Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 13, 2017

The 85th legislative session began this week. Here are highlights from the week:


Tuesday marked the opening of the 85th legislative session. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter provided a report on the first day’s activities, including the unanimous election of Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) to a record-tying fifth term as Speaker of the House. Over on the Senate side, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) will preside once again and is actively pursuing a number of controversial priorities he wants lawmakers to enact this session. Patrick’s 2017 wish list includes private school vouchers, naturally, and politically motivated bills to ban educators from using payroll deduction for their association dues.

Failing grade wrinkledOne thing that won’t be on the Senate’s agenda, according to Patrick, is repealing the “A through F” rating system that sparked outrage when school districts got a recent preview of how they might be graded when the system takes effect next year. In a pair of public speeches on Wednesday, the lieutenant governor insisted that A-F is “not going away” and seemed almost giddy about Ds and Fs being slapped on the same school districts that have “met standards” in the current accountability system. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins has more about the reactions to A-F in today’s blog post.

The news from the state capitol wasn’t all negative this week. On Thursday, Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) and Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) held a press conference to announce a bill, Senate Bill (SB) 463, to permanently extend the now temporary law on graduation committees. The committees create graduation pathways for students who cannot pass all STAAR tests but are otherwise qualified to move on post-secondary life. Seliger authored the original bill creating the committees in 2015, which ATPE strongly supported.

We encourage ATPE members who are interested in these issues to use our new grassroots tools on Advocacy Central to learn more about what’s at stake, follow related bills as the session continues, and send messages to their lawmakers.

Related: Check out ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey’s Jan. 12, 2017 editorial in the Austin American-Statesman about vouchers and why running public education like a business is a bad idea.

 


As one of the Texas’s largest areas of expenditure, the public education budget is frequently a target for possible budget cuts, and this session will be no exception, unfortunately.

On the eve of the 85th legislature’s first day in Austin, State Comptroller Glenn Hegar released the state’s biennial revenue estimate (BRE) Monday. The BRE reflects a forecast of future revenues and economic trends for the next two years, and it provides the budgeting framework within which lawmakers have to operate this legislative session. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins wrote for our blog on Monday, the $104.9 billion available for general revenue spending is less than we need and will force lawmakers to prioritize. The hard decisions on those priorities are a stark reminder that elections have consequences.

cutting budget with scissor on wooden backgroundEarlier this week, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) was a featured speaker at a conference hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative advocacy group that has long supported education reforms like privatization, merit pay for teachers, deregulation, and limiting spending. In addition to boasting of the success of “A through F” accountability ratings as a means to a voucher end, Patrick pointed to healthcare and education as areas of the state budget that would be ripe for cuts. If talk of education budget cuts by the state’s second highest ranking elected official don’t alarm you already during this first week of the session, consider also that Patrick’s remark sparked a roomful of applause at the TPPF gathering.

As Mark stated in his blog post, “Get ready to tighten your belts.”

 


The United States Capitol building

The 115th Congress continued its second week of business this week, one that was originally slated to include the confirmation hearing for President-Elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee was scheduled to conduct the confirmation hearing for billionaire and alt-school-choice supporter Betsy DeVos on Wednesday, but announced late Monday that the hearing had been postponed for a week “at the request of the Senate leadership to accommodate the Senate schedule.” Calls for the postponement of confirmation hearings had surfaced after news broke that the Office of Government Ethics had not completed its ethics reviews for many of Trump’s cabinet picks, including DeVos. The hearing on her nomination to become U.S. Secretary of Education is now scheduled for Tuesday, January 17 at 4 PM CST.

Read more about the start of the 115th Congress and the DeVos hearing in ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann’s blog post from earlier this week. Kate’s post has been updated to include information on a letter that ATPE sent this week to the two newest members of the Texas Congressional Delegation. The letters welcome Congressmen Jodey Arrington (R) of Lubbock and Vicente Gonzalez (D) of McAllen to Congress and highlight ATPE’s top federal policy goals, namely the passage of Chairman Kevin Brady’s (R-TX) bill to repeal the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) for Social Security.

While the Department of Education (ED) awaits the appointment of a new boss, it is looking for qualified individuals to serve as peer reviewers of states’ Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plans. The peer review process is required by law and serves to provide recommendations that will inform ED as it reviews states’ plans. ED is looking for teachers, principals or other school leaders, and specialized instructional support personnel, among other qualified educators to serve. Learn more about the peer review process, ED’s call for qualified reviewers, and how to apply here.

