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It looks like we’re getting a new school board

What a mess.

Texas Education Agency officials have recommended that a state-appointed governing team replace Houston ISD’s locally elected school board after a six-month investigation found several instances of alleged misconduct by some trustees, including violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, inappropriate influencing of vendor contracts and making false statements to investigators.

The recommendation and findings, issued by TEA Special Investigations Unit Director Jason Hewitt, will not become final until HISD officials have had an opportunity to respond. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who leads the agency, ultimately will decide whether to oust HISD’s school board. HISD officials have until Aug. 15 to respond, and Morath likely would issue a final decision in the following weeks.

In his recommendation, Hewitt wrote that HISD trustees should be replaced by a state-appointed board due to their “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern, inability to operate within the scope of their authority, circumventing the authority of the superintendent, and inability to ensure proper contract procurement laws are followed.”

[…]

In their report, state investigators outline multiple years of failed oversight and improper behavior by HISD’s much-maligned school board, which long has grappled with in-fighting and distrust. Conflict within the board reached a boiling point in the summer and fall of 2018 when trustees clashed over whether to retain Lathan, who took over as interim superintendent following Richard Carranza’s abrupt departure to become chancellor of New York City public schools.

Five board members had grown particularly frustrated with Lathan, believing she had not been responsive to their desires for the district and failed to adequately protect them from a threat posed by a community activist.

Through interviews and a review of text messages, state investigators determined the five trustees — Board President Diana Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — secretly met with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra in two separate groups to coordinate ousting Lathan and installing him as interim superintendent. The meetings took place at a Houston restaurant on the same day in October 2018, the report said. Investigators determined that arrangement constituted a “walking quorum,” in violation of state law that requires trustees to conduct district business in public.

Three days later, the five trustees voted to replace Lathan with Saavedra, offering no advance warning to the public or the other four board members about the move. Trustees reinstated Lathan within a week of the vote following intense public backlash. Lathan remains the district’s indefinite leader.

TEA officials interviewed trustees as part of their investigation, ultimately determining that Dávila and Lira falsely claimed in interviews with investigators that they only met one-on-one with Saavedra. In separate interviews, Saavedra and Flynn Vilaseca placed Dávila and Lira at the restaurant meetings, the report states.

In an interview Wednesday, Dávila said she provided her best recollection of meeting Saavedra to TEA investigators, and denied that she attempted to mislead state officials.

“They wanted us to remember things that happened six, seven months prior to us being interviewed,” Dávila said.

So in the end it will be the ethics investigation that brings down the Board. We’ll get the performance results for the schools, including the four that needed to meet standards this year, on August 15, so there may be another cause for the demise, but this one came first. This isn’t final yet – the Board has until the 15th to respond to this report, and then TEA Commissioner Mike Morath gets to make his ruling – but the handwriting on the wall is quite clear. The state is stepping in to take over the HISD Board.

The report isn’t public yet – I presume it will be by the time Morath issues his ruling – but the Chron got to see it. The other misconduct allegations reported in the story apply to Diana Davila, with Sergio Lira also being accused of not being truthful to investigators. I feel like in other circumstances, with a Board that wasn’t already under a conservator, this would be an embarrassment but not the end of the existing Board. In such other circumstances, I might be moved to outrage at the prospect of our democratically elected Board being summarily replaced, even if only for a couple of years, by state-selected trustees. I find it hard to muster any such reaction this time. I find myself resignedly in agreement with this:

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who frequently has criticized colleagues who voted to oust Lathan, said replacement of the school board is “sadly, unfortunately” in the district’s best interests.

“I think it’s tragic, but I think the alternative is worse,” Jones said.

The good news, such as it is, is that the four schools in question, which have been making progress, will probably not be closed. That was a huge point of contention with the parent groups. If that’s truly off the table, then my guess is that reaction to this will be somewhat more muted. Who is going to step up to defend the current board, and demand that the TEA leave them in place?

It should be noted that there will still be elections for HISD trustees this November. These elected trustees, along with the others that are not on the November ballot, will still serve but have much less power in the interim. At least two of the four trustees whose terms are up this year (Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who is running for HCC Board, and Jolanda Jones) have announced they are not running for re-election, with Davila being rumored to not run again as well. If the end result of all this is that in another two or four years we get to elect nine new members, and (hopefully) the sword of Damocles that is the academic standards issue is not looming over us when we do (good luck with that, whoever the TEA picks to run the place), I find it hard to be too upset about that. I’m certainly not more upset than I am about everything that led to this.

Worrying about the expanded school marshal program

This just seems like such a bad idea.

Would a teacher who volunteered to do double duty as a school marshal in Texas act any braver [than a professional law enforcement officer]? Some might. Maybe most would. Would those who decide not to engage a shooter be subject to arrest?

The bill Abbott signed June 6 removed the 200-per-student cap on the number of marshals a school may have. It was part of a legislative package he sought after the May 18, 2018 mass shooting at Santa Fe High School that left eight students and two teachers dead.

A separate, more expansive bill includes a number of school safety measures, including requirements that all teachers have access to a telephone or another electronic communication device, that school districts routinely hold drills to prepare students and personnel for an emergency, and that a statewide consortium be created to provide more children with mental health services.

While those programs appear laudable, expanding the school marshal program could lead to disastrous results. “There’s so much potential for mistakes to be made, for unintended injuries to occur,” Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, told the editorial board. “A marshal’s gun could be dropped. A student could try to take a marshal’s gun. And what kind of guns are we talking about?”

Texas’ school marshal program, which began six years ago, was modeled after the federal air marshal program. Only certain school officials, local law enforcement, and the Texas Department of Public Safety are supposed to know who the anonymous volunteer marshals are until they are called into action. That, too, is a problem, said Switzer.

“My children went to a large school where not even all the teachers knew each other. If an incident occurs at a large school, an armed marshal might be mistaken for a bad actor,” she said.

Studies showing black students are disproportionately targeted for discipline are also a concern, the gun control advocate said: “I worry about what might happen if an armed school marshal makes an assumption about a kid because of how he looks.”

The less than 40 certified school marshals in Texas in 2018 rose to nearly 200 after the Santa Fe shooting. That number is expected to grow now that the program has been expanded. Any teacher or other school staffer can volunteer to be a marshal and keep a gun in a safe place on campus for use when it’s deemed necessary.

[…]

Asking teachers, coaches, office staff, and counselors to be prepared to safeguard students in an emergency is reasonable. Asking them to take on the role of an armed protector is not.

See here for further information. I basically agree with everything this author says. It’s just a matter of time before there’s an incident, whether due to mishap, carelessness, mistaken identity, incompetence, or bad intent. The odds of that happening are so much greater than a volunteer marshal stopping an actual shooter. What do you think will happen when such an incident does occur?

Our vaccine exception rates keep going up

A small change to the law in 2003 has had a big effect over time.

As measles cases hit a 25-year high in the United States, Texas medical experts fear the state could see the next outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease. Texas has reported 15 confirmed cases of measles so far in 2019, six more than in all of 2018.

Health officials are watching pockets of Texas closely because of the number of parents requesting exemptions under Texas’s broad vaccine exemption law. Texas is one of 16 states that allow parents to bypass vaccine requirements for enrolling their kids in school by claiming a conscientious exemption, along with citing medical or religious concerns. Just last month, Washington ended conscientious exemptions on the heels of a large measles outbreak with over 70 reported cases. Three states — California, West Virginia and Mississippi — only allow medical exemptions.

Texas’ exemption law used to be stricter. In 2003, a state senator proposed loosening restrictions via a three-page amendment to a 311-page bill. After five minutes of discussion, the amendment was approved. The bill was soon signed into law. Sixteen years later, former state Sen. Craig Estes said the change to Texas’ vaccine laws that he helped enact should be reviewed in the current public health climate.

“Obviously we didn’t ever imagine what would happen,” Estes, a Republican from Prosper, told The Texas Tribune. “With what’s happened recently, I would encourage the legislature in the future to revisit that issue and debate it.”

The speedy way in which the Texas Legislature weakened the state’s vaccine exemption rules suggests that, like Estes, few in office at the time thought it would put Texas at risk for future outbreaks. However, while experts suggest Texas is now vulnerable, efforts to change the exemption law have been dead on arrival in the Capitol.

“There will be a terrible measles epidemic in Texas, and children will be hospitalized in intensive care units, just like they are in New York right now,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said last month. “That will wake up the state Legislature to realize that there’s a problem and close those exemptions.”

Kindergarteners must have 10 immunizations to be enrolled in Texas schools. Since 2006, when the state first started reporting the data, the exemption rate for kindergarteners in Texas has risen from 0.3% for the 2005-06 school year to 2.15% for the 2018-19 school year.

In Texas, school districts, private schools and charter schools are required to report their vaccine exemption rates per vaccine. The data collection is done through a survey administered by the Texas Department of State Health Services, but some schools don’t report consistently, leaving gaps in the data.

The data shows certain communities — like the Dallas Independent School District — have seen a recent spike in conscientious exemptions for kindergarteners. Others — like El Paso ISD — have seen exemptions recently plummet. Some smaller private schools, meanwhile, have exemption rates that are significantly higher than those of other schools. The Austin Waldorf School had the highest vaccine exemption rate for the 2018-19 school year, at 52.9%. Alliance Christian Academy had the second-highest rate at 40.6%.

When enough of a community is immunized against a disease, that group has what’s known as herd immunity, meaning there is a low risk of a disease spreading. Vaccine-preventable disease have different herd immunity thresholds. Measles, which is highly contagious, has a high herd immunity threshold of 95%. According to a state report for the 2018-19 school year, Texas kindergarteners statewide had coverage levels higher than 95% for all required vaccines. Yet the data from individual school districts and private schools suggests that some communities may fall short of meeting that threshold for some vaccines.

The fact that a Waldorf school is atop this list shows the problem is very much bipartisan, though the main anti-vax legislators these days are all Republicans. I’ve repeated this a million times, but the only way to improve things is to throw those anti-vax legislators out of office. Next year is a great opportunity to do that as three of them – Jonathan Stickland, Bill Zedler, and Matt Krause – all had close elections in 2018. The rest is up to us. Now go read the rest of the story for the history of how we got to this point.

Deal apparently reached on school finance

We await the details.

Texas’ top three political leaders declared Thursday that the Legislature had reached agreements on its three main 2019 priorities: A two-year state budget, a comprehensive reform of school finance and legislation designed to slow the growth of rising property taxes.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott broke the news on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, just a few days before the Legislature is scheduled to gavel out. Both chambers will need to sign off on the three negotiated bills — House Bill 1, the proposed budget; Senate Bill 2, the property tax bill; and House Bill 3, the school finance bill — before the regular session ends Monday. Language for the compromised legislation, much of which was worked out behind the scenes between lawmakers from the two chambers, had not yet been made public as of Thursday afternoon.

“We would not be here today, making the announcement we are about to make, without the tireless efforts of the members of the Texas House and Senate,” said Abbott, flanked by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and other House and Senate members who played key roles in negotiating the three pieces of legislation. Almost five months beforehand, as state lawmakers began tackling the issues before them, Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen had pledged from that same spot in front of the Governor’s Mansion to work together and deliver on meaningful school finance and property tax reform.

“Frankly, we’re more together than we’ve ever been,” Bonnen said. “The people of Texas are those who win.”

[…]

According to a flyer detailing some of the components of the compromise reached Wednesday night, the school finance bill will include funding for full-day pre-K and an increase in the base funding per student, which hasn’t changed in four years. It also pumps in $5.5 billion to lower school district taxes up to 13 cents per $100 valuation on average by 2021 — though leaders dodged questions Thursday on exactly how and where the extra money would come from.

