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Endorsement watch: Pennington

The Chron endorses CM Oliver Pennington for a third term.

CM Oliver Pennington

CM Oliver Pennington

For the past four years, District G has been ably represented by attorney Oliver Pennington. We recommend a vote for Pennington to continue his service at city hall.

Pennington, a retired Fulbright & Jaworski partner and 40-year District G resident, brings decades of invaluable experience in municipal finance, municipal law and environmental law, as well as time spent representing local governments.

These are precisely the skills City Council will require as it faces issues such as city employee pension reform and ongoing issues related to water and drainage infrastructure.

In a third and final term, we would also encourage Pennington to be active in city efforts to manage the traffic congestion brought by the construction of numerous midrise apartment buildings across Inner Loop Houston.

This growth, while welcome, is threatening mobility on inner city thoroughfares, with consequences that extend to school and neighborhood safety as frustrated drivers seek cut-throughs to avoid delays on main routes.

I did not interview CM Pennington this time around, as my schedule was fuller and less accommodating this year. Here’s the interview I did in 2011 with him if you can’t bear the thought of not hearing me speak with him. I think CM Pennington has done a good job, and I’d vote for him if I lived in District G. One thing I appreciate about Pennington, and it’s something I appreciate more each day as we watch the ongoing train wreck in Congress and the already-nauseating Republican statewide primaries here is that he considers it his job to make things work better. He’s not there to tear things down, or obstruct for the sake of obstruction, or otherwise refuse to accept that not everyone sees the world as he does. He’s conservative and he operates as a conservative, but in the service of getting things done and making city government function effectively and efficiently. I wouldn’t want him to be Mayor, but people like him are needed on Council.

Another way to look at it, from my perspective anyway, is this: In any legislative body where people are elected from districts, any district map is going to include places where candidates that would represent my point of view are not going to get elected. The best outcome in those districts, especially in a legislative body where my kind of legislators are in the minority, is for those representatives to be more like Oliver Pennington and less like Ted Cruz. It’s not a matter of conservatism, at least for any definition of “conservatism” that makes sense, but of nihilism and radicalism. That point was driven home the other day as I read this Trib story about Sen. Tommy Williams, whose retirement announcement caught everyone by surprise. Look at who is being mentioned as a possible successor:

Williams was on the conservative end of the spectrum when he came into the Senate, but the spectrum moved with the elections of senators like Brian Birdwell, Kelly Hancock and [Ken] Paxton. He could be replaced by someone whose politics are more like theirs than his. The line is already forming, sort of: Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, might give up his bid for agriculture commissioner and run for SD-4 instead; Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, is looking; Ben Streusand, a serial Republican candidate who doesn’t hold office, is also considering it.

Tommy Williams is hardly my ideal Senator, but for a guy who represents the district he does, we could do worse. And if the likes of Steve Toth or Ben Streusand get elected, we’ll see just how much worse. Toth has already demonstrated that after his ouster of Rob Eissler. As I said after Sen. Donna Campbell defeated Jeff Wentworth, it’s not about the Senate getting more conservative, it’s about the Senate getting more stupid, and more mean. We’ve seen the effect in Congress. We’re seeing it in the Lege. I for one do not want to see it on City Council.

The prospects for increasing charter schools

According to the Trib, it’s trickier than it might look.

Senate Bill 2, the centerpiece of Patrick’s plans for the session, is the most ambitious attempt to expand the state’s charter school system since it was established in 1995. To succeed, it will have to pass a Legislature that defeated more modest proposals just two years ago.

The graveyard for such measures has typically been the House, whose 150 members represent much smaller districts than the 31 state senators. That means the influence of local power players can override party politics — particularly in rural areas where those players are often school boards and superintendents, two groups that have traditionally had a tense relationship with charters, which are publicly funded but privately operated.

“In Texas, it’s often the interests of rural, the interests of urban, the interests of suburban. In other states, it might be two factions instead of three,” said former state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, a former House Public Education Committee chairman who is now working as a lobbyist. “The Legislature has a strong hand, but that that hand could be tied when you have seemingly similar but different goals.”

It is a dynamic that threatens to materialize again. The chairman of the House’s education committee, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, has said he favors a more limited approach than Patrick’s legislation.

“Senator Patrick and I have had conversations about it, and he knows I’m not comfortable with that large a jump,” Aycock said. “That reflects the nature of the committee, if I am reading the committee right, and I think the House as a whole as well.”

[…]

The legislation has also drawn objections from superintendents and school board members, who argue that in a time of limited resources, charter schools that serve only 3 percent of the public school population should not received additional state funding — and that before looking to expand charters, the state should move to shut down the poor-performing schools.

In 2011, a bill from Patrick that would have increased the charter contracts the state could offer by 10 a year, as well as measures addressing the facilities shortage, were part of a slate of charter school legislation that failed.

But despite past difficulties, there may be room for compromise this time around. Aycock said that he would support a “reasonable” increase in the number of charter school contracts available with proper oversight.

We’ll see what that means. Patrick is supposed to introduce a committee substitute for SB2 today for a hearing on it, so we’ll have a better idea of where this is headed and what its prospects may be then. One thing to note is that even if no bills pass this session, or in the upcoming special session to deal with school finance, don’t count this out for the future. Vouchers were supposed to be dead after Kent Gruesendorf got successfully primaried by Diane Patrick and the Texas ParentPAC, but they have made a zombie-like return this session. Any idea with enough money behind it never truly goes away (*cough* *cough* expanded gambling *cough* *cough*), and the charters have a lot of money behind them.

One more thing:

In the past decade, charter school enrollment has increased steadily to about 155,000 students at about 500 different campuses. After the latest round of approvals in 2012, only six charter contracts remain of the 215 available. An estimated 101,000 students are on waiting lists for the schools, though there are questions about whether that number adequately accounts for students on waiting lists for multiple schools.

I’m glad to see someone question the pedigree of that “hundred thousand student waiting list” statistic, which has been thrown around like a Frisbee at an Ultimate game. As often as I’ve seen that number quoted, I’ve yet to see a source or an explanation for it. Is there an official Charter School Waiting List out there somewhere, or is this just somebody’s best guess? If it’s the latter, whose guess is it and how did he or she arrive at it? This would be a useful topic for some intrepid reporter to investigate.

HCDE hires Eversole to lobby for them

From the Things That Make Me Do A Facepalm department: The HCDE has hired Jerry Eversole as a lobbyist. Yeah, that Jerry Eversole.

Eversole was taciturn in discussing his work Thursday, saying department of education officials approached him. His contract will pay $45,000, plus expenses, between Dec. 1, 2012, and Aug. 31, and calls for him to help raise awareness of the benefits of the department’s programs with local, state and federal officials.

“I have the right to work and make a living,” Eversole said. “And I’ll say that the person who has a problem with me is (County Judge) Ed Emmett. So, if you want comments about what’s wrong with me and about any of my convictions and why I was convicted, he seems to know everything, so you can call him. That’s really all I have to say.”

Emmett, through a spokesman, declined to respond to Eversole’s comments.

The department, which is governed by an elected board of trustees and is not part of Harris County government, also has hired lobbyists and former state representatives Rob Eissler, who was paid $10,125 in December and January, and Stan Schlueter, who was paid $6,125 in January. The department did not produce Eissler and Schlueter’s contracts by deadline.

Department Superintendent John Sawyer is on vacation until March 19 and unavailable for comment, spokeswoman Tammy Lanier said.

Board of trustees President Angie Chesnut said Sawyer was within his authority to make the hires but said she disagrees with the move.

“Had the decision been mine – and I do not speak for the board – I would not have done that,” she said. “And that’s no disrespect to Mr. Eversole. It’s just that I think it creates in the public’s mind a question that doesn’t need to surround HCDE. There most certainly must have been other alternatives.”

Ugh. Look, I have no problem with HCDE hiring someone to speak for their interests, which are currently being threatened. It makes sense to hire someone who knows the players and has a rapport with them. Engaging Rob Eissler was a good move. But geez, if you first reaction to the idea of hiring Jerry Eversole for this was something other than “You’ve got to be kidding”, then I suggest you get out more. Eversole may have the right qualifications – Steve Radack thought his hire was a smart move by HCDE, not that it was going to change his mind about abolishing it – but the optics of it are terrible, as KTRK’s lurid reporting should make clear. I’m sorry, but nothing good can come of this, and John Sawyer needs to have his head examined for even thinking of it. Finally, yes, Jerry, you have a right to earn a living. But that doesn’t mean that all options need to be open to you. Metro is hiring bus drivers – I suggest you look into that opportunity.

TAB yields on testing

Retreat!

Some of the strongest advocates for high-stakes testing, Texas business leaders now want to cut the number of exams students must pass to finish high school, the latest attempt to ease tougher graduation requirements that went into effect last year.

The number of high-stakes tests would fall from 15 to as few as six under the business groups’ plan, and school districts would not have to count the exam scores as part of students’ course grades.

Bill Hammond, who leads the Texas Association of Business, on Wednesday acknowledged that the law mandating the increased testing “quite honestly overdid it a little bit.”

His comments echo concerns that educators and parents have been taking to state lawmakers in recent months. Scores on the first round of tests last spring showed thousands of students were below grade level and were at risk of not graduating.

The business groups’ plan likely will serve as a conversation starter for state lawmakers when they reconvene in January. Education Commissioner Michael Williams, at the urging at Gov. Rick Perry, already has suspended the law requiring exam scores to count in students’ grades.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of debate on all these topics before any decision is reached,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, Texas Education Agency spokeswoman.

The first crack in the wall appeared last week, when Sen. Dan Patrick submitted a bill to give local districts more control over how STAAR results factored into students’ grades, followed by TEA Commissioner Michael Williams suspending the 15% requirement for this year. At the time I noted that we hadn’t heard from TAB about this. Now we know why. Here’s more from the Trib.

Calling their plans a constructive response to widespread criticism of the state’s new student assessments, leaders from the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Institute for Education Reform and the Texas Business Leadership Council recommended letting local school districts determine how end-of-course exams factored into students’ final grades, reducing the number of exams they must pass to graduate and providing different ways to earn a high school diploma.