 


Monty testifying at a TEA hearingAs we have reported recently on Teach the Vote, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath is proposing significant changes to the performance standards for STAAR tests. A public hearing was held today to give stakeholders another chance to weigh in on plans to accelerate a jump in the cut scores. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified at today’s hearing with concerns about the proposal. He’ll have a blog post coming up soon with more on the proposed rules and why they are drawing negative reactions from parents, teachers, and school district officials.

 


17_web_Spotlight_ATC_RegistrationOpenATPE members still have a few weeks left to register for ATPE at the Capitol, our political involvement training and lobby day event set for March 5-6, 2017, in Austin, Texas. There is no registration fee to attend, and incentive funds are available to help defray travel costs. The deadline to register and reserve hotel rooms at our special group rate is Feb. 3. Visit Advocacy Central on the ATPE website (member login is required) to view all the details, including news about our speakers and panelists.

 


 

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Voucher proponents already exploiting A-F

In the words of a great TV show I used to enjoy: “The truth is out there.”

Texas parents and teachers got quite the shock last week with the preliminary grades under the new “A through F” accountability system, which is set to go into full effect next year. The preview saw dozens of exemplary schools receive C, D, and F ratings in one category or more.

We’ve already outlined the slew of reasons this convoluted grading scheme is a bum deal, including the further stigmatization of economically disadvantaged students and the fact that the majority of the score is based on student STAAR test results. As one district superintendent pointed out, the resulting letter grade is about as informative as an emoji.

For the record: 😐

So what’s the truth?

The folks who want to privatize public education through vouchers hope to use “A through F” to paint a false picture of “failing” public schools. Just this week, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick gave away the game.

“That’s why we need school choice. Because no parent should be forced to send their child to a school that’s a D or an F or a C, or frankly any school that they don’t think serves their child,” Patrick told the audience at a conservative think tank gathering on Wednesday, according to the Texas Tribune.

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Luckily, reality looks a lot different.

Under the current accountability system, 94 percent of Texas schools “met standard,” which means they met the criteria set by the state to indicate healthy school performance. In some districts, such as McGregor ISD, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) assigned schools failing grades using the new “A through F” labels in the same categories for which the agency recognized the schools for outstanding performance under the existing accountability system.

The fact of the matter is that despite years of patently inadequate and inequitable funding, Texas schools have answered the challenge mightily. This is a problem for those who hope to get rich by replacing free public schools with a for-profit education system, which is why their allies in the Texas Legislature are already working hard to make sure parents and teachers don’t repeal “A through F.”

Patrick vowed this week the new grading scheme “is not going away.” There are measures, including HB 843 by state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso), that would repeal the system, but any fix will require the combined efforts of parents and teachers.

As ATPE continues to monitor developments, make sure and familiarize yourself with what “A through F” really does, and please help us educate lawmakers about the truth.

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And so begins the tenure of the 85th Texas Legislature…

ThinkstockPhotos-99674144Today marked the first official day of the 85th legislative session. At noon today, 181 legislators were sworn in before their families and other invited guests in their respective chambers. In the upper chamber, Senator Kel Seliger (R) of Amarillo was elected President pro tempore, while across the rotunda, Representative Joe Straus (R) of San Antonio was re-elected to his fifth consecutive term as Speaker of the House.

In a dramatic show of strength, Speaker Straus was elected by a vote of 150 to 0. He is now tied with Gib Lewis and Pete Laney as the longest serving Speaker in Texas history. In his comments today, Speaker Straus called on his fellow House members to be thoughtful with tax dollars but also smart with regulation, doing their part to ensure that the legislature creates a government that works. In his remarks on crafting education policy this session, the Speaker called on legislators to partner with teachers and not treat them as adversaries.

For the sake of educators and schoolchildren alike, we hope the sentiment of cooperation with the state’s teachers prevails over the remaining 139 days of the 85th legislative session. Either way, your ATPE lobby team will be here every step of the way to report back on what the legislature is doing with regard to public education and to represent you with passion and professionalism at your Texas capitol. We encourage you to join us in our efforts by talking to your own lawmakers about ATPE’s legislative priorities. ATPE members can use our convenient grassroots tools on Advocacy Central to track the progress of bills, send messages to lawmakers, and even receive mobile updates. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and ATPE.org for more as the legislative session continues.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter was at the Capitol to welcome legislators back for the start of the 85th legislative session.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter was at the Capitol to welcome legislators back for the start of the 85th legislative session.