The compromise bill, Bonnen said, would reduce recapture payments that wealthier districts pay to shore up poorer districts by $3.6 billion, about 47%. But he also said the state could not afford to completely eliminate recapture, also known as “Robin Hood,” because it would cost too much to completely reimburse school districts from state coffers alone.

The bill will include funding for districts that want to create a merit pay program, giving more to their higher-rated teachers. Though the House decided to nix this from its initial version of the bill, the Senate put it back in and apparently won the fight to keep it in.

On the surface, it sounds pretty decent, though of course the devil is in the details. Where is that $5.5 billion coming from? What does “funding for full-day pre-K” mean? How would recapture change? By necessity, we will have answers soon, as the session ends on Monday, but until then this is more a possibly tantalizing promise than anything else. Stay tuned.

Yes, they really are now pushing a sales tax for property tax swap

Some bad ideas never die.

Texas’ top three political leaders — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — threw their support Wednesday behind a proposal to increase the sales tax by one percentage point in order to lower property taxes across the state.

But that’s only if lawmakers agree to limit future local property tax increases.

The proposal would raise the state’s sales tax from 6.25% to 7.25%, generating billions of additional dollars annually for property tax relief, if voters approve a constitutional amendment. But the idea will be a hard sell to Democrats, since the sales tax is considered regressive, meaning lower-income Texans end up paying a larger percentage of their paychecks than higher-income Texans.

“Today we are introducing a sales tax proposal to buy down property tax rates for all Texas homeowners and businesses, once Senate Bill 2 or House Bill 2 is agreed to and passed by both Chambers. If the one-cent increase in the sales tax passes, it will result in billions of dollars in revenue to help drive down property taxes in the short and long term,” said a joint statement from the three Republicans.

Neither chamber has passed HB 2 or SB 2, which would require voter approval of property tax increases over 2.5%.

The House Ways and Means Committee was scheduled to take public testimony on the House’s sales tax swap proposal this week but delayed hearing the bills. Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who authored House Joint Resolution 3 and House Bill 4621, is considering changing the legislation to use a fraction of the additional money generated by the sales tax for public schools — in order to get more Democrats on board.

The bills are intended to provide another revenue source to help significantly cut down local school property taxes, which make up more than half of the local property taxes levied in Texas.

If the Legislature approves the resolution, the constitutional amendment would go to voters to approve in November, and if voters sign on the tax rate change would apply in January 2020.

See here for the background and my opinion about this lousy idea. Given that a constitutional amendment is needed for this, it will be easy enough to prevent it from happening. The progressive case against swapping out property taxes, which will disproportionately benefit commercial real estate and wealthy homeowners, for regressive sales taxes, is clear cut, and likely to hold a lot of sway with the current Democratic caucus. There’s also polling evidence to suggest that the public doesn’t care for a sales tax increase. I’m a little skeptical of that, since the question was not asked in conjunction with a potential cut in property taxes, but that’s an argument for the Republicans to make, and given the baked in doubt about anything actually reducing property taxes (for good reason!), I’d take that bet. HB2 is up for debate today, so we’ll see how this goes. The Chron and Texas Monthly have more.

Achieve 180 schools showing progress

I hope it’s enough.

Houston ISD schools covered by the district’s $16 million campus turnaround plan saw modest improvements in the program’s first year — enough to outpace gains reported across the district, but not nearly enough to pull chronically low-performing schools on par with peers.

A report published this week by HISD showed the 44 schools included in the turnaround plan, known as Achieve 180, largely exceeded or mirrored district improvements in 2017-18 on several key academic and behavioral metrics, including state standardized test scores, exclusionary discipline rates and participation in more challenging courses. The improvements were reflected in the number of Achieve 180 schools meeting state standard — and avoiding the dreaded “improvement required” label — rising from 18 in 2017 to 33 in 2018.

In some areas, however, Achieve 180 schools saw little to no positive movement. Student attendance and chronic absenteeism rates remained stagnant, which district officials largely attributed to the effects of Hurricane Harvey. Out-of-school suspension rates barely moved, remaining three times greater than non-Achieve 180 schools. Highly-rated teachers did not move in large numbers to Achieve 180 schools, unswayed by $5,000 bonuses offered by district officials.

In an interview Thursday, HISD’s area superintendent responsible for Achieve 180, Felicia Adams, said district leaders were “pretty satisfied” with the first-year results, especially since some campuses implemented portions of the initiative later in the 2017-18 school year.

“These are schools that have been struggling for quite some time. To at least get out of being an ‘improved requirement’ campus was a major gain for many of them,” Adams said.

[…]

According to the district report, which analyzed student performance in 2017-18 relative to the prior year, math and reading passage rates on STAAR, the state’s primary standardized test, rose about 6 percent in Achieve 180 schools — double the 3 percent increase seen across the rest of the district.

The use of in-school suspensions also dropped by about 21 percent at Achieve 180 schools, roughly the same rate as campuses not covered by the initiative.

Perhaps most notably, about 8 percent more students in Achieve 180 schools took an Advanced Placement exam last year, while 3 percent fewer students in non-Achieve 180 schools sat for a test.

Even with the improvements in STAAR test performance, passage rates at Achieve 180 schools remain roughly 15 percent to 20 percent lower than the rest of the district. In addition, students at Achieve 180 schools passed about 14 percent of their Advanced Placement exams in 2018, compared to 39 percent throughout HISD.

Some Achieve 180 schools also fell further behind last year, including four campuses that have failed to meet state academic standards for four-plus consecutive years.

That, obviously, is the most important metric right now. The overall improvements are great, and one wonders how much more could be done with sufficient resources and some more time, but either those four schools make standard or the TEA climbs aboard. For all the mishegas at HISD this year, and with the continued uncertainty surrounding the HISD Board, Achieve 180 is worthwhile program that has generated real results. Again, as above, I just hope it’s enough.

HISD conservator suspends superintendent search

Halt!

A state-appointed conservator ordered Houston ISD trustees on Monday to suspend their search for a permanent superintendent, an unprecedented intervention in the state’s largest school district.

In a letter sent to HISD trustees, the conservator, Doris Delaney, said she is exercising her legally-authorized power to “direct an action to be taken” by a school board. HISD trustees were days away from naming a lone finalist for the district’s superintendent position, with a final round of candidate interviews scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Delaney said she is ordering the search suspended “until the agency has completed its special accreditation investigation” into the district. The investigation, which involves allegations of Texas Open Meetings Act violations by five trustees, has been ongoing since January.

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who is not among the five trustees under review, also tweeted Monday that the investigation has expanded to include “malfeasance regarding contracts” with vendors, offering no additional details. Texas Education Agency officials said they could not comment on the ongoing investigation. Jones could not immediately be reached for comment.

Delaney’s move is a potentially ominous sign for HISD’s school board, which could be replaced by the state later this year due to chronically low performance at a few campuses or potential findings of malfeasance by trustees. If state officials replace HISD trustees, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath would have the legal responsibility of choosing the district’s superintendent, with no obligation to keep the school board’s choice.

See here and here for some background. On the one hand, I understand where Dr. Delaney is coming from. This investigation is a serious matter, and if it turns out that some number of Trustees were involved in violating the (now less potent) Open Meetings Act, one can make a good case that they have forfeited the right to name a Superintendent. On the other hand, the (resumed) search has been going on for awhile, so maybe she could have said something sooner? I wasn’t sure what to make of that at first, but perhaps this explains it.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent Houston school officials a letter detailing an expanded role for the conservator, Doris Delaney, according to the news outlet. Her duties now include “attending board meetings and overseeing the district’s governance,” according to the letter Houston Public Media posted Monday.

You can see the letter here. That seems portentious, but maybe I’m reading too much into it. All I know is that I hope this is wrapped up quickly and favorably. I can’t take any more drama. The Press has more.

Who should be managing the Permanent School Fund?

It’s a good question, and I’m not sure what the best answer to it is.

Lawmakers are proposing a wide range of fixes for the state’s public school endowment, which has lost out on billions in growth during the past decade while paying out less to schoolchildren.

One bipartisan bill backed by high-powered legislators would restore the State Board of Education’s control over nearly all of the investments for the $44 billion Texas Permanent School Fund, reverting to the way it was before a 2001 law change.

Another would allow the School Land Board, which now controls about $10 billion of the endowment, to double the amount it can send annually directly to schools — up to $600 million. Yet another would take most of the money away from the feuding boards and create a new nine-member governing body appointed by the governor to decide how the endowment invests and distributes its dollars.

[…]

A key point in the debate is which governing body should have the authority to retain and invest the state’s oil and gas royalty revenue from leases on state land. Until 2001, the land board collected the money and sent it passively along to the education board to invest. But a law passed that year allowed the land board to retain the money and invest it.

A series of law changes and constitutional amendments since has changed the way money is sent to schools. The education board was tasked with setting a distribution rate based on a complex formula that, in part, depends on how much money it receives from the land board. Lawmakers also authorized the land board to send up to $300 million per year directly to schools, instead of to the education board, but it has no requirement to do so.

The changes created a serious governance issue, said Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who has introduced a bill that would return the royalty revenue to the education board to invest. That bill has the backing of five Republican Senate committee chairs. Republican Rep. Ken King has filed identical legislation in the House.

It also is supported by the education board’s chairwoman, Donna Bahorich, who said it aims to “permanently and efficiently fix the decision-making structure that affects the performance, distributions and expenses. Consolidation of the two pieces of the Permanent School Fund into one decision-making structure would be for the benefit of putting more money to work for the school children.”

See here and here for some background, and here for the Chron’s “Broken Trust” series, which uncovered a lot of these problems. The Land Board has had the worse performance, but the SBOE’s management isn’t perfect, and it was just ten years ago that there were proposals to take PSF management away from the SBOE. At some level, I don’t care who manages the PSF. What I do care about is ensuring accountability and maximizing returns. What are the best practices – what do other institutions that manage similar endowments do, for example – and what are the gaps that need to be addressed? That’s what I want us to focus on.

House moves its school finance bill

Step two of the process.

Rep. Dan Huberty

The Texas House Public Education Committee unanimously signed off on a comprehensive $9 billion school finance and property tax reform bill Tuesday — but only after removing a controversial educator merit pay provision that had angered teachers unions.

House Bill 3, filed by committee chair Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would put $6.3 billion into public schools and $2.7 billion into property tax reform. The bill will likely head to the full House soon, where more than 100 have already signed on as co-sponsors.

“Everybody’s opinion is welcome,” said Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, before voting to approve the bill. “I would just hate to see the destruction of a valiant effort because somebody didn’t like one little piece on it.”

The initial version of HB 3 included money for districts that wanted to rate their teachers and provide the top-rated ones with more money, modeled on a Dallas ISD program that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has touted.

“The language we ended up with to some degree could have been construed as tied to [the state’s standardized test] and created a little bit too much authority as we went forward,” Huberty said, explaining the change in the bill.

[…]

HB 3 does not include an across-the-board teacher pay raise, with Huberty and Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen arguing school districts should instead have local control to decide how to use additional funding. The Senate already unanimously passed Senate Bill 3, which would put $4 billion toward $5,000 raises for full-time classroom teachers and librarians.

Educators and advocates have appeared divided in their support for the two bills, which will need to be reconciled in some form later this session.

