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Dan Huberty

Many more school districts are feeling the pinch

Not just HISD. Not by a long shot.

For eight-straight years, Cypress-Fairbanks and Conroe ISDs earned the Texas Smart Schools Award, bestowed on school districts with prudent financial practices and high academic achievement.

Now, Cypress-Fairbanks faces a $50 million deficit next school year, and Conroe is projected to face its first deficit in nearly a decade in the next two to four years.

They are not alone.

As the Texas Legislature studies potential changes to the state’s school funding mechanisms, the majority of large Houston-area school districts are facing budget shortfalls they say stem from a lack of state aid. Of the 10 largest Houston-area school districts, all but three approved budgets last summer that included deficits of more than $1 million, according to a Chronicle review. At least nine say they may have to dip into reserve funds within the next three to five years if revenues do not increase.

For some, it is more dire. If nothing changes at the state or local level, district officials say Spring Branch ISD in west Houston will be financially insolvent in three years. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD will use up all its reserve funds in four or five years. Pasadena ISD only avoided a $20 million shortfall for the next school year by passing a tax hike referendum, and multiple districts are considering similar measures to keep their schools afloat.

That pain is felt in large and small districts across the state. North East ISD in San Antonio expects to cut $12 million from its budget next year, likely leading to teacher layoffs, according to the San Antonio Express-News. By 2020, budget documents in Ysleta ISD near El Paso show the district likely will draw down its reserve funds by $12 million. Friendswood ISD, which educates roughly 6,000 students in a sliver of southeast Greater Houston, is facing a $1.9 million budget shortfall next year.

“If we’ve been one of the most efficient districts in the state, and we’re facing this crisis, imagine what other districts are dealing with,” Cy-Fair ISD Chief Financial Officer Stuart Snow said.

[…]

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who sits on the Commission of Public Education Funding, said districts should expand their revenue streams to include sources other than local property taxes and the state. He pointed to Dallas ISD, which pulls in about $10 million annually from philanthropy. United Airlines also staffed one of DISD’s schools with 25 full-time employees, a partnership Bettencourt said should inspire districts elsewhere.

“It’s not going to be one-size fits all — there are many, many ways to do it right,” Bettencourt said. “At end of the day, we want the education system to get students the best educations they can get for best deals taxpayers can support. But we need to look for all the ways we can do it right.”

First of all, to Paul Bettencourt: You cannot be serious. Philanthropy? Are you kidding me? Dallas ISD’s 2017-2018 general revenue expenditures were over $1.4 billion. That $10 million represents 0.7% of the total. You gonna suggest everyone search their couch cushions, too? Oh, and I don’t know about you, but I’m old enough to remember when two of the biggest philanthropic entities in Houston were Enron and Continental Airlines. Good thing HISD didn’t make itself dependent on them, you know?

This is entirely the Legislature’s responsibility. We are here because they refuse to adequately fund schools, and because they use the increases in property valuations to fund the rest of the budget, while blaming local officials for their shortfalls and tax hikes. As with everything else in this state, nothing will change until the people we elect change. If you live in one of these districts, don’t take your frustrations out on your school board trustees. Take it out on the State Reps and State Senators who skimp on school finance, and the Governor and Lt. Governor who push them to keep doing it.

Endorsement watch: A veritable plethora, part 5

Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, part 4 is here and the full endorsements page is here.

We finish with the Republican races with challenged incumbents. And the first thing to note is the races in which no endorsements are made: US Senate and Governor. Yes, Greg Abbott has ridiculous token opposition, and none of Ted Cruz’s challengers are likely to be recognized by anyone on the street, but still. Not even a cursory “none of the alternatives are worthwhile” piece? That’s gotta sting a little. Of course, it could be worse. The DMN went whole hog and endorsed Stefano de Stefano over Cruz:

Texas Republicans have an opportunity in the March 6 primary featuring incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz and four Republican opponents to vote for the kind of public leadership that inspires America rather than divides it. A kind of leadership that gives America its best chance to address the very real challenges ahead.

To make the most of the moment, we urge voters to choose Houston energy lawyer Stefano de Stefano over Cruz. Stefano, 37, is an earnest if mostly untested conservative who offers Republicans a way past the bruising style that has characterized Cruz’s time in public life.

Hell hath no fury like a Republican-cheerleading editorial board scorned. Still, the fact that the Chron skipped the US Senate and Governor primaries is even more remarkable when you consider…

CD07: John Culberson

Rep. John Culberson

We don’t want to imagine what would have happened after Hurricane Harvey without U.S. Rep. John Culberson in Congress.

In Harvey’s wake, cities from Port Aransas to Houston waited for the Trump administration to release its proposed disaster recovery bill, which mayors, county judges and families of all stripes hoped would provide the robust federal support needed to rebuild destroyed towns and keep the coast safe from the next big storm.

We didn’t get it. Instead, the White House released a pathetic $44 billion proposal that attracted criticism even from fellow Republicans.

Luckily for Houston, Donald Trump doesn’t decide how federal dollars are spent. That duty falls on Congress and, specifically, the Senate and House Appropriations Committees – which includes Culberson.

The west Houston representative worked with his Republican and Democratic colleagues to double the size of the hurricane recovery proposal, turning a failure of a bill into a passable piece of legislation. Throughout the process, Culberson was a point-man for City Hall, ensuring that areas hit by flood after flood – such as Houston – would be first in line for federal dollars.

The bill wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the alternative.

[…]

If you ignore the most recent term, Culberson’s accomplishments for the 7th Congressional District, which covers west Houston neighborhoods from West University through the Energy Corridor, seem pretty thin. That historically weak record, combined with a district that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, has attracted a strong group of Democratic challengers for the general election.

It should be an exciting race, and there’s little reason for Republican primary voters to deny Democrats their shot at the incumbent.

I don’t think the Chron has ever endorsed Culberson in a November race, not even in 2010 when he didn’t have a Democratic opponent. I have no doubt this year will be the same. Seeing them say anything nice about him is kind of a weird experience, but here we are.

HD150 (Republican): James Michael Wilson

An interesting battle is taking place in the Republican primary in District 150 where first-term incumbent state Rep. Valoree Swanson is being challenged by James Richard Wilson for being a political extremist.

Swanson, 45, is a tea party member who became the first woman in the Freedom Caucus last year in the Texas Legislature. Her district covers a largely unincorporated area of north Harris County that includes parts of Spring, The Woodlands and Tomball.

She didn’t have much luck in Austin passing legislation, which she blamed on House Speaker Joe Straus and his supporters, who spent much of the session fending off what they considered bad bills.

But Wilson, 44, a long-time Republican who worked for Republican state representatives and then-U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, R-Texas, thinks the problem was more Swanson’s zealotry for causes only popular with the political fringe.

“I don’t feel and a large number of people in our community don’t feel that our state representative is representing the interests of our community,” Wilson told the Chronicle.

Swanson is the type of wingnut that can make one almost nostalgic for the likes of Debbie Riddle. If Wilson can make the Lege an inch or two less crazy, then I wish him well.

HD134: Sarah Davis

Last year Texas Monthly listed state Rep. Sarah Davis as one of the best legislators in the session and called her “one of the few true moderates left in an increasingly strident Legislature.”

Gov. Greg Abbott apparently doesn’t agree and has endorsed her opponent in this primary – Susanna Dokupil.

Before explaining our endorsement, we have to ask: Is moderate really the best way to describe Davis? Moderate implies compromise, a willingness to change one’s positions and seek out the path of least resistance.

If that were Davis, then she would have spent her time in Austin acting more, for lack of a better word, extreme. At at time when the Texas GOP welcomes conspiracy theories about Jade Helm 15 and the panic about transgender bathrooms, Davis could have spent her days prattling on about black helicopters and the threat of chupacabras in West University and probably avoided a primary challenger. She could have acquiesced to the governor’s bizarre personal goal of overriding local tree regulations and easily earned his support.

But Davis did not seek out the path of least resistance. Instead, she stood alongside House Speaker Joe Straus against the reckless political antics of Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and their acolytes. She held various leadership roles in the House, which she used to get money for foster care, mental health and women’s health programs and tried unsuccessfully to secure property tax relief for some Hurricane Harvey victims.

She fought Patrick’s attempt to include private school vouchers in the school funding bill and led an investigation into shenanigans at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission that resulted in the resignation of the commission’s seven top officials, two of them Abbott appointees.

This one appeared earlier, but I’m including it here. I don’t care about Sarah Davis, and I figure we Dems have a much better shot at that seat if she gets ousted in the primary. That said, I hate the idea of Greg Abbott and his goons, which in this race includes the anti-vaxxers, degrading our politics even more than they already have. All I’ll say at this point is that if I were Sarah Davis and I’m still standing on March 7, I’d tweet this picture at Greg Abbott every day for the rest of my life. Maybe someone can set up a fake Twitter profile to do that for her in the likely even she has too much class to do it herself. RG Ratcliffe has more.

HD127: Dan Huberty

State Representative Dan Huberty is effectively already the winner in the race for District 127 in northeast Houston because his only opponent in the Republican primary, Reginald C. Grant Jr., has been ruled ineligible for living outside the district and nobody is running for the Democratic nomination.

Even though Grant’s name will remain on the ballot, it would take a very strange occurrence for Huberty not to win a fifth consecutive term to the Texas House of Representatives, which is good news because he has emerged as a competent, well-intended legislator and the body’s leading expert on the very complicated topic of school finance.

Huberty has drawn his own share of ire from the Taliban wing of the local GOP, presumably because of his support for public education. If they succeed in taking out Sarah Davis, don’t be surprised if he’s on the hit list in 2020.

And that’s a wrap. I hope you feel like you have enough information to make educated decisions in the primary of your choice.

So is there a residency standard now?

This is curious.

Rep. Dan Huberty

State Rep. Dan Huberty’s only primary challenger was on Friday declared ineligible to run to represent House District 127.

In a summary judgment, Harris County District Court Judge Bill Burke declared Reginald C. Grant Jr. did not meet the residency requirement outlined in the state’s Election Code.

Grant’s name will remain on the ballot. Should he win the March 6 primary, district precinct chairs will vote on a replacement candidate.

[…]

Huberty’s attorneys first filed suit after discovering through public documents that Grant had not lived in the district for six continuous months prior to filing for candidacy, as required by the Election Code.

According to court documents, Grant is currently undergoing a divorce. In March 2017, he moved out of his estranged wife’s Huffman house — which is owned by her father and which Grant listed as his permanent address on his filing papers. The candidate is currently staying with his father outside of the district.

Blakemore told the Texas Tribune that the state law’s definition of a “residence” includes where an individual “intends” to live, and Grant has said he will return to the district. But Blakemore said Grant has no claim to his permanent address because he isn’t the property’s owner.

[Grant’s attorney Tom] Zakes said Thursday that Grant still uses the Huffman address for his driver’s license and voter registration. He said it doesn’t matter who owns the Huffman house because Grant’s intended residence will remain the same until the candidate determines a new residence by changing his address on those documents.

“Will he ever move back to the house? I can’t tell you that,” Zakes said. “He intends to go back either to that specific residence or to somewhere else in the district.”

There’s no Democrat on the ballot in HD127, and I have no particular interest in who the Republican is, though I do have respect for Huberty for his work on public education. I am also Not A Lawyer and claim no technical knowledge here. But I have to ask, how is it that this case defines what the boundaries of the “your residency is where you intend to live” standard are? It’s very much an open secret that a non-trivial number of legislators don’t actually live where they claim to live. And as you know, I’m okay with that standard for residency being loosey-goosey. Given the way things have always been, I have a hard time seeing why this case was worthy of summary judgment in favor of rejecting Grant’s candidacy. At the very least, let’s fight this out in a full trial. And if this is the standard, then let’s do some checking and see who among the current cop of elected officials may fail to meet it. Maybe then we’ll get some real clarity.

School districts don’t need gift registries

They need to have their needs met by the state.

Texas school districts ravaged by Hurricane Harvey still need thousands of textbooks, dictionaries and other instructional resources, so the state’s education agency is borrowing a page from the wedding industry to help cover the costs.

The Texas Education Agency has modified its textbook ordering system to create a “wedding registry” of sorts where districts can list the textbooks they need to replace those damaged in the storm.

Textbook publishers, individuals or organizations can then donate the books, as can school districts that have excess inventory.

“It was very clear that a lot of people lost a great amount of instructional materials, including textbooks,” Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said. “If you consider the scale of Harvey, (the registry) is not solving everyone’s problems, but it is helping in places.”