Despite its high-profile backers, the proposal does not have the full support of the business community. Missing from Wednesday’s conference was the Austin Chamber of Commerce. Senior Vice President Drew Scheberle said the new proposal reduces the already low expectations students must meet to get high school diplomas — something he said would threaten their ability to compete for top-quality jobs.

“It’s trying to solve the wrong problem,” he said. “The problem I’m hearing from parents is too many tests, poor communication, not enough flexibility in courses. You can solve those problems and not sacrifice preparing kids for college and career.”

The leaders present Wednesday acknowledged the announcement represented a change from the position they took at a news conference six months ago, when they emphasized their opposition to any changes to the system that was established by House Bill 3 in 2009. Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond said then that they would “vigorously oppose additional money for the public school system” until they were certain that the current accountability system would be maintained. During the last legislative session, an attempt by outgoing House Public Education chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, to make some of the changes now supported by the three groups failed in the Senate with the opposition of the business community.

But on Wednesday they laid out a plan that Texas Institute for Education Reform Chairman Jim Windham said was the result of a six-month-long “listening tour” across the state where they heard the concerns of educators, business leaders and elected officials.

But not the concerns of parents, apparently. It’s not clear to me if TAB intends to release its hostage – as recently as last month they vowed not to – or if that is contingent on them having final approval over whatever replacement system gets adopted. For now, at least, they have stepped away from the brink.

Cuts are not increases, no matter how you spin it

This is the Chron overview of HD134, which is once again the highest profile legislative race in the county, in part because it’s a referendum on the 2010 election and the cuts to public education funding that resulted from that election.

Ann Johnson

In an area that takes great pride in its schools, [Rep. Sarah Davis] went along with her fellow Republicans and voted for major cuts in education funding.

As a result, District 134 is one of the few House seats believed to be in play. Although Davis has the incumbent’s edge in a Republican-leaning district, the race has become one of the most competitive – and expensive – in the state. Both candidates are spending freely, blanketing the district regularly with mailers.

“We knew there were funding cuts coming down the line for Texas schools,” said Sue Deigaard, a stay-at-home mom, “so, as a community, on a grass-roots level, we organized, we engaged other parents to give Sarah Davis the support as a legislator to say, ‘Hey, as you’re casting your vote on the budget, you have hundreds of parents, 400 petitions, hundreds of letters, phone calls, emails in a district you won by 750 votes.’ ”

Their message, Deigaard said, was “to, basically, give her the support, so that she could vote in a different direction from her party. And, as her record shows, she didn’t do that. So now we have this very motivated base of parents, bipartisan – Republicans and Democrats – who are supporting Ann Johnson.”

Davis, a fiscal conservative who is moderate on social issues, insists that Deigaard and other parents should not have been surprised.

“When I was campaigning, we all, particularly me, were campaigning on a message that we had a $27 billion budget deficit, and we’re going to have to balance the budget,” she said one evening recently. “I am opposed to increasing taxes or finding revenue, and I won, as did a hundred other Republicans, probably campaigning on the exact same message.”

So Davis, who as I have said before is a reliable, down-the-line Republican representative, claims that she campaigned and won on a promise to cut spending in 2010. Which is fine, as far as it goes, except for one small thing: She is now running away from those cuts that she made as fast as she can. Patti Hart calls Davis out for a blatantly dishonest campaign mailer that tries to claim she didn’t do what she actually did.

I called [Scott] McCown to get his reaction after seeing Republican Houston Rep. Sarah Davis’ latest campaign mailer, which claims that her Democratic challenger, attorney Ann Johnson, is spreading fiction in her assertion that Texas Republicans cut $5.4 billion from public education last year. On the cover, Davis invokes the dictionary, sharing this definition of fiction: “A belief or statement that is false, but that is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so.”

To back up her allegation that school budget cuts are a figment of Johnson’s imagination, Davis then asserts that Texas lawmakers actually added $1 billion to our schools. Johnson’s math, she tells us, includes “President Obama’s one-time stimulus money, that simply wasn’t available the following year.”

The mailer goes on to assert, with great umbrage: “So Johnson is blaming Republicans in Austin for what a Democratic President did in Washington. This happens all the time: liberals in Washington throw a bunch of money at programs, and then in later years leave the state to find the money to keep them going.”

In a campaign season full of tall tales, this may be the whopper that tops them all. State lawmakers in 2009 used $3.6 billion in federal stimulus money instead of state dollars to fund public education – essentially supplanting federal support for state support. In 2011, the Legislature added back only $1.6 billion in state money to replace the federal dollars.

To claim that the Legislature “increased” funding to public ed is, as I wrote when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst made this claim, to have giant amnesia about the stimulus.

Now, Davis is using the state’s 2009 contribution to education as a baseline for comparison to state funding in 2011, and blaming Obama that the dollars fall short. It’s as if Davis is saying, two meals a day is more than what those kids were getting before Uncle Sam stepped in!

This outrageous claim – that Republicans didn’t cut public education funding – has been rated “Pants on Fire” by the newspaper fact-checking service, Politifact, on several occasions this year.

And Politifact’s researchers didn’t rely on the opinions of Democrats, noting that during the legislative session, Senate Education Chairman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said: “Nobody wants cuts. But we have to have them.” And House Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, predicted the cuts would amount to 4 percent to 5 percent, which he characterized as “not that big a cut.”

The writers’ conclusion: “So, lawmakers ultimately cut public school aid, with key leaders even acknowledging so as those decisions were sealed. To tell constituents otherwise is not only inaccurate, it’s misleading and ridiculous. Pants on Fire!”

Even Hart is understating how egregious this is, because Davis and her fellow Republicans all voted for the House budget that cut $10 billion from public education. It was the Senate’s refusal to accept that budget, and to restore half of the cuts made by the House, that left us with the $5.4 billion in cuts that we got. Try to square that with a claim that Davis “increased” funding to public education.

Maybe none of this will matter. It’s still a Republican-leaning district. Johnson may well not be able to convince enough people what happened and what they need to do about it now. Maybe that day of reckoning isn’t here yet, though if it hasn’t come by the 2014 elections I don’t know when it ever will. Be that as it may, I’m happy to have any campaign be waged on these terms. The more that candidates an officeholders run away from the idea of cutting education funding, the better.

STAAR pushback

The House Public Ed committee gets an earful.

Members of the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday questioned why the first batch of students who took the end-of-course exams scored so poorly. For example, 55 percent of ninth-graders met the minimum passing standard on the English writing test, and only 3 percent hit the college readiness standard that will be required in 2016.

“Is it a function of the instrument? That’s one answer. Is it a function of student attainment? That’s a different answer,” said state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin.

They got few answers. State education officials said there is not enough data to draw conclusions with only one administration of the test.

[…]

Superintendents from across the state testified that the number of high school dropouts could skyrocket in the coming years because almost three-quarters of the students who failed the exams this spring were already considered at risk of dropping out.

In order to graduate, high school students must achieve an average passing score in the four core subject areas: math, English, science and social studies. Students who have failed two or three exams might give up because they will lose hope that they can catch up, said Amarillo Superintendent Rod Schroder, who testified at the hearing.

Manor Superintendent Andrew Kim, who also testified, said he supported the increased rigor of the end-of-course exams. But he said the state needs to help districts help students who struggled on the tougher test by allowing districts to start school earlier in the year and providing greater aid for students with limited English skills.

Only 8 percent of the ninth-graders with limited English skills met the minimum standard on the writing test, even with some accommodations. Educators asked legislators to give those students an extra year to get up to speed and offer the tests in the student’s native language.

Schroder drew applause from the audience when he called for eliminating a mandate that the end-of-course exam score count for 15 percent of a student’s final grade.

The Trib has more on this.

The 15 percent rule was designed to create “skin in the game” for students taking the exams, said Amarillo ISD Superintendent Rod Schroder and Aldine ISD Superintendent Wanda Bamberg. But students already have two other incentives to perform well, they said — the cumulative exam score they need to graduate and the minimum scores needed to pass each test.

The committee also heard testimony from TEA officials, who addressed difficulties in timing STAAR exams. Currently, exams are administered about a month before school ends, so teachers have not yet covered all course material.

If exams are administered later, schools will not have time to see the results before starting summer school for students who must retake tests, said Gloria Zyskowski, the agency’s director of its Student Assessment Division. In turn, summer school cannot be pushed back because that would interfere with the start of the next school year.

Given this year’s timeline for exam return, there is no way to resolve the timeline of the statewide exam so that it covers the entire course, said Tyler ISD Superintendent Randy Reid.

“I don’t see any solution to them getting the scores back in a timely manner,” Reid said.

Any new system is going to have some bugs to work out, but the issues here are pretty fundamental. I get the desire for more rigor, but it really sends a message that the push for higher standards comes at the same time as a $5.4 billion cut to the budget. The students that will have the greatest difficulty with the STAAR or any other accountability measure are exactly those who have the greatest needs. Jay Aiyer takes a closer look at the test scores and what they mean.

First and foremost, it is critical to understand what the test results actually say. If final standards scheduled to take effect in 2016 were used today, only 41 percent of students in biology, 39 percent in algebra 1, 40 percent in world geography, 46 percent in reading and 34 percent in writing would have passed. Based on this data, we can logically conclude that nearly 60 percent of high school students lack mastery of the tested subject at a level consistent with a student who is college-bound. If we analyze the data further, we see that students in affluent districts and students in admissions-based magnet programs far outperformed students in schools with large, economically disadvantaged populations. Unfortunately, this is consistent with a multiyear trend that strongly correlates family income with student performance.

This is true in Texas, across the country and around the world.

In fact, the Houston Independent School District, with a student population that is more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged, actually outperformed the state and many suburban districts, when the data are adjusted by income.

It is also important to note that the nearly 60 percent passage rate roughly corresponds to the percentage of students currently enrolled in remedial education classes at two and four-year colleges in our state. What STAAR results seem to have identified are students who are not on pace to graduate ready for college.

If we recognize that STAAR is simply a reflection of the underlying problems in public education, much of which is caused by economic factors that are outside the schoolhouse, what do we do?

Remediation can only do so much if you ignore the underlying issues, which is what we have always done and will keep doing, with even greater vigor these days. Meanwhile, the schools that are being told to do more with less now have to spend a bunch of money they don’t have on remediation. Don’t expect anything to be different next year.