See here, here, and here for some background. Now is when the real sausage-making begins, as everyone agrees that Something Must Be Done, but views differ from there. The most likely scenario is that something gets hammered out in a conference committee in the very last days of the session. It’s hard to say at this point which chamber’s bill, or which provisions of each bill, have the advantage. Sometimes it just comes down to who gets on the committee. Expect there to be a bunch of amendments to both bills as they come to their respective floors, which may bring them closer together and may heighten their differences, with the extra joy of shenanigans and other partisan games always in the offing. It’s stuff like this that makes political junkies what they are.

Inevitably, we come back to a sales tax/property tax swap

It’s an idea we just can’t seem to quit.

Texas lawmakers are considering an infusion of $9 billion to improve public schools and lower property taxes over the next two years. The additional $6.3 billion in the classroom is being billed as a transformational effort to better educate the state’s 5.4 million students, while another $2.7 billion would stem the tide of escalating property taxes for homeowners.

“If we’re going to make some strides on these really big items, it really has to happen this session,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, chairman of the influential Appropriations Committee.

While lawmakers are confident the state’s booming economy will provide big bucks to spend on public schools, they are also pitching a number of plans to increase the state sales tax in the future. The proposals include hiking taxes on items such as sweet snacks, gasoline, e-cigarette fluid and heavy machinery rentals. But the proposal with the most apparent momentum is a tax swap that would allow local governments to charge a higher sales tax in exchange for reducing property tax levies.

Even raising the sales tax by one percent “contributes a lot of money” that school districts, cities and counties could use to offset reductions in property tax revenue, Zerwas said. Some estimates predict such an increase would raise more than $5 billion a year. The statewide sales tax rate is now 6.25 percent a year. Local governments can add up to two percent.

Although Republicans are leading the charge with major tax swap proposals, it’s unclear how they will fare in the GOP-led House and Senate, particularly among lawmakers who narrowly won their reelections as Texas Democrats gain ground.

Financial implications of the bills are shaky. Several tax bills were filed a week ago, just under a deadline, and have yet to be analyzed by the Legislative Budget Board which predicts financial effects.

Increasing reliance on the sales tax troubles Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget and policy expert with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. Not only is a sales tax considered regressive for taking more money from low-income people than the rich, but its collections are more susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy, she said.

“You need to find a revenue source that doesn’t all the sudden tank on you. Or if you know that it is going to do that, you need to put most of it away for a rainy day and use it when that rainy day comes,” she said.

[…]

Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, is proposing Texas increase taxes on gasoline and close tax exemptions on items like ice cream, certain baked goods, e-cigarette vapor fluid and over-the-counter medicine.

“I don’t think people realize their ibuprofen is tax-free,” said Springer. In exchange, House Bill 2915 would allow the state to lower the maintenance and operations property tax that funds schools. His bill would also increase the homestead exemption to 50 percent of a home’s value. Texans in a home valued at $274,000 would average $1,400 a year in property tax relief, he said, amounting to $6.2 billion less in property tax collections statewide.

Another bill, House Joint Resolution 3, proposes inching up the sales tax and using money from that increase exclusively for public schools. The resolution is proposed by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the architect of the House’s $9 billion school finance plan. The measure would require a vote in November to change the state Constitution and increase the statewide sales tax, which is now 6.25 percent. Huberty emphasized that raising the sales tax is just one measure under consideration, and that it’s still too early to pencil in numbers.

“We have to put more money into the system. It’s our responsibility,” Huberty said Thursday at an event hosted by the Texas Tribune.

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie is proposing the state systematically examine each tax exemption every six years to decide whether it is needed. House Bill 3968 will raise revenue by expiring out-of-date tax “loopholes” over time, he said, and is a good alternative to raising sales taxes.

“It is important to note that Texas already has a high sales tax — 8.25 percent in most areas,” said Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “The lower someone’s income, the more it hurts, so an increase in the sales tax will hurt a lot of Texas families.”

This comes up every few years – in 2005, in 2007, in the 2012 and 2014 elections – and each time we confront the fact that swapping property taxes for sales taxes greatly benefits property owners while burdening lower income folks the most. That’s a feature and not a bug, as far as its Republican advocates are concerned. I appreciate that at least this time it’s being proposed in the context of putting more money into schools, which would then have the effect of easing the pressure on local property taxes, but the same problem remains. Rep. Turner’s proposal to evaluate tax breaks also comes up whenever sales-tax-increase bills are filed, and it usually gets quietly ignored as the higher-profile swap bills eventually die. It’s still a good idea, it just never gets any momentum behind it. Rep. Springer’s idea to expand the sales tax to more things also comes up in conjunction with swap bills, and there is merit to this approach as well, though the real money is in taxing services, which is pretty much as big a taboo as an income tax is.

To review: I support requiring a process to scrutinize and sunset every tax break we have on the books, and I support at least exploring the imposition of a sales tax on selected goods and services where it is not currently imposed. If the goal of that is to put more state money into public education, and one result is that it allows local governments to ease up on property tax collections because they are no longer trying to make up for the state’s inadequacies, I would consider that a good outcome. The Trib has more.

House passes its budget out of committee

On to the full House, then the real fight occurs.

A panel of House budget writers gave initial approval Monday to a budget that would spend $115 billion in state funds, including a $9 billion infusion of new funds for Texas public schools and property tax relief.

Now that the House Appropriations Committee has approved the 2020-21 spending plan, House Bill 1, the legislation moves to the floor of the 150-member House.

[…]

Among the highlights of the House’s spending plan are:

$9 billion in new state funding for K-12 education and property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing reforms to the way the state funds public schools. The budget does not dictate the breakdown of those funds, but a bill backed by Speaker Dennis Bonnen would give about $6 billion to school districts and use the remaining $3 billion to pay for a reduction in local school district property taxes.

A $2.8 billion increase in state and federal funds for health and human services above what the House proposed in January. That includes a $25 million increase for early childhood intervention services, $6.7 million to reduce caseloads for Adult Protective Services workers, $31 million to expand capacity at local mental health clinics for low-income Texans and $87 million to raise the pay of personal attendants, who care for the elderly and disabled, by about 10 cents an hour.

A $168 million expenditure to give some Texas prison guards and parole officers a pay raise.

Rep. Matt Schaefer was the lone No vote in committee, so presume that this will get some pushback from the wingnuts. The story notes that the House budget draws $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund, but it doesn’t specify what it’s used for. There’s more here on the House school finance proposal. The budget is the one thing the Lege absolutely has to do. With some cracks beneath the surface on other “priority” items, it’s nice to see this get a head start.

No more PSF investing for you, Land Board

Seems worth considering.

Austin Lawmakers filed bills this week that would strip the School Land Board of its ability to invest billions of dollars on behalf of Texas schoolchildren.

The bipartisan legislation, submitted Wednesday, comes amid mounting scrutiny over the management of the $44 billion Permanent School Fund, which is run jointly by the land board and the State Board of Education. The two boards are the subject of a yearlong Houston Chronicle investigation that began publishing Sunday, which found that the fund has lost out on as much as $12 billion in revenue, fueled by anemic returns, skyrocketing fees and questionable investment deals.

At the same time, students in Texas have received less annually from the endowment over the past decade, in real dollars, than they did in the two decades prior, even as the overall size of the fund has swelled.

The land board’s role has been especially contentious. It manages its portion of the portfolio — now at $10 billion — by collecting the state’s oil and gas royalty revenues and investing them, primarily in private equity. The land board has only three members, often meets behind closed doors, and since 2006 has committed or invested nearly $3.7 billion with companies run by friends, business associates or campaign donors.

The bills would end that, revoking the land board’s investment power and returning it entirely to the education board. It would still gather fees from royalties, but pass them straight on to the education board.

Consolidating the two will “put more money to work for the benefit of our schoolchildren,” Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who is leading the effort, said in a statement. “The legislature created this flawed structure, and it’s time we fixed it.”

Five Republican Senate committee chairs have signed on to the legislation, including Jane Nelson, Brian Birdwell, Paul Bettencourt, Dawn Buckingham and Bob Hall. Republican Rep. Ken King has filed identical legislation in the House.

See here for the background, and here for the full series published by the Chron. The SBOE had full responsibility for the PSF until 2001, so this would revert things to the earlier setup. Not that the SBOE has been a perfect steward of the PSF, but they’ve been a little better than the Land Board. I would not object to an overall higher level of scrutiny on the whole process. This is at least a step in the right direction.

In a statement, Land Commissioner George P. Bush called the proposal a “power grab.” He said he welcomes reforms, but only if they’re based upon sound financial expertise.

“Without expert evaluation, the school children of Texas stand to lose,” he said.

Bush, who oversees the land board, said after a meeting on Tuesday that he had not read the Chronicle’s reporting and didn’t plan to.

“I’m trying a new strategy in 2019 by not reading my media,” he said. He said his office would review the series’ findings and follow up later.

Remember when George P. Bush was the fresh new exciting face of the Texas GOP? Boy, those were the days.

Senate files its school finance bill

Here it is.

Sen. Larry Taylor

On the night of the deadline to file bills this legislative session, Texas Senate leaders turned in their first crack at legislation designed to reform school finance — rounding out a series of proposals in the upper chamber aiming to address rising property taxes and fix the way the state pays for its schools.

The bill was clearly incomplete and included some placeholder language. But its Republican author, Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, said it includes proposals that would fund full-day pre-K, incentivize school districts to improve their third-grade reading performance, offer money for teacher merit pay and increase funding for low-income students. The bill does not appear to require school districts to use standardized tests to determine funding.

Taylor didn’t give an indication of how much the bill would cost, or how it would affect local school district property taxes.

“Our focus should be on improving the academic outcomes of our low-income students, who make up the largest and fastest growing demographic in our public school system,” he said in a statement.

Some of the proposals in the bill appear similar to recommendations from a state school finance commission, which Taylor helped create.

See here, here, and here for some background. We don’t know enough about this bill yet – if there’s ever an application for the old saying about the devil being in the details, it’s with school finance bills – but so far I don’t see anything that makes me want to put my shields up. We’re starting out in a better place now than we’ve done in previous sessions. We still need to finish there.

What’s wrong with the Permanent School Fund?

For starters, it should have more money in it.

It was a grand promise, one our forefathers made 165 years ago to all Texas children, to theirs and ours and those not yet born.

With $2 million and the state’s most abundant and precious resource — its land — they created the Texas Permanent School Fund to forever support public education. It was called a “sacred trust.”

That trust, dedicated to K-12 schools, is now valued at $44 billion, bigger than even Harvard University’s endowment.

It is also broken.

The Permanent School Fund has failed to match the performance of peer endowments, missing out on as much as $12 billion in growth and amassing a risky asset allocation, a yearlong Houston Chronicle investigation reveals.

Outside fund managers have charged the endowment at least a billion dollars in fees during the past decade, records show. Some of them have had professional or personal relationships with Texas School Land Board members, who govern a portion of the fund.

And, critically, the fund is sending less money to schools than it did decades ago, in real dollars. The amount dropped to an average of $986 million annually over the past decade from an average of $1.14 billion in the previous 20 years, in inflation-adjusted dollars. Last year, the fund distributed only 2.8 percent of its value — roughly half the share paid out by many endowments.

That decline, coupled with a 2 million increase in the number of students over 30 years, has slashed the fund’s per-student distribution.

Per student, the fund has paid an average of $207 annually over the past decade compared with $322, adjusted for inflation, over the prior two decades, a drop of more than one-third.

According to the Congressional Research Service, between 1998 and 2017, the average payout from higher education endowments has ranged between 4.2 percent and 5.1 percent. If the Texas fund paid out 5 percent of a four-year average market value, as many endowments try to, Texas schools would have received $720 million more in 2018.