The registry is meant to match districts in need with those willing to donate, and officials say those donations will free up money to cover other costs, such as rebuilding schools.

But some question the approach, expressing concerns over delays in instruction as schools wait for the textbooks to arrive, and the impact that will have on student learning.

“If we had books that have been destroyed, then the state needs to step up and take care of that problem,” said Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who chairs the House Public Education Committee.

So far, 14 districts have created needs-lists in the state’s registry, including Humble, Sheldon and Pasadena school districts.

You can see the registry page here. I mean, I have no problem with providing a way for districts that have surplus supplies to give them to those that need them, but that should not be the first avenue of recourse. Students need textbooks and other such materials today – remember, their standardized test scores are still going to count. As Rep. Huberty says, the districts should just buy what they need and send the bill to the state. Admittedly, I can understand why they might be skittish about that, but if there’s one time where public opinion should be overwhelmingly on their side, this would be it. Let’s not waste any time here.

Has Harvey changed anything politically?

You’d think it would, but it remains to be seen as far as I’m concerned.

A month to the day after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, the reality of the storm was beginning to sink in on the minds of politicians, policy makers and advocates bracing for a long recovery.

In short, any political plans people had pre-Harvey are now moot.

“Whatever any of us thought or hoped that the agenda for the next session would be, it is going to be overtaken by mother nature,” House Speaker Joe Straus told a full auditorium at the University of Texas Saturday. “It’s going to the biggest challenge that we face.”

[…]

Politicians said it’s still too soon to know exactly what the state needs to do to help the areas slammed by the storm cover, such as how much money it will cost to fix schools and roads and invest in such infrastructure to guard against future storms.

What policy experts and politicians across the board do know is it could take years for the state to recover.

The storm may provide an opportunity for a special legislative session for lawmakers to rethink the state’s school funding formula given property taxes, which schools depend on for funding, are expected to tank in storm-ravaged areas, said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble.

“I don’t believe 1 million children are going anywhere, but their homes have been destroyed,” he said, noting his home sustained $50,000 in damage from Harvey. “I just don’t see any path to victory for the schools if we don’t take this very seriously going forward.”

Huberty wants lawmakers to return to Austin for a special legislative session focused on storm relief. In that conversation, they could rehab the state’s school funding formula to level out funding for districts that stand to lose property tax revenue from the storm.

[…]

Education Commissioner Mike Morath said he’s still undecided about whether to cancel, delay or ease how the state grades schools based on the tests. However, his tone changed from last week when he told the State Board of Education it was unlikely Texas would tinker with the STAAR.

That will be worth keeping an eye on. I’ve been thinking about what would have to happen for me to accept that “things have changed” in a substantive fashion. Two possibilities come to mind:

1. A special session to address school finance. This can’t be just to make payments to districts to cover Harvey costs that insurance and the feds won’t pay, though that absolutely needs to happen, and it can’t be something that waits till 2019 and is the initiative of the House Education Committee and Speaker Straus, because we already know they’re on board for this. It also can’t be used as a vehicle for pushing through the usual hobbyhorses like vouchers or the new obsessions like bathroom bills. The call would have to include both addressing disaster funding and more importantly the overall inequities of the system. The reason why this would be a change would be that it would demonstrate for the first time that Greg Abbott wants to fix this problem, and it would provide him with the chance to separate himself from Dan Patrick. For a variety of what should be obvious reasons, I don’t expect this to happen, but if it does it will be a real change.

2. Someone loses an election as a result of being unwilling to take positive action to abet recovery. I don’t think this will happen because right now the main obstacle to getting things done is Paul Bettencourt, and he’s not in any position to lose a race. The members of Congress who voted against Harvey aid, whatever their reasons for doing so, are all well outside the affected area. If a special session does happen, then that would create opportunities for people to say and do potentially costly things, but in the absence of such, I any current officeholder has much to worry about at this time.

I’m sure there are other possibilities, but these are what come to my mind. Everything else feels like normal business to me. Maybe if the state winds up doing nothing to help cities and school districts cover costs, despite the $10 billion-plus in the Rainy Day Fund, that would count as something having changed, though that’s clearly not what the story is about. I’m open to the idea that “things” will “change” after Harvey, but I’m going to wait until I see it happen before I believe it.

Don’t expect any STAAR slack

Sorry, kids.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday morning that the state was not likely to let students displaced by Hurricane Harvey delay a required state test this school year — or to change the way school districts are graded at the end of the school year.

“I would say, given the information I have, it doesn’t look likely that we would be able to make too many changes on assessment, and for that matter, on accountability,” Morath told the State Board of Education. “We haven’t made any final decisions yet. But we still want to make sure students know how to read, write and do math.”

Educators and advocates for fewer state tests said they were dismayed by Morath’s statement and hope he will consider waiving requirements for southeast Texas districts that have had to postpone classes. State Rep. Dan Huberty, chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he has heard from constituents on the matter and will hold a public hearing in the next few weeks to consider how the Legislature can help schools impacted by August’s storm.

Huberty, a Houston Republican, said he plans to invite educators from all impacted schools to testify.

[…]

“We had a dramatic and traumatic event just occur that affected so many folks in the southeast Texas area,” said Bret Champion, superintendent of Klein ISD, located just north of Houston. “We absolutely are about teaching rigorous material around academics, but we also provide for an awful lot of social-emotional wellness” for traumatized students.

Champion suggested the state consider moving the test dates back. Klein ISD students missed seven days of classes, as administrators surveyed flooded buildings. Teachers and students are still cleaning out flooded homes, and some have lost everything. “A little more time to be able to assess that would be helpful,” he said.

Two advisory groups of educators, legislative representatives and businesspeople meet twice a year to discuss the accountability system for school districts and advise Morath on how to implement it. Laura Yeager, who has served as an adviser for the past two years, said she will bring up waiving accountability grades for school districts at the upcoming October meeting.

“I’m not sure how they can rate a district or student on growth when they have lost or gained so many students,” said Yeager, who is also a board member of Texans Advocating for Meaningful State Assessment, which has lobbied the Legislature for fewer state tests.

I hope Commissioner Morath will take his time making a final decision. Champion and Yeager have both raised valid concerns that should be taken seriously. It may be that displaced students will do just fine and the overall effect of Harvey will be minimal, but if it isn’t there shouldn’t be a penalty for that. Morath and the TEA need to keep an open mind about this.

Smell ya later, Senate

How about that?

The special legislative session is over — in one chamber, at least.

The Texas House abruptly gaveled out Sine Die – the formal designation meaning the end of a session – on Tuesday evening after voting to approve the Senate’s version of a school finance bill that largely stripped provisions the chamber had fought to keep.

Gov. Greg Abbott called lawmakers back for a special session on July 18. Special sessions can last for up to 30 days, which gave both chambers til Wednesday to work.

The House’s abrupt move came after days of difficult negotiations with the Senate on school finance and property tax bills — and leaves the fate of the latter in question.

House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen had been expected to appoint conference committee members Tuesday so that the two chambers could reconcile their versions of the bill.

But instead, shortly before the surprise motion to Sine Die, the Angleton Republican made an announcement.

“I have been working with members of the Senate for several days on SB 1, we have made our efforts, so I don’t want there to be in any way a suggestion that we have not, will not, would not work with the Senate on such an important issue,” he said.

So now the Senate can take it or lump it on SB1, which in the end was the bill Abbott was really pushing for. Dan Patrick has a press conference scheduled for today, and I expect it will be epic. I have no idea what happens next, but this is as fitting an ending for a stupid special session as one could imagine. Some things, including at least one really bad thing got done, but most of the petty attacks on local control, as well as the odious bathroom bill, got nowhere. We’ll see if Abbott takes his ball and goes home or drags everyone back out again.

House passes school finance bills

I doubt they’ll meet a different fate than they did in the regular session, but kudos anyway.

Rep. Dan Huberty

The Texas House on Friday passed a package of bills that would put $1.8 billion into public schools and help out struggling small, rural school districts.

House members voted 130-12 to approve the lower chamber’s main piece of school finance legislation, House Bill 21, just as they did during the regular session. The House also voted 131-11 to pass House Bill 30, which would fund the school finance bill by putting $1.8 billion into public schools. Once the House gives the measures final approval, they will head to the Senate.

The funds cited in the legislation would come from deferring a payment to public schools from fiscal year 2019 to 2020, and would allow an increase in the base funding per student from $5,140 to $5,350 statewide.

[…]

The House Public Education Committee’s chairman, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the author of HB 21, has pushed his bill as a preliminary step to fixing a beleaguered system for allocating money to public schools.

“You cannot have property tax reform unless you have school finance reform. That is just a fact,” he said Friday. “We have the time to get this done. We just have to have the will to get this done.”

HB 21 would increase the base per-student funding the state gives to school districts, in part by increasing funding for students who are dyslexic and bilingual. It would also gradually remove an existing financial penalty for school districts smaller than 300 square miles, which was originally intended to encourage them to consolidate.

[…]

The House voted 67-61 Friday against approving House Bill 22, a separate measure that would have continued ASATR for two years before letting it expire in September 2019. Some school districts have warned they might have to close without the program, which totaled about $400 million this year.

See here for the first go-round on HB21, and here for the ASATR story. I don’t expect anything to happen with any of this, but I suppose a surprise is possible. The House and the Senate are on such different pages that it seems unlikely in the extreme, though.

Halfway through the session

The House is doing House things, and that’s fine.

Rep. Joe Straus

Brushing aside concerns that they are not moving swiftly enough to enact Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20-point agenda, Texas House members opened the second half of the special session Wednesday with a flurry of activity Wednesday.

“We made good progress, and we’re only half the way through,” House Speaker Joe Straus told the American-Statesman.

“I’ve been spending my time, the first half of the 30-day session, trying to get the House in a place to consider the items that the governor has placed on the agenda,” said Straus, a San Antonio Republican. “We work more slowly than the Senate does because we listen to people and we try to get the details right. And so the House committees have been meeting and have shown some good progress, moving many of the items that are on the call.”

[…]

Straus has indicated he opposes a measure — favored by Patrick — that would pre-empt schools and local jurisdictions from making their own transgender friendly bathroom rules.

But, its sponsor, Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said he considered that bill an “outlier” — the only one he knows of that Straus explicitly opposes, “and so it’s not surprising to me that that has not moved expeditiously.”

Simmons said there had been an effort to discourage members to sign on to his bill and so he only had about 50 members willing to do so, far fewer than in the regular session.

Of his other bill on school choice for special needs students — also part of Abbott’s agenda — Simmons said, “I’m not sure it will get voted out of committee.” He said he holds out a faint hope that it might advance if there is some “grand bargain” on education.

“The governor wants school finance and we’re going to do that; we’re going to pass our plan on Friday,” said Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, chairman of the Public Education Committee. “I think it’s very clear that the House has not agreed on the voucher issue, but we have a solution to help special needs students.”

“The House is doing what it should do, which is being deliberative, thoughtful and being sure that legislation that we would pass is sound policy that would benefit the citizens of the state of Texas,” said Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, chairman of the State Affairs Committee. “The House is not built for speed.”

“This is the House,” said Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the House Republican Caucus Policy Committee. “We will use all 30 days. There’s plenty of time.”

Goldman said it looks like the bill he is carrying for the governor to pre-empt local cellphone ordinances is unlikely to make it out of committee.

“Nothing nefarious,” he said; there’s just too much opposition from local police and elected officials who hold great sway with House members.

Imagine that, listening to stakeholders. Who knew? The House will pass more bills, some of which will be amenable to the Senate and some of which will not. Expect to see a lot of gamesmanship, passive aggressiveness, and the occasional bit of decent policymaking, though that latter item is strictly optional.

House still opposes vouchers

Keep on keeping on, y’all.

The top House education leader said Sunday that “private school choice” is still dead in the lower chamber.

“We only voted six times against it in the House,” House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty said. “There’s nothing more offensive as a parent of a special-needs child than to tell me what I think I need. I’m prepared to have that discussion again. I don’t think [the Senate is] going to like it — because now I’m pissed off.”

Huberty, R-Houston, told a crowd of school administrators at a panel at the University of Texas at Austin that he plans to restart the conversation on school finance in the July-August special session after the Senate and House hit a stalemate on the issue late during the regular session. Huberty’s bill pumping $1.5 billion into public schools died after the Senate appended a “private school choice” measure, opposed by the House.

Huberty was joined by Education Committee Vice Chairman Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, and committee member Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, on a panel hosted by the Texas Association of School Administrators, where they said they didn’t plan to give in to the Senate on the contentious bill subsidizing private school tuition for kids with special needs.