Politicians come and go, but campaign cash is forever

It seems that way, anyway. With the defeat of several incumbents in last week’s primaries, there’s a lot more unneeded campaign war chests lying around.

Millions in unspent contributions have long lurked in former state lawmakers’ campaign bank accounts, often sitting idle until the cash eventually works its way back into the political system. There are several ways to legally get rid of the extra money, but in many cases, the former lawmakers use it to expand their spheres of influence.

Now about $1 million more in unspent cash could soon be added to the total with the primary election losses last week of Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands; Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller; and other members of the Texas Legislature.

When lawmakers return to being private citizens — whether it’s their decision or voters’ — they have a few options for dealing with leftover campaign cash. They may donate it to charity, nonprofit organizations, political parties, other candidates, political action committees, universities or the state treasury. They may also return the money to their contributors or hold on to it for a future run for office.

But one thing is for sure: They are barred from using the donations for personal spending.

Steve Wolens

Eissler and Truitt each said it’s a little too early to know what they will do with their excess campaign cash, which recently amounted to about $650,000 and $240,000, respectively, according to filings with the Texas Ethics Commission.

[…]

Steven Wolens, a former House member and husband of former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, isn’t a lobbyist, but he is another example of a former lawmaker with more than $1 million on hand.

Wolens, a lawyer and Democrat from Dallas, said he might use his $1.2 million in another run for public office, if and when the time is right.

Wolens, as I have noted before, last ran for office in 2002. I don’t know what other offices he might be thinking about running for – his website is still living in the past – I just know that he’s not rushing into anything. Former Congressman Jim Turner, who also last ran for something in 2002, also has a million bucks in the bank for reasons known only to him. Sure would be nice if some of that money found its way to people who were actually running for something, wouldn’t it? Anyway, Reps. Eissler and Truitt, take all the time you need. That cash isn’t going anywhere without you.

Shapiro backs STAAR delay

This was unexpected.

Sen. Florence Shapiro

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said Monday in a letter to [TEA Commissioner Robert] Scott that ninth-graders taking the exams this year should be given a reprieve from the 15 percent requirement during the phase-in of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

“We strongly support the transition to end-of-course assessments as crucial to enhancing the college readiness of our students. We support the waiver of the course grade requirement solely as a transition to the new testing and accountability system,” wrote Shapiro, one of the architects of the new accountability system. The letter was signed by three other senators involved in the legislation.

The end-of-course exams will still apply toward ninth-graders’ graduation requirements. Most students must take a total of 12 end-of-course exams in four core subjects: English, math, science and social studies.

Parents and school administrators have been clamoring for relief from the 15 percent requirement. They worry that the new exams could harm a student’s grade-point average and class rank, which could affect whether the student automatically qualifies for admission to state universities.

[…]

Last year, the Texas House overwhelmingly passed a measure that addressed some of the anxieties that have been springing up across the state this year as parents and students have begun to grasp the implications of the test. The bill died because Shapiro never brought it up for consideration in her Senate committee.

The whole point of that ill-fated legislation, House Bill 500, was to “give the kids the same transition that school districts had without easing the rigor or accountability,” said House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

See here, here, and here for background on the legislative process. Shapiro had been critical of Scott after he gave a speech that said that the state testing system has become a “perversion of its original intent” and that he was looking forward to “reeling it back in.” In the grand scheme of things this doesn’t amount to that much – the test will go on, despite other concerns regarding funding and the possibly deleterious effect of even more high stakes tests on high school graduation rates – but it would be a relief to this year’s batch on ninth graders and their parents if Scott goes along with it. With Rep. Eissler voicing his support as well, it looks likely to happen.

UPDATE: Commissioner Scott has authorized the delay.

More classrooms with more kids

We all knew this was coming, but the numbers are more than I expected.

Thousands of Texas public schoolchildren are in more crowded classes this year as districts claim financial hardship following state budget cuts.

The number of elementary school classrooms exceeding the state’s class size cap has more than doubled since last year.

[…]

Districts faced unprecedented budget cuts this year, with state lawmakers allocating $2 billion less than schools historically would have received.

The number of waivers sought by Houston-area districts has grown dramatically.

For example, the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District reports that it has exceeded the size limit this fall in 15 percent of its elementary classes. But it has capped the classes at 25 students, said Cy-Fair ISD’s general counsel, Marney Collins Sims. The district is requesting 294 waivers, up from nine last year.

Fort Bend ISD’s waivers skyrocketed to 238, with classes generally at 24 students. Last year the district had 22 waivers.

“Due to the reduction by the state in our budget, we could not hire teachers to the same degree we did last year,” said Fort Bend ISD Assistant Superintendent Marc Smith.

Houston ISD, the largest district in the state, typically has the most waivers, and the number jumped to 1,048 classrooms exceeding the cap this fall – up from 693 last year. Roughly a quarter of the district’s elementary classes top the limit this year.

Expect even more next year, when deeper cuts kick in. If you think this was a poor decision by the Legislature, you’d better be prepared to express that disapproval at the ballot box.

Rob Eissler, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said he suspects that most of the classes are increasing by only one or two students, so he’s not worried.

“The key is, let’s see what the results are,” Eissler said, noting that he wants to see student test data after this year.

Let’s make a deal, shall we? I will agree to wait and see what the data says, as long as those who are responsible for these cuts agree to undo them if it turns out that the data says there was a negative effect. No excuses, no waffling, no finger-pointing, no scapegoating, no extensions. If scores go down, funding goes up, and if Dan Patrick’s property taxes have to go up to pay for it, then so be it. What do you say?

Higher standards mean lower ratings

Schools across the state have seen their academic ratings drop as a result of changes made in how the Texas Education Agency computes them.

The new accountability ratings released Friday for public school campuses in the state’s 1,228 districts and charter schools present a “far more accurate look” at academic performance, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott said.

They are also markedly lower — with far fewer schools achieving the highest ratings than last year. Instead, most schools fall in the middle “acceptable” category.

Many districts find themselves with lower ratings even though their student achievement has remained the same. That’s because the formula used to calculate the ratings, based primarily on students’ standardized test scores, no longer includes a mechanism called the Texas Projection Measure. The TPM gauged students’ future test scores based on a campus-wide average instead of using their actual test scores and had the effect of giving schools credit for students passing when they hadn’t.

In April, Scott announced he would discontinue the measure after state lawmakers took a unanimous vote against it during debate on a testing bill.

The Chron gives the local picture.

In the Houston Independent School District, the “unacceptable” campuses more than tripled to 25 — or 9 percent of its rated schools.

Statewide, about 7 percent of schools netted the lowest rating this year. The unacceptable list grew from 104 schools to 569.

[…]

The ratings, from best to worst, are exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, honored last year as the state’s largest “recognized” district, dropped to “acceptable.” HISD, the biggest district, also was “acceptable.”

Among the area’s other large districts, Katy, Pasadena, Conroe, Alief, Klein, Clear Creek, Humble, Lamar Consolidated, Galena Park and Pearland earned “recognized” status.

You can see ratings for all HISD schools here, and for all school districts in Texas here. It is important to remember that last year’s ratings were basically bogus. If you do keep that in mind, HISD actually showed some improvement.

The news that Houston ISD’s number of exemplary schools dropped from 101 in 2010 to 59 in 2011, according to the Texas Education Agency’s figures just released at 1 p.m. today, could only add more fuel to the fire of critics who are certain Superintendent Terry Grier is destroying HISD.

Except that if the now discarded and discredited Texas Projection Measure (a method of giving extra points to schools by predicting that certain kids who failed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills actually would pass in the next year) was removed from last year’s results, and other new “accountability measures” were factored in, according to HISD, then in 2010 there were 46 HISD schools that were really exemplary.

Which would make this year — at least in the exemplary category — an improvement. And Terry Grier a hero (or at least not a complete goat)?

Elsewhere in the annual ratings, the number of HISD’s academically recognized schools in 2011 was 106 (107 last year with the TPM), and academically acceptable increased to 79 (from 49 with TPM).

The number of academically unacceptable schools soared to 21 from last year’s 7 — but HISD’s recalculation last year’s effort says it would have been 23 — so hey, put another one in the win column.

In addition to the dropping of TPM, there were other ways in which the accountability system was made more difficult. Special ed kids were counted for the first time, and the standards for kids with limited English proficiency and math scores were raised. And before you get too used to this new/old way of scoring things, get ready for them to change again.

This is the last year for the TAKS testing program, which began in 2003. Schools will get a one-year reprieve from ratings as students take the new exams, expected to be more challenging.

Test scores traditionally rise over the years as teachers and students get used to the format of an exam. Statewide, at least 90 percent of students passed the TAKS in reading, writing and social studies this year. At least 80 percent passed in math and science.

HISD saw its scores remain mostly flat this year. The district’s passing rate in math rose two points to 83 percent, while writing dropped two points to 91 percent.

“Schools have a pretty good routine based on the TAKS,” said state Rep. Rob Eissler, a Republican from The Woodlands who chairs the House Public Education Committee. “It will change when we get to the (new) end-of-course exams and the STAAR tests.”

The forthcoming STAAR standard is already causing a lot of anxiety in school districts. The good news for Houston teachers is that they will be cut some slack in their evaluations.

​In a startling reversal of previous statements and his own avowed philosophies, Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier today released a statement that he will recommend to the school board that teachers not be evaluated by their students’ test scores this next school year.

It was only in May that trustees — urged on by Grier — voted 7-2 (Carol Galloway and Juliet Stipeche dissenting) to include student test scores in the formal list of criteria used to evaluate a teacher’s performance.

The May vote came after several months of entreaty from HISD teachers who argued that it would be especially inappropriate this coming year to judge teachers on their students’ test scores given that the state was introducing a new standardized test system that is replacing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. (Historically, student test scores drop after a new test is adopted.)

But Grier and his administration had remained adamant that it was inconceivable that the district have this information — student test scores — and not use it to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom. They have repeatedly said that teachers are the most crucial element in whether a child succeeds or fails in school.

It is difficult to understand what new information became available in the two months since May that would change Grier’s position on this. In his statement, he references “feedback we’ve heard this summer from teachers about taking on these challenges,” but he certainly heard plenty of this feedback before school was out.

Better late than never. How did your school do?

Eissler changes class size bill

Hair Balls was first with the news.