That’s the opening of part one of a promised four-part series. Here’s part two, in which we find that however the fund is doing, the fund managers are doing great.

Since the land board started investing with outside fund managers on behalf of the state’s K-12 endowment in 2006, it has committed or invested nearly $3.7 billion with companies run by friends, business associates or campaign donors.

Those donors together have given more than $1.4 million since 2006 to board members or elected officials with the power to appoint them, a Houston Chronicle investigation reveals.

And they’ve since charged the fund more than $218 million in fees, records show.

While the fees climbed during the past decade, the amount of money the $44 billion Texas Permanent School Fund sends to schools has declined, in real dollars, compared with the two decades prior.

Rep. Donna Howard, a Democrat from Austin, said it’s time to reassess how the school fund is managed.

“Without the right oversight, the PSF is ripe for conflicts of interest,” she said. “We have a responsibility for due diligence here.”

Read the rest, and come back for parts three and four. A better-managed PSF would not solve school finance by itself, but it sure would help. Seems like this is a prime opportunity for some high-profile legislation to improve how this works.

Here comes the House school finance plan

Not surprisingly, they go bigger than the Senate.

Rep. Dan Huberty

With Texas House lawmakers unveiling their long-awaited school finance proposal Tuesday and the Senate’s version likely close behind, teacher pay appears to be emerging as one of the biggest sticking points between the two chambers.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, laid out their reform proposal at a press conference Tuesday, calling for raising minimum salaries for a broad group of educators, increasing health and pension benefits, and offering opportunities for merit pay programs. That approach differs substantially from the $4 billion proposal that sailed through the Senate on Monday that would provide mandatory across-the-board $5,000 raises for classroom teachers and librarians.

When asked about the Senate’s proposal, which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has championed, Bonnen said, “I don’t know how you call a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise … with no discussion of reducing recapture, no discussion of reducing property taxes, no discussion of early childhood education, no discussion of incentivizing the teachers going to a tougher school to teach” a school finance plan.

“What we have is a plan,” he added. “I think teachers are some of the smartest people in Texas, and they are going to figure out that the Texas House has a winning plan for the teachers and students in Texas.”

[…]

The House proposal, House Bill 3, would increase the base funding per student while requiring school districts to meet a higher minimum base pay for classroom teachers, full-time counselors, full-time librarians and full-time registered nurses. Many districts already exceed the current minimum salaries for educators at different experience levels.

It would work hand-in-hand with House Bill 9, filed Monday by the speaker’s brother, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, which would increase the state’s contribution to Teacher Retirement System pensions over time while keeping active member and district contributions the same.

HB 3 would also provide funding for districts that offer a merit pay program, rating their teachers and providing the top-rated ones with more money — modeled on a Dallas ISD program touted among lawmakers. The Senate is expected to include a similar proposal in its school finance bill later this week.

The politics surrounding the Senate’s teacher pay raise bill this session are unusual, with Patrick, who has previously clashed with educators, advocating for a proposal many teachers like. Meanwhile, conservative group Empower Texans, a key contributor to Patrick’s campaign, has come out against the bill, with one employeecriticizing conservatives like Patrick for “kowtowing” to liberals.

That bill has divided the education community, with superintendents and school boards arguing they need more flexibility with additional funds and many teachers supporting the directed raises.

Huberty said Tuesday that the House would “certainly have a hearing on that [Senate] bill” but that the school finance panel that worked to develop recommendations for lawmakers did not include across-the-board raises.

He said HB 3 provides more opportunity for local school boards and superintendents to decide how to use increased funding. More than 85 House members have signed on as co-authors of HB 3, and in a public show of support, many of them were present at Tuesday’s press conference.

See here and here for some background. A preview story about the House bill is here, and a story about that Senate bill is here. The Senate bill covers raises for teachers and librarians, but not other support personnel like nurses or bus drivers, which is one reason why the more-flexible approach is favored by school districts; that said, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association released a statement emphasizing the need for a Senate-style guaranteed teacher pay raise. The House is also taking a different approach on property taxes, as noted in that preview story:

According to the summary, the bill would increase the base funding per student by $890 to $6,030 — the first time that allotment has been raised in four years. It would also lower school district property tax rates statewide by 4 cents per $100 of taxable property value, helping to reduce so-called Robin Hood payments that redistribute money from wealthier districts to poorer ones. The compression could save the owner of a home with $250,000 in taxable value about $100 annually in school district taxes.

That method of property tax relief is different than one proposed by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, which would cap annual increases in school districts’ tax revenues at 2.5 percent.

There’s also the Democratic proposal, some of which is in HB3. All of this is a starting point, so I don’t want to get too far into the weeds. None of these bills will be adopted as is, and some of them may not get adopted at all. This and the budget will be the last pieces of business the Lege deals with, and the main reason why there could be a special session. We’ll keep an eye on it all. The Chron has more.

Dems propose their school finance bills

It’s good to have a broad array of options.

The Texas House Democratic Caucus laid out a $14.5 billion plan for school finance reform and property tax relief Thursday, releasing a list of priorities in advance of a key school finance bill Republican education leaders are expected to file and support.

The Democrats’ plan is composed of dozens of bills members have filed — or will file — to increase teacher pay and benefits, pay schools more for educating low-income students, and provide more counselors for school districts. It does not include two policy items that may be included in Republican-filed legislation: merit pay for teachers or paying schools more for higher student test scores.

“We hope to work with our colleagues to incorporate some of these ideas into their bills,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who chairs the caucus.

[…]

Some of the House Democrats’ proposals dovetail with recommendations in the school finance panel’s report. [Rep. Mary] González filed House Bill 89, which would increase the base funding districts get per student and ensure they receive more funding for low-income students and those learning English.

A few House Democrats have filed bills that would fund full-day pre-K for all school districts, an estimated cost of $1.6 billion.

The proposal also includes $3.78 billion for teacher pay and benefits — around the same amount Senate Republican leaders have proposed in across-the-board $5,000 raises for full-time classroom teachers. House Democrats are championing proposals that would increase salaries for not just teachers, but also support staff, while also boosting financial support for teacher health care premiums. The exact amount of the proposed raises for each person has not yet been determined.

See here for more on the school finance panel report. Some of these ideas will be included, in whole or in part, in the omnibus school finance bill that Rep. Dan Huberty will file. Others are there more as a statement of values, since none of these bills will pass without sufficient Republican support. If I could pick just one thing to make it to Abbott’s desk, it would be the full day pre-K, which will have a big return on investment if we do it right. When all is said and done, I’d love to know how much of what was on offer today makes it through into the final bill.

Superintendent search will continue

For the time being, at least.

Houston ISD’s pursuit of a permanent superintendent will continue after trustees rejected a motion Thursday to suspend the search amid a recently launched state investigation into potential violations of open meetings laws.

Trustees voted 5-3 to continue the search for a permanent leader to replace former superintendent Richard Carranza, who left the district in March 2018 to become chancellor of New York City public schools. Three trustees who favored suspending the effort argued the district cannot attract qualified candidates with the looming threat of sanctions tied to the state investigation, while the five opponents argued the district should push forward despite the inquiry.

“I promised my community that I would do a superintendent search, and that’s what I’m following.” said HISD Board President Diana Dávila, who voted against suspending the search.

[…]

The three trustees who supported suspending the search — Wanda Adams, Jolanda Jones and Rhonda Skillern-Jones — have all advocated for permanently retaining Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, arguing she has proven her ability to lead the district.

The trio of trustees have been highly critical of five board members who secretly communicated with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, then voted in October 2018 to replace Lathan with Saavedra. Allegations of open meetings act violations by the five trustees who spoke to Saavedra triggered a special accreditation agency investigation by the Texas Education Agency. The five trustees have denied wrongdoing.

Supporters of suspending the search argued the potential for severe sanctions tied to the investigation will limit the pool of candidates willing to jump to HISD. If state officials order the replacement of the HISD board, new trustees could immediately replace the freshly hired superintendent.

“I cannot imagine that a highly qualified candidate who is rational and sane would come here in the face of uncertainty, when they may not have a job soon,” Skillern-Jones said.

The five trustees who voted against the motion Thursday — Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — have pushed for a nationwide search. Trustee Sue Deigaard, who previously supported giving Lathan a short-term contract and simultaneously conducting a nationwide search, abstained from Thursday’s vote, telling her colleagues she is “not going to be part of this divide anymore.”

“We all need to figure this out and not continue to be divisive on this subject,” Deigaard said.

I mean, as a matter of principle it’s generally a good idea to search far and wide for the best candidate. Under normal circumstances, the HISD job is pretty plum – it’s a big district with a good financial foundation and a lot of high-performing schools, and more than one former Superintendent has gone on to bigger things. For obvious reasons, the job isn’t quite as attractive right now – the search firm says the potential of a TEA takeover has been mentioned by numerous candidates. There’s a good case to be made for Trustee Deigaard’s position of extending Superintendent Lathan for now, and resuming the search later, say in a year or so, when the immediate issues have been clarified, if not resolved. One can also reasonably argue that with so much on the line right now, it’s wiser to leave the Superintendent in place who has been doing the work to get the four schools that need to meet standards up to those standards. By all accounts, the current program for bringing the schools in need up to standard has been working well. I don’t know enough to say that I’d support making Superintendent Lathan permanent at this time, but I’d definitely support keeping her in place for the near term and revisiting the question at a later date. As I’ve said before about all things HISD, I sure hope this works out. The Press has more.

Always beware revenue caps

They’re always a bad idea.

Flanked by the state’s top legislative leaders, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that both chambers of the Texas Legislature will push to curb property tax growth by limiting how much money local governments collect without voter approval.

Fellow Republicans Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, as well as the heads of both chambers’ tax-writing committees, joined Abbott in making the announcement. Their news conference followed the filing of identical bills in both chambers, Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 2.

Abbott said it was “completely unprecedented” for lawmakers to be so closely aligned on such an important issue this early in the session.

“Most importantly, it’s a testament to the voters in this state,” he said. “The voters demanded this, and this demonstrates that the Texas Legislature is responsive to the needs of our voters.”

But two Democrats who sit on the House Ways and Means Committee said the proposed legislation is far from being a done deal. And an advocate for city governments said there are plenty of unintended consequences that need to be worked out. Chief among them is ensuring that cities aren’t suddenly unable to afford police officers and firefighters.

Thursday’s bills seek to require voters to approve tax rates that allow government entities like cities, counties and school districts to collect an additional 2.5 percent in revenues from existing property compared with a previous year. The threshold would not apply to small taxing units — those with potential property and sales tax collections of $15 million or less.

Currently, cities and counties can collect an additional 8 percent in revenues without involving voters. But even then, residents must collect enough signatures to force an election. The new pair of bills would automatically trigger what’s called a rollback election. If voters shoot down the measure, the government entity would have to set a tax rate that allows it only to collect revenues from existing properties that are less than 2.5 percent more than the previous year.

The rollback rate is also based on the appraised value of properties within a taxing unit’s borders. That means a city or county could hit the rollback election threshold without changing its tax rate — or even if it lowers the tax rate — if there is a significant increase in local property values.

The legislation does not apply a cap to individual property tax bills. Because it would limit only how much government entities can collect in property tax revenues before getting voter approval, an agency could stay below the rollback election rate, and that portion of a property owner’s tax bill could still increase.

Local officials are almost certain to to push back. Bennett Sandlin is the executive director of the Texas Municipal League, which advocates for city governments. His organization estimates that about 150 of the state’s largest cities would be affected if the legislation passes. He said that the rollback threshold is lower than inflation and could prevent cities from paying for first responders’ raises, filling potholes, and keeping recreation centers or libraries open.