[…]

VanDeaver said educators have two options: They can give in to the Senate’s attempts to attach school finance and private school choice, or they can vote against legislators who want those issues linked.

“If you don’t stick up for yourselves in a real way … we are going to lose,” Bernal added.

Amen to that. The real question is why do so many Senators serve Dan Patrick’s interests instead of their districts’? You know what I say, nothing will change until the people who get elected change.

Beyond that, one wonders how this will play out. Does the House simply refuse to vote a voucher bill out of committee, or do they let it come to the floor and then vote it down? Would Greg Abbott call another special session to force the issue? How big a hissy fit does Dan Patrick throw when he is thwarted? (Spoiler alert: very big.) Bring on the tantrums, I say.

Houston pension reform bill passes

It’s done.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas House on Wednesday approved the controversial Senate version of a bill that aims to overhaul Houston’s failing pension funds — over the passionate objections of current and former firefighters.

Senate Bill 2190, which passed in a 103-43 vote, now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. But the months of rancor between firefighters and Houston officials promise to linger long after the legislative session ends Monday.

[…]

The Houston bill passed Wednesday without two amendments the House had previously added in an apparent attempt to appease firefighters. One amendment would have prevented the bill from impacting current firefighter retirees. The other could have allowed the firefighter pension system to bear a smaller burden in paying down unfunded liabilities shoring up billions in shortfalls in three city employee retirement funds.

That drew the anger of firefighter pension members, dozens of whom sat in the House gallery Wednesday. Some shouted down to representatives as they walked out after the vote. One woman could be heard yelling, “Shameful!”

After the vote, Houston firefighter pension board chairman David Keller said he was disappointed in the vote. During the session, pension officials had suggested such legislation could be unconstitutional because it determines the financial boundaries the fund should stay within. Keller said the Constitution says that power is left solely to the pension board.

Keller said it was too soon to determine if the pension board will file a lawsuit.

“We will explore every option available to us,” he said.

But state Rep. Dan Flynn, who carried the bill in the House, said that killing the bill because firefighters remained unhappy would have exasperated the dire financial situation the city and the retirement funds are experiencing. The bill addresses pensions for firefighters, police and municipal employees.

“If we don’t pass it, there won’t be any pensions,” the Canton Republican told The Texas Tribune earlier this year.

Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, authored the amendment that could have helped the firefighter pension fund bear less of the burden shoring up the city’s shortfalls. The amendment would have given pension officials more time to provide data showing that financial forecasts estimate the fund will be in better shape than Houston officials estimated.

But on Wednesday, he urged his colleagues to vote for the bill without the amendment.

“We’ve done everything we can to work hard in good faith,” Huberty said.

Keller, the pension chairman, said the pension board offered to provide the data under licensing agreements that included confidentiality provisions. He said the city never responded.

When asked if firefighters would campaign against any Houston-area state officials who backed the bill, Keller said “it’s hard to say.”

“But I know the firefighters are having a lot of emotions right now: loss, anger,” he said. “And they’ve been shown to be politically active.”

See here for the background. The firefighters are gonna do what the firefighters are gonna do. I get they’re unhappy and to an extent I don’t blame them, but this is where we are, and it took a lot of effort to get here. At this point, the main thing I’ll be looking for is who will be campaigning against the pension obligation bonds. It’s one thing to say we need to vote on those things (even if we hadn’t voted on them before), it’s another to say we should vote against them. Until then, kudos to all for getting this done, and congratulations to Mayor Turner for doing what once seemed to be impossible. The Mayor’s press release is here, and the Chron has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the longer Chron story.

School finance bill is dead

It started with this.

State Rep. Dan Huberty said Wednesday that he would not accept the Senate’s changes to his school finance bill, launching a last-ditch effort to hammer out a compromise with less than a week left in the session.

After a passionate speech railing on the Senate for gutting his bill, Huberty, a Houston Republican who is chairman of the House Public Education Committee, announced he has decided to request a conference committee with the Senate on House Bill 21.

The bill was originally intended to inject $1.5 billion into the state’s funding for the majority of public schools and to simplify some of the complex, outdated formulas for allocating money to school districts across the state. The Senate took that bill, reduced the funding to $530 million, and added what many public education advocates have called a “poison pill”: a “private school choice” program that would subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling for kids with disabilities.

“Members, some of your schools will be forced to close in the next year based on the committee substitute of House Bill 21,” as passed by the Senate, Huberty said, before moving to go to conference. “I refuse to give up. I’ll continue trying. Let’s at least attempt to rescue this bill.”

The House voted 134-15 to request a conference committee with the Senate on the bill.

See here and here for the background. The House’s request for a conference committee was denied by the Senate.

An effort to overhaul the state’s beleaguered school finance system has been declared dead after the Texas Senate Education Committee’s chairman said Wednesday that he would not appoint conferees to negotiate with the House.

“That deal is dead,” Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said.

Taylor’s remarks come after his counterpart in the House, Dan Huberty, R-Houston, gave a passionate speech in which he said he would not accept the Senate’s changes to House Bill 21 and would seek a conference committee with the Senate.

HB 21 was originally intended to inject $1.5 billion into the state’s funding for the majority of public schools and to simplify some of the complex, outdated formulas for allocating money to school districts across the state. The Senate took that bill, reduced the funding to $530 million, and added what many public education advocates have called a “poison pill”: a “private school choice” program that would subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling for kids with disabilities.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pronounced the bill dead in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“Although Texas House leaders have been obstinate and closed-minded on this issue throughout this session, I was hopeful when we put this package together last week that we had found an opening that would break the logjam. I simply did not believe they would vote against both disabled children and a substantial funding increase for public schools,” he said in the statement. “I was wrong. House Bill 21 is now dead.”

House Speaker Joe Straus said in a statement Wednesday that the Senate has not prioritized school finance reform this session.

“We appointed members of a conference committee today because the House was willing to continue to work on public school finance immediately. Unfortunately, the Senate walked away and left the problems facing our schools to keep getting worse,” he said.

HB 21 was the first time in years that the Legislature has taken up major school finance reform without a court mandate.

HB21 was also the vehicle for addressing the recapture issue that is costing HISD (among other districts) millions and which is being litigated on the grounds that the TEA didn’t make its changes to the formula properly. You can kiss that good-bye as well. It’s somehow fitting that the Lege could not come to an agreement on school finance, as this proves the lie of the Supreme Court ruling that insisted they could do this on their own without the Supremes forcing them to. Not as long as we have Dan Patrick presiding over this Senate they won’t. The Chron has more.

House passes pension reform bill

One step closer, though there are still issues to be worked out.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas House gave early approval Monday to a bill that would reform Houston’s three problematic pension funds, which have caused financial woes and spurred political battles for years.

The 112-28 vote for Senate Bill 2190 came after lawmakers made some key changes to the bill, including a provision that could let the firefighter pension fund bear a smaller burden for shoring up billions in shortfalls.

But State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, who authored the House version of the bill, worried that the Senate may not like the changes.

“This is an amendment that could very well derail the bill,” Flynn said Monday from the House floor.

[…]

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, successfully got his House colleagues to amend the bill so that the firefighter pension fund has an opportunity to lower what its members give up in order to help close a large funding gap.

For months, city and state leaders have accused the firefighter pension fund of withholding actuarial data that would prove it could shore up its shortfall with fewer cuts to members’ benefit features. In the absence of such data, city leaders and state lawmakers put together SB 2190 and a House companion — authored by Flynn — that the firefighters opposed.

Keller said the retirement system wants to protect individual members’ information and has offered the city data under licensing agreements that included confidentiality provisions. He said he was surprised that became an issue on the House floor considering all firefighter salary information goes through City Hall.

“They know what each of us makes,” he said. “There’s nothing surprising in our data we hold.”

Huberty’s amendment will give the firefighter fund a deadline to provide the data to the city. It passed 90-42 over the objections of Flynn, who said the firefighter fund had months to help reach a compromise and that such a change could sink the bill when it goes back to the Senate.

“At this point it’s really too late to change the critical aspects of this bill,” Flynn said.

Flynn could have brought his House bill to the floor but chose instead to have a vote on the Senate version. I’m guessing he thought it might be easier to get it through, as if it had been passed unamended that would have been it. It will now go through a conference committee, so we’ll see what the final version says. At this point, I’d say it’s looking pretty good for passage, though it remains to be seen who will wind up being less happy about it than they were going in. The city’s press release is here, and the preliminary Chron story is here. I’ll link to the full story in an update.

UPDATE: Here is the full Chron story.

More on the HISD recapture re-referendum

Here’s the full Chron story about Saturday’s re-vote on recapture.

About 84 percent of constituents voted “for” HISD’s Proposition 1, giving the school district the green light to send $77.5 million to the Texas Education Agency rather than let the state forcibly remove some of most valuable commercial properties from the district’s tax rolls.

The reversal from the “come-and-take-it” mentality followed trustees’ meetings with state officials and lawmakers earlier this year. Board members feared vindictive action from Austin and also had second thoughts about going with the more costly “detachment” option.

Christopher Busby, an HISD teacher at the Sam Houston Math, Science, and Technology Center who voted for Proposition 1 on Saturday, said paying recapture was the lesser of two evils.

“Recapture is not on the ballot; recapture has already happened. This is about how we handle recapture,” Busby said. “The solution that does the least damage to the district is a ‘for’ vote.”

Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said HISD gained nothing through the two referenda, which cost the district an estimated $1.7 million.

“In the end, what HISD has done is use a lot of its political capital and has gained absolutely nothing,” Jones said. “They used political capital in (the) fall to persuade people to vote no, and they used political capital this spring to get those same people to vote yes. But they could have just said yes and paid the state like everyone else.”

[…]

Most trustees agree that referendum produced some desirable outcomes – the Senate authorized a work-study committee to look into overhauling the state’s school finance system in January, and Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, proposed a bill that would increase state education spending and lessen the amount districts would pay under recapture.

After the November vote, board President Wanda Adams and trustees Skillern-Jones, Anna Eastman and Mike Lunceford grew worried that refusing to pay the state recapture fee willingly would have dire consequences for the district and the board.

Trustees Jolanda Jones and Manuel Rodriguez Jr. insisted that the district hold fast in its decision to withhold the recapture money. Otherwise, they argued, HISD risked losing ground in getting the state to rethink recapture and its school funding formulas.

“The whole point was to get the Legislature to move on this. The only reason they’re paying attention was not because we have a great lobbying team, it’s because we voted no,” Jones said in February. “The second we relent and bend over, it’ll ruin this for rest of state and our momentum because everyone is looking at Houston.”

Jones with Rice’s Baker Institute said the state’s actions were more likely the result of a May 2016 Texas Supreme Court ruling that found while the state’s school finance formula was constitutional, it desperately needed to be overhauled.

Please note that the November election was required by state law once HISD was put into recapture. Only the May election was optional. As you know, I agree with the trustee’s interpretation of what the November “No” vote meant, and I disagree with Mark Jones. I’ll cite David Thompson as my evidence for that. What happens from here is unclear, but I believe that there is now a greater appreciation of how messed up our school finance system is – I mean, raise your hand if you knew six months ago that recapture funds helped offset state spending on education instead of going to other school districts – and I believe there is a greater consensus about what needs to be done to fix it. Not at the top, of course – we’re never going to get a real fix with the Governor and Lt. Governor we now have – but among legislators themselves. There’s still a lot of work to do – HISD in particular can and should keep pushing the TEA to give it and other recaptured school districts credit for transportation costs and pre-k programs – but progress has been made. I’m happy with the way things played out.

House passes school finance reform bill

Well done.

Rep. Dan Huberty

State Rep. Dan Huberty succeeded at a difficult task Wednesday: getting the Texas House of Representatives to vote for legislation overhauling the funding system for public education, without a court mandate.

After a four-hour discussion of more than 30 proposed amendments, the House voted 134-16 to tentatively accept its top education leader’s plan to inject $1.6 billion into public schools, simplify the complex formulas for allocating that money, and target certain disadvantaged student groups for more funding. The bill must still be approved on a third and final reading in the House.

[…]

The tentative victory comes after senators approved a budget that cuts state funding for public schools by $1.8 billion in general revenue, and uses local property tax revenue to make up the difference.

Huberty’s bill would increase the base per-student funding the state gives to school districts, in part by increasing funding for students who are bilingual and dyslexic. The Legislative Budget Board estimates about 96 percent of districts and 98 percent of students would see more money under the bill.

“This is the first time in over 30 years that we have the opportunity to vote for school finance, to make a holistic change,” Huberty said before Wednesday’s vote.