Rep. Dan Huberty shows off a celebratory cookie he received during a visit from Humble ATPE’s Gayle Sampley on opening day of the 85th legislature.

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85th Texas Legislature will face tight budget

Get ready to tighten your belts.

Before each session, legislative budget writers wait with bated breath to hear the state comptroller hand down from on high the magic number that will guide their spending for the next 140 days. That number comprises the core of the biennial revenue estimate (BRE).

ThinkstockPhotos-185034697_gavelcashThe comptroller is basically the state’s top accountant, and crafting the BRE is the office’s biggest responsibility. Divined from tax receipts and economic trends, the BRE is a best guess as to how much tax money will be available for lawmakers to spend over the next two years. The legislature is legally bound to keep spending within that number, which makes an austere forecast about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party.

At a formal press conference this morning at the Texas Capitol, Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s BRE presentation for the 2018-19 biennium was marked by a subtle, yet unmistakably skunky fragrance.

Hegar announced the 85th Texas Legislature will have $104.9 billion available for general revenue spending, roughly $8 billion less than lawmakers got the green light to spend in 2015. Factors contributing to the pinch include sluggish growth in tax revenues – due in no small part to stubbornly low oil prices – and lawmakers’ decision last session to dedicate $5 billion in sales tax revenue to the highway fund.

According to the Texas Tribune, state Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), who appears poised to chair the House Appropriations Committee, suggested the number is $5 billion to $6 billion less than it would take to fund state services at current levels. Combine that with the governor’s directive that each agency cut its budget by four percent, and a picture of a penny-pinching budget battle takes shape.

Girl showing bank notes

When money is tight, we find out what our priorities are. We at ATPE believe investing in future generations should be at the top of the list.

Public education still hasn’t fully covered the $5.4 billion cut by the legislature in 2011. With enrollment growth outpacing teacher hiring, class sizes continue to increase, to the detriment of students. Per-student funding still lags 2011 levels in some districts. To top it off, the state has steadily decreased its share of school spending, forcing school districts to rely more and more on local property taxes to make up the difference.

But there is still room for optimism.

Even without a court mandate, House leadership under Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) has expressed a strong desire to fix the school finance system this session. There’s been growing talk of increasing the basic per-student allotment. If a friendly Republican administration in Washington, D.C. provides relief in previously disputed areas of the budget, such as health care and border security, the result could be more state money freed up for other priorities.

It’s a matter of deciding what’s important.

Our children deserve a world-class education that doesn’t cost parents their home. If lawmakers truly want to cut property taxes, there’s a simple fix: Shift the burden of education funding back to the state. It will require taking a hard look at the budget and making tough choices about public spending, but it can be done. We’re optimistic that Texans will keep their eye on the ball this session and not be distracted by repackaged voucher schemes, teacher bashing bills, and smoke and mirrors tax cuts.

If we can maintain that focus, then we’ll end up with a budget that reflects our values as Texans.

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Federal Update: New Congress kicks off, preps for DeVos confirmation hearing

 

UPDATE: After this story was published, the leaders of the Senate HELP committee announced that the DeVos confirmation hearing had been postponed to Jan. 17 at 4:00 PM CST. Chair Alexander and Ranking Member Murray stated that the change was made “at the request of the Senate leadership to accommodate the Senate schedule.”

 

Congress kicked off a new session last week with two new members from Texas and new members in top ranking positions on committees important to education and educators. This week, Congress is set to proceed with the Senate confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos to become the new U.S. Secretary of Education.

The first education-related item up on the new Congress’s agenda is the confirmation hearing for President-Elect Donald Trump’s education secretary pick, Betsy DeVos. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will meet Wednesday at 9:00 AM CST to begin the billionaire voucher-advocate’s confirmation process. DeVos remains a provocative pick for public education supporters as she has fought for decades on behalf of voucher proposals in several states, led advocacy organizations that pushed alt-school-choice options, and has no meaningful experience in the classroom or our public schools. Still, most Senate Republicans have praised her nomination and only Democrats are expected to show any opposition on Wednesday.