As the story notes, this is more ambitious than what Abbott and Patrick pushed for in 2017, and they’re doing it with smaller majorities. On the other hand, these are the highest-priority bills they have (hence the HB2 and SB2 designations), and they’re no doubt going to go all out. It’s very possible they could succeed.

But here’s the thing. This is what they rolled out after making big promises about reforming school finance and giving more money to schools. Did you notice what was missing in this rollowt?

They were so tuned in to their harmonic convergence, they didn’t talk much about what their legislation would actually do, leaving the details to the bill sponsors to explain later.

They did say they were going for a 2.5-percent growth limit on property taxes in local school districts, cities, counties and other government bodies. It’s aimed at overall taxes, a leash on the overall mix of property values and tax rates that determine what happens to the average taxpayer’s bill. Anything that increases a local government’s property tax revenues by more than that would trigger an automatic November election asking voters for permission.

You might wonder how public education is going to get more financial help, as proposed by this same group of elected officials, if the state is going to limit school districts’ ability to levy taxes.

The short answer is that the state’s going to pay for it. The House’s proposed budget for the next two years adds billions to what the state is spending on schools. The Senate’s plan doesn’t spend as much, but the increases are significant (and in one case, more specific: Patrick has proposed $3.7 billion in teacher pay raises). Abbott floated the idea of holding down local taxes and tax increases — an answer to loud and persistent complaints about property taxes — and increasing state spending to fill the gap. And Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the fourth official at those weekly breakfasts, has proposed requiring the state to pay at least 40 percent of the cost of public education, along with any increases due to inflation.

But they haven’t said where the state money will come from. Nobody in the state government’s high places has proposed raising a tax, cutting other state spending to produce money for education, or weeding through the state’s tax exemptions and loopholes to shore up the state’s share of the public education load.

In other words, right now it’s all underpants gnomes. I don’t know about you, but I’m not expecting much more in the way of details about how this is supposed to do all the things they say it will do.

How much more danger is HISD in of being taken over?

Hard to say for sure, but they’re not in a good place right now.

The threat of state takeover has loomed over Houston ISD for months, largely due to chronically low-rated schools and mounting frustration with its much-criticized school board.

Now, another factor could give state leaders more reason to pull the trigger: a new investigation into potential violations of open meetings laws by five trustees last year.

It’s far too soon to tell whether state investigators will dig up any dirt on the five board members, but the fallout from the disclosure of the investigation is leading to speculation about what sanctions could befall the state’s largest school district.

The worst-case scenario for those who want HISD to remain under local control: investigators find extensive wrongdoing that provides cover for Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration to wrest jurisdiction over the board.

“I’m inclined to think this gives them the opportunity to really seize the public discourse,” said Jasmine Jenkins, executive director of Houstonians for Great Public School, a nonprofit that monitors HISD’s governance practices. “Part of the problem about the governor taking over is that it’s politically unpopular. It’s easier to do that if you remind the public how dysfunctional the board is.”

[…]

A special accreditation investigation allows Texas Education Agency staff members to obtain documents and interview witnesses to determine whether school officials violated laws or threatened a district’s welfare. If investigators find one-time or minor missteps by HISD trustees, TEA officials could mandate relatively light sanctions, such as additional training on open records laws.

However, more egregious or systemic wrongdoing could allow TEA to lower the district’s accreditation, opening the district to a wide array of escalating sanctions. Given that HISD already is monitored by a state-appointed conservator — one of the most severe interventions at the TEA’s disposal — some district onlookers fear a state takeover of the district’s board could be next.

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who has called for state and criminal investigations into her five fellow board members, said she believes the inquiry “very well could be the cause for us getting taken over.”

“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make, to ask for an investigation from an agency I don’t even respect,” said Jones, an ardent critic of the TEA and supporter of Lathan. “That bothers me, but I can’t stay silent and turn a blind eye.”

See here for the background. Let’s see what the investigation turns up first. The five trustees have maintained they did nothing wrong and have pledged to cooperate. If they’re right on both counts, then this ought to blow over and I don’t think HISD will be in any more real danger than before. If they’re wrong, to whatever extent, that’s when things get dicey. I tend to agree with Jasmine Jenkins here: The state would, all things considered and Greg Abbott’s mini-Trump tweets aside, rather not take over HISD. They are not equipped to run a big school district, and there’s no empirical reason to believe they will get any better results by stepping in. But the board is on thin ice, and they don’t have many friends in positions of power. If this investigation gives weight to the critics, that could be enough to overcome the resistance. I sure hope it doesn’t come to that.

HISD’s last stand

They have their work cut out for them.

Houston ISD’s four Hispanic trustees took hold of the school board’s top officer positions Thursday, led by Trustee Diana Dávila winning election as president of the much-maligned governance team.

Dávila, who has spent a decade on the board spread over two separate terms, will take responsibility for setting the leadership tone in HISD following months of governance strife that has often cut across ethnic and racial lines. Elected officers do not have more voting power than other trustees, but the board president presides over board meetings and drives the agenda.

Dávila said her priorities will include ensuring the district’s longest-struggling schools get resources needed to meet state academic standards, fighting for more education funding and restructuring board meetings to foster greater engagement and transparency.

“I’m looking to be bringing back some of those things we used to do before, making sure that we respect each other as colleagues on the board and respect the administration,” said Dávila, who served as board president in 2006.

The best thing the Board can do at this time is minimize dissension within their ranks, speak with one voice as much as possible, and find a permanent Superintendent. Accomplishing those first two should make the third go more smoothly.

This joint op-ed by Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Elizabeth Santos is a good example of what I’m talking about.

This board was divided on some high-profile issues last year. The two of us have been on opposite sides on some of those fights. But we are united in a vision for a school district where neighborhood schools are cornerstones of their communities, equity is a guiding principle of resource allocation and all students receive educations that are tailored to their individual learning needs.

To achieve that vision, all levels of government involved in making education policy must take a long-term approach that addresses the costs of educating students living in poverty, English language learners and students with special needs. Unfortunately, state funding formulas — which have not changed in 30 years — woefully underestimate these costs.

[…]

Despite all of this, HISD has fared well under the flawed STAAR regime. The district earned an 84 percent rating with 91 percent of schools meeting standard. We reduced the number of schools that could trigger automatic state sanctions from 52 to 4, and we have maintained a recognized financial rating of 90 percent and a high bond rating.

It is baffling that HISD taxpayers are required to foot the entire bill for their district and also forfeit $100 million in “recaptured” dollars — and growing — to supplement the state’s obligation to other districts, while at the same time facing the risk of being stripped of their right to elect their own governing board. That hardly seems democratic or just.

Apparently “no taxation without representation” is just something we teach in our history classes.

I agree with pretty much everything they say in this piece. I hope over the next eight months – and, ideally, a lot longer than that – we can focus on those things, and not on whatever is going on with the Board.

State House mulls big increase in school funding

That’s a good start.

As Texas’ Republican leadership calls for property tax cuts and a school finance overhaul, the Texas House on Monday pitched a bold proposal: Pump roughly $7 billion more state funds into public schools — but only if lawmakers can satisfactorily overhaul the school finance system to slow the growth of property taxes.

Budget documents published Monday evening show the House has offered up a whopping 17 percent increase in K-12 public education funding so long as lawmakers achieve a few lofty goals in reforming how the state pays for public schools: Reduce the state’s reliance on property taxes, decrease the need for the unpopular Robin Hood system that requires property-wealthy school districts to subsidize poorer ones, and maintain an equitable system of school finance, as required by the state Constitution.

Counting all sources of funding — including local property taxes, state revenue and federal dollars — the state’s public education budget would grow to about $70.6 billion in the two-year cycle from 2020 to 2021, according to a Legislative Budget Board summary of the proposed House budget. That’s an increase of 16.7 percent from the previous two-year budget cycle, when the state spent about $60.5 billion on public schools.

[…]

The state is forecasted to have about 8.1 percent more funding available to spend over the next, two-year budget cycle. The House’s proposed budget would also withdraw $633 million out of the state savings account, called the Economic Stabilization Fund, to pay for retired teachers’ pensions, school safety improvements and disaster-relief programs.

That account, also known as the rainy day fund, has grown to a record level thanks to booming oil and gas production. Even after the House’s proposed $633 million withdrawal, the fund’s balance is projected to reach $14.7 billion in 2021.

The budget recommends spending $109 million on school safety, which lawmakers have discussed as a priority item since the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting near Houston left 10 dead. Included in school safety funding would be about $12 million for children’s mental health programs.

Notably, the House budget decreases state funding for health care and human services by about 3.2 percent. Education and health care make up the vast majority of state spending.

Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, would see a decrease of $1.4 billion in state funds, for example.

There are a lot of details to be filled in here. Making this contingent on property tax reform can be dicey, as the last time the Lege “fixed” school finance by way of tax reform they screwed over the revenue stream for years to come. Cutting Medicaid payments is a serious no-go. All of this has to actually be written into the budget and then approved by both chambers and not line-item-vetoed by Abbott. Lots of things can go wrong or turn out bad. But all that said, this is a great starting point, and hugely refreshing after too many sessions of cuts.

Meanwhile, in the Senate:

Leaders of the Texas Senate are proposing giving schools $3.7 billion to provide $5,000 pay raises to all full-time classroom teachers — on the heels of a House budget proposal that includes $7 billion more for public education.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, filed Senate Bill 3 Tuesday morning, which would mandate that schools use the billions in additional funding specifically for teacher pay raises. Speaking at his inauguration Tuesday morning, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, lauded the proposal as one of his main priorities this legislative session and said the funding would be permanent.

[…]

Nelson’s proposal appears to build a new formula into the school finance system that would distribute state funding to schools based on the number of full-time classroom teachers they employ, and require they use that money for raises over the previous year.

Here’s SB3. We now know that while the Senate is also proposing more money overall for school finance, it’s not as much as what the House is proposing. This is what I mean when I say there’s a long way to go to get to a finished product. Be that as it may, this too is a good start.

The TEA could have already taken over HISD

I had not known this.

For more than a year, Houston ISD leaders have fretted over the possibility of a state takeover mandated under a recently passed law, known as HB 1842. The statute directs the Texas Education Agency to close schools or replace a district’s locally-elected board of trustees if any campus receives five straight “improvement required” ratings for poor academic achievement. Houston narrowly avoided that punishment in 2018, when six long-struggling schools met state standard. Four campuses still could still trigger sanctions this year.

However, a lesser-known law quietly has loomed over the district. Texas law states that the education commissioner may replace the school board in a district under scrutiny from a state-appointed conservator for two consecutive years — a threshold Houston crossed in September 2017. Houston’s conservator, former Aldine ISD administrator Doris Delaney, was appointed in September 2016 to monitor Kashmere High School, which has failed to meet state academic standards for nine consecutive years. Her responsibilities expanded to monitoring the district’s school board and other long-struggling schools in mid-2017.

To date, [TEA Commissioner Mike] Morath has chosen to not replace Houston’s school board, exercising discretion granted to him under the conservator law. Instead, the TEA has taken several steps to work with Houston administrators and board members: keeping Delaney in place, requiring on-the-ground assistance from outside educators, overseeing campus turnaround plans and offering governance training, among other supports. Lira said trustees have not been threatened with immediate replacement by TEA officials, and that the agency’s staff has been “willing to work with us as long as we have a plan in place.”

In a statement, TEA spokeswoman Ciara Wieland said Abbott and Morath are working in concert to help Houston.