Throughout the evening, Huberty successfully moved to table many of his colleagues’ proposed amendments to the bill, either because they would add to the bill’s price tag or because he deemed them irrelevant to his legislation.

“This is the school finance bill,” he reminded Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, who unsuccessfully tried to attach a provision to HB 21 that addressed the testing and accountability system.

The House budget allowance for this bill would provide more funding to more school districts for busing, but many legislators expressed concern that the money would be stretched thin because districts that didn’t provide bus service would still receive transportation money. None of the amendments to address transportation funding passed.

Rural legislators banded together to add a provision that would help hundreds of small districts with fewer than 1,600 students. The provision, proposed by Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, would remove an existing financial penalty for school districts smaller than 300 square miles, which was originally intended to encourage them to consolidate.

Darby proposed putting all districts with fewer than 1,600 students at similar levels of funding, which he said would increase funding for more than 400 districts.

“Almost half the school districts in Texas will benefit from these amendments,” he said.

Legislators voted 86-59 to approve Darby’s amendment, despite Huberty’s opposition.

See here for the background. The Darby amendment was about Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, for which you can get some background here. Getting something through the House is a big accomplishment; as the story notes, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock declined to put a bill forward in 2015 on the grounds that it didn’t stand a chance. Priorities are shifting, and there seems to be a lot of support for finally addressing some of the serious shortcomings in the current system. Which, if it happens, would vindicate the Supreme Court’s decision to not force the issue but leave it up to the Legislature. Assuming that Dan Patrick and the Senate – and Greg Abbott – go along, of course, That’s far from a sure thing, as a brief perusal of the Senate’s budget proposal would show. But it’s a start, and it could happen. That’s more than what we’ve had in a long time. Kudos all around.

MALDEF files suit over change to recapture

This is a twist.

Texas education officials illegally changed how property taxes are calculated in wealthy school districts, with the effect of substantially reducing the funds available for schools in poorer districts, a lawsuit filed Thursday charged.

The change would cost the state’s poorer schools districts and their students approximately $440 million per year or $880 million for the two-year funding cycle, according to the lawsuit filed by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and the law firms Gray & Becker, P.C. and Ray & Wood, on behalf of Le Feria and Joaquin Independent School Districts.

The La Feria Independent School District in Cameron County and the Joaquin Independent School District in Shelby County want the court to permanently block the newly amended rule adopted February 1, calling it invalid and unenforceable.

“Breaking the rules to once again benefit property-wealthy districts to the detriment of our property-poor districts is not the fix we need for our broken public school system,” said Marisa Bono, MALDEF Southwest regional counsel. “We look forward to vindicating in court our clients’ efforts to ensure fair funding for all students.”

Texas’ system of “recapture” requires wealthier school districts with more valuable property to send some of their tax funds to the state to help fund poorer districts. Those funds are then administered through the Foundation School Program.

The recapture formula assesses the contributions of wealthier districts based on the full value of each property. But those districts may provide two types of tax deductions to residents. The first is a mandated $25,000 homestead exemption. The second deduction allows districts the option of granting an additional homeowners exemption of up to 20 percent of a home’s value, known as a local optional homestead exemption (“LOHE”).

State law allows some wealthy districts to reduce their contributions to recapture and the Foundation School Program by recognizing the LOHE-reduced property values. However, state law provided clear conditions to ensure that poor districts aren’t underfunded. Those conditions required that either state lawmakers appropriate more funding, or that there be a surplus in the Foundation School Program. Until recently, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) interpreted the law to apply only when those conditions were met.

But in February, state education officials issued a statement changing its longstanding rule. Lawyers for the two plaintiff school districts argue that education officials illegally bypassed the existing rule, allowing certain wealthy districts with LOHE’s to reduce their contribution to recapture, without appropriating funds to fill the gap.

“The Education Code provides that the mission of the public education system of this state is to ensure that all Texas children have access to a quality education,” said Richard Gray of Gray & Becker, P.C. “The recent actions of the Commissioner work squarely against that mission and will result in funding flowing only to students in certain property-wealthy districts of TEA’s choosing while at the same time cutting funding to other districts. It is estimated that the recent actions of the Commissioner could cost close to one billion dollars for the 2018-2019 school year and that cost will only increase in future years.”

Under the new rule, La Feria ISD will lose over $225,000 per year, or $1,435 per classroom a year. Joaquin ISD will lose over $48,000 per year, or $1,548 per classroom. These financial losses are reflective of the financial loss that many property-poor school districts throughout the state will incur as a result of the new rule.

The lawsuit comes as state lawmakers debate how Texas will finance public education for the more than 5 million students currently enrolled in schools across the state. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in May last year that while the state’s school finance system met “minimal constitutional requirements,” it needed comprehensive reform.

Read the lawsuit here.

This would of course affect HISD, though MALDEF did not mention them by name in that release. KUHF has the only news coverage of this I’ve seen so far.

HISD is not a party in the lawsuit, but said in a statement that it believes the commissioner’s decision was legal and will monitor the case and “is prepared to intervene if necessary to protect the interests of our students and taxpayers.”

At the very least, this puts a bit of uncertainty into the May 6 recapture re-vote, which the HISD Board is trying to sell to voters. One possible way to satisfy the conditions MALDEF is suing over is for the Lege to make up the difference to the school districts that are affected by the re-interpretation of the recapture rules. Rep. Dan Huberty’s HB21 might be able to do this, in an amended form if need be. I don’t know how likely that is to happen, but it’s a possibility. There are a lot of ways this can go, so we’ll have to wait to see what the defendants, the Lege, and the courts do.

House hearing for pension bill

Another step in the process.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s pension reform plan got its first hearing Monday in the state House, where rows and rows of current and retired firefighters appeared to voice opposition to the plan.

Municipal and police leaders testified in support, however, as did representatives of the Greater Houston Partnership and, of course, Mayor Sylvester Turner, who spent most of his first year in office negotiating the package.

“It is not the perfect pension bill, because, quite frankly, I don’t know if you can get the perfect pension bill, but it is a very good bill for all parties concerned,” Turner said at the hearing.

Even the opposition of the firefighters was tempered somewhat by the testimony of their pension fund chairman, David Keller.

He said a series of talks since the bill cleared a Senate committee by a 7-1 vote last week have produced “great movement” in better aligning the current proposal to the general terms Keller’s board approved last October, before negotiations lagged and his group failed to reach agreement with the city on final legislative language. Disputes over sharing information led the city to propose deeper cuts than initially had been agreed to; Keller said those issues have been resolved in the last week.

Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican, said he had even heard Monday morning from some firefighters who seemed to be in support of the bill. Keller said that was not quite right, but he was “hopeful” his board might ultimately wind up in agreement.

“Firefighters are not immovable,” Keller said. “We heard loud and clear that we should not expect status quo, and we did not expect status quo.”

That’s decidedly less contentious than the firefighters’ previous statement, so that’s good. No one has to love this bill, but everyone has to be able to live with it. The House bill (HB43 by Rep. Dan Flynn, who is the Chair of the Pensions Committee) differs from the Senate bill in that it does not require a vote on the pension obligation bonds. Hard to say at this point which version will prevail, but I’d expect both will have some changes made before all is said and done. HB43 was left pending in committee, so it’s not ready to advance to the House floor just yet.

Vouchers get their Senate hearing

Here we go again with this nonsense.

Senate Bill 3, authored by Republican Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, would establish educational savings accounts and tax credit scholarships to fund various costs associated with parents moving their children from traditional public schools to private, parochial, or charter schools.

In an online payment process, parents could use the accounts, called ESAs, to pay for items like private school tuition, educational software and tutoring for home school students. However, the bill would prohibit parents from using the money for food or child care.

SB 3 would also allow low-income students to qualify for a tax break, Texas businesses can donate to the scholarship fund, according to the proposal.

Senators did not take a vote on SB 3 after Tuesday’s meeting, leaving the matter pending for another day. However, Taylor’s counterpart in the House, Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty of Humble, long has opposed so-called ‘school choice’ measures and said the bill likely is dead on arrival in his committee.

At Tuesday’s hearing, which drew more than 100 witnesses, Taylor defended his bill from charges that it diverts public money from cash-strapped public school districts and gives it to private schools. He said districts would retain some funding in the first year that a student decides to leave a public school, giving it time to adjust without losing all per-pupil money they currently receive from the state.

“Basically, the school will have money without a student. It will actually have more money to spend on the kids who are still there,” he said. “It gives them a year to transition or maybe in the year, to see what they need to do to move their program forward, to be more competitive.”

I’m not going to rehash the arguments for why vouchers (by any name; there’s a reason they have been rebranded as “education savings accounts”) are lousy public policy. Search my archives for “vouchers”, or read this from the CPPP if you need a reminder. Though a vote wasn’t taken at the time of the hearing, the committee did subsequently pass it out on a 7-3 count, with Republican Kel Seliger voting No. This is one of Dan Patrick’s priorities, and a rare bill on which Greg Abbott has an opinion he’s willing to say out loud, so I’m sure it will pass the Senate, and most likely die in the House. This is what victory looks like these days.

In the meantime, there was this.

A number of House members said they have received fraudulent letters in the last couple of months addressed from constituents asking them to back the ESAs.

State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, was suspicious when his office fielded 520 letters between mid-February and mid-March from constituents of his rural district, who are more likely to oppose private school choice than support it. All the letters were addressed from Austin and had the full names and addresses of each constituent at the bottom.

Springer started making calls. “We talked to a couple of dozen constituents. No one knows where they’re coming from. None of them agree with the positions that they’re even taking,” he said. He knows of about 10 other representatives who got similar letters.

One of Springer’s letters was addressed from former state Rep. Rick Hardcastle, who vacated the seat currently held by Springer about six years ago. “I don’t believe in vouchers of any kind,” Hardcastle said Monday. “It ought to be illegal … representing me for something I have no interest in supporting or helping.”

Asked about the letters, school choice advocate Randan Steinhauser said there’s a lot of enthusiasm about the issue. “We’re excited to see that many folks are contacting their legislators. We’re looking forward to hearing more about the ways these elected officials are being contacted.”

Sue Dixon, a public school teacher in Gatesville for the last 20 years, got a call from state Rep. J.D. Sheffield’s office asking whether she had sent a letter lobbying her representative to vote for vouchers.

“I said, ‘Absolutely not!'” Dixon said. “I’m upset that someone would hijack my views.”

Sheffield, a rural conservative from Gatesville, said he had received about 550 of those letters.

Here’s a more detailed article about this bizarre story. I am reminded once again of Daniel Davies’ words, that good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. I don’t know if this was the work of amateurs or exceedingly hardened cynics, but I do know it is not the work of someone who is confident that the people are with them.

House releases school finance fix bill

A step in the right direction.

Rep. Dan Huberty

The top public education policymaker in the Texas House unveiled a $1.6 billion plan on Monday that he described as a first step to overhauling the state’s beleaguered school funding system.

At a Capitol press conference, state Rep. Dan Huberty said House Bill 21 would boost per-student funding for nearly every public and charter school in the state while reducing the amount of money wealthier school districts are required to give up to buoy poorer ones. The state’s so-called Robin Hood plan has become a hot-button political issue as large districts like Houston have recently had to begin making payments.

“House Bill 21 will not only improve our schools but it will also reduce the need for higher property taxes,” said Huberty, a Houston Republican who chairs of the House Public Education Committee.

[…]

He said HB 21 would increase the basic funding for almost all school districts from $5,140 to $5,350 per student per year. That would happen in part through an increase in transportation funding by $125 per student for all school districts, including property-wealthy districts that currently have limited access to that money.

It also would increase the amount of money the state gives to schools for students with dyslexia. And it would include additional funding for high schools and non-professional staff.

Huberty estimated it would lower payments that property-wealthy school districts pay to the state to subsidize property-poor school districts by $163 million in 2018 and $192 million in 2019. As the state’s share of school funding has decreased, more school districts with swelling enrollment are on the hook for such Robin Hood payments.

The bill is similar to an unsuccessful school finance initiative filed in 2015 that would’ve injected twice as much money into the system — $3 billion — and boosted per-student funding across the board. Still, $1.6 billion is a significant sum amid the current budget crunch.

This bill had a hearing yesterday as well, and despite being overshadowed by the sound and fury of the bathroom bill hearing, there was a report about it.

The bill would inject about $1.6 billion into the public education system, boosting funding for almost every school district in the state although a few would be left out. It also wouldn’t renew a soon-expiring program that awards supplemental state funds to more than 150 districts to offset a decade-old property tax cut — a major concern for education officials who depend on the funding. A provision in the bill that would award some grant money to make up for the loss isn’t enough, they told the committee Tuesday.

