Category Archives: Privatization

School finance commission talks about teacher supports

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met Tuesday in Austin for a discussion on English learners. Opening the meeting, commission Chair Scott Brister urged the working groups assigned to study different aspects of school finance to be specific in the recommendations they make. In particular, Brister said the commission should strive to reach a consensus on the numbers: How much is the state spending on public education? Is it raising or cutting funding? Should textbooks be included in the cost of education?

School finance commission meeting June 5, 2018.

It’s important to note that most of these numbers are readily available from the Legislative Budget Board and are not in dispute. The disagreement has arisen as a result of some witnesses and commission members attempting to use alternative calculations that are not used in state accounting documents, usually in an attempt to inflate spending figures. Part of the argument used by those hoping to privatize public education is that the state spends enough on public schools already. Compared to other states, Texas ranks in the bottom 10 in per-pupil spending.

The English learners discussion began with invited witnesses pointing out the benefits of dual-language programs over traditional English as a Second Language (ESL) models. Texas has a high percentage of English learners, who benefit the most from strong language instruction early in their academic careers. Students who don’t become proficient in English in elementary school are increasingly likely to struggle later on, and are at a higher risk of failing to graduate. Chair Brister expressed concern over the cost of high-quality programs for English learners. Conversely, state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) warned of the future costs of failing to ensure students successfully learn English.

A witness from the Mark Twain Dual Language Academy in San Antonio explained that most of the costs of dual language program are related to start-up, such as training and hiring bilingual educators. The challenge for many schools is hiring educators from a limited pool of certified teachers who are highly proficient in both English and Spanish.

The next panel focused on supports for teachers in general. Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath testified that the evidence supports the idea that teachers should be paid significantly more, which would aid retention at high-poverty schools. Morath suggested it is also possible to develop an evaluation system that can identify high quality teachers, and advised the commission that a policy framework to provide better pay for high-quality teachers will require long-term commitment by the state, not a one-time grant or budget rider.

Morath further said that pay, not working conditions, is the top hurdle when it comes to recruiting people into the education profession. When it comes to retention, teachers say working conditions are more important than pay. Pay for education jobs has decreased over time, and the average classroom teacher has gotten younger as veterans leave the profession.

The commissioner discussed legislation filed during the special session of the 85th Texas Legislature that would have created a system of tiered certification distinctions tied to significant increases in pay. For example, a “master teacher” who has received a national certification and fulfilled additional requirements and serves at a rural or high-poverty campus could earn up to $20,000 more.

State Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said he declined to support the bill because of the cost it would have imposed on a long-term basis. Morath emphasized that higher pay is a long-term strategy and would not improve current performance, rather it would recruit and retain better quality educators in the future. In endorsing the idea, Morath indicated it will only work if the funding is baked into the funding formulas for school districts. The commissioner also suggested that one of the bill’s flaws was calibrating the process of identifying high-performing teachers, explaining that each school principal could have a different opinion when it comes to what defines a great teacher.

Responding to a question about high-stakes testing from State Board of Education (SBOE) Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin), Morath said testing would have to be at least one component of a program that evaluates teacher quality. The commissioner suggested there should also be an observational component and perhaps a student survey, which is included in the Dallas ISD program upon which the bill was based.

Commission member Todd Williams also noted that there is no incentive for teachers to work in high-poverty or rural schools. In addition, teachers who are at the top of the pay scale cannot increase their pay without leaving the classroom and becoming an administrator, which means their teaching talent would be removed from the system. Finally, Williams noted that there is no incentive for teacher candidates to choose a high-quality preparation program over a cheaper, fly-by-night program. Williams suggested creating incentives in these areas could increase teacher quality and retention.

Concluding his testimony, Morath said that investing in better quality teachers would lead to better-prepared students graduating and pursuing more lucrative jobs. That, combined with teachers themselves earning more, would materially increase the state’s GDP. Morath reasoned this would have a positive and measurable impact on the Texas economy.

Following up on Morath’s testimony, Alief ISD Superintendent H.D. Chambers noted that rising health care costs have also driven teachers out of the profession. Chambers said children need to come to kindergarten ready to go to school, which pre-K helps accomplish, and must be reading on grade level by the third grade. Quality teachers should be in all classrooms, which is helped by differentiated teacher pay, such as paying teachers more to teach in more challenging classrooms.

San Antonio ISD fourth grade teacher Sarah Perez, who is also a Teach Plus Policy Fellow, rounded out the panel on educator supports. Perez testified that students need more social and emotional supports, such as counseling services. According to Perez, a teacher survey by Teach Plus found that teachers identify large class sizes and low teacher pay as having a negative impact on student learning. So do inadequate facilities and limited access to technology or funding for classroom expenses. This led to a lively discussion regarding how much the state could reimburse teachers for classroom expenses and how renewing this program could be done using technology, such as a debit card.

The rest of the day’s panels focused on “inefficiencies” in public education. Michael Szabo, a high school math teacher from Galena Park ISD, gave moving testimony about the struggles his students face. Some deal with teen pregnancy, homelessness, deportation, absent parents and other issues that distract from their ability to concentrate on schoolwork. At the same time, they and the school are being judged based on their performance on standardized tests. Instead, Szabo suggested tying performance evaluation to the percentage of graduates who enter the workforce, as well as those who are incarcerated or end up on welfare.