“Any action taken by Commissioner Morath or TEA to ensure Houston ISD has been given ample time, resources and support to achieve the best outcomes for students has also come with the full support of the governor and is in alignment with their shared vision of improving education outcomes in the district,” Wieland said.

Here’s the Chron story about Delaney’s appointment in 2016. This story from July of last year mentions that she had been appointed in January to keep an eye on district governance and the then-10 turnaround schools. I’m a little surprised no one has made anything of this before now, but here we are.

It should be clear why the state has been reluctant to step in, despite Greg Abbott’s nasty tweet. If the TEA takes over, then the TEA owns all of the problems that HISD is trying to solve. That’s a much tougher task than their current advisory role. I strongly suspect that Mike Morath and the TEA really really want the four schools to meet standard this year, in part because they want the schools and the kids to succeed, and in part because they really really don’t want to be saddled with the job of running a massive, diverse, sprawling school district. That’s not their job, and there’s nothing in the track record of past takeovers by state agencies, here and elsewhere, to suggest they’ll do any better at it than HISD has done. There’s a reason why Abbott hasn’t had much to say about this since his Trumpian Twitter moment.

By far the best possible outcome is for these schools to meet standard this year. The question that matters is what can everyone do to help make that happen.

Our pretty decent revenue estimate

We’ve seen much worse.

At a time when legislators are vowing to spend more money on public schools and slow the growth of Texans’ property tax bills, the state should have enough money at its disposal to do just that.

That is, if its newest predictions hold true.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday offered a cautiously optimistic outlook for the Texas economy, telling lawmakers they will have about 8.1 percent more state funds available to budget for public programs — primarily schools, highways and health care — in 2020 and 2021. Hegar projected there would be about $119.1 billion in state funds available for the next two-year budget, up from $110.2 in the last two-year budget.

But falling oil prices in the last month, along with heightened uncertainty in the U.S. economy and international financial markets, led Hegar to deliver a “cloudy” forecast with some trepidation.

“We remain cautiously optimistic but recognize we’re unlikely to see continued revenue growth at the unusually strong rates we’ve seen in recent months,” he said.

[…]

Meanwhile, the state’s savings account, known as the rainy day fund, is projected to reach a record high balance of $15 billion. Lawmakers will debate whether to dip into that Economic Stabilization Fund to pay for bills coming due from the last two-year budget period, including Hurricane Harvey recovery, and in the upcoming two-year budget.

Advocates for greater investment in public schools reacted positively to the revenue estimate, saying lawmakers now have no excuse not to increase spending, given a growing budget and unprecedentedly large savings account balance.

“This is good news,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a state budget analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. “This is enough to not cut state services.”

It is good news, but as always it comes with a warning label.

[T]he Republican-controlled Legislature has excelled at finding new ways to squander available funds on everything from inefficient property tax relief, piecemeal school finance fixes and heaps of corporate subsidies and tax cuts. Dan Patrick and the tea party faction are also intent on keeping the overflowing Rainy Day Fund under lock and key, despite the continued urgency of Hurricane Harvey relief. That could be a big wild card — given that Governor Greg Abbott never called a special session after Harvey, the Legislature has yet to allocate any state relief money. Leaders in the affected Gulf Coast region, from Rockport to Port Arthur, are sure to call on legislators to step up.

Of course, the devil will be in the details — GOP lawmakers are experienced at promising to tackle weighty, complicated issues like property tax relief and school finance reform while pushing policy that doesn’t really fix anything, or makes things worse. Abbott is intent on settling the property tax dilemma by handcuffing local governments’ ability to levy property tax increases, all while ignoring the larger problem at hand: the state needs to dedicate a lot more money for schools.

The state school finance system is in desperate need of an overhaul. Texas’ spending per student is around $10,000 a year, about $2,300 below the national average. Funding has remained relatively stagnant over the past decade and the state has plummeted to 36th in the nation in terms of per pupil spending. Meanwhile, as the state’s population has grown rapidly, the Legislature has forced local governments to pick up a larger share of the education tab through property tax revenues (thus fueling the current property tax crisis). In 2008, the state and local funding shares were split evenly, but the state’s contribution has since fallen to its current rate of 38 percent, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Without a fix, that number is projected to fall even further. This has created a perpetual underfunding of the school system and has worsened the inequities between rich and poor districts.

But Hegar’s estimate is a heartening sign for advocates hoping for a substantial injection of state funding for public education — as much as $5 billion, which is what [outgoing Speaker Joe] Straus has said the state can afford. Perhaps an emboldened caucus of House and Senate Democrats, in tandem with Republicans who saw the writing on the wall in November, will be able to succeed in pushing for a more comprehensive solution.

The need is great, but the temptation to splurge on wasteful tax cuts that they call “school finance reform” is greater still. Even if there’s a zombie bathroom bill, that’s going to be the fight of the session. Texas Monthly has more.

Greg Abbott to HISD: Drop dead

I have four things to say about this.

A post sent from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Twitter account Thursday lambasted Houston ISD’s leadership as “a disaster” that has failed children in the state’s largest school district — a rare public condemnation of the district from the state’s top executive.

“What a joke. HISD leadership is a disaster,” read a tweet posted from Abbott’s official account. “Their self-centered ineptitude has failed the children they are supposed to educate. If ever there was a school board that needs to be taken over and reformed, it’s HISD. Their students & parents deserve change.”

The comments come as HISD faces potentially major sanctions, including a state takeover of its locally elected school board, tied to chronically low academic results at four schools. They also come as HISD’s board of trustees has been bombarded with criticism in recent months for its acrimonious public displays and its widely-panned effort to covertly oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

[…]

The post linked to a commentary authored by three community members and printed in the Houston Chronicle that criticized Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s efforts to partner with HISD to operate several long-struggling schools. The authors of the commentary also argued for taking legal action against the Texas Education Agency to prevent a state takeover of HISD’s board of trustees.

[…]

Abbott’s education commissioner, Mike Morath, must replace HISD’s school board or close underperforming schools if any one of four long-struggling campuses fail to meet state academic standards in 2019. Earlier comments by Morath and his deputy commissioner of governance, AJ Crabill, suggest Morath is more likely to install a replacement school board instead of shuttering any under-performing schools.

1. Just a reminder, the HISD Board is composed entirely of Democrats right now. Throwing them out of office is all dessert and no vegetables as far as Abbott is concerned.

2. Along those lines, remember that Abbott was just re-elected by over a million votes. He’s got the highest approval rating of any statewide elected official. He doesn’t face voters again until 2022. He could not possibly care less what a bunch of Pantsuit Nation or Indivisible members think, about this or about himself. There is no amount of activism or noise-making that will affect his opinions or his actions.

3. Again, this is why I have been extremely queasy about the all-or-nothing strategy that HISD has adopted, at the urging of some activists. I continue to believe that a TEA takeover is the worst possible outcome, and a partnership – if not with the city of Houston, then with HCC, which was never explored and now cannot be explored – for the purposes of forestalling such a takeover is a reasonable way to mitigate this risk. I understand that people have strong objections to this. I’m not here to relitigate that question, as the matter is settled. I’m just stating what my risk-averse nature is telling me. But look, none of this matters now. We’re not going to win a staredown with Abbott over this. He holds all the cards.

4. As for the litigation idea, someone is going to need to explain to me 1) on what grounds we would sue at this time, prior to a takeover, and 2) why a lawsuit filed in advance of a TEA takeover would be allowed to proceed. A lawsuit filed afterwards I understand, as then an alleged injury that the courts could correct has occurred. But before that, I feel confident that a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the issue is not ripe and no one yet has standing would be accepted. As always, I Am Not A Lawyer, so if someone knows better than me on this, please say so. The Trib has more.

Orlando Sanchez’s bizarre press conference

What a weird thing.

Orlando Sanchez

It was an absolutely wild afternoon for Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez. He planned to have a news conference across the street from the HISD administration building, but things didn’t go as planned.

Protestors showed up and completely disrupted Sanchez’s news conference. When he tried to get it started, the group would chant things like, ‘Go away, TEA’ and ‘You got voted out.’

Things really got heated when he was answering one of our questions. Someone from the group ran up and dumped water on him.

Someone from Sanchez’s team confronted the man. He ended up on the ground and police were called. Both sides claimed they were assaulted.

The news conference was supposed to be for Sanchez to call for the state to take over HISD.

“Taxpayers are fed up and it’s time for the governor and the Texas Education Agency to step up and make sure that children in HISD, which 83 percent of them are minority, get an education,” said Sanchez.

“To have somebody like that step on my toes like that when I have sacrificed so much for these kids, yeah, it’s emotional,” said HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern. “It is because it’s personal. These kids mean a lot to me; not just my five but all 215,000.”

Click over to see pictures and video. Far as I can tell, the only coverage of this fiasco has come from the TV stations; I’ve not seen anything in the Chron as yet.

Let me say up front that whoever poured water on Sanchez is an idiot, and what he did sure sounds like assault to me. It’s also terrible strategy from a public relations perspective. Sanchez’s purpose for calling the press conference was ridiculous on its face, and would have been easy to dismiss on its merits. Anyone who felt the need to attack Sanchez physically is someone who has no faith in their own political position.

Why do I say that Sanchez’s purpose is ridiculous? The law is clear that the authority of the TEA to step in only occurs after the schools fail to meet state standards. We won’t have that data for several months, a fact that everyone knows. It is entirely possible that the four schools in question, which were all granted one-year waivers due to the effects of Hurricane Harvey, could meet standards this year, as the other schools that had originally been under scrutiny and which did not get Harvey waivers did. One could easily argue that by making this needless and premature call for a TEA takeover, Sanchez is expressing a complete lack of faith in the students at the four schools. That’s an insult to them and their parents and teachers. Maybe he had some qualifiers and weasel words in his prepared text, but still, the message is clear: Orlando Sanchez expects you to fail, and so he wants the consequences of your failure to begin now.

One also can’t help but notice that Orlando Sanchez, who just got voted out of a cushy elected position where he was basically invisible for twelve years and has never before expressed any opinions about education or ideas about how to improve it, is jumping up and waving his arms in front of Greg Abbott at a time when he really needs something to do. It’s a clear grab for attention at a time when the news cycle is quiet and he can still call it in his capacity as an elected official. There’s also the rumors that Sanchez is prepping to run for Mayor (again). No such thing as bad publicity, am I right?

Finally, there will surely be litigation over the process of replacing an elected board with an appointed one – for sure, there’s a Voting Rights Act complaint to be made. There were lawsuits over the closure of North Forest ISD and La Marque ISD, and while the state prevailed in each of them, the situation with HISD, which is a much bigger district with many successful schools and is financially solvent, is vastly different. The state may well prevail in any litigation that will occur, but it will take time. There’s also the very real possibility that the Lege could modify the law in question that delays or makes less likely a TEA takeover. The point here is that in every way, this was way premature, and served to do nothing more than call attention to Orlando Sanchez. On that score at least, mission accomplished.

Here comes the latest school finance report

I figure the smart money is always on efforts like this to fail, but you never know.

After hours of discussion Wednesday, a state panel studying school finance stripped its final report of language that blamed the state for inadequate education spending — and that added urgency to a need for more money to improve student performance.

The original version of the report, unveiled last Tuesday, included stronger language that held the state accountable for the lack of education funding and urged lawmakers to immediately inject more than a billion dollars of new funding into public schools. Scott Brister, the panel’s chairman and a former Texas Supreme Court justice, led the charge to make those changes, which he said would be more palatable to lawmakers and keep Texas from being sued in the future.

“I do have a problem several places where it says our school system has failed. I do think that’s asking for trouble,” he said.