“My districts are going to lose,” said Mike Motheral, executive director of the Texas Small Rural School Finance Coalition. He said he represents 14 West Texas school districts that could lose up as much as 53 percent of their state revenue with the end of the state aid program.

“One of my districts will lose $4.5 million and they have a $10.5 million budget,” he said.

When the Legislature reduced property taxes by a third in 2006, it guaranteed school districts like the ones Motheral represents at least the same amount of funding they received in 2005-06 through a state aid initiative. The extra aid expires Sept. 1, so many districts have been asking for an extension to avoid falling off a funding cliff. About 156 school districts currently receive such aid.

As written, the bill proposes letting the initiative providing extra state aid expire and instituting a $100 million two-year grant program, prioritizing districts that would lose money through the new funding formulas. That’s not enough to cushion the blow, school officials told the committee Tuesday.

[…]

Numbers released Monday along with the bill show that about 35 of the state’s 1,200 school districts and charters would lose funding in 2018 and 58 would lose funding in 2019. The rest would see basic funding increase from $5,140 to $5,350 per student annually thanks to an increase in transportation funding and more money for students with dyslexia.

Many school officials and advocates who testified on the bill Tuesday said it leaves too many behind.

“We want a bill that has no losers,” said Christy Rome, executive director of Texas School Coalition, which represents mostly wealthier school districts.

Here’s HB21. I agree with Christy Rome and Mike Motheral. There shouldn’t be any losers in this. As much as HISD and the other districts affected by recapture should be made right, it should not come at the effect of these other districts. The right answer is the put enough money in to fix the formulas. Easy to say, and Lord only knows what kind of reception this gets in the Senate. But this is what it comes down to, and what needs to happen. The Chron has more.

Huberty says vouchers are dead this session

Always nice to hear.

The top education policy official in the Texas House said Tuesday that he would not allow the approval of school vouchers this legislative session, a blunt pronouncement that could be fatal to the prospects for legislation that is a priority for many top Republicans in the state.

The official, House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said during a Texas Tribune event here that he and his colleagues in the House already had debated the issue at length and determined that vouchers would reduce school accountability by putting public dollars in private schools that are not subject to the same rules and also would distract from more pressing challenges, such as fixing the school finance system.

Asked whether that meant a high-profile voucher proposal from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was “dead, dead, dead,” Huberty said yes. Asked whether there was anything that could change his mind, Huberty said no.

“Why don’t we talk about the real issues?” Huberty said.

Excellent question. You can see the video of this conversation here. Rep. Huberty has been backed by the Texas ParentPAC, which came into existence back in 2005 for the purpose of supporting legislators who support public schools, which among other things means opposing vouchers. Why should we oppose vouchers? Well for one thing, they just don’t work.

Education secretary Betsy DeVos has been a champion of school vouchers for decades, and has claimed students don’t benefit from better funding of public schools. But a new report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that vouchers do not improve student achievement in any meaningful way.

A significant body of research on vouchers over the past 15 years has found that there is not enough evidence to support the claim that vouchers significantly improve student achievement, wrote Martin Carnoy, Vida Jacks Professor of Education and Economics at Stanford University. In some cases, vouchers exacerbate issues that hurt students’ quality of education, such as racial and economic school segregation and a flow of inexperienced young teachers into schools.

Research on voucher experiments in New York City, Dayton, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. showed that there were no significant improvements for students, especially for students Republicans argue will benefit from them the most: students of color.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C., which is directly funded by Congress, showed no significant reading or math gains for students who used vouchers and scholarships compared to students who did not. Still, the Trump administration may move to expand the program, The Washington Post reported.

In Milwaukee, which has the country’s largest and oldest voucher program, only one in four students attend their public school. But black students, who are the main recipients of the vouchers, had lower eighth grade math scores than students in every city but Detroit. The scores were even worse for reading, where Milwaukee eighth graders scored lower than black eighth graders in all other 12 cities included in the study. Although Milwaukee students made large gains in the 2007–2008 school year, there were not significant gains in reading between 2007 and 2011.

Although proponents of vouchers say that competition forces public schools to improve, Carnoy came to the conclusion that it is more likely that accountability measures are driving improvements in struggling public schools.

You can see that well-timed research here. Closer to home, RG Ratcliffe highlights another issue with the Patrick plan: There just aren’t many private schools in poor neighborhoods, which is both screamingly obvious when you think about it and also kind of a logistical problem.

Dallas County has more than 30,000 children attending about 100 accredited private schools. The majority are clustered in wealthier areas of North and East Dallas, the News’ analysis of education and demographic data shows.

Meanwhile, entire swaths of southern Dallas County lack a single private school. These poorer neighborhoods have lots of low-rated public schools — the very schools that voucher supporters say they want to help kids escape.

And of course, the Patrick plan wouldn’t pay the full tuition for poor kids who wanted to go to St. John’s or Hockaday or wherever, so the end effect would be even more limited. You can see why Rep. Huberty isn’t excited. What’s far less clear is what Patrick and Abbott and so on keep pushing this idea.

30 day finance reports: Pro- and anti-HERO

Some good news here.

HoustonUnites

Supporters of Houston’s contentious equal rights ordinance raked in $1.26 million during seven weeks of official fundraising, more than doubling opponents’ efforts and fueling a fierce and frenzied media campaign to court voters before the law hits the November ballot.

In campaign finance reports filed Monday that reflect late summer totals, both sides spent more than $550,000, largely on dueling TV and radio ads. But the more than $521,000 that supporters of the law still had left in campaign coffers as of Sept. 25 dwarfed the $58,000 that opponents reported in cash-on-hand.

[…]

In the battle over the city’s equal rights ordinance, Jared Woodfill, spokesman for opponents, said the campaign is unfazed by supporters’ significant fundraising totals.

Opponents reported a $100,000 donation from conservative developer Al Hartman, $25,000 from Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle and $5,000 from Houston state Rep. Gary Elkins, among others. Longtime anti-gay activist Steve Hotze also loaned the campaign $50,000.

“We’re absolutely not intimidated at this point,” Woodfill said. “I believe the momentum is in our favor and clearly this is an ordinance that the people in Houston don’t want.”

In a news release, the Houston Unites campaign said it expected to spend $2 million before the November election.

The campaign said 80 percent of its nearly 700 donors are Houston residents.

But its efforts were also fueled by big-ticket contributions from national groups and figures.

The Washington, D.C.- based Human Rights Campaign contributed more than $200,000, and New York philanthropist Jon Stryker, a frequent donor to LGBT causes, pitched in $100,000. Colorado’s Gill Action and New York-based American Unity Fund, both LGBT advocacy groups, donated a combined $200,000.

Campaign manager Richard Carlbom, in a written statement, said the group had “certainly done well on the money front so far.”

“But, there is a great sense of urgency around fundraising this week and next,” Carlbom said. “We know from past ballot campaigns that equal rights opponents spend significant dollars in the final weeks. We must remain competitive with them in what will, no doubt, be a close election.”

The story has some highlights of candidate finance reports as well. Those can be found here, same place as the July reports. Reports for PACs can be found on the usual city finance webpage – here’s the Advanced Search link; select either the “Specific-Purpose Political Committee” or “Both” radio button, then click the “Search” button next to the “Candidate/Committee” name boxes. Latest results are on the last pages, so go to page 4; the only relevant result on page 3 is for Brenda Stardig’s campaign PAC.

There are three PACs of interest regarding HERO. Two are pro-HERO: the Houston Unites Against Discrimination PAC and the Human Rights Campaign Houston Equal Rights PAC. One is anti-HERO, the Campaign for Houston PAC. There is a “No on Houston Prop 1” PAC that shows up in the search results, but it reports no funds raised or spent.

Here’s a summary of the reports for the three active PACs mentioned above:

PAC name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ============================================================== Houston Unites 1,262,893 597,299 0 521,462 Human Rights Campaign 218,480 205,810 0 11,503 Campaign for Houston 274,785 492,231 50,000 18,494

Houston Unites had $901K in cash contributions and $359K in kind. It also reports $6,800 in loans on summary page 3, though I didn’t see any explanation of that. Some of their big donors are as follows:

Human Rights Campaign 205,810 Gill Action LLC 100,000 American Unity Fund 100,000 ACLU of Texas 95,000 Freedom For All Americans 50,000 Wes Milliken 50,000 Texas Freedom Network 25,000 Equality Texas 12,500 Annise Parker campaign 5,000 Robert Gallegos campaign 1,000

So basically, the HRC PAC was a passthrough, as all the funds they raised ($200K of which came from themselves) went to the Houston Unites PAC. A lot of these same big donors were also the main suppliers of in kind contributions, which mostly amounted to staff time and office space:

ACLU Texas 137,187 Freedom for All Americans 124,017 Human Rights Campaign 50,144 ACLU (national office) 16,750 Texas Freedom Network 15,139 Equality Texas 10,625

The expenses listed were fairly straightforward. About $360K was allocated for advertising. Some $158K was for consulting to a group called Block by Block; there were some smaller consultant expenses as well. There was about $37K for printing, and $5K for polling.

And here are the big donors for Campaign for Houston:

Allen R Hartman 100,000 Jack Cagle PAC 25,000 Ralph Schmidt 25,000 Mickey Ellis 20,000 Texans for Family Values PAC 10,000 Mac Haik Ford 10,000 Law Office of Melanie Flowers 10,000 Ryan Sitton 10,000 Anthony McCorvey 10,000 Johnny Baker 10,000 Edd Hendee 5,000 Paul Pressler 5,000 Dan Huberty 5,000 William Carl 5,000 Jay E. Mincks 5,000 Malcolm Morris 5,000 Gary Elkins 5,000 Dwayne Bohac 1,000 Jodie L. Jiles 1,000 Norman Adams 1,000

That’s $268K of the $275K they reported raising. Grassroots, they ain’t. There are some familiar names in this list. Jack Cagle is County Commissioner in Precinct 4. Ryan Sitton is a Railroad Commissioner. Dan Huberty, Gary Elkins, and Dwayne Bohac are all State Reps. Texans for Family Values is the main source of anti-gay wingnuttery at a state level. Edd Hendee is (was? I don’t listen to AM radio) a talk radio host and the owner of the Taste of Texas restaurant. I don’t recognize a lot of the other names, but I’m glad I’ve never bought a car from Mac Haik or sought legal services from Melanie Flowers.

The expense side of their report is weird. Two line items totaling $200,350.50 are to American Express for unitemized expenses. I mean, these are presumably credit card bills, so they could be for just about anything – office supplies, food, consulting expenses, strippers and porn downloads, who knows? It’s their responsibility – requirement, actually – to specify what these expenses are. My guess, if I were forced to make one, is that these are their line items for advertising costs, as there’s basically nothing else for that. But that’s just a guess, and I should note that while they listed $492,231 in total expenses on their summary page, the individual expense items only add up to $291,880. Is there an error in their form, or are there another $200K in expenditures they’re not reporting? Like I said, it’s on them to tell us. I for one will feel free to speculate wildly until they do so.

Those are the highlights for now. I am posting 30 day reports as I find them to the Election 2015 webpage. I’ll have a closer look at the reports for citywide candidates next week. Any questions about this, leave ’em in the comments.

Budget passes House as most amendments get pulled

It was a long day in the House on Tuesday and Wednesday but not a terribly bloody one as many of the budget amendments and riders that had been queued up got withdrawn. A brief recap of the action:

Border “security”:

BagOfMoney

House Democrats tried — and mostly failed — to divert funds allotted for border security and the Texas Department of Public Safety to other departments during Tuesday’s marathon budget debate.

But the rancor over immigration enforcement that many expected didn’t materialize after lawmakers agreed to pull down amendments that, if debated, would have aired ideological differences over the contentious issue.

After predicting a “bloody day” on the House floor, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, pulled an amendment that would have reduced the appropriations for a public college or university by the same amount that it awarded in grants or financial aid to undocumented students.

Last month, Stickland expressed frustration over the lack of traction for a bill he filed to eliminate a 2001 provision that allows undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.

But on Tuesday, Stickland, with little attention or fanfare, withdrew the amendment after discussions with lawmakers.

“We did some negotiations,” he said.

An amendment by state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, that would have defunded the state’s Border Faculty Loan Repayment Program, which was created to help keep doctoral students on the border to teach, was also withdrawn with little attention.

On the funding, Democrats made good on their promises to try and take money from border security operations, which was at about $565 million when the day began, to local entities or other state departments.

