session, but he also said there will be several topics of debate in the session.
“Our economy is doing better than it was, but we are still facing a lot of challenges,” he said. “There are a lot of hard decisions ahead.”
Taylor said his second priority after creating a balanced budget is education reform.
“We are in the process of transforming our educational system for the 21st century,” he said.
Among the changes he hopes to see are increased use of technology and more focus on career training.
“We should be reaching out to people with different talents and gifts,” he said. “Not everyone needs to attend a four-year university. We have people gifted with their hands, and we need to reach out to them and help them get good jobs.”
Thompson also wants schools to offer students more career training options.
“Only about 30 percent of jobs in the U.S. require a four-year degree,” he said. “I think we need to allow them to pursue certifications and technical degrees that will allow them to get a job when they finish high school.”
While funding for education remains a hot topic, Thompson believes the issue cannot be fully examined until the court makes a final ruling on multiple lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the state’s school finance system.
“I think the Legislature will probably take a wait-and-see position pending the decisions on the lawsuits in the courts,” he said.
Superintendent John Kelly from Pearland Independent School District and Superintendent Fred Brent of Alvin Independent School District also expect the Legislature to delay decisions until the court case is resolved.
The Pearland district has joined one of the lawsuits.
“I would be the most surprised person in the state if the system is not declared unconstitutional,” Kelly said.
Kelly has worked in education for the past 30 years and said over that time, state regulations have increased, while funding has decreased – a challenging combination.
“If people are going to keep passing laws that increase the burden on school districts, they need to provide the funding,” he said. “If they don’t have the funding, they need to reduce the regulatory burden.”
Kelly hopes to also see a reduction in the amount of required testing, particularly the end-of-course exams. He recommends reducing the average number from 15 to around five.
“These 15 tests are in addition to the PSAT, SAT, ACT, AP and dual-credit tests the students are taking,” Kelly said. “It’s not like we don’t have enough tests.”
Kelly believes legislators are aware of the problem. “I think there’s a strong push to address this,” he said. “I think there’s momentum in that direction. The Legislature has heard from so many parents and school districts. They have to listen to that.”
Brent said, “Indicators show that state revenue is increasing, however, not at the rate of population growth and increasing student enrollment.
“The state needs to account for the increased student population growth and look for opportunities to help schools, and fast-growth districts, address the changing facility needs and instructional dynamics that come along with increasing student enrollment.”
Brent hopes the Legislature will make education funding a priority. “I do believe there will be opportunities to put money back into the school funding system that was pulled out, denied or supplanted with federal funds during the previous biennium,” he added.
In previous sessions, state dollars were replaced with federal funds, Brent noted. “However, the federal funds have ceased and it is critical that this funding is restored from the state level,” he said.
It’s encouraging to hear Thompson talk about growing the budget. We’ll see what that means in practice, but it sure beats talk about artificially restricting the budget for ideological purposes. As for education, it’s unfortunate that neither Thompson nor Taylor had anything substantive to say. At this point, talking about technology and vocational training is practically a shibboleth. Everyone agrees these are Good Things – as do, I, sincerely – and as far as I can tell there’s no actual opposition to these points. That doesn’t mean that there will necessarily be legislation addressing those issues, nor does it mean there won’t be a debate over how much to spend on tech and vocational training versus other things, but at the end of the day no one is lobbying against them. Hearing that Thompson and Taylor support them tells us nothing.
What we do need to know boils down to two things. How much of the $5.4 billion that was cut from public education last session do you want to see restored, and what do you think about Sen. Patrick’s so-called “school choice” proposal? I will stipulate that the Lege is certain to wait and see what the courts do with the ongoing school finance litigation, and that Sen. Patrick’s proposals are not fully formed yet, and as such I’ll be tolerant of a certain amount of hedging and “wait and see”-ing. But this is where the rubber meets the road, and I want to know what everyone’s general philosophies are, and what they hope to attain or to prevent. Moreover, Thompson is a Parent PAC candidate. The Texas Parent PAC was founded in part to oppose vouchers, and one of their guiding principles is to “ensure that local and state taxes collected to fund preK-12th grade education are used only to fund Texas public schools”. That’s a pretty clear statement. How does Rep. Thompson evaluate Sen. Patrick’s proposal in light of that? It’s important that we know.