Some lawmakers and educators on the panel pushed back before agreeing to compromise.

“I think we have failed our schools and we haven’t funded them, in my view, adequately or equitably,” responded state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who chairs the House Public Education Committee.

Despite the conflict, the 13-member commission unanimously approved more than 30 recommendations on Wednesday aimed at boosting public education funding, improving student performance, cleaning up a messy funding distribution system — and providing property tax relief for Texans.

A final report will be sent to lawmakers, who are convening next month amid calls from state leadership to overhaul a long-embattled school finance system. Gov. Greg Abbott supported the panel’s vote in a statement Wednesday afternoon: “Today’s school finance commission report made clear that the state must reform the broken Robin Hood system and allocate more state funding to education. This session, we will do just that.”

[…]

Among the recommendations the commission plans to send to lawmakers are:

  • $100 million a year to school districts that want to develop their own teacher evaluation metrics and tie pay to performance. The total amount available should increase $100 million each year until it reaches $1 billion.
  • Up to $150 million to incentivize school districts to offer dual language programs, which instruct students in both English and Spanish, and to improve their dyslexia programs.
  • $800 million to incentivize school districts to improve students’ reading level in early grades and to succeed in college or a career after graduating high school.
  • $1.1 billion to improve education for low-income students, with school districts that have a higher share of needy students getting more money.
  • Create a new goal of having 60 percent of third-grade students reading on or above grade level and 60 percent of high school seniors graduating with a technical certificate, military inscription, or college enrollment without the need for remedial classes.
  • Cap local school district tax rates in order to offer property tax relief and a small amount of funding for schools — a proposal from Abbott.
  • No extra funding for special education programs until the state has completed overhauling those programs in line with a federal mandate.

The report hasn’t been published yet, so this is all we know. I don’t see any reason to trust Greg Abbott, who is more interested in cutting property taxes than in providing schools with the resources they need, and of course Dan Patrick will be heavily involved in whatever happens. I think the commission has generally good motives and for the most part the ideas are fine, but we could do a lot more, and that’s before we address the huge need for special ed funding. It’s all a matter of our priorities, and of our view of what “fixing” school finance looks like. The Chron has more.

It really is all or nothing for HISD

I hope we’re ready for this.

Barring a change to the sanctions law, litigation or a change of heart by the board of trustees — none of which are expected — HISD will learn in August whether the district will face state penalties for the four schools’ 2018-19 academic performance. HISD leaders could have staved off sanctions for two years by agreeing to temporarily surrender control of campuses in danger of triggering sanctions.

As HISD leaders pledged to march onward with current efforts to improve academic success at long-struggling campuses, some Houston-area civic leaders envisioned a future in which a state-appointed governing board took control of Texas’ largest school district. Under a state law authored by Dutton in 2015, the Texas Education Agency must close failing schools or replace the school board in any district with a single campus receiving five straight “improvement required” ratings. The four HISD campuses in danger of triggering sanctions this school year are Highland Heights Elementary School, Henry Middle School, and Kashmere and Wheatley high schools.

Some local officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner, have expressed dismay at the idea of the state’s Republican-leaning government taking control of HISD, where all nine elected school board members are Democrats. School board members also have argued HISD does not need state takeover, pointing to successful efforts to reduce the number of “improvement required” schools and navigate significant budget cuts.

“While we have had bad board relations, we have managed to handle the two largest pieces of governance in a way that have not been detrimental to the district, but instead have had a positive impact,” HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said. “We’ve invested a lot of money in turning these schools around, a lot of resources, a lot of time. To allow those people to do the jobs they’re entrusted with is the best course of action.”

[State Rep. Harold] Dutton, however, said he is convinced HISD trustees — who have drawn intense criticism for failing to improve performance at low-rated schools and engaging in public displays of acrimony — no longer deserve the responsibility of governing Texas’ largest school district.

“I don’t have any evidence that (the state) would do better, but I do know that if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll keep getting the same results,” Dutton said. “And for me, it’s unacceptable to do that.”

One of the Houston area’s longer-serving elected Republicans, Harris County Treasurer and two-time mayoral candidate Orlando Sanchez, also called Friday for state intervention in HISD. Sanchez implored state legislators and the Texas Education Agency to take responsibility for HISD, urging them to replace the district’s school board and devote more resources to low-performing campuses.

“I just can’t watch this slow-motion train wreck continue, so I’m going to speak out as a Republican and encourage my friends in Austin to give some serious attention to this matter,” Sanchez said. “We can’t wait, and that’s all we’ve done over the past several years.”

See here for the background. I feel confident saying two things. One is that if these four schools do not meet the state standards, there will be basically no one in Austin advocating on behalf of the HISD Board of Trustees. The odds that anyone in a position to influence the outcome will be persuaded by the argument HISD doesn’t need to be taken over is basically zero. To be clear, I do think Trustee Skillern-Jones’ position has merit. HISD did get significant improvement from a lot of schools, under adverse conditions. The risk that blowing up their governance structure will do more harm than good is significant. I just don’t expect the TEA or anyone that can make the TEA change its mind will buy it. And two, for all the complaints about the people that were on the board of the proposed city partnership, the people who the TEA are likely to name to take on the HISD Board’s responsibilities are almost certainly going to be seen as even worse. The difference is that the TEA will not be susceptible to the same community and activist pressure that the HISD Board was. And nobody is going to like that.

HISD rejects partnership idea

The die is cast.

Houston ISD trustees narrowly voted Thursday to not seek proposals from outside organizations to run long-struggling schools, a decision that keeps those campuses under local control but sets the stage for a possible state takeover of the district’s school board.

Barring an unexpected legislative or legal change, four HISD schools now must meet state academic standards in 2019 after missing the mark for four-plus consecutive years to stave off major state sanctions against the district. If any of those four schools fail to meet standard, the Texas Education Agency is legally required to replace HISD’s entire school board and appoint new members, or close still-failing schools.

HISD could have preempted any punishment for two years if the district temporarily surrendered control of the four schools to outside groups. TEA leaders have previously said they do not see closing schools as a strong option for improving student outcomes, though they have not committed to either option.

In a 5-4 vote following about an hour of debate, interrupted several times by community members who vocally opposed seeking partnerships, trustees opted against directing Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan to issue a request for proposals to take control of an undetermined number of campuses. The four campuses that have repeatedly failed to meet state standard — Highland Heights Elementary School, Henry Middle School, and Kashmere and Wheatley high schools — would have been considered for partnerships.

[…]

Trustees Wanda Adams, Diana Dávila, Jolanda Jones, Elizabeth Santos and Rhonda Skillern-Jones opposed seeking proposals. Trustees Sue Deigaard, Sergio Lira, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Anne Sung supported the option.

Well, now Mayor Turner can quit pursuing the partnership plan he had proposed. At this point, either the four schools meet standards or we will say goodbye to the Board of Trustees for some number of years. I don’t foresee a bill getting passed to change the law that mandates the consequences, though that is a possibility that is worth pursuing because there’s nothing to lose and much to gain. While I expect there will be litigation over a state takeover – if nothing else, a Voting Rights Act lawsuit over the disenfranchisement of HISD voters seems likely – that kind of action can take years and is highly unpredictable. So it’s basically up to the students and parents and teachers and administrators at those four schools now. I wish them all the very best. The Press has more.

(On a side note, Diana Davila’s 2015 victory over Juliet Stipeche sure turned out to be consequential. I haven’t asked either of her opponents from 2017 how they might have voted, but Elizabeth Santos’ election in 2017 also looms large now. I sure hope we get to have HISD Trustee elections again next year.)

Mayor moves forward with city-led school partnership

We’ll see about this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A nonprofit formed by city of Houston leaders may seek temporary control of up to 15 Houston ISD campuses in neighborhoods with historically low-performing schools, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

The nonprofit, created by Turner’s education czar and led by Turner-appointed board members, marks the city’s effort to improve academic performance at chronically low-rated schools while helping HISD stave off state sanctions tied to academic failures at some of those campuses. The director of Turner’s Office of Education Initiatives, Juliet Stipeche, unveiled several details about the nonprofit for the first time last week in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.

In a press release Tuesday, Turner added two new pieces of information to the nonprofit’s plans: The organization is eyeing control of as many as 15 schools, and six people likely will be added to the nonprofit’s current three-person governing board. The campuses likely would be clustered in a few geographic areas, where elementary and middle schools funnel students to the same high school. Turner did not name specific schools under consideration.

[…]

HISD administrators and trustees have shown little appetite for relinquishing control of district schools, though that could change as a February 2019 deadline for submitting partnership plans to the state approaches. Trustees are expected to consider and possibly vote Thursday on authorizing Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan to issue a request-for-proposal seeking potential partners, according to the posted board agenda. Lathan has said she does not believe members of the public want outside organizations running campuses, and trustees have offered relatively little public support for the idea to date.

As HISD officials have spent the past few months making few moves on the private partnership front, Stipeche and other civic advocates have worked to form a nonprofit capable of operating HISD campuses. They have worked at the behest of Turner, who has advocated for avoiding a state takeover of HISD’s school board. It is widely believed that Texas Education Agency leaders, who would decide which sanction to impose if one of the four campuses fails to meet standard, would prefer to replace HISD’s school board rather over close schools.

The group ultimately formed a nonprofit in late November called the Coalition for Educational Excellence and Equity in Houston. City officials have not released a proposal or framework for their plans to operate HISD campuses, though Stipeche said she envisions “working through a collective-impact approach to lock arms with the community, to reimagine what we can do to support our schools.” The nonprofit’s leaders have not held public meetings, though engagement with the effected communities would take place if discussions with HISD turn more serious, Stipeche said.

See here for the previous update, and here for the Mayor’s press release. I really hope HISD will indicate ASAP what their preferred direction is for this, because if the city is wasting its time it would be best to know that quickly. If not – if there is a chance this could become a viable partnership in the event something like it is needed – then the Mayor and the powers that be at CEEE need to get moving with that community engagement, because there’s already a loud group of people steadfastly opposed to the idea. I may be overestimating their presence – I mostly see this activity on the same Facebook group pages that were busy organizing and canvassing for the 2018 election – but it’s also possible that the Mayor is underestimating it. Better I be wrong than he is.

City tries again with non-profit charter for HISD

Nobody seems to like this idea.

Juliet Stipeche

The city of Houston’s education czar and three well-connected, civically engaged residents plan in the coming weeks to seek control of some long-struggling Houston ISD schools in a bid to improve academic outcomes and help the district stave off major state sanctions tied to chronically low performance at the campuses.

State business records show Juliet Stipeche, the director of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Office of Education Initiatives, and the three board members have formed the Coalition for Educational Excellence and Equity in Houston, a nonprofit that could partner with HISD to take over campuses under a state law encouraging charter agreements between school districts and private organizations.

If an agreement with HISD were struck, the nonprofit envisions assuming control of academics, finances and governance at an undetermined number of schools. The portfolio likely would include four campuses in danger of triggering sanctions — either forced campus closures or a state takeover of HISD’s locally elected school board — if any one of them fails to meet state academic standards in 2019. In exchange, the state would provide an additional $1,800 per student in funding to the nonprofit, and it would grant HISD a two-year reprieve from sanctions if it surrendered control of the four campuses.

HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and school board members have shown little enthusiasm for such arrangements to date, but they have not precluded the possibility ahead of a state-imposed deadline in early February 2019 to submit any agreements. The arrangements are intended to be temporary, with control over the campuses returned to a school district after a contractually agreed-upon period.