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The Senate HELP committee will have the choice to vote to move the nomination to the full Senate or take no action. Since DeVos’s nomination is expected to make it out of committee, the committee will likely report her nomination to the full Senate where she will need a simple majority vote for final confirmation. Watch DeVos’s confirmation hearing live or archived here.

While Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) remain the leaders of the Senate HELP committee in the new Congress, education committees in the U.S. House are experiencing changes in leadership. The U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce will now be led by Chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC), replacing the previous chair, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), who retired at the end of the year. The committee’s Democratic leader remains Ranking Member Bobby Scott of Virginia.

The U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, which in previous sessions has seen bills to repeal the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and Government Pension Offset (GPO), will also have new leadership, but, in this case, only on the Democratic side of the aisle with new Ranking Member Richard Neal of Massachusetts. The House Ways and Means committee continues to be led by Chair Kevin Brady (R-TX), who has worked for years with ATPE and other groups to pass legislation that more fairly distributes Social Security benefits to teachers and other affected employees. ATPE is optimistic that the new ranking member, who co-authored Brady’s Equal Treatment of Public Servants Act (ETPSA) will fight alongside Chair Brady as they work towards repeal of the WEP this year.

Two new members of Congress from Texas also began work after being sworn in last week. Republican Representative Jodey Arrington of Lubbock and Democrat Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen both replace retiring members Randy Neugebauer and Ruben Hinojosa, respectively. ATPE sent letters welcoming Reps. Arrington and Gonzalez to Congress and welcomes all of the new members and leaders to their new roles. Stay tuned for updates from Washington as the new administration and Congress get underway.

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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 6, 2017

Happy New Year! The year 2017 has kicked off with several prominent news stories affecting public education:

 


Mark on camera

The Texas Education Agency released today an informational report containing preliminary “A through F” ratings for school campuses and districts. The legislatively mandated report is meant to give a preview of what types of grades schools would receive under a newly adopted accountability system that is set to take effect next school year, and the results are not encouraging. ATPE opposed the move to the A-F system when lawmakers adopted it last session, and now the harsh realities of the new rating system are causing many school districts to call for a repeal of the law. Read more about ATPE’s position on A-F in today’s blog post and also check out this quick video from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins on the ATPE Facebook page.

Related: As previously reported on our Teach the Vote blog, a change has been proposed to commissioner’s rules that would dramatically accelerate a jump in the cut scores associated with STAAR tests. The current rule allows for a more gradual increase in the performance standards, but that would change under the proposed revision. Advocates who are already dubious of the negative impacts those tests can have on students, campuses, and the perceptions of public schools in general have requested a public hearing to share their concerns over the impact of drastically increasing the cut scores with the commissioner and Texas Education Agency (TEA). The hearing will take place starting at 1:30 p.m. on January 13, 2017, in Room 1-111, William B. Travis Building, 1701 North Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas 78701. Stakeholders with concerns about the proposed rule are welcome to attend and provide input at the public hearing or submit written comments on the proposed revision via e-mail to TEA. The deadline for written comments, however, is Monday, Jan. 9.

 


Austin, Texas

Tuesday, Jan. 10, marks the opening of the 85th Texas legislative session. A number of education-related bills have already been pre-filed, including some that are alarming. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) has designated private school vouchers among his top three legislative priorities for 2017, and he recently praised the filing of bills to eliminate educators’ access to payroll deduction for their voluntary dues paid to professional associations. ATPE is urging our members to use our online resources at Advocacy Central on ATPE.org to follow these bills throughout the session and send messages to their lawmakers opposing them. A school voucher bill to be designated Senate Bill 3 had not yet been filed as of the publication of this blog post. Senate Bill 13 and House Bill 510 banning payroll deduction for educators have been filed and are showcased on Advocacy Central.

The legislation to eliminate payroll deduction and privatize education can be viewed as part of a larger effort to devalue the education profession and public schools in general. Add to that the ongoing fights over school funding and recent legislative changes that require schools to receive controversial “A through F” accountability grades based largely on student test scores, and it’s easy to see why many people consider public education to be under attack. This session, more than ever, it’s important for pro-public education stakeholders to make their voices heard and drown out the divisive rhetoric about “failing” public schools and unfounded claims of misspent taxpayer resources.

Learn more about ATPE’s legislative priorities for the 85th Legislature here and here.