Rep. Rob Eissler (R- The Woodlands) whose House Bill 18 wanted to move the state to a cap of 25 students in each classroom, [Friday] instead made a floor substitution which only mildly tweaked the present classroom size regulations calling for a cap of 22 students in grades K through 4. This had to be good news for State Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), who has argued continually that upping the class size was a bad move for the state and its children.

And districts would still have to notify parents of children whose rooms exceed the 22 cap.

Superintendents have always been able to apply for waivers if they can successfully argue that holding students to the 22 cap “works an undue hardship on the district.” Eissler’s bill would have removed even that requirement. Instead, districts will still be required to prove why they should be granted a waiver.

In addition, the proposed new language now allows a waiver if the Texas Education Commissioner “determines that as a result of a reduction in state funding levels, the amount of state and local funds per weighted student available to the district is less than the amount…available to the district in the preceding year.”

Or in other words, if the district can mathematically prove a financial hardship. Any such waiver granted would expire at the end of the school year for which it is granted.

Teacher groups, who have fought the Eissler legislation from the beginning, have reacted favorably to the change. Add this to the Howard-Farrar amendment that will make available Rainy Day fund monies if possible, and I hope Democrats have adequately answered the question why they bothered to fight for their constituents and their convictions instead of folding like a beach chair.

Republicans admit that the Rainy Day fund has been spent

I’m sure you’ve heard Rick Perry and other Republicans talk about how they’ve “balanced” the budget without tapping into the Rainy Day fund. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear that they’re lying.

Republicans have given up any pretense that they’re saving the remaining $6.5 billion rainy day fund for some unknown rainier day.

House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, spoke against a Democratic effort to use $4 billion from the rainy day fund for public schools in the 2012-13 budget by saying that money “technically doesn’t exist.”

“The funds aren’t available,” Eissler said, echoing a point that has been openly acknowledged by other Republicans during this special legislative session. They were a little forthcoming during the regular session.

Almost $5 billion of that fund will be needed to cover the tab for Medicaid in the 2012-13 budget. But legislators won’t pay that bill until they return in 2013.

We already knew this, but it bears repeating, and it’s good to see more of them being forced to acknowledge it. The budget they’ve passed is a sham that passes several billion bucks on to the next Legislature. Anyone who tells you otherwise is at best misinformed.

The “Democratic effort” is, I presume, referring to a press release (which you can see here) by Sens. Rodney Ellis, Wendy Davis, and Eddie Lucio that announces legislation they filed to close various tax loopholes and use the Rainy Day fund to restore the $4 billion in funding that had been cut from public education. EoW has a summary of their proposals. The good news is that by flushing the Republicans out on this, Democrats were able to do something about it.

Democrats scored a minor victory Thursday when House members voted to spend any growth in the state’s rainy day fund over the next two years on student enrollment increases in public schools. An amendment offered by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, would require that any growth in the rainy day fund above the $6.5 billion that is projected to be in the fund at the end of the next two-year budget cycle will go to schools to pay for additional students. The amendment, adopted on a voice vote, was part of a state fiscal matters bills that was tentatively approved on Thursday.

[…]

Howard conceded that Republicans have blocked access to the projected $6.5 billion in the fund, but asked them to compromise and take any monies above that amount to cover enrollment gains in schools over the next two years. She estimated that enrollment increases of 70,000 to 80,000 students per year will cost school districts an extra $2.2 billion – and that would be the maximum that could be taken for education under her proposal. Republicans were generally supportive of the idea and the amendment was easily approved. It was unclear, however, whether the Senate would support the idea.

Assuming it survives the Senate, that still may amount to nothing, but you take your victories where you can. Trail Blazers and PoliTex have more. A statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman is beneath the fold.

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Back to school finance

The Lege has started the process of picking up where it left off on school finance. The Trib reminds us how we got here.

[T]he earlier failure of SB 1581, which put a behind-closed-doors conference committee in charge of any decisions about how to distribute $4 billion in cuts in state funding across school districts, was a dramatic warning of just how much further lawmakers had to go to find consensus on what they repeatedly called the “second most important bill” of the session. As lawmakers again tackle the issue in the special session the governor called on Tuesday, it is worth revisiting the demise of SB 1581.

Passing a new school finance plan, said veteran education consultant Lynn Moak, often depends on selling lawmakers on what changing formulas will mean for their districts. That can lead to a situation, he said, where “we’re really passing a printout and having to translate it back into a school finance bill.” Difficult under normal circumstances, that becomes infinitely more challenging when the state is coming up $4 billion short in funding for public education.

“Nobody has ever done this before. Nobody has ever had the kind of massive cuts to deal with,” he said, adding, “The Legislature really did not spend any time prior to January trying to work out a game plan, and wrote one as they went along, and it showed.”

Before the conference committee were three options to chose from: separate proposals from Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, that enacted cuts relative to a districts’ wealth, and a proposal from Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, that chopped districts the same across the board. Each, though, contained a numbers game nobody really wanted to play.

The simplicity of Eissler’s approach — which was originally a last-minute amendment to SB 1581 — gave it a political advantage among House members. In a scenario with no real winners, lawmakers newly unsettled by the stark realization of what the gaping reduction meant for schools in their districts realized they wouldn’t have to return to their superintendents and explain why they voted for deeper cuts for some and not others.

That still wasn’t enough for the House to coalesce around Eissler’s plan in time to pass it as a part of SB 1581. As the bill was debated on the House floor, “there was no single bloc of votes for anything,” said David Anderson, an education lobbyist for the Austin-based HillCo Partners, a government consulting firm, who described a “meltdown” that night between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. as members began taking a hard look at projections of the cuts for their districts.

[Rep. Jimmie Don] Aycock and Eissler both said that until shortly before then, members had been concerned with what the budget cuts were going to look like across the state, and hadn’t had an opportunity to consider the impact on their individual districts.

“People were so focused on the cuts that only those few geeks of us who wade around in school finance even saw it coming,” Aycock said, adding, “It was only late in the session when we figured out the number, and then the question became how do we divvy it up.”

In other words, these yahoos voted to cut billions of dollars from the state public education budget without having any idea what the effect would be on their own school districts. And remember, the House initially voted to cut $8 billion from public ed, which is double the amount that wound up getting cut. If they’re blanching at what that means, imagine what they’d be thinking if the House budget had been adopted as it was. The mind boggles.

Meanwhile, of course, more than enough money is in the Rainy Day fund to cover this shortfall. It still wouldn’t account for growth and other higher expenses, but it would moot this current exercise. More seriously, the legislation that’s being considered, which the Democrats fought tooth and nail against, would not just distribute cuts for this biennium but would mean permanently lower allocations for public schools.

For about 60 years, Texas lawmakers have afforded public education a special status in terms of state funding.

Written into law is a guarantee that schools would get enough money to provide a basic, foundational education for each student. That obligation has dictated what the state has put into the Foundation School Program to cover growing enrollment and a changing student population.

But the school finance plan now under consideration by legislators wipes that guarantee out and makes future appropriations dependent upon how much money is available rather than how much is needed.

“The commitment to fund current law would cease to exist as a legal commitment,” said Lynn Moak, a school finance expert and consultant. “Public education has lost its special status.”

[…]

On Sunday, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, highlighted the shift in Texas’ future obligation to schools during an exchange on the House floor with Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, one of the House negotiators on the compromise.

Eissler had already acknowledged that the change would mean that school districts would no longer be legally entitled to a certain amount of state aid.

Hochberg asked him if that change would allow the state to routinely short school districts.

“That would allow us to,” Eissler said, “but I don’t see that happening.”

“This is not a good year to make that argument, Mr. Chairman,” Hochberg responded.

Anyone who thinks that we can simply take the Lege’s word for it that they wouldn’t use their new authority to short school districts to actually short school districts needs to pay attention to Dan Patrick:

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said the school finance change “is a true cut in an entitlement” and an essential cut at that.

“There are no guarantees, and for a Legislature to say we can guarantee this forever is not being straightforward to the people,” said Patrick, who was deeply involved in the Senate’s school funding discussions.

[…]

But in the future, a specific vote to change the law would not be necessary. Lawmakers would simply put less into the budget than the funding formulas call for, as is the common practice for higher education funding.

“That is a very, very big change in the way that we do funding for the schools,” Hochberg said.

Patrick agreed that it is a significant change to how the state has done its business.

“I think it’s a change that is needed as we move forward. We need to have real cuts,” Patrick said.

So at a time when Texas has a population that is much younger than the national average, which is a key driver of the state’s population growth, Dan Patrick thinks we need to cut education funding, not just now but forever. If you think that maybe isn’t such a hot idea, you need to vote that way in 2012.

House gavels in and out

That was quick.

The House gaveled in shortly after 10 a.m. today and adjourned about 10 minutes later after Speaker Joe Straus announced that he’ll have a better idea about the special session’s schedule when the body reconvenes at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

So far, only one bill has been filed in the House, and Straus said House and Senate leaders will be meeting to coordinate which bills will taken up first in the individual bodies.

“It will be more apparent tomorrow what our schedule is,” Straus said.

Several other bills have been filed in the Senate, including SB8, the health care compact bill that will likely be more sound and fury than anything else. Three bills are scheduled for committee hearings on Thursday.

A school district mandate relief bill is among the select few so far that will be considered during the special legislative session.

No text is available yet so it’s not clear which approach will carry the day: the limited and temporary Senate version, which did not include lifting the cap on class sizes; or far-reaching and permanent as House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, has preferred.

Neither cleared its respective chamber, though the Senate proposal seemed to have some legs if it could have made it to the floor. The Democrats blocked it but that will not be an option this time around.

Another education bill, formerly known as House Bill 6, is also back. That one, which became a bit of an education free-for-all, didn’t get out of the House before the midnight deadline on Sunday.

Last but certainly not least is the school finance measure, which is still nestled among the budget-related tome that is the real reason we’ve all returned, now called Senate Bill 1. That bill frees up the revenue, mostly by deferring a school payment into the next budget, to pay for the $172 billion two-year budget.

Robert Miller thinks the filibuster by Sen. Wendy Davis at the end of the session was a strategic mistake on the grounds that the Republicans plan to pass their school-related bills before any further opposition can get organized. However, the House doesn’t expect to see any action till next week, which doesn’t sound particularly quick to me. We’ll see how it goes.