[…]

One border lawmaker had tentative success in transferring money from DPS to his district for local law enforcement grants. An amendment by state Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, would take $10 million from the agency for that effort. But it’s contingent upon another measure — Republican state Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s House Bill 11, an omnibus border security bill — making it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk and getting signed.

Republicans had a bit more success in shifting money.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, was able to direct money into the state’s military forces for paid training for Texas’ 2,300 members of the reserve unit.

“Most of them reside in most of our districts, and we have zeroed out money for training,” he said.

But the success came after a lengthy back and forth between Huberty and members upset at where the funds would be taken from. Huberty offered one amendment that would have taken $2.2 million from the Texas Agriculture Department. That didn’t sit well with Democrat Tracy King, D-Batesville, the chairman of the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee. Huberty eventually pulled that amendment and instead took $2.2 million from the Texas Facilities Commission.

Huberty specified on Monday that the money is not intended to extend the Texas National Guard’s deployment on the Texas-Mexico border.

The Senate wants to spend even more money on the ridiculous border surge, so this fight is far from over. The fact that this is a complete boondoggle that makes the rest of the state less safe, it’s one of the few things that certain legislators actually want to spend money on.

The voucher fight was similarly deferred.

A potentially contentious vote on a measure that would have banned spending public money on school vouchers was avoided after its author withdrew the amendment.

Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) said he pulled the amendment because it wasn’t necessary.

“Given the commitment of the House to supporting public education, I felt this amendment was duplicative,” Herrero said. It also would have forced some lawmakers to take a difficult vote, caught between turning their backs on their district’s public schools and potentially earning the ire of conservative interest groups.

A coalition of Democrats and rural Republican lawmakers has coalesced during the past two decades to defeat voucher legislation. Herrero said the anti-voucher coalition is still strong.

“The coalition is solid,” Herrero said, “Vouchers for all intents and purposes are dead in the House.”

The coalition may be strong, but Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Mechler is working to weaken it. Mechler sent a letter to GOP legislators Tuesday pushing them to vote against Herrero’s amendment.

If you followed the budget action on Twitter, this was the first major amendment to get pulled, and it was a sign of things to come. Attention will shift to Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock when that loser of a bill passes the Senate.

Finally, you knew there had to be a moment that would be worthy of the Daily Show and the kind of viral mockery that makes us all heave deep sighs. Sure enough:

Seven hours into Tuesday’s debate on the House’s $210 billion two-year budget, things got first heated and then uncomfortable as state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman, successfully pushed an amendment to move $3 million from HIV and STD prevention programs to pay for abstinence education.

A line of opponents gathered behind the podium as Spitzer laid out his amendment and proceeded to grill, quiz and challenge the lawmaker on his motives.

“Is it not significant that Texas has the third-highest number of HIV cases in the country?” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, asked. “Does it bother you to know there are people walking around with HIV, undiagnosed?”

Turner and Spitzer also had an exchange over how Spitzer had arrived at his price tag. “If we gave you a billion dollars for abstinence, would that be enough?” Turner asked. “Or would you need two?”

[…]

Texas allows school districts to decide whether and how to approach sex education, as long as they teach more about abstinence than any other preventive method, like condoms and birth control. But a number of representatives questioned the effectiveness of this program.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, pointed out that the state currently has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country, and the single-highest rate of repeat teen pregnancy.

“It may not be working well,” said Spitzer, in reference to the current abstinence education program. “But abstinence education is HIV prevention. They are essentially the same thing.”

State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, took to the podium and asked Spitzer, “Were you taught abstinence education? Did it work?”

Spitzer replied that he was a virgin when he married at age 29. “I’ve only had sex with one woman in my life, and that’s my wife,” Spitzer said.

Dutton continued. “And since you brought it up, is that the first woman you asked?”

“I’m not sure that’s an appropriate question,” Spitzer responded.

The House was called to order, and Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, took the microphone. “Earlier you stated that you could not get STDs without having sex,” she said.

“It depends on what your definition of sex is,” said Spitzer. “I can go through of all of this if you want to.”

“If you still think you can’t get an STD without having sex, then maybe we need to educate you,” Collier added.

Spitzer’s amendment ultimately passed 97 to 47.

Spitzer is a medical doctor, because having one Donna Campbell in the Lege just wasn’t enough. He must have been absent the day they went over how intravenous drug use is a frequent means of transmission for HIV. This is another lesson the state of Indiana could teach us if we cared to pay attention. The Observer, Nonsequiteuse, RG Ratcliffe, Trail Blazers, and Newsdesk have more.

More pre-K bills filed

The Observer has the best reporting on the latest pre-k bills that have been filed in the Lege.

pre-k

There’s widespread support around the Capitol for more state spending on pre-kindergarten programs, and much less agreement about how to do it.

State Reps. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) have proposed a $300-million-a-year plan to fund full-day pre-K for some children in districts that agree to meet new quality standards. Meanwhile, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has introduced a more ambitious plan: universal, full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the state.

On the campaign trail last year, Gov. Greg Abbott also proposed more pre-K spending, but more cautiously. Rather than a blanket pre-K expansion, Abbott suggested rewarding districts with $1,500 per student if they meet new standards for program quality.

That’s the plan outlined in House Bill 4, filed [Thursday] by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston). The bill creates a framework for defining the “high quality prekindergarten programs” eligible for extra state funding, but remains vague on how much each school district would get and how their programs would be evaluated. Under HB 4, those decisions would all be left up to the education commissioner.

[…]

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas and a former superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, says HB 4 includes some important elements—encouraging districts to use the state pre-K standards, and rewarding districts for using qualified teachers—but the bill is a missed opportunity if it doesn’t fund full-day learning.

Our research shows students achieve the greatest gains when enrolled in high-quality, full-day pre-K,” Anthony says, with an emphasis on “full-day.” “We have seen first-hand in the research and talking with teachers that they can accomplish so much more in a full-day program than with the half-day.”

See here for more on Raise Your Hand Texas’s research, and here for more on the Johnson/Farney bill. The Zaffirini bill is basically what Wendy Davis proposed, so you can guess what its likely outcome will be. The main problem with Abbott’s approach of course is that the $100 million appropriated in Rep. Huberty’s bill is still less than what was cut in 2011. The Chron story doesn’t mention any of this, though it does give a nice report on that public announcement event Abbott held, since that’s what really matters.

There are more reasons to prefer the full-day pre-k options that Johnson/Farney and Zaffirini are proposing:

“Right now it looks like the governor’s proposal [as written in HB 4] is basically recreating a similar grant program,” [Center for Public Policy Priorities analyst Chandra Villanueva] says. “This program just isn’t going far enough and meeting the needs that we really have.”

Villanueva, like many other early education advocates, says the Legislature should fund any pre-K expansion through the same funding formulas it uses to pay for K-12 education. Grant programs like the one cut in 2011, or the one proposed under HB 4, are much more susceptible to cuts from one session to the next.

Funding pre-K through the formulas, she says, would also help ensure students get more equal funding. HB 4, on the other hand, could reward wealthy districts that already have the money to meet new requirements for, say, class size or teacher qualifications.

“The governor’s bill that’s outside the formulas, it’s really increasing inequity in the system,” Villanueva says. “I think we need a systemic approach to dealing with pre-K, and increase the equity in the system.”

You know what that sounds like to me? A future school finance lawsuit. Good to know some things never change, isn’t it?

No testing waiver

Sorry, kids.

The federal government has denied the state’s request to waive No Child Left Behind testing requirements for students in elementary and middle school, the Texas Education Agency announced Monday.

If the waiver had been granted, students who excel on state reading and math exams in the third and fifth grades would have been allowed to skip exams in those subjects in the fourth, sixth and seventh grades because of a state law passed this year, House Bill 866, by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble. All students would be tested on math in the third and fifth grades; on reading in the third, fifth and eighth grades.

In a Sept. 6 letter, Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle told TEA commissioner Michael Williams that the federal education department would not exercise its authory to waive No Child Left Behind provisions that require Texas and other states to test public school students in grades three through eight annually in reading and math and at least once in science in elementary and middle school.

She wrote that annual assessment was “critical to holding schools and LEAs [local education agencies] accountable for improving the achievement of all students.”

See here for the background, here for the TEA press release, and here for the original waiver request. I continue to think this idea has merit and I hope it isn’t the final word, but for now it’s where we are. Texpatriate has more.

Fewer tests in the future

If you’re tired of standardized tests, this will be good news for you.

Under House Bill 866 by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, which passed the Senate on Tuesday night, students who do well on state exams in third and fifth grades could skip exams in fourth, sixth and seventh grades. All students would be tested in math in the third and fifth grades, on reading in third, fifth and eighth grade, on writing and science in fifth and eighth grades, and on social studies in eighth grade.

Senators approved an amendment on Tuesday night adding writing tests back in for fourth and seventh grades, meaning the House will have to sign off before the bill hits the governor’s desk.

Speaking to reporters after the legislation passed, Sen. Kel Seliger, the Amarillo Republican who carried the bill in the Senate, said that the governor was “very open-minded” about the bill when he and Huberty met with him earlier. The upper chamber approved the bill with only two no votes — Sens. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

To avoid losing federal funding, the legislation would require state education officials to request an exemption under the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires 14 exams in grades three through eight.

[…]

Another measure addressing testing in younger grades, HB 2836, also passed the upper chamber Tuesday. But not before the Senate made significant changes to it, including adding SB 1718 to it after the bill died earlier that day in the House. The bill, from Rep. Bennett Ratliff, R-Dallas, originally eliminated fourth- and seventh-grade writing tests and required exams in lower grade levels to be reworked so that most students can complete them within two hours. The Senate version instead orders a study of the state’s curriculum standards and limits the number of benchmark exams school districts can administer locally.

I had previously blogged about HB2836. Looks like the two bills started out as much the same before HB2836 got altered, though the latter now no longer contains SB1718. I suppose Huberty gets the advantage of seniority here. The basic idea of allowing students who tested well one year out of testing for the next was first floated by Scott Hochberg in 2011, and I think it’s sensible. We’ll see if Rick Perry agrees. In the meantime, several other education bills remain works in progress as time runs down. Texpatriate has more.

School stuff

Just a basic roundup of education-related stories, since there’s so much going on.

From the Trib, action in the House on testing in grade school.

Elementary and middle school students currently take a total of 17 state exams before high school. They are tested each year in grades three through eight in reading and math, plus there are additional exams in science or writing or social studies, depending on the grade. At the urging of some parents and educators, several lawmakers have proposed either eliminating testing in lower grades altogether or to dropping the number of tests to as few as 10. To avoid the risk of losing federal funding, both proposals would require a waiver under No Child Left Behind’s accountability requirements.

[Rep. Bennett] Ratliff’s House Bill 2836 would address an issue specific to younger test-takers — the amount of time they must spend sitting still to complete their state exams, which now have four-hour time limits. Ratliff said that teachers, test developers and administrators told him that “four hours is just entirely too long for a third-, fourth-, fifth-grader to sit and concentrate and do their best work.”

His bill would require exams at lower grade levels to be reworked so that most students could complete them in two hours or less. It would also remove the time limit so that struggling students could take the rest of the day to complete the test if needed.

Ratliff’s bill would also would reduce the amount of testing in lower grades to the extent possible under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, by eliminating writing exams in fourth and seventh grades and the social studies exam in eighth grade.

But for parents concerned about the effects of high-stakes testing on young children, that is not enough, said Susan Kellner, the vice president of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a statewide grassroots organization.

“The issue is that No Child Left Behind requires 14 tests between the grades of three through eight, and really that limits what these bills can do,” she said.

Some lawmakers, like state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, are attempting to get around those requirements by passing laws that would require state education officials to request a waiver from the federal government.

Under House Bill 866, by Huberty, students who do well on state exams in third and fifth grades could skip exams in fourth, sixth and seventh grades. All students would be tested in math in the third and fifth grades, on reading in third, fifth and eighth grade, on writing and science in fifth and eighth grades, and on social studies in eighth grade.

Hubert’s bill is similar to one he co-authored last session with Rep. Scott Hochberg. It was a good idea then and it remains a good idea now. That hasn’t stopped Bill Hammond and the TAB from digging their heels in against it for reasons that are not clear to me. But come on, there is nothing about this that contravenes the goals of rigor and accountability. I do not get where TAB is coming from on this.

Also at the Trib, the TEA wants to change the accountability ratings to letter grades.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams told senators Tuesday that the state intends to move forward with developing an A through F public school accountability rating system that would take effect in 2014.

“With the engagement of hundreds of educators and stakeholders around the state providing advice and council to TEA during the past year with the development of the accountability system, it was recommended to me and I accepted the recommendation to move in that direction,” he said.