 


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released the results of a survey it conducted during the latter part of last year. The survey asked parents, educators, students, and the general public to weigh in on how they’d like to see the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), implemented in Texas. Respondents were asked to provide input on five general topics, including teacher equity, school quality, and college and career readiness. Just over 29,000 respondents from across the state provided input. Learn more about the survey results in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.

Related: The U.S. Education Department (ED) released three new guidance documents today that aim to help states as they implement ESSA. The documents cover guidelines for state plan development, report cards, and graduation rates. As ATPE’s federal lobby team reports: “The guidance reminds state officials about conducting outreach to key groups and stakeholders (including the governor, state lawmakers, institutions of higher education, and additional education representatives) as they work to develop the state plan. Details on this outreach should also be incorporated into the state plan submission to the Department. The guidance also reminds states that when incorporating new measures of school quality or student success that research should show how that measure increases student learning.”

 


17_web_Spotlight_ATC_RegistrationOpenATPE members are reminded to register to attend ATPE at the Capitol, our political involvement training and lobby day event. Taking place in Austin on March 5-6, 2017, this event gives educators an opportunity to learn about high-profile issues being debated at the capitol this session and meet with their own legislators to share concerns and input. The deadline to register is Feb. 3. Find complete details over at Advocacy Central on the ATPE website. (Member login is required to register for the event.)

 


 

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Texas gets a sneak peek at new A-F campus accountability grades

skd282694sdcToday, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) rolled out its long-anticipated list of preliminary ratings under the “A through F” accountability system set to grade schools and districts beginning in the 2017-18 school year. After the passage of House Bill 2804 last session, the current accountability system that rates schools and districts as either “met standard” or “needs improvement” will be replaced by one that assigns letter grades of A, B, C, D, or F across five domains and appoints an overall score. The letter grades released today for campuses across Texas are intended to provide a preview of how schools might fare under the new system once it is fully implemented next year. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath issued a press release today calling this week’s preliminary grade report a “work-in-progress.”

Under the new accountability system, the domains of Student Achievement, Student Progress, and Closing Performance Gaps are all based on STAAR test results and account for 55 percent of a school’s or district’s overall grade. The fourth domain, Postsecondary Readiness, will be based on sets of criteria, such as chronic absenteeism and graduation rates, that vary by grade level. Schools and districts will be allowed to grade themselves in the fifth domain of Community and Student Engagement. The cumulative results of all five domains will be used for the purpose of designating an overall letter grade.

We know students’ standardized test scores are being used inappropriately for many high-stakes purposes, and this kicks things up to a whole new level. It obscures and oversimplifies the multitude of things that go into judging how a school is doing. It relies too much on flawed tests – and the kids end up having to bear the stigma of failure.

The numbers provided by TEA accompanying the preliminary grades show economically disadvantaged campuses are likely to fare the worst under this system by far. Under the “what if” campus grades shared this week, 89 percent of schools serving fewer than 20 percent economically disadvantaged students scored an “A” or “B” in the first domain, while 57 percent of schools with the poorest student bodies scored a “D” or “F.” While schools serving the most affluent populations don’t perform as well in domain two, which measures growth, they still outperform schools serving the least privileged students with only an 8 percent D or F rating compared to a 39 percent D or F rating. So with all their other challenges, systemically underfunded schools serving the state’s most challenging populations get to be stigmatized as well under the system that will be put in place next year.

ThinkstockPhotos-478554066_F gradeHow will that help those students perform better, or those schools attract the high-caliber teachers they need? The political environment here can’t be overlooked.

According to actual accountability ratings released in August 2016, 94 percent of Texas schools earned the “met standard” designation. That tells us what we already know: The vast majority of Texas schools are performing well. Yet under the new system being previewed this week, more than half of Texas schools in each domain scored a C, D, or F. Suddenly, we have a metric that seems to black the eyes of established well-performing schools – just days before we head into a legislative session in which voucher proponents will try to sell voters on the myth that our schools are failing.

With bipartisan support, the Virginia state government recently overturned that state’s A through F system. The bill’s author, a Republican who initially voted for the system, acknowledged the stigmatization of schools as a reason for upending the law. He also said the system would make it hard for schools to recruit teachers, among other things.

On Thursday, state Rep. Mary González (D-El Paso) filed House Bill 843, which would repeal A through F and replace it with the labels Exemplary, Recognized, Acceptable, and Needs Improvement.