Davis filibusters SB1811, special session looms for tomorrow

Hoo boy.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filibustered for a little more than an hour Sunday night, probably killing a school finance and revenue bill critical to the budget (it’s still possible for a four-fifths supermajority of the Senate to pull it up for a vote today). And the House hit a midnight deadline without approving three major pieces of legislation — including one that’s designed to corral Medicaid costs and help balance the state budget.

Gov. Rick Perry had promised earlier in the day to call lawmakers back on Tuesday if the budget bills weren’t all approved. The regular session ends today, and it looks like the first special session will begin as early as tomorrow morning.

Even without an unfinished 2012-13 budget to bring them back, Gov. Perry had already set the table for a special legislative this summer.

• The governor, tort reformers, trial lawyers and lawmakers in the House and Senate couldn’t put together a fix to the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association in the 140-day legislative session, and Perry promised that if they didn’t get it done he’d call them back to Austin in July to finish up.

When they hit the deadline at midnight Saturday, they didn’t have anything except for the governor’s promise that they’ll be back.

• Lawmakers completed their work on new political maps for the State Board of Education and for the Legislature itself, but never even presented or held hearings on maps for congressional redistricting. Perry’s aides indicated for weeks that their boss would be unlikely to call lawmakers back for that purpose alone. Then, in the last days of the session, the governor told reporters he’d be willing to call a special session on congressional maps if House and Senate leaders can show him they’ve got enough votes to make it a quick deal.

Whether or not the governor is thinking about a presidential race, the memory of Senate Democrats running off to Albuquerque — as they did in the 2003 redistricting fight — has to make him wary of a session on that all by itself.

• Then there is the sanctuary cities legislation, one of six items the governor put on a list of legislative “emergencies” to speed consideration by the House and the Senate. That one didn’t make it out, and a special session could give him another shot at it.

On Sunday, they added to their troubles when the midnight bell tolled before the House had approved three bills that created interstate health compacts, contained Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s health reforms, provided funding for textbooks, and addressed efficiency in the Medicaid program. That last bill is one of several considered critical to the budget.

If the past is any guide, a special session that starts with one topic often picks up others along the way, and Perry could add other issues — new ones or things left undone during the regular session, small issues or large ones — as he goes along. Lawmakers will likely start with the budget bills on Tuesday, and if they can come up with negotiated solutions on others — redistricting, for instance — Perry might add those to the agenda.

When I went to bed last night, the failure to pass a windstorm bill was the only known reason for a special session, and it was unlikely to be immediate. This changes everything. Postcards notes that SB1811 almost went off the rails even before it got back to the Senate.

In the House, the leadership initially sought to wipe out the midnight deadline so Democrats couldn’t use it as a weapon; the bill was not eligible to be considered until 10 p.m., leaving a narrow window for action on such a large bill.

Instead, the Republicans waived the rules so they could bring SB 1811 up earlier, but only after House Speaker Joe Straus cast a rare vote.

Iconoclast David Simpson, R-Longview, joined the Democrats in opposition.

So the House proceeded in the early evening with its discussion of the mammoth, 393-page bill, primarily focusing on the school finance component.

The state will reduce by $4 billion the amount that it owes school districts under current law. The school finance provision in SB 1811 apportions that reduction among school districts.

“This proposal reflects the decisions of this body in House Bill 1,” said House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, referring to the budget bill.

That school finance provision, which was grafted onto the bill at the tail end of the session, apportions a $4 billion reduction in state aid among the school districts. Democrats objected that the school finance proposal was thrown together without input from the public or rank-and-file members.

“Now we’re being told we better the heck pass it or we’ll be in a special session, so close your eyes and hold your nose and vote for it,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston.

But Hochberg said there is little understanding about what exactly is in the compromise proposal.

The printouts that detail how each district is affected by the reduction were not delivered to House members until Saturday afternoon, and the bill language itself was not available online until Sunday morning.

“We’re making a very big change here without any discussion,” Hochberg said. “We never brought a school finance bill to the floor this session. Never.”

That’s the key point here: SB1811 was being brought up for a vote at the very last minute because it wasn’t finalized until then. Everyone was being asked to vote on something they surely hadn’t read or understood. You’d think that would be a concern for more of them, but the Republicans in the House have dutifully followed orders from above from the beginning, so why should this be any different? During closing remarks – did we mention that debate was limited on this bill and amendments were prohibited? – Democrats expanded on their objections to it.

Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said that the proposal would codify the existing funding inequity into the system. He read a list of the spreads in funding in per student spending between the richer school districts and the poorer districts in various Senatorial districts — pointing out that the difference can be as much as several thousand dollars between the districts.

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Dallas, was just as critical of the proposal.

“Today, what you’re voting for is Edgewood Foor,” he said and compared the decision not to touch the Rainy Day Fund to what would happen if a parent was late on child support. He said that any judge would laugh that parent out of court if they claimed they couldn’t meet their child support payment because they were preserving their savings account just in case things got worse.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said that the proposal would shortchange school funding by allowing the state to discount the ‘settle up’ expenses that the state owes the state.

“We’re making a very, very big change without any discussion,” said Hochberg. He warned that the proposal could drastically alter how programs for the gifted and talented and for shop programs are calculated in school finance.

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, complained bitterly that the bill had only been available for reading for less than 24 hours and that the “lack of transparency” was a violation of conservative principles.

“This bill is full of the accounting tricks and chicanery that your voters said they were tired of,” said Strama.

Yeah, somehow I don’t think they really care all that much. They’ll get outraged over Sen. Davis’ filibuster for whatever reason is convenient, and it will go from there. I can’t say I’m thrilled about legislative overtime, but I salute Sen. Davis for standing up and refusing to go along to get along. A statement from Se. Jose Rodriguez in support of Sen. Davis is beneath the fold.

UPDATE: Rick Perry – Rick Perry! – just accused Sen. Davis of being a “show horse”. This is like Charlie Sheen accusing someone of being an unstable egotist.

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Vote on school finance today

On Friday night, the Lege finally reached an agreement on school finance, which is to say on how to distribute the $4 billion in cuts to public education to the school districts. Today the Lege gets to vote on that deal.

House leaders wanted a two-year plan cutting school funding across the board by about 6 percent.

The Senate insisted lawmakers address the controversial “target revenue” system that has created disparities in school district funding. The compromise will use across-the-board cuts for the coming school year before turning to the Senate’s version for the 2012-13 school year.

“We believe it’s the best way to distribute those dollars out to our communities,” Shapiro said.

The deal has been called part Eissler and part Shapiro, which is to say part of HB400 and part of SB22.

Preliminary numbers indicate that Houston ISD will lose about $84 million the first year and an estimated $119 million in the second year — or cuts of roughly $328 per student in the first year followed by $490 the second year. Those numbers are based on earlier printouts that should be fairly close when the newest district-by-district impact figures come out, Shapiro said.

Based on the preliminary details, HISD faces a smaller cut next year than district officials had projected, but they expressed concern about deeper cuts the following year.

Hair Balls noted on Thursday that the HISD Board of Trustees was cautiously optimistic that their remaining shortfall would end up being less than they had originally planned for.

Although leaders reached an agreement on school funding, individual lawmakers will have to assess the impact of the funding cuts on the school districts they represent before ratifying the plan. Most if not all 49 House Democrats are expected to oppose the plan to cut funding to public education — especially when use of the state’s rainy day fund could have avoided those cuts.

“It’s unbelievable that we would lay off teachers, increase class sizes, cut Pre-K programs and hurt our schools across the board while there is more than enough money sitting in the rainy day fund to avoid the cuts completely,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston.

Without Democrats, House Republicans would need 76 of their 101 members to support the agreement. Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, one of the House negotiators, said, “I think we can sell this.”

I hope you can, too. I can’t wait for the 2012 campaigns to start noting that this Republican or that voted to cut billions of dollars from public schools. Remember, the House and every Republican in it originally voted to cut $8 billion from public education, so whatever cuts they end up approving for their own schools, they were prepared to approve cuts twice as big. Oh, yeah, I’m ready for this to quit being a legislative issue and start being a campaign issue. Have fun voting on your cuts, Republicans. School Zone and EoW have more.

Still no school finance plan

Tonight’s the night for something to happen if it’s going to, because legislatively speaking there is no tomorrow.

The 2012-13 state budget agreed to by House and Senate negotiators provides school districts $4 billion less than what they are owed under current law. Three proposals for how to spread that pain among school districts were floating around, each with varying impacts on the districts and the state.

There was little certainty going into the scheduled late-night debate about what the House would consider when Senate Bill 1581 finally came to the floor. Nearly 70 proposed amendments had been filed for the bill.

Shortly after 10 p.m., the bill was toppled on a procedural error and never came up for debate.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said earlier Monday that a consensus had not yet developed around any of the three proposals, and he postponed action until Monday night to allow talks to continue.

[…]

Without House action, the remaining option is for the conference committee members who are negotiating another budget-related measure, Senate Bill 1811, to figure out a plan.

If no change is made, schools would be funded according to current law, and the state would run out of money for public education in early 2013.

At which point the Lege would be forced to use Rainy Day funds to make up the balance. Why they’re not simply doing that now remains a mystery. What will be the excuses to not use it in 2013, one wonders? Or will they simply re-adopt the strategy of this session and push more expenses into the next biennium for the subsequent Lege to deal with?

Credit goes to Rep. Yvonne Davis of Dallas for the point of order that halted SB1581. Last night’s events were good news in another way.

SB 1581 was also a prospective life raft for a number of other thorny education measures — like Eissler’s proposal to lift the class size limit and Rep. Sid Miller’s school voucher program. Eissler said he was investigating the possibility of attaching HB 400, his mandate relief package, to a bill — possibly SB 1811 — in conference committee.

As always, nothing is truly dead until sine die, and there is always the possibility of a special session if things are truly screwed up enough. But the more paths that get foreclosed, the harder it is for this stuff to happen, and at this point that’s all you can hope for. Texas Politics has more.

Great moments in understatement

State Rep. Rob Eissler, the author of the repeatedly postponed HB400, the bill that distributes the $7.8 billion in public education cuts to individual school districts, says what may be my favorite thing this session:

Lawmakers who philosophically endorse reduced spending can balk at what that means practically: teachers losing jobs, getting paid less and managing larger classes. “There’s an ugliness to a lower-funded environment that people don’t like to face,” Eissler said.