Williams said that although he had the authority to make the transition without enacting legislation, he did not want to formally approve the change without an opportunity to answer legislators’ questions.

Proponents of the A through F system, which include House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, say that its transparency helps engage parents in their community schools by making their performance easier to understand. A similar proposal overwhelmingly passed the lower chamber as a part of House Bill 5.

“It’s a system that we all grew up with. We all got grades A, B, C, D, F in school, and the public will understand, too,” Williams said.

I don’t feel strongly about this one way or the other. As long as the evaluations mean something and everyone understands what they mean, and knows what they need to do to move up, it’s fine by me.

Also in the Senate, a bit of a slap fight between Williams and Patrick.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, told his fellow lawmakers Tuesday morning that he had read the newspaper editorials and comments suggesting that his graduation plan bill (SB3) lowers standards. He staunchly disagrees and wanted Education Commissioner Michael Williams to back him up. The committee chairman didn’t get the answer he sought.

“I just want to be on the record that we have not stepped back in rigor,” said Patrick, R-Houston.

“Allow me to respectfully disagree,” Williams countered.

Williams tried to elaborate, but Patrick interrupted, saying it’s the senator who gets to ask the questions.

Eventually given a chance to speak again, Williams said that the default graduation plan for high school students today requires them to take English III and Algebra II. The current default plan also requires four years each of English, math, science and social studies. All students are put on the default plan and need parental permission to drop to an easier plan.

Under Patrick’s bill, which has passed the Senate Education Committee, the default plan (called the foundation diploma) does not require Algebra II. It requires four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies. Students could choose to take a tougher path — called getting an endorsement — and then would have to take Algebra II.

Williams said he was particularly troubled that the proposed default plan is easier than current law. Patrick said Algebra II is losing its status as a “holy grail” course for colleges, but he offered a compromise to try to win over Williams. Patrick said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, planned to offer an amendment to SB3 that would require all students to start on the tougher “endorsement” route, with parental permission needed to drop down, similar to current law.

We saw this same fight play out in the House last week, with Rep. Mark Strama leading the fight to keep Algebra II as part of the default requirements for a diploma. He lost that fight, but it looks like it will be re-fought in the Senate. It will be very interesting to see what happens if the Senate bill keeps the Algebra II requirement. Should make for some boisterous times in the joint committee to reconcile the two bills.

And finally, here’s this week’s legislative update from Raise Your Hand Texas. They’re a good source for more of what’s going on in education legislation, so follow them in whatever fashion you prefer to keep up with this stuff.

Committee time

Now the real work gets started.

Joe Straus

House Speaker Joe Straus announced committee assignments for the Legislature’s lower chamber on Thursday, ending speculation over key chairmanships and giving lawmakers the go-ahead to start considering bills.

Here’s his list.

Of the standing committees, 32 are chaired by men, six by women. That’s one more female chair than the 2011 session.

Among the committee chairs, 26 are white, five are black and seven are Hispanic, one more than last session.
State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock takes over the Public Education Committee as battle lines are already being drawn over accountability, student testing and school choice reforms. He is well-regarded in public education circles and has drawn support from advocacy groups that oppose private school vouchers — an indication that any legislation enacting such a policy, a priority for his counterpart in the Senate, Dan Patrick, might encounter a hurdle when it comes to the lower chamber.

As noted, the list of committees and members is here. Burka notes where committee chairs were changed, in most cases because the previous Chair is no longer in the House. The Public Ed committee looks reasonably promising – Chair Aycock, and members Dan Huberty and Bennett Ratliff are all ParentPAC endorsees; member Marsha Farney was the non-crazy Republican to emerge from the GOP primary for SBOE10 in 2010. If a voucher bill makes it out of the Senate this is the kind of committee one might hope would bottle it up. If there’s a committee to watch for possible shenanigans, it’s the Corrections committee, which has Debbie Riddle and Steve Toth among its seven members. There is a Redistricting committee, which may or may not have much to do but which will have a couple of bills relating to how prison inmates are counted for redistricting purposes to consider. The Elections committee will have a bill to repeal voter ID and several others to make voting easier on its list of things to ponder. Rep. Eric Johnson, author of the latter and one of the former, is on the Elections committee. We’ll see if he can get any action on those bills of his. Take a look at the committee list and see what you think about it. BOR has more.

How would you pay for extra school security?

Would you be willing to tax yourself for it?

Texas school districts could create special taxing districts to fund more security under a proposal unveiled Tuesday by three Houston-area lawmakers.

The Texas School District Security Act would allow school boards to hold elections on whether sales or property taxes should be raised to fund more security at public schools.

“I believe this proposal is a Texas solution that will save lives without sacrificing our freedoms,” said state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who, with Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, is developing the measure.

The three say they still are drafting the bill, but they outlined a few details at a news conference.

Sens. Williams and Whitmire submitted this op-ed that ran in Sunday’s Chron that gave details of the proposal:

Modeled after current law, which allows municipalities to vote to adopt crime control districts, the legislation would do the following:

Allow individual school districts to vote on dedicated funding for enhanced school security measures.

Allow for a dedicated sales tax (if available under the state cap), or a dedicated property tax specifically for enhanced security based on local school district voters. The revenue generated from a local option School District Security Fund would be separate from all other district funding.

Provide transparency and accountability by requiring school districts to hold public hearings on what is to be included in the Texas School District Security Act. Costs will be spelled out and voters will know the estimated amount of the dedicated property or sales tax to cover those costs before holding an election on the issue. The proposal would include a tax cap.

Require a review and renewal election of the Texas School District Security Act every five years.

A repeal petition would allow a community to abolish the Texas School District Security Act before the next renewal election.

The elected and accountable local school board also would serve as the board of the Texas School District Security Act.

On the one hand, if this is what a community wants to do, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to do it. I can’t imagine voting for such a thing, but I don’t particularly care if some other school district wants to tax itself for this purpose. I think it’s a dumb idea, but I don’t care to stand in their way of adopting it. On the other hand, there may be legal issues with the idea.

If voters approve special taxing districts to fund more school security in Texas, smaller, property-poor districts could wind up relying more on cheaper webcams and less on police officers.

According to the Equity Center, a group that represents underfunded school districts in Texas, the disparity in school funding – the subject of a lawsuit in Austin – again could play out when it comes to capturing more funds for school security by raising local sales or property taxes.

While three Houston-area lawmakers hammer out the details for such a funding option, the Equity Center took a look at how much security a one-cent property tax hike, hypothetically, could raise for a district.

The results were not surprising. Based on the Equity Center’s analysis of 2013 property tax values, Houston ISD could raise $9.5 million; Fort Bend ISD, about $2.35 million; and San Antonio ISD, $1.17 million.

Not too many police officers can be had for that.

“The wealthier will be able to afford better security,” said Ray Freeman, executive deputy director of the Equity Center.

Raise your hand if any of this surprises you. Perhaps the wealthier districts or schools could get around the inequity issue by raising the money via bake sales and whatnot. But really, if this is something worth having, then it’s something everyone should be able to have, and the way to provide that is for the state to do so. But is this something worth having?

Even wealthier districts may have a tough time selling a tax hike to voters already weary of hearing about half-cent or penny tax hikes every time a new need arises.

“It may be a separate taxing district, but it’s money that comes out of the same (voters’) pocket,” said Clay Robison, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association.

Robison likes that lawmakers are looking at something other than arming teachers. The bottom line for his group, however, is the belief that the state is “not paying its fair share” for education. “The state is still passing much of the cost to the local districts,” he said.

In addition to the TSTA, the usual suspects among the right-wing policy enforcers oppose the plan on the grounds that it allows for the possibility of one of them being taxed for something. That may make passing this bill, whenever it gets filed, more of a challenge. But seriously, surely there are better things to spend our money on, aren’t there?

Some sanity on STAAR

This is a welcome development.

A requirement that the state exams count toward 15 percent of a student’s course grade sparked a backlash last spring over the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, among parents whose ninth-graders were the first to take the more rigorous exams. A statewide parent group emerged out of the controversy and is calling for major changes to the testing system.

In a nod to the influence of the parents, Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, unveiled legislation that would strike the mandate and allow school districts to decide how much a student’s end-of-course test score should figure into the final grade.

High school students must take 15 end-of-course exams to graduate, and parents feared that including the test scores in the course grade might affect a student’s grade-point average and, in turn, college admissions.

“This is about local control. The school districts, and the parents, should have a voice on whether the end-of-course exams should count towards a student’s final grade,” said Patrick, who plans to propose other modifications to STAAR in coming weeks.

“Local control” is one of those concepts that Republicans tend to invoke when it’s convenient and ignore when it’s not. It’s being used in service of something sensible here, so I’m not complaining, just noting the flexibility. The initial results from the STAAR test were not encouraging, and there has been considerable pushback from parents and school administrators over it. This is a breakthrough for them, but the fight is far from over.

Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer who helped form the parent group, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, welcomed Patrick’s willingness to take the lead on an issue that had worried so many parents.

But she added that it wouldn’t quell the parents’ concerns over the testing system. They want legislators to reduce the number of tests that must be taken to graduate and modify the complicated method for determining if a student is on track for graduation.

“The 15 percent issue awoke us to a system that is bad for kids,” Majcher said. “Changing the 15 percent requirement is only a start. Thus, while this is an important step in the right direction, there are still significant revisions that must be made. Simply addressing the 15 percent is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a major hemorrhage.”

Business leaders that have been the most vocal proponents of the 15 percent provision were resigned Thursday to the about-face by lawmakers.

Bill “Hostage Taker” Hammond wasn’t quoted in this story, so I would not be too sure about business leaders taking this lying down. If Hammond throws a hissy fit over this, it will set up an interesting dynamic for the session, since he’ll be in opposition not just to Sen. Patrick but also to Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, and now Texas Education Agency head Michael williams, who has agreed to defer the 15% rule for now.

As I said, this fight is far from over. One vocal critic of Texas’ high-stakes testing regime is SBOE member Thomas Ratliff, and he has plenty to say on the subject.

Is the test really the problem? Personally, I don’t think so. Testing is a form of accountability and measurement. It’s always been a part of an education and it always will be. Despite what the Texas Association of Business wants you to believe, parents ARE NOT against testing or accountability. What parents ARE against are the stakes riding on the outcome of those tests and the fact that those tests are currently the only way a student, teacher, campus or district is deemed to be a success or failure in the eyes of the Legislature, the TEA and the public.

What’s the solution to this situation?

As you might expect, I have a few ideas.

1) We need the Legislature to repeal the 15% grade requirement. Simple enough.

2) We need the SBOE to start reducing the length of the TEKS as they come back up for renewal. TEKS are supposed to stand for the Texas ESSENTIAL Knowledge and Skills. They go well beyond what’s essential in my opinion.

3) We need an accountability system that contains elements that have nothing to do with the standardized test. Graduation rates, UIL participation, National Merit Scholars, CTE participation, service hours, dual credit enrollment are just a few suggestions. We also need to stop grading campuses and districts on their lowest performing sub-group. I know Commissioner Williams and the TEA are working on this and they are headed in the right direction. I just hope they go far enough to make meaningful change.

4) We simply have too many state-mandated tests. Massachusetts, which is supposedly the envy of all public schools systems in the United States, has 3 state-mandated standardized tests. Finland, which is supposedly the envy of all public school systems in the world, has one. That’s right, one. This reminds me of an old saying, “The cow doesn’t get heavier just because you weigh it more.”

So, I’d like to conclude with another farming analogy. It’s time to put the high-stakes testing regime out to pasture.

The Statesman story notes that Rep. Dan Huberty filed a bill to eliminate the 15% requirement altogether. I don’t expect that to pass, but it’s out there. I’m also reminded of one of Scott Hochberg’s proposals from last session to exempt students who did well on the STAAR in one year from taking them the next since they’re statistically almost certain to pass. If nothing else, that could be a good compromise. We’ll see how it goes.

Electing educators

This sounds good, but there are a couple of things missing.

More than a dozen Republicans and Democrats who have sat on school boards are running for the Texas House this year, and a backlash over spending cuts and standardized testing might help them get there.

Legislators sliced per-student spending last year, prompting schools to trim programs, increase class sizes and enact new fees. The publicity surrounding those cuts could persuade voters to change their representation in Austin, particularly if the alternative is a candidate seen as friendlier to public schools.

“We’re saying it’s time to bring in a significant number of new legislators,” said Carolyn Boyle of Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which endorses and helps candidates who it deems pro-education.