“There is a dangerous domino effect here — the failing label causes stigmatization and punitive action to schools and their community, which does nothing to promote improvement,” Rep. González said in a press release Friday. “This harmful effect makes repealing A-F urgent and necessary.”

ATPE supports a robust accountability system that gives parents meaningful and unambiguous information, avoids too much reliance on flawed standardized tests, and takes into consideration important factors such as funding inequities and the importance of having well-trained, certified teachers. We strongly opposed the move to “A through F” grades when it was proposed by the 84th Texas Legislature in 2015 and even suggested alternative scoring rubrics and report cards for campuses, which lawmakers unfortunately declined to consider at the time.

Our hope is that the release of these “informational” campus accountability grades this week, however hypothetical they are intended to be, will eventually serve as a wake-up call for the need to enact meaningful testing and accountability reforms that will support rather than penalize the hardworking students and staff in our Texas public schools.

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TEA releases results of ESSA public survey

tea-logo-header-2The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released the results of a survey the agency conducted to collect public input on the state’s plan to implement the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA). Recognizing that the new law returns some decisionmaking to states when it comes to federal education policy, Commissioner Morath and TEA turned to parents, educators, taxpayers, and other public education stakeholders in Texas to gather required input on a handful of issues the state will have the opportunity to address.

The survey gathered information on five main topics, including how Texas should measure school quality or school success, support the educational success of students with varying backgrounds, increase student access to effective educators, prepare students for college and career, and support struggling schools. For each question, respondents were offered multiple options and asked to rank their top three choices.

  • In order to measure school quality or success, respondents chose career and technical training, student engagement, and school climate and safety as the top three gauges.
  • The top strategy chosen by respondents to equalize and grow access to high-quality teachers and principals was increasing teachers’ salaries. Ensuring school leaders have the flexibility to staff their schools based on the specific needs of their students and communities, and ensuring that teacher preparation programs focus on the skills and practices most linked to student achievement followed.
  • To ensure a quality education for all students, focusing resources on learning in early grade levels, providing high-quality teacher training and supports, and highlighting best practices that have increased student outcomes rose to the top of the list.
  • To improve struggling schools, respondents felt the following were the best approaches: provide more funding and resources for curricular materials, such as technology; offer incentives for excellent teachers to teach in those schools; and provide more funding and resources for wrap-around services like health care services, behavioral health services, or parent education offerings.
  • Critical thinking and development of interpersonal skills were respondents’ choices for the knowledge and skills students need in order to be prepared for college and career.

About 22,500 stakeholders completed the survey with an additional almost 7,000 beginning it but not completing. Of the 29,500 respondents, just under 12,500 identified themselves as public school teachers. Parents or guardians of public schoolchildren made up the second highest percentage of respondents, with just over 10,000 of them providing input. More than 3,500 administrators responded and a little over 1,000 students offered their perspectives. Results came in from regions all over the state, but the prairies and lakes, gulf coast, and south Texas plains regions provided the highest percentage of respondents.

The full results of the survey published by TEA can be found here and the Agency’s press release on the survey results is here.

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Seasons Greetings

From all of us at ATPE, may your holidays be merry!

Thank you for visiting Teach the Vote.

ThinkstockPhotos-488979956_Holidays

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ESAs: A bad deal for students in need

NO VOUCHERSEarlier this month, I participated in a debate on the political TV show Capital Tonight about school vouchers. Hosted by Karina Kling and featuring opposing guest Randan Steinhauser, who heads the pro-voucher group Texans for Education Opportunity, the show focused specifically on the topic of education savings accounts (ESAs). During the show I touched on the problem ESAs pose to students with special education needs. Unfortunately there is no way to fully respond to such a complex issue in a 30-second response, so let’s take a closer look here on our blog.

How exactly do ESAs work?

An education savings account is literally a bank account set up for an individual student into which the state puts money for a parent to purchase private education services. The amount of money that goes into the account is a percentage of the state’s average per-pupil expenditure based on state and local funds. The base number does not account for federal dollars or charitable dollars. Additionally, the base number does not account for student weights, meaning it does not reflect what the student accepting the voucher would have actually been entitled to under the public school formulas. While there is no bill language yet filed, the numbers that have been most talked about by proponents of the voucher suggest that a Texas ESA would entitle a student who is neither a special education student nor on free or reduced lunch 70% of the statewide average per student expenditure. A student who is on free or reduced lunch but not receiving special education services would receive 90% of the statewide average per student expenditure, while students identified as needing special education services would receive 100% of the statewide average per student expenditure under ideas being floated.