Ya think? As always, the idea is that budget cuts are great as long as they only affect other people. The hypocrisy of people who fervently supported budget cuts for thee but not for me used to outrage me but now it mostly amuses me.

Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, said “there’s a tension” in his party about how to handle mandate relief. He led the charge against HB 400 from the right with an amendment that would have made any measures temporary, kept the class-size ratio intact and applied salary reductions and furloughs to administrators as well as to teachers.

“Those of us who represent districts that are smaller, it’s different than maybe those big-city districts where it’s much more a business,” Phillips said. “For our school districts, it’s not a business but teaching kids.”

Well, Larry, the fine people of your district votred 66.5% for Rick Perry, who has been very clear about the House budget being what the voters demanded and expect. It is clearly your duty to give the people of your district what they obviously want. I don’t see why this would be a problem for you.

As of this writing, a final budget deal appears to be in place, but the details are still a bit sketchy. The good news, such as it is, is that the conference committee has agreed to the Senate’s $4 billion in cuts for public ed instead of the House’s $7.8 billion, but that’s still a lot of cuts to be made. Without some form of enabling legislation, it’ll be done by proration. Pick your poison, Larry, and then tell your constituents you were just doing what they wanted you to do.

House class size bill fails to pass

HB400, the House bill that would among other things allow for larger class sizes and furloughs and pay cuts for teachers, failed to pass before the midnight deadline last night.

The bill from Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, would have lifted the state’s student-teacher class size ratio in lower grades, changed requirements for teacher contract renewals, and authorized unpaid furloughs for school district employees — though now, the measures could live on as amendments to other bills.

After the House adjourned, Eissler said his bill wasn’t dead — and joked that he was going to move his seat up to the front microphone so that he could attach it to every bill that went by.

In other words, it’s merely dead, not really most sincerely dead. Since that the Lege isn’t going to come up with the needed money to properly fund schools, something has to give. This is the time of the session when things start moving a lot faster, and can happen without people realizing it, so keep your eyes open. If nothing happens by the time the Lege adjourns, expect this to be on the call for a special session.

School finance issues holding up budget deal

News flash: School finance reform is hard. Especially when all it’s doing is taking money away from everyone.

The clock is a-tickin’ for Texas lawmakers to cobble together a budget compromise that enacts deep cuts to public education.

But with less than three weeks left in the legislative session, neither chamber has debated, much less passed, a school finance bill that would reduce the state aid owed to school districts by as much as $6.5 billion.

Both the House and Senate budgets are precariously balanced on the assumption that such legislation would be approved. Failure to do so would probably force lawmakers into a special session this summer.

“It’s essential that we pass some type of school finance reform in order to successfully end the session. So it’s the No. 1 priority right now,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan.

On the House side, Calendars Committee Chairman Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, said the school finance legislation would not be among the bills to make it to the floor before a key deadline at the end of the week.

“There are a lot of interconnected parts that aren’t fitting together yet,” said Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

The House plan could still hitch a ride on another piece of legislation, but at least one local lawmaker, Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, said he wouldn’t be able to support it.

Although Workman backed the House budget bill that reduced the school funding, he said Tuesday that the House school finance bill hurts his school districts too much to get his vote.

Well that’s mighty thoughtful of him, and I’ll bet he has plenty of company in that regard, but just what exactly did Paul Workman expect when he voted to cut $7.8 billion from public education? The attitude he’s expressing here is basically “it’s all right to cut as much as needed from everyone else, just not from me”. Hey, you voted for those cuts, you live with the electoral consequences. If you don’t like what you see, you should have done something different. I have no sympathy at all, even if his dithering may work to put pressure on the Republicans to ease the pain. But let the lesson be learned: It’s easy to favor “living within our means” and “cutting spending”. It’s a lot harder to vote for cuts to your own school district.

Another point of order delays Eissler’s school bill

HB400, the bill by Rep. Rob Eissler that among other things raises the 22:1 student:teacher limit in grades K-4, came up for debate last night after the “sanctuary cities” bill got sidetracked by a point of order. Here was the original AP story about this bill going into the debate.

Districts could increase class sizes, cut employee pay and give teachers unpaid furloughs under the bill by Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. Schools could also wait until the end of the academic year to notify teachers that contracts won’t be renewed. Current law says teachers have to be notified 45 days before the end of the year.

GOP House leaders say the bill will free schools from state mandates while saving teacher jobs. They say districts have been begging for more leeway in dealing with lower funding because of massive budget reductions.

“These changes should have been made a long time ago,” Eissler said, citing current law that only gives school districts the option of laying off teachers.

But key teacher groups statewide say the bill will devastate educators and their ability to stay in the classroom. They say Eissler’s bill is launching an attack on educators that will result in severe pay cuts and make it even easier to fire teachers.

[…]

Teacher advocates argue that the reforms Eissler seeks should be temporary, much like a Senate bill that allows teacher furloughs and salary reductions only while the state faces a budget crisis.

Democrats in the House argued that the bill was just paving the way for legislators to continue underfunding public schools.

“This is a conciliation bill that says we are prepared to downsize and dumb down the educational system of Texas,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. “It is nothing to do about quality education, nothing to do about excellence, and everything to do with us not wanting to spend one additional dollar from the rainy day fund.”

Eissler did give some ground on these points as the debate opened.

Eissler, R-The Woodlands, demonstrated he came ready to deal when he offered an amendment from the floor that kept the 22-1 class size ratio for kindergarten through fourth grade but made it significantly easier from districts to get a waiver exemption as long as they maintained a 22-1 district wide average. And teachers’ groups scored a victory when Eissler agreed to make the bills’ measures temporary — something he previously said he would not do.

“As much as I hate weakening our 22-1 law at all, all I’m saying is that if we have to do it, we should sunset it,” said state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, the author of the amendment.

Eissler initially said he believed making the measure temporary would be “creating havoc” in school districts. But after a few moments of deliberation, he approved the amendment.

That sunsetting would be for the 2014 school year. These gains did not stop the bill from being put on hold by another point of order from Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, who had previously stalled the “sanctuary cities” bill as well.

[Martinez-Fischer] objected to Eissler’s bill because the committee minutes reflect that Rep. Todd Smith, R- Euless, offered a committee substitute for the bill, but the bill printing says it was offered by Rep. Jimmy Don Aycock, R-Killeen.

“So you either have a committee meeting problem, or you have a printing problem,” Martinez Fischer said.

“But – you don’t have a chairman problem,” he said within earshot of Eissler.

The San Antonio legislator told Eissler he could have avoided the problem had only he “put in his two cents” and influenced House Speaker Joe Straus to make Martinez Fischer a chairman. Eissler and Straus are close allies.

“I’d be fixing all these bad bills,” Martinez Fischer said.

“That’s why I love Trey,” Eissler responded.

This morning, Speaker Straus upheld the point of order, saying the bill needed to be reprinted, so it will be Monday at least before it can come back to the floor. Seems like some Republicans must have been expecting this, because many of them didn’t show up on Saturday, enough to endanger the quorum in the House. Despite some frayed tempers, it appears that the House did indeed still have a quorum, and after a motion to stifle debate, the House rammed through the so-called “loser pays” rule, which was the most recent “emergency” declared by Rick Perry, then finally adjourned for the weekend. Monday is going to be a lot of fun.

The budget work is far from done

The Senate may have passed its budget via some creative interpretation of its rules, but there’s more to what has to happen now than just the conference committee. As Abby Rapoport notes, they still have to rewrite the formula for school finance.

You see, under current law, schools are entitled to a certain amount per student. Districts raise what they can with property taxes, and the state must pay for the rest. (For more on our troubled school finance system, read my March cover story.) The state can’t make good on those obligations, and for the first time in 60 years, we won’t automatically fund public schools.

When budget writers opted to cut from public schools in order to balance the budget, they knew that they would need extra legislation to change the school finance system. The House and Senate each have bills that cut the necessary amounts to schools in order to make their budgets’ respective cuts to school districts—$4 billion in the Senate and a whopping $8 billion in the House. Those bills are integral to the budgets that each chamber approved.

But as we knew back in February, these school finance bills will be hard to pass. In the House, Democratic Rep. Scott Hochberg’s bill isn’t even on the calendar yet. His bill tries to shield the poorest districts from cuts by putting all districts on a formula system. But that means that those school districts that have been living high on the hog will get slashed by huge percentages. It’s certainly not going to be an easy-pass in the House.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Education Chair Florence Shapiro’s bill hasn’t yet had the votes to come to the floor, and Democratic senators have a clear chance to block the bill.

Assuming the 2/3 rule is still in effect, of course. See here, here, and here for some background on Hochberg’s bill and the nature of how school finance currently works. All of this takes place against a background in which there have been over 12,000 documented job losses in public education in Texas, and that’s just scratching the surface. The worst is very much yet to come. A statement about the budget from Sen. Mario Gallegos is here, and one from Sen. Rodney Ellis is here.

Finally, on a related note, HB400, the bill to increase class sizes for grades K-4, which was derailed on a point of order last week, is on the House calendar for today. I suspect that without this bill, which has enough sponsors (all Republicans) to guarantee its passage, the rest of the pieces to redo school finance won’t fit. Keep an eye on this.

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.

School district reserves

Rick Perry sure does like the idea of spending other people’s money.

Pressed on using the Rainy Day Fund to help close of the state’s massive budget shortfall and avoid dramatic cuts, particularly to school funding, Gov. Rick Perry earlier this month pointed to another source of money he believes should be tapped first: the reserves held by many Texas school districts.

“It’s about $12 billion in reserve accounts in our independent school districts, so should the state spend their Rainy Day Fund before those are accessed?” Perry said. “It’s a good debate to have. My answer is no, I don’t think so.”

According to spreadsheets prepared for the governor and provided to the Tribune, the state’s 1,030 school districts have — in total — $10.2 billion in reserves and another $2.1 billion in unspent federal stimulus money. Facing a reduction in state education spending of between $4 billion and $10 billion, many school districts have said they will be forced to lay off teachers and other staff and even close schools. Can they use their reserve funds to avoid such draconian cutbacks? The answer is not as simple as the governor’s statement would imply.