Boyle said her group plans to back an equal number of Republican and Democratic candidates in legislative races this year. A similar strategy worked in 2006, when groups representing parents, teachers and others helped at least 10 candidates defeat incumbents or win open seats in the Legislature.

It would be nice to see a list of the candidates with school board backgrounds. Other than Alief ISD Trustee Sarah Winkler (D) in HD137 and Lufkin school board president Trent Ashby (R), who is named later in the story, I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I’m far too lazy to go through a hundred or so candidates’ webpage bios to try and figure it out.

Boyle said this year’s crop of candidates with school board experience is the largest she has seen since 2006.

But this year, the education community does not appear to be as unified as it was then. A candidate who appeals to the leadership of Boyle’s PAC, for instance, may not appeal to a teachers group.

“In 2006, we had a number of former school board members who were recruited at a time when we felt like public education was under attack, and it really united all of the education groups,” said Lindsay Gustafson, director of public affairs for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

But since then, Gustafson said, “We’ve found that a lot of the former school board members that we supported weren’t necessarily going to be supportive of us on issues that were divisive in the education community between administrator groups or the school boards and educator groups.”

One of those divisions, for example, was over whether the state should loosen limits on class sizes in elementary schools. More broadly, some of the candidates who received help from Parent PAC and teachers groups in earlier races voted for the cuts in per-pupil spending.

“We’re going to have to be a little bit tougher when we’re vetting candidates,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association. “A lot of folks that we felt like we helped get there didn’t seem to know us in 2011.”

This is where it gets dicey. I support ParentPAC, and have been a fan of theirs since they burst onto the scene in 2006. But the ParentPAC-backed Republicans – Diane Patrick, Jimmie Don Aycock, Dan Huberty, Four Price, among others – voted along party lines last session, which is to say they voted to slash spending on public education and voted for measures that would put more kids in classrooms and make it easier to cut teachers’ pay. If they’re not going to stand up for what’s right under those conditions – and let’s be clear, there will be more where that came from in 2013 – then what good are they? Maybe Trent Ashby, who is challenging the teabagger Marva Beck in HD57, will be an improvement over her – not that high a bar to clear, after all – and maybe so will some of the other Republican school board members running. I share Gustafson and Kouri’s concerns about how we can be sure about that. Good intentions and a good resume only go so far. I want to know what these people plan to do about fixing the structural budget deficit, what their general philosophy is about the inevitable next overhaul of the school finance system, and I want to hear them say that they will vote for restoring education funding, and against further cuts. Then I want them to be held accountable for their votes. That isn’t so much to ask, is it?

By the way, there was another Save Texas Schools rally in Austin yesterday, and it drew another good crowd.

More than 1,000 teachers, students and administrators from schools across Texas rallied Saturday at the state Capitol to decry $5.4 billion in cuts to public education and demand that lawmakers restore some of that funding — or at least not impose another round of cuts next year.

The demonstrators, who also included parents and a number of Democratic lawmakers, marched through downtown, than gathered under the Capitol’s pink dome for nearly three hours. They chanted “Save Texas Schools!” and held up signs that read: “Cuts hurt kids,” ”You get what you vote for,” and “If you can’t read this, thank your congressman.”

[…]

When crafting its two-year budget last summer, the state Legislature voted to pump an additional $1.5 billion into the account used to fund public schools, but made slightly more than that in cuts elsewhere. Lawmakers also rewrote the school funding formula to cut an additional $4 billion, despite average public school enrollment increasing by 80,000 students per year statewide.

Another $1.4 billion in cuts was made to grant programs. All told, Texas’ per-student funding fell more than $500 as compared to the last budget cycle, the first decline in per-pupil state spending since World War II.

Four lawsuits have been filed on behalf of more than 500 school districts representing more than 3 million Texas children. The suits charge that the Legislature’s plan is not equitable in how it distributes funding to school districts — but the legal fight likely won’t begin for months.

“For the first time in 60 years, the Legislature that meets in this building behind us failed to finance the current school funding law,” John Folks, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, told the crowd Saturday. “That shows very clearly the priority that Texas has put on public education.”

Another target at the rally was the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or STAAR test. Students across the state will begin taking the new standardized test Monday.

“They say ‘STAAR,’ we say ‘No!'” the demonstrators chanted.

Every time I write about the devastating effect of the Republicans’ cuts to public education, I get a comment about how over the past decade spending on public education had grown faster in Texas than the growth in student enrollment. That’s true, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Aside from the fact that both state and federal legislation has increased costs on school districts via various accountability measures, school districts face numerous costs that are beyond their control and which are generally not given much consideration by the Lege. You may have noticed the high price of gasoline these days. School districts and their fleet of school buses certainly have. Probably the biggest factor in busting school districts’ budgets is the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, which increased by 131 percent between 1999 and 2009. What that means is that even without adding any more students or staff, school districts would be feeling the pinch. They can’t do anything about energy prices (electricity costs more now, too; thanks, utility deregulation!) and like the city of Houston they can only do so much about health insurance costs. What do you think they’re going to do when the Lege cuts their budgets? We’re seeing it now, and we’ll see more of it in the future if we don’t change direction.

Lege loosens graduation requirements

A sign of the times.

The Texas House tentatively approved legislation Wednesday to make it easier for high school students to pass end-of-course exams, a move critics called “a substantial retreat” from school accountability.

“This bill creates a clear, understandable path to graduation,” House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said of his bill, HB 500.

Business and education reform groups complained the legislation would weaken efforts to make sure all high school graduates are college- or career-ready.

Here’s HB500, which received final passage by a 138-5 margin on Thursday. Here’s the Trib on some key aspects of the bill:

The idea behind Eissler’s bill is to provide a transition period for students as schools move from the TAKS to the STAAR tests — whose more rigorous standards some believe could lead to large numbers of students failing to meet graduation requirements. Right now, students can’t graduate unless they get a certain cumulative score across all the year-end tests. Fifteen percent of their final grades is based on how well they do on those tests. HB 500 does away with those requirements, instead allowing districts to set their own policy on how end-of-course exams weigh in student assessment. Eissler, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said his bill was about “trying to get out of the micromanaging of school business from Austin” and vehemently denied accusations from his colleagues that it weakened school standards.

Three amendments from state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, were adopted from the floor. One prevented double-testing for fifth and eighth grade students taking advanced courses. Another, in an allusion to this summer’s Texas Projection Measure kerfuffle, specified that the Texas Education Agency could not use a projected achievement level to measure student growth. The last allows districts to opt into a pilot program to study whether students are “overtested.” Hochberg said that there is “pretty clear data” that show that if students pass a test one year, they are more than likely to pass it the next. “If we know they are going to pass that test, why are we going to continue to test them?” he asked. (Hochberg’s HB 233, co-sponsored by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would implement this policy statewide.)

I’ve blogged about HB233 before. It’s a good idea. Abby Rapoport has some more details and context.

School districts had fought for the bill—House Bill 500—which was carried by Public Education Committee chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. But amendments prompted heated discussions about just what role testing should play in school assessments. And the coalitions for and against were anything but predictable.

The measure centered around the new STAAR tests, the soon-to-be-implemented statewide school assessments set to replace the current TAKS tests. Eissler’s bill would give school districts an opportunity to cut students some slack while students adjust to the new testing system. If the districts so chose, for a transitional period, a student’s STARR test performance wouldn’t necessarily count toward their final grade in a course. Districts could set their own policy on just how much the assessments count for a student’s grade. The bill also allows districts to suspend a new graduation requirement that students maintain a cumulative passing rate on 12 exams in four subject areas. Instead students would only have to pass four exams total—English III and algebra, specifically as well as one in science and one in social studies.

I don’t have a fully formed opinion of this bill yet. Mostly, I agree with Rapoport in that this bill won’t have nearly the effect on student performance that the budget will. Maybe when we’re at a point of fully funding education again, we can revisit this and see if it’s still needed. Until then, the budget is the cause and everything else is effects.

School finance reform bills on tap

Whether you look at the House budget or the slightly less drastic Senate version, public schools will not get the funding they are due under the current defined formulas. That means that how the funds are distributed needs to be redone as well. The first bills to tackle this highly sensitive issue have been laid out, with more to come.

On the heels of a newly approved House budget that leaves public schools $7.8 billion short of what they’re entitled to under current funding formulas, the House Public Education Committee [Tuesday] considered a round of school finance bills.

Two of the bills came from the lower chamber’s veteran school finance wonk, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. One came from freshman state Rep. James White, R-Woodville, who made his first appearance before the committee.

During seven hours of testimony — and in sometimes tense exchanges that revealed the frayed nerves of committee members and witnesses alike — representatives from districts across the state spoke repeatedly about the dire consequences of the House’s budget cuts. At one point, as Alamo Heights Superintendent Kevin Brown urged the Legislature to provide its fair share of funding, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, emphasized the strain lawmakers have felt attempting to fund essential programs and meet voters’ demands for no new taxes.

“We’ve seen HB1; we don’t have the money … We’re trying to create a system that is reasonable and equitable under some parameters,” he said. “Obviously, as you can tell, the past couple of weeks have been very frustrating for us, and we’re getting a little short on temper.”

Cry me a river, Dan. To say “we don’t have the money” is a copout that absolves the House’s Republican majority of its responsibility for its penurious budget. There’s still $6 billion left in the Rainy Day Fund. There’s still the structural deficit caused by the 2006 property tax cut, which the Senate is willing to address but the House isn’t. You guys know damn well that HB1 is a steaming pile of failure. You deserve all the strain you’re feeling.

It’s too early to say what will happen here. The budget isn’t finalized. House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler has a bill of his own in the works, as I believe does Sen. Florence Shapiro. At least one group, the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented, has come out strongly against the latter of Hochberg’s bills on the grounds that it “would eliminate weighted funding for the majority of special programs, including gifted education”. I’m sure other groups will weigh in as well. This wouldn’t be a problem if education were adequately funded, but the House has already spoken on that subject. The ultimate endgame of all this is still likely to be litigation, as everyone acknowledges the basic unfairness of how public education funding is currently done. The main question that a school finance reform bill is likely to answer is what form that litigation will take.

Hochberg’s plan for less testing

A new bill filed by State Rep. Scott Hochberg that would exempt students who easily passed standardized tests one year from taking them the next, makes all kinds of sense.

The bill, co-authored by Hochberg and freshman Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, would exempt fourth graders from taking the state’s standardized tests if they passed their third grade tests by a large margin. Similarly, students in sixth and seventh grade wouldn’t have to take the tests if they passed by a healthy margin in fifth grade. While the measure wouldn’t save the state much money, it would save local districts a lot in test preparation, while putting a larger focus on those students who barely passed or failed their exams. Using giant posters of data, Hochberg pointed out that students who do well on the tests one year will very likely pass the following year.

“If we know these kids are going to pass, why are we giving them the test?” asked Hochberg, the House guru of all things education and data-related. Currently, he says, school districts can rely on their high achievers to boost test scores and inflate a school’s ratings. That allows the struggling kids to fall between the cracks. This bill would shift that emphasis, as schools would be judged based more heavily on how they equipped their low performers.

“It shines a laser beam on those kids who are below grade level,” Hochberg said.

Huberty, a conservative Republican who just left the Humble school board to come to the House, concurred. He argued the districts currently spend too much time and money on testing, particulary when those children who already did well one year will almost undoubtedly will pass again.

For proof, Hochberg—by far the nerdiest House member—turned to the numbers. Of those students who passed their reading and math assessments by a large margin in fourth grade, over 97 percent passed again in fifth grade. The numbers were even more compelling among middle schoolers. Over 98 percent of seventh graders who passed their assessments by a large margin in math and reading passed again in eighth grade. Meanwhile of those fourth graders who failed their tests, less than 40 percent passed the following year.

“It really sheds the light on this group of kids who are the ones who are likely to become dropouts as things go on,” Hochberg said told the handful of reporters.

The bill is HB233, and you can read about it in Hochberg’s own words here. There are two other Republicans signed onto the bill – Rick Hardcastle and Jim Keffer – which one hopes bodes well for its chances. I’ll be interested to see if there’s any real opposition to this, because offhand I can’t think of a reason why you’d oppose it/ We’ll see what happens.

Interview with Joe Montemayor

Joe Montemayor

We turn our attention this week to some of the Democratic candidates who are running in Republican-held districts. First up is Joe Montemayor, who ran for HD127 in 2008 against Joe Crabb and is running for it again this year against nominee Dan Huberty. Montemayor is a Navy veteran and retired ICE agent, and now owns a small business in Crosby. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle on the 2010 Elections page.