A second article about one of the new legislators from Fort Bend does at least partially address these questions.
For state Rep. Phil Stephenson, freshman Republican for the new District 85, encompassing Rosenberg and Needville, parts of Fort Bend County and Wharton and Jackson counties, education, transportation infrastructure and water are major concerns for him and his constituents.
While public safety, fiscal discipline, economic development and children’s health and education are priorities for seasoned state Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican representing Senate District 17, comprising Brazoria, Fort Bend and Harris counties.
Having been a trustee on the board of Wharton County Junior College for 16 years until Stephenson took state office, fixing public education from kindergarten through 12th grade is essential.
“We’ve got to do a better job of K-12 education,” he said. “We have to have a properly educated work force.”
He wants to cut the amount of testing under the State of Texas Assessments for Academic Readiness, put more teachers in classrooms, pay them more and bring in more programs for higher education.
A certified public accountant, Stephenson supports restoring some funding to education but not all the $5.3 billion that was cut in the last session. Rather than raise taxes, he said lawmakers must look at areas to cut funding, such as the Texas Education Agency, to spread the money around.
That doesn’t tell us much – how much funding would Rep. Stephenson want to restore, and how would he pay for it? His actual suggestion sounds like funny accounting to me – but it tells us more than the other story did. Favoring any kind of restoration is good to hear, because not everyone favors that.
Finally, this story gives the school district perspective top billing.
Officials from the Cy-Fair Independent School District are hopeful that the new session will result in more funding for education.
“It’s going to be an interesting session, and I think there will be a lot of focus on education,” said Teresa Hull, associate superintendent, governmental relations and communications for CFISD.
Hull believes that state legislators are receptive to the concerns of educators.
“There’s a lot of support across the state from the school districts and the legislators,” she said. “We’re feeling very optimistic about some positive outcomes.”
Hull said the district has several priorities going into the session.
Adopting a school finance system that is adequately funded and equitable is at the top of the district’s wish list – which would include restoring the previous biennium’s funding cuts.
Hull acknowledged, however, that the Legislature may not be able to move forward on the issue until the court makes a final ruling on multiple lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the state’s school finance system.
Hull said that while the state might put education finance on the back burner, there are other school-related areas that can be addressed.
“The ones I think we’re going to see get the most attention right off the bat will be accountability and testing,” she said.
The district would like to see a reduction in the amount of high-stakes testing, as well as the elimination of the requirement that an end-of-course exam count for 15 percent of a student’s final grade.
Hull said CFISD also wants districts to have more flexibility to manage classroom personnel based on individual school and student needs.
“Let us decide how we want to allocate money into those programs instead of dictating how much and where it will go,” she said.
Hull also hopes to gain more local control for the districts.
This would include the elimination of a standard school start date.
She said that the district plans to oppose legislation that would divert funding from public education, such as voucher programs.
Instead, she prefers policies that expand on public school choice programs that already exist.
“It’s not that we’re opposed to choice,” she said. “But the idea of public funds going to private and parochial schools is concerning. It diverts public funds from public education.”
Cy-Fair is of course in SD07, home of “school choice” bill author Sen. Patrick, whom Hull praises as a “good listener”. We’ll see about that. The story does also include quotes from a legislator:
District 132 State Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Houston, said several educators have communicated concerns about the high number of tests required for students to graduate.
“They have to take 15 or more tests to graduate from high school. A lot of people feel that’s just too much emphasis on testing,” he said. “I’ve talked to teachers, parents and superintendents, and they just think it’s overdone.”
Callegari would also like to see more emphasis on career and technical training.
“These are not menial jobs – they are very important jobs,” he said. “We need to bring a stronger advocacy for career and technical training, making sure we provide the opportunity to get training and not precluding anyone from going to college.”
Again with vocational training, which is to say nothing much, plus some concerns about testing, which is both good and the continuation of a theme. But nothing about restoring funds or vouchers. These are the questions we need answered, and if you see any story in which a legislator is quoted on matters relating to education but these questions aren’t addressed, the article is incomplete. We need to know, and we need to know now before the debating and voting begin.