Hard to believe that Perry could be oversimplifying, isn’t it? For one thing, the state requires school districts to maintain a cash reserve, which is supposed to be enough for them to operate for 60 days. As the story goes on to note, the districts collectively have only about $430 million above the amount recommended by the state. One reason they need such a cushion is because a standard accounting trick the state employs when it needs a little slack to balance its budget is delaying payments to other entities – like, for instance, school districts – for a day. Nice work if you can get it, right?

It’s also the case that while districts together have some excess reserves, not all of them do individually, and no mechanism exists to transfer such funds from one ISD to another. Even if one did exist, as Rep. Rob Eissler points out, it would be perverse to make them do so.

Eissler, a former school board member who now heads the House’s Public Education Committee, says it “would be a strong reach” to try to get the school districts to throw their money into the pot to make the state budget work. He doesn’t think it would be a smart thing to do. It’s not the state’s money, for one thing, and the districts aren’t all in the same financial shape.

“Let’s say School District A really watched their money and really got good results and has a healthy fund balance, and we’re going to penalize them because School District B just spent everything they had and didn’t pay attention to their finances and they’re in the hole?” he says. “We’re trying to reward productivity. That would not.”

Not that Rick Perry cares. He has a point to make. On a related note, Abby Rapoport observes that Senate Republicans are dangling the “local control” carrot in front of school districts, which in this case means “we’ll relieve you of some responsibilities as we take away all your money”. Given a real choice, I don’t know how many school districts would choose a deal like that.

Adding charter schools

There are currently 210 active charter schools, and state law limits the total number to 215. (Note that this refers to charter school networks as well, so those 210 schools translates to about 520 campuses.) There are about 56,000 students on waiting lists for charter schools in Texas. The Lege is doing the math.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands , said he believes some upward adjustment of the cap will pass this session.

“There’s a market for them,” Eissler said. “We’ve got charter schools that have long waiting lists, and it’s a very market-driven mode of education, which is promising.”

[…]

The TEA is charged with monitoring and intervention when any public school fails to meet expectations. But spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe has said more agency layoffs could come this summer, raising concerns about the agency’s ability to effectively monitor a new generation of charters.

“If a law passes to increase (the cap), then we do what we can to make it happen,” said Suzanne Marchman, another TEA representative.

Lindsay Gustafson, public affairs director for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said her organization is not unequivocally against lifting the cap but opposes the proposition at this time, given the state’s budget woes and TEA staff reductions.

“They’re already strapped, in looking at charters — oversight of charters and any time that they take to close charters is pretty significant,” Gustafson said. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”

I agree with that sentiment. Clearly, there’s a demand for more charter schools, and as I’ve said before, we should do what we can to encourage the best of them to proliferate. But there’s a lot of bad ones out there as well – the story notes that in 2010, 11.1 percent of charters received the “academically unacceptable” designation, compared with 1.4 percent of regular public school districts. The TEA has just finished laying off over 10% of its staff. How are they going to oversee these new charters, and the existing ones, under those conditions? As with everything else this session, the Lege’s reach far exceeds its grasp. If the Lege wants more charter schools, they should come up with a way to pay for proper oversight of them. I don’t think that’s asking too for too much.

UPDATE: Here’s an op-ed in today’s Chron by Chris Barbic and Joe Greenberg of YEP Prep advocating the use of Permanent School Fund monies for charter schools. I agree with giving charters access to state funds for facilities, but not the PSF. How they do that needs to be determined.

Republican legislators want SBOE do over on social studies

Good for them.

Texas House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie; Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands; and House Administration Chairman Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth; criticized the new [social studies] standards.

Various civil rights and minority advocacy organizations have opposed the standards, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank, gave the standards a harsh review last month, saying they offered “misrepresentations at every turn.”

“When groups like the Fordham Institute call our standards ‘a politicized distortion of history’ and ‘an unwieldy tangle of social studies categories,’ we have a problem,” Eissler said.

Critics fault the State Board of Education for considering nearly 200 last-hour amendments before taking a final vote last year.

“These standards and the way they were developed just don’t pass the common-sense test,” Geren said. “The law has a process laid out for how to write our state’s curriculum, and they thumbed their nose at it and wrote standards themselves..”

See here for more on the Fordham Institute criticism of the social studies curriculum. I’m glad to see this, and I hope they have a lot more company. The nutjob wing of the SBOE would feel a lot more constrained in what it could do if it were subject to more criticism and oversight from the Lege, especially from fellow Republicans. It’s a lot easier being crazy when no one is paying attention. It also doesn’t hurt for folks like Pitts to remind the SBOE that it’s the Lege that allocates money to buy the textbooks needed to teach these new standards, and putting that expenditure off for a little while would save a ton of money at a time when we need all the savings we can get. I don’t know how much effect this will have, but it’s the right thing to do and a very welcome development.

One more thing:

David Bradley, R-Beaumont, a leader of the board’s social conservatives who championed the new curriculum standards, said he doubted a majority of the 15-member board would be willing to reopen the process.

The board has already started the curriculum rewrite for math standards, with health education to follow.

You may now commence making jokes about their intent to require that the Biblical value of pi be taught in math classes.

Murdock on the cuts to public education

Not too surprisingly, former state demographer Steve Murdock thinks that the looming cuts to public education are a long-term disaster for the state. He singled out pre-K and TEXAS grants as the top two items of concern.

“I am very concerned,” said Murdock, a sociology professor at Rice University and the former state demographer who also served as U.S. Census Bureau director in the George W. Bush administration. “It’s not like we have a lot of slack in the system where we can slip a little bit and still be OK.”

Minority children now make up at least 66 percent of the state’s 4.8 million public school enrollment, most from low-income families. In the last 10 years, the number of children from low-income families has increased by 893,055, surpassing overall enrollment growth during the same period.

Education is the single best predictor of income, Murdock says, and the combination of explosive Hispanic population growth and low academic achievement produces the sour forecast.

“We are lagging now and to fail to educate this population is a formula for long-term disaster for Texas,” Murdock said. “The thing that is most important for us to recognize is that what we do today with these young people will determine the future for all of us.”

Murdock has been sounding this alarm for a long time now, so while hearing him say all this is always welcome and necessary, it’s not a surprise. What is a bit of a surprise is this:

House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said he cannot defend the proposed cuts in Pre-K and TEXAS grant funding.

“We have some serious, serious decisions to make,” Eissler said. “If you predict the future based on today, it’s not bright.”

Eissler’s early words on education cuts, made before the official announcement of how deep the hole is, were less than reassuring. This is the first time I’ve noticed him push back in some way on the Pitts/Ogden budgets, and it’s encouraging to see. He’s not made a commitment to any particular course of action, so it’s still possible he could go along with what is now being proposed, but at least he’s saying the right things.

More charter school stuff

Now that you’ve listened to my interview with Chris Barbic, here are a couple more charter school-related articles of interest. First, from the Trib, a story about charter schools getting help for facilities from the Permanent School Fund.

Fledgling charter schools, like any other start-up business, have difficulty establishing credit. Because the schools must renew their charter with the state every five years, banks can view them as a risky investment, said Cinnamon Henley, executive director of the Austin Discovery School, a charter that opened in 2005.

Without access to financing for buying or building new facilities, charters are subject to the whims of the rental market, which can make budgetary planning difficult.

Some state lawmakers are pushing to change that with legislation allowing some charter schools to be eligible to access the Permanent School Fund.

Proceeds from several sources — including revenue from taxes and offshore oil-drilling leases — go into the $23 billion fund, which is managed by the State Board of Education. Interest from the fund feeds the Available School Fund, which helps pay for public school textbooks.

The proposal to expand access to the fund has prominent backers, including state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, who introduced the legislation. Her House counterpart, Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands and chairman of the Public Education Committee, filed a companion bill last week.

Not everyone is on board: Traditional school districts do not like the idea. The Texas Association of School Boards opposes opening the bond guarantee program to charters, said Dax Gonzalez, a spokesman for the association, adding that charter schools are generally deemed to be poor credit risks.

“We’ve had around 280 charters awarded over the last few years,” Gonzalez said. “Out of those, 71 are no longer operating anymore. That’s about a quarter of charters that have been abandoned or closed down. That doesn’t show that they are going to be around for the state to recoup their investment.”

I’ve discussed this before, and my feelings haven’t changed. I don’t think the PSF is the right vehicle for this, because I don’t think it’s a sufficiently sound investment on the state’s part. There should be a way for charter schools with a good business plan and/or a track record of success to get state resources for facilities, but it should be created and funded by the Legislature. If that gives some charter school supporters in the Lege heartburn because of the budget crunch, that’s just too bad. If you want this to happen, you can find or create a revenue stream for it.

We also have this op-ed from the Sunday Chron about why Houston is such a hotbed for quality charter schools. The three people referenced are Soner Tarim, founder of the Harmony schools, Mike Feinberg of KIPP, and Barbic.

Houston’s charter school sector, which accounts for a rapidly growing 16 percent of public school enrollment, is among the biggest in the nation, and almost certainly the best. So why does Houston host three great charter chains, along with what may be the best urban school system in the nation? I recently asked Tarim, Feinberg and Barbic, and got answers that would not surprise any student of entrepreneurship. Just like Silicon Valley, Houston’s education miracle shows the importance of entrepreneurs, capital, transparency and political leadership favorable to competition.

To start with, entrepreneurs see a need, and as Soner Tarim points out, with a rapidly growing and increasingly low-income student population, “there was such a need.” But there was also great talent. Houston has attracted entrepreneurial educators from across the globe, many, like Tarim, drawn by the University of Houston, Rice and nearby Texas A&M. Other educational entrepreneurs were not new to the country, but were new to Houston. Feinberg, Levin and Barbic were among an army of young, idealistic TFA corps members from out of state drawn to Houston to save urban schooling. Houston has the nation’s largest TFA chapter. Unlike many cities, Houston welcomed TFA rather than seeing corps members as taking jobs from locals.

So what makes Houston different? First, the Houston Federation of Teachers never had the power to keep out TFA or hamstring KIPP and other charters. But that still left a bureaucracy, which, as Jay Mathews writes, resented KIPP’s notoriety and success. Before KIPP became a charter, the Houston Independent School District central office investigated KIPP, and at one point reassigned its classrooms. Political leadership saved the day. HISD Superintendent Rod Paige publicly praised KIPP and intervened when bureaucrats attacked. Paige also had HISD serve as an incubator for YES Prep. As Barbic recalls, “A lot of superintendents would have seen that innovation and tried to kill it, but Paige did the exact opposite.” Paige’s successors have followed his lead, fashioning a public school system that can compete with the charters.