Stipeche, who served as an HISD trustee from 2010 to 2015, said the coalition will seek to engage other local civic organizations in providing resources to students who attend schools that often fail to meet state academic standards. The coalition has not yet solidified its educational framework or crafted a proposal for public viewing, Stipeche said.

“We envision working through a collective-impact approach to lock arms with the community, to reimagine what we can do to support our schools as centers of excellence, equity and innovation,” Stipeche said. “We are working on finalizing an overview of what we would like to present to the board for their consideration in terms of how we work, what our core values and vision are, and what our building blocks of success are.”

The coalition includes three founding board members: Trinidad “Trini” Mendenhall, the co-founder of the grocery chain Fiesta Mart and president of the real estate investment firm Fulton Shopping Center; Stephanie Nellons-Paige, the vice president of external affairs for Texas Central Railway and wife of former HISD superintendent Rod Paige; and Corbin Robertson Jr., CEO and chairman of the mining company Natural Resources Partners.

See here, here, and here for some background. HISD doesn’t seem to be into the idea, there’s some very vocal opposition from activist groups, and as Campos reasonably notes, the city has its own big issues to deal with instead of trying to solve the problems that HISD’s trustees were elected to solve. All of that mitigates against the city getting involved, but I find it hard to get too upset over this. Not to be all alarmist or anything, but the clock is ticking, and I don’t know what HISD’s intentions are. Obviously, it would be great if the schools could be brought up to standard this year – that is the ultimate goal, after all. Alternately, getting a bill passed in the Lege to modify the law that is putting HISD under the threat of takeover by the TEA would obviate the need for this kind of intervention. All I want to know is, what is the plan if these things don’t happen? Given what the law as it is mandates, what is the least objectionable outcome if one or more schools do not measure up? I don’t know what the consensus answer to that is, or even if there is one. I would love to see this resolved with a fully positive ending – successful schools, functioning governance at HISD, sufficient engagement by and with the parents and students and teachers and residents of the affected neighborhoods, etc. I just want to know what Plan B is if that doesn’t happen.

TEA offers to lend HISD a hand

Could be a decent deal.

A top Texas Education Agency official offered Tuesday to intensively work with Houston ISD’s much-maligned school board to dramatically overhaul its approach to governance, shifting focus toward student outcomes and away from distracting personal agendas.

The pitch from TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance AJ Crabill marks a unique olive branch to the state’s largest school district, which has struggled in recent months to reach consensus on vital issues.

“We can scrap all of what you’re doing now and redesign from scratch a governance system that honors your values and focuses on student values,” TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance AJ Crabill told trustees during a school board meeting.

Trustees in attendance offered mostly positive responses to Crabill’s offer, which would be free of charge, agreeing that HISD’s school board needs dramatic changes to restore confidence in its governance. Board members agreed in October to seek an executive coach in the aftermath of the covert attempt to replace Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, but employing a TEA official as their coach was not widely expected.

[…]

Trustees could vote as early as mid-December on Crabill’s proposal, though HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said she would not put the move up for vote if any trustee opposes the move.

HISD’s school board is responsible for setting district policy, hiring the superintendent and approving the district’s budget. The nine trustees are elected by voters in single-member districts.

Crabill’s offer came with some strings and relatively few concrete details. He said trustees must unanimously approve of his presence and “immediately resolve” any “gamesmanship” around his involvement. A few trustees, led by Jolanda Jones, have been fiercely critical of TEA leadership. Jones was not present for most of Crabill’s presentation and did not voice an opinion on it Tuesday.

Crabill said his primary goal would be moving toward trustees spending at least half of their time during board meetings focused on student outcomes. In recent months, trustees have spent significant amounts of time discussing relatively minor financial and policy matters, while occasionally engaging in deeply personal arguments.

Crabill did not outline a concrete vision for his work for trustees, but told them: “If you’re not comfortable with extreme discomfort, I’m not your guy.”

I mean, it’s worth hearing him out, if the other end of the bridge is an intact HISD with the four schools in question meeting standards. I can understand why some trustees might be leery of this, but it can’t hurt to hear the pitch. It would also be a good idea to let parents and teachers hear what Crabill has to say, since they’re going to be directly affected by whatever he might have in mind as well. See what he has in mind, and go from there. We’re no worse off if we decide to say “thanks, but no thanks”.

HISD still trying to figure out what to do with the four schools that didn’t meet standards

Don’t take too long on this.

After months with little public discussion about whether to temporarily surrender control over four long-struggling schools, Houston ISD officials are expected to start ramping up talks about any such plans as state-mandated deadlines quickly approach.

HISD administrators and trustees said they will meet after the Thanksgiving holiday to consider how they will approach the possibility of giving up control of the four campuses, which would stave off major state sanctions tied to chronically low academic performance at the schools.

The politically fraught option drew backlash from some community members in the spring, when trustees did not vote on Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s recommendation to give control of 10 campuses to a local charter school network, but district leaders say they remain open to employing the option before an early February 2019 deadline.

To date, administrators and trustees have not had extensive public conversations about if and how the district would approach surrendering control of the four campuses — even though the two sides have known since mid-August that HISD potentially faces sanctions if those schools remain under district authority.

If HISD does not hand over control of the four schools to an outside organization, and if any one of the four fails to meet state academic standards in August 2019, the Texas Education Agency must close campuses or replace the district’s school board.

“I wish that we could have started these earlier, but I still think it’s better late than never,” said HISD Trustee Anne Sung, who is helping to coordinate the post-Thanksgiving public meeting. “I think we’re starting to make some progress on having a timeline and plan for these conversations.”

[…]

Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who generally has opposed private partnerships, said HISD administrators and board members should have more transparent discussions after remaining relatively quiet over the past few months.

“My biggest concern is that I don’t want a repeat of April 24, and that seems to be what’s happening,” Santos said. “We’re going to be pushed into a corner where we limit our options. This has been staring us in the face since last year.”

See here and here for some background. I agree with Trustee Santos, we need to get this show on the road. There are options, beyond the optimal one of bringing all four schools up to standard, that would satisfy the law and avoid excessive intervention by the state. If the intent, with which I largely agree, is to also avoid partnering with a charter school, then the previously explored possibility of teaming up with a city-run non-profit, or the not-as-far-as-I-know-explored potential for a pair-up with HCC should be on the table. Even more fundamental than that, the parents and teachers and students in the schools that are at risk need to be engaged so HISD isn’t caught flat-footed by the response to their actions. HISD needs to get everyone who has a stake in this involved, listen to what they do and don’t want, and lead the way in finding the best path forward. Sooner rather than later would also be appreciated.

Will teachers turn out for Mike Collier?

He sure hopes so.

Mike Collier

On his long-shot campaign to unseat incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Collier is hoping he’s popular in a lot of rooms that look like this one — where after hearing from him, education-focused voters in a reliably red county said in interviews that they planned to vote for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, then cross over to back Collier.

Collier, a Houston accountant and a failed 2014 candidate for Texas comptroller, is at a deep, perhaps insurmountable disadvantage in deep-red Texas, where Patrick has served in state government for more than a decade and accumulated about 35 times as much cash on hand.

Still, Collier says he can see a path to victory — and it starts here, in a crowd of retired teachers, scribbling on the bingo card-like sheets they’ve prepared for the occasion, sipping coffee out of teeny foam cups, some nodding along and a few nodding off.

But are there enough rooms like this to carry him to victory?

[…]

If Collier is positioning himself to draw center-right Republicans back over the line, public education may be his best issue. Patrick is not an uncontroversial figure among teachers, retired teachers and public school parents.

As a former chair of the Texas Senate’s public education committee and as the leader of the upper chamber, Patrick has championed what he calls “school choice” and critics, many of them public school educators, call “vouchers” — programs that would give Texas families subsidies to fund private school tuition for their kids. During last summer’s special session, as the Legislature debated an influx of cash for public schools, the Texas House offered up $1.8 billion — $1.5 billion more than Patrick’s Texas Senate proposed.

“When you have 700,000 school employees, they’re not all going to be on the same page. That said, I do feel like if there’s any one person out there that they’re most unified about it’s probably the lieutenant governor,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

As a senator, Exter said, Patrick “was pushing reforms that lots of educators are not necessarily in favor of. He doesn’t seem to favor class-size restrictions and they really, really do. He really does favor vouchers and they really, really don’t. And the funding issues have died in his hands or at his hands.”

If public education is your issue, then I don’t know how you can even think of voting for Dan Patrick. It’s just that generally speaking, public education hasn’t been a big motivating issue for a lot of people, even those who have a direct stake in it. Maybe this is the year, I don’t know. The story talks about how pro-education candidates lost in this year’s Republican primaries, but that misses the point. Collier doesn’t need a majority of Republican voters to defect for him to win. If base Democratic turnout is sufficiently high – still a big if, even with the encouraging early voting numbers so far – he probably needs between ten and twenty percent of them. That’s doable, and it’s within the range of past performances. That’s an if on top of an if, but at least it’s a chance. If the teachers want to send a message, it’s in their capacity to do so.

Trustees apologize for Saavedra/Lathan mess

It’s a start.

Houston ISD trustees on Monday offered a public apology to students, parents and teachers for their behavior the past 10 months, particularly the chaotic meeting last week when a faction of the board surprised their colleagues and the audience by replacing the interim superintendent.

Trustees said they hoped the apology and pledge to work better with each other is the first step toward quelling infighting on the board, restoring the public’s trust and showing the Texas Education Agency that HISD is capable of governing itself.

“Our actions have not modeled the behavior we desire to instill in our children that we serve,” said Trustee Diana Dávila at a lectern surrounded by her eight colleagues. “We sincerely apologize to all of you.”

[…]

Trustee Jolanda Jones said the board at a special meeting Thursday morning would set an end date for its search for a permanent superintendent, consider hiring an executive coach for the school board and Lathan, and request a new governance counselor from the Texas Education Agency, which has been monitoring the board for months.

The trustees then left the boardroom, refusing to answer questions about what convinced trustees to change course, whether they had broken the law in secretly recruiting Saavedra and why the public should trust this latest pledge to do better.

[…]

Despite her contrition, questions remain about whether Dávila and four colleagues violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by approaching Saavedra about taking over as superintendent before informing the rest of the board or the public.

Saavedra, who served as HISD’s superintendent from 2005 to 2009, told the Chronicle on Sunday that he spoke separately with five trustees — including the four Latino members — in the days before the vote to appoint him.

Of the five trustees who voted for his appointment, Davila, Sergio Lira and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said they met with Saavedra beforehand. The other two “yes” votes, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Joe Larsen, a Houston First Amendment lawyer and expert on Texas’ open meetings and public information laws, said Saavedra’s acknowledgment that he spoke with a majority of trustees privately is evidence that they may have broken the law.

“It certainly would appear to indicate there’s some coordination between those five individuals toward a specific goal, constituting a majority,” Larsen said. “That’s precisely the sort of thing that should have been deliberated in public.”

The district attorney’s office would need to investigate any possible violation of the Open Meetings Act, Larsen said, which is a misdemeanor. A spokesman for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said the office does not comment on investigations that may or may not exist.

See here and here for the background. It’s good to hear the Board speak in this fashion, and to apparently recognize the lack of trust they have earned with the public, but suffice it to say that their actions will speak far louder than any words of contrition. I say this as someone who knows nearly all of them – I’ve never met Diana Davila, and I have only spoken to Sergio Lira over the phone – and who likes and respects them. For a broad range of reasons, I really really want them to work together to solve problems and make HISD the best it can be. This is a start, but there’s a very long way to go, and that’s before we consider the possibility that the Open Meetings Act was violated. One step at a time. The Press has more.