On the surface, it sounds like special education students come out pretty well under this scenario,. But the truth is that students in every category of students would get far less funding than they would if they attended a public school.

At only 70 percent, it’s easy to see that the student who isn’t entitled to either a free or reduced lunch or special education services is getting a significant reduction in what they would receive under the public school formulas (an amount that is already in the bottom 10% of per pupil expenditures nationwide). However, students who are entitled to the free or reduced lunch program or special education services would also be getting significantly less under this proposal, perhaps even to a greater degree than their peers entitled to 70% – here’s how. The combined effect of student weights, federal funding, charitable funding, and federal special education law creates a scenario where students on free and reduced lunch and students identified as needing special education services draw down far more individual funding through the public system than the statewide average per pupil expenditure that would be used to calculate an ESA.

For students receiving a free or reduced lunch, in addition to only receiving 90% of what is an already underfunded average, they would also lose the benefit of the compensatory education weight. Additionally and perhaps more importantly, they likewise lose the effect of federal Title I funding. Federal funding, which is not included in calculating the statewide average per pupil expenditure, makes up about 10% of the total education funding in Texas, which may not sound like much on a per pupil basis. However, federal dollars are not distributed evenly to all students; rather, they are highly concentrated on children of poverty. Additional, there are federal provisions that preclude the state from using federal dollars to supplant state dollars.

The result is that schools serving kids on the free and reduced lunch program, children of poverty, are getting significant federal dollars in addition to state and local dollars to spend educating those children. We have made these expenditure choices as a society because research very clearly shows that these kids need additional programs, which cost additional dollars, in order to successfully receive a quality education. ESAs, and vouchers in general, do not account for this funding, and children on an ESA voucher would simply lose this funding.

The loss for children receiving special education services is potentially even more dramatic. Kids who have been identified as needing special education services can have some of the highest student weights – as much as 500 percent of what the average student in a Texas school district receives. But it is the effect of federal law with regard to special education students and the loss of those rights under an ESA voucher program that is potentially the most troubling issue. Both the courts and federal statute require public schools to provide students identified as needing special education services a free and appropriate public education. Essentially what that mandate boils down to is a requirement that districts spend whatever is necessary to provide the services these children need to be able to learn. This spending requirement is really separate from the amount of funding districts receive for these students. In fact, most districts currently spend substantially more on special education services than the amount of money they receive from the state funding formulas to provide those services, despite the current special education weights. All of that is to say that special education students frequently have far more than 100% of the statewide average per pupil funding through the public school system under current law, which is clearly more than they would receive under an ESA voucher.

A bad choice can be worse than no choice.

The ESA voucher proponent I was debating on the show pointed out that an ESA is a school choice option and that parents who don’t believe it’s the better choice for their student don’t have to take it. While that is strictly speaking true, it’s a choice with some harsh consequences that many parents may not fully realize until it’s too late. Two universal features of ESA legislation have been the requirement to waive your rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and your right to attend a public school during the year in which you receive ESA funds. What this means for all voucher recipients is that if they take a voucher and then find that what they can buy with it doesn’t in fact meet their needs they will have to sit out of the public school system for an entire year, potentially a real and permanent setback in a child’s education. This is of particular concern in the context of special education. The ESA program allows parents to purchase piecemeal services, which are often very expensive, much more than the average per pupil expenditure. Unlike the public education system that is required to provide a comprehensive program of general education and special education/therapeutic services for an entire school year regardless of overall individual cost, if a parent spends all their ESA funding on ad hoc therapeutic expenses, they will not receive additional state dollars or logistical/administrative assistance to provide for the academic component of their child’s education or even continued therapeutic services should they run out of funding before the next school year.

There are some genuine areas of needed improvement in the delivery of special education services and identification of students with special needs, but dramatically underfunding these or any, students through an ESA voucher program and encouraging parents to relieve their sometimes justified frustrations by giving up their child’s legal right to a free and appropriate education and simply going it alone is not the answer.

Related: If you live in the Austin viewing area and subscribe to TWC-Spectrum cable, you can watch a rebroadcast of this episode of Capital Tonight on Dec. 19, 2016. Also, check out ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey’s recent op-ed article about private school vouchers here.

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