In many cities opponents manipulate zoning and building rules to keep charter schools from finding sites, but Houston has few regulations. Not coincidentally, it also has low construction costs and cheap land. As Mike Feinberg points out, “Fifteen acres in Houston is about the same cost as one acre in Los Angeles.” That meant that once school leaders like Feinberg, Barbic and Tarim refined their operations at one or two campuses, they could expand cheaply and rapidly.

This expands somewhat on what Barbic mentioned in the interview about how charters coexist with HISD and in an ideal world each would push the other to be better. I don’t think you can fully discuss this subject without noting that our entrepreneur-friendly environment here is also attractive to a range of hustlers and con men and that the charter school business has seen its share of each as well. That would make a good subject for a longer analytical piece, not a short op-ed. Greg has more.

The Trib talks to Rob Eissler

Here are a few brief video clips from the Texas Tribune conversation with State Rep. Rob Eissler, who is the House Public Education Committee chair. The full audio is here. Eissler, who believes the Rainy Day Fund will at least be used to close the gap in the 2010-2011 budget, does his best to sound reassuring about how public ed will weather the current conditions despite the multibillion dollar shortfall that schools are facing. I don’t know how much of that is hewing to the party line and how much of it is genuine, but he does a good job selling it. I just hope he’s right to be so calm. Give a listen and see what you think.

Still more on class size limits

Real good article in the Press about class size limits and the possible effects of raising them, which I’ve written about before. A couple of points:

A famous education study done in Tennessee in the 1980s shows class size matters. In the four-year Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) study, kindergarten-through-third-grade classes with 13-17 students in them were compared to those with 22-26 students, and the researchers found out, in fact, that smaller meant better in terms of academic milestones. A followup study showed the effect continues for several years.

But what many administrators now like to say is that class size doesn’t matter till you get down to 15, [State Rep. Scott] Hochberg says. So if you can’t do that, you might as well throw up your hands. Which is not what the study says. The study just compared two groups and said that of these two groups, those with an average of 15 did better.

“It didn’t say until you get to 15 there’s no difference,” Hochberg says. “How you twist that into ‘There’s no difference till you get down to 15’ is pure propaganda.”

And, as it turns out, according to the Tennessee study, smaller class sizes are especially beneficial for kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds — which describes a majority of students in HISD and, in fact, a significant portion of the student population across the Houston area.

“You don’t see successful charter schools operating with 50 kids in a class,” Hochberg says.

First, the person I’ve heard cite that 15 figure the most often is House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler. I’ve come to learn that there’s quite a body of research on class size and its effects – the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association has a bunch of citations, all of which clearly support the idea that smaller class sizes lead to better results. Further, here’s Leonie Haimson with some specific information:

Myth: There is a threshold that has to be reached before class size reduction provides benefits.

Since STAR involved comparing outcomes between students in classes of 22 to 25 students and those in classes of 13 to 17, many critics have argued that classes have to be reduced to a certain level to provide benefits.

Yet Alan Krueger of Princeton University analyzed the STAR results for the control group of students who were in the “larger” classes and found that within this range, the smaller the class, the better the outcome.

Indeed, esteemed researchers such as Peter Blatchford have found that there is no particular threshold that must be reached before students receive benefits from smaller classes, and any reduction in class size increases the probability that they will be on-task and positively engaged in learning.

Haimson runs a blog called Class Size Matters, in case you want more.

Back to the article:

In 2006, Governor Rick Perry ordered school districts to cut local property tax, saying the state would make up the difference.

“The state’s new taxes to make up the difference didn’t made up the difference,” Hochberg says. “And so since that bill was passed in ’06, we haven’t had an internally balanced budget at the state level. We’ve been short every time. We covered it the first time because we had a surplus coming in. We covered it the second time with stimulus money — that nasty, awful stimulus money from Washington that we don’t want to touch.

“We were 4 billion short on the budget last time without the stimulus money, and that’s on a zero-growth budget. State revenues haven’t balanced the budget for the last two cycles since those cuts were made.”

I’ve talked about this a lot, so it’s nothing new to us. Sometimes I wonder how the Governor’s race would have gone in 2010 if there had been no stimulus in 2009, and the Lege had had to deal with a budget deficit that was projected to be in the $8 to $10 billion range back then. Then I get depressed and think happy thoughts instead. The bill for that tax cut is due now, and it will come due again in the future until we fix the underlying problem.

Teach For America grants

In other education and budget news, there’s this.

Texas lawmakers have ordered a study of Teach for America to help determine if the Peace Corps-like program, which recruits top college graduates to work in needy schools, is worth the state’s $8 million investment.

The evaluation, due to the Legislature by Jan. 31, could serve as a key discussion piece as lawmakers debate how to slash the state’s budget, with a shortfall estimated to top $20 billion.

There’s not much to say about this. The study is expected to be favorable to TFA, and no one quoted in the story argued against the grants per se, they just expressed concerns about how much bang is gotten for the buck in these tight times. To me, it’s all about the numbers. In the context of a $20 billion (or more) shortfall, $8 million doesn’t even qualify as chump change. Eight million is to 20 billion as four pennies are to a $100 bill. I guess you can say every little bit adds up, I’m just saying you’d need a hell of a lot of these little bits to add up to something meaningful. And in the meantime, while you’re talking about these little bits, you’re not talking about the really big cuts you’re going to have to make if you truly intend to close that gap without increasing revenues.

The coming fight over class sizes

We’ve discussed the looming cuts to public education, in which the focus of the battle will be class size limits, which are currently mandated at 22 students per classroom. That was part of the sweeping 1984 overhaul of the education code that was spurred by Ross Perot, which included the no-pass no-play law. Research since then has shown a benefit to students resulting from the lower student/teacher ratios, though much of that research is now several years old.

Maintaining these class size limits is expensive, however, so as this DMN story reminds us, it’s a natural place for legislators to look to for cost savings. And it makes me wonder about something.

[Comptroller Susan] Combs, a Republican, renewed attention on the issue recently after recommending that lawmakers scrap the 22-student limit in kindergarten through fourth grade and switch to an average class-size standard of 22.

In practical terms, that means an extra three students per class on average in those five grades. The current average with the 22-pupil limit is 19.3 students per class, according to figures gathered by the comptroller’s office.

Combs, noting that many school superintendents support the idea, said the change would save an estimated $558 million a year – primarily through elimination of thousands of teaching jobs.

[…]

The class-size standard has been in place since the Legislature approved a landmark school reform law in 1984. Among the highlights and other results:

•The law included the no-pass, no-play rule, pre-kindergarten for low-income children, and the state’s high school graduation test. It was passed under the leadership of Perot and former Democratic Gov. Mark White.

•There is no doubt the 22-pupil limit is costly because every time a class in the five affected grade levels hits 23 or more students, a new class must be created with an additional teacher and classroom. One superintendent from the Houston area said each new class costs his district $100,000 to $150,000.

•The law allows school districts to get a state waiver if they can’t find enough teachers or have insufficient classroom space. The state rarely turns down waivers, and last year 145 districts received waivers that allowed larger classes at 548 elementary schools. The Dallas school district had waivers at 31 campuses.

Whether or not we think 22 is a magic number for class size limits – Rep. Rob Eissler has said that you don’t really see a benefit from smaller class sizes until you get considerably under 22 per class – there is broad agreement that student performance benefited from the 1984 reforms. I have yet to see any claims about what the effect of larger class sizes might mean, but it seems to me that with all the waivers that have been granted in recent years, there ought to be enough data to allow us to draw some conclusions. Why not commission a study to compare the districts that have received waivers to similar districts that have not, and see what it tells us? And if such a study has already been done, please show it to us. Why fly blind when we don’t have to?

Which leads to a second question. Given that we don’t necessarily know what the effect of undoing the 22:1 ratio will be, and given that school districts have been able to get waivers to that whenever they’ve needed to, why make a permanent change? Why not just suspend the rules related to getting waivers for two years, and let the school districts work it out as best they can? Because otherwise it sure looks to me like the goal here is to force school districts to fire a bunch of teachers – for which superintendents and school board members will be blamed, not the Lege – while using the discussion of the class size limit as a distraction. If the Republican intent is to increase unemployment, the least they can do is be honest about it.

Scrap it and start over

Good to hear.

Texas needs to scrap its school funding system and start all over, Senate Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said Thursday, as other members of a special school finance committee agreed that the existing system is hopelessly broken.

“We need to find a better system that works for all of us,” said Shapiro, who also is co-chair of the Select Committee On Public School Finance Weights, Allotments and Adjustments.

According to committee members and experts, the system has vast inequities of more than $1,000 per student and is built on adjustments for low-income students, rural school districts, small districts, medium districts and other factors that are nearly 30 years old with little reflection of real costs.

“We need to change our system so people understand it because we don’t understand it,” said Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, who co-chairs the special committee.

Well, yeah. It’s nice to see legislators talking about this before the next lawsuit gets filed. The next step, as Rep. Scott Hochberg noted in the story, is to come to grips with the fact that the schools are underfunded as well. When we’re ready to deal with that, we’ll really have something. But this is still a good first step.

And when we do get around to changing this system, let’s make sure we don’t make it worse.

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said he favors a sales tax increase to fund public education instead of property tax revenue.

“The homeowners and the commercial business owners can’t stand much more,” Patrick said, noting that all consumers would directly contribute to public education if the funding source shifts from property to sales.

Every penny increase in the state’s current 6.25 cent sales tax rate would generate $2.4 billion, he said.

What isn’t being said here is that Patrick would also cut property taxes by an equivalent amount. That would not only ensure that the schools remain perpetually underfunded, it would also give people like Dan Patrick a sizable reduction in their tax bill while imposing a significant tax increase on the vast majority of Texans. If you want Dan Patrick to raise your taxes, without doing anything to improve the schools, you should be cheering him on. If you want to see actual progress being made to fix this problem, you shouldn’t be. You should also be supporting Bill White, but I figure that goes without saying by now.