Other witnesses testified regarding reviewing special program allotments and how those funds can be spent. That included raising the compensatory allotment and easing back spending requirements. Responding to a question about charter schools, one witness noted that while charter school teachers are eligible to participate in the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas, charters are not required to pay into the system. Another district suggested requiring charter schools to provide more notice and information to the district before setting up shop within a district’s borders and a “universal wait list” for charters. Some charters have touted dubious statistics regarding the number of students who are on wait lists. At the conclusion of the meeting, Brister invited a representative from a charter school to advocate for charters in general.

Districts requested more flexibility with regard to instruction time, as well as accessing the virtual school network. Districts also identified unfunded mandates and the unique challenges facing small, rural districts as drivers of inefficiency. There was some discussion as well from members of the commission who suggested districts faced with burdensome regulations consider becoming districts of innovation (DOI). It’s important to note that despite the perceived benefits of becoming a DOI, most districts have used DOI to hire uncertified teachers and expand class sizes beyond the statutory maximum. These are cost-cutting measures that ultimately hurt students.

The commission working group on expenditures is scheduled to meet Wednesday morning. The next meeting of the full commission is July 10.

Educators: Your runoff vote could be your most impactful!

Early voting is currently underway in the 2018 Runoff Elections, with Election Day set for May 22. Believe it or not, this is your chance to have the biggest impact on any race this year!

Wait, how’s that possible?

First, understand that Texas voter turnout is unfortunately pretty abysmal. Even in big election years like the 2016 Presidential Election, only 59 percent of registered voters in Texas came out to cast their ballot. That’s barely more than half! In effect, the half that voted made the decision for the half who could have voted, but chose to stay home.

When there’s no race for president, the numbers look even worse – especially when it comes to primaries. Just 10 percent of registered voters participated in the 2018 Republican Primary, while seven percent participated in the Democratic Primary. As of Tuesday, turnout for early voting in the 2018 Runoff Elections among the state’s most populous counties was just 1.7 percent of registered voters.

Imagine – that 1.7 percent will end up deciding races that will affect all 28 million people living in Texas. According to the math, each of those voters effectively spoke for 139 people. All that is to say that if you want your single vote to have an impact, now is the time to cast it!

So why is that vote important? There are plenty of reasons.

With Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) retiring, the first order of business when the next legislature convenes in January 2019 will be to elect a new speaker. Will members choose a leader who, like Straus, works to increase public education funding and defend kids and classrooms against harmful legislation proposed by the lieutenant governor? Or will they choose someone who will lower the gates to vouchers bills and declare open season on educators? The runoffs will certainly make an impact on that vote.

How much so? According to election news website txelects.com, organizations devoted to defunding and privatizing public schools have spent more than a million dollars fighting public education allies in runoff races. These groups accounted for more than a third of the $3.3 million total raised by all candidates in the Republican runoffs. Would you spend a million dollars if you didn’t think you’d get something in return?

Now you see why it’s more important than ever that you vote in the runoff elections underway now. If you voted in the 2018 Primary Elections, then you’re eligible to vote in the runoff for whatever party you voted with back in March. If you didn’t vote in the March primaries, that’s okay! You can vote in whichever party’s runoff election you like!

To find out more about who’s on the ballot in your area, click on the CANDIDATES page here at TeachTheVote.org. Now get out there and use your teacher voice!

School finance commission focuses on charters

The Texas Commission on School Finance met for the fourth time Wednesday in Austin. After a late start due to members trickling in the day after the state’s heated primary elections, the commission quickly launched into a debate about just how much of its activities will be open to members of the public.

Texas Commission on School Finance meeting March 7, 2018.

Chairman Justice Scott Brister began by informing members of the commission that commission subcommittees will be free to hold meetings without posting notice to the public. Brister gave members specific guidance in order to avoid having to comply with state open meetings laws, and led a vote expanding the number of members who can attend committee meetings out of the public eye.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), vice-chair of the House Public Education Committee, argued for greater transparency, suggesting members of the public have an interest in what the commission is doing behind closed doors. State Board of Education (SBOE) Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) joined in highlighting the importance of transparency. Arguing for more secrecy, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) noted members of the Texas Senate regularly hold secret meetings.

The committee also discussed logistics for the next meeting, March 19, when members of the public will be able to testify. Before public testimony, the commission plans to invite various stakeholders and interest groups to testify for up to five minutes. Brister stated the list of potential invited witnesses compiled by members and Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff numbered roughly fifty, and asked for help whittling down that number. He warned the March 19 meeting will be long, and members should expect to work well into the evening hours. Sen. Bettencourt asked to reduce the amount of time allotted to public witnesses to avoid a lengthy meeting, and Brister expressed interest in doing so based upon the number of witnesses who sign up.

The topic of Wednesday’s meeting was “efficiency,” with panels dedicated to efficiencies at the classroom, campus and district levels. The first panel featured witnesses from Cisco and Pasadena ISDs to discuss blended learning programs, which combine classroom time with self-paced digital learning incorporating technology such as computers and tablets. Todd Williams, an advisor to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, asked whether blended learning would enable a single teacher to teach more students. Pasadena ISD Deputy Superintendent Karen Hickman indicated that may be possible, but had not been her district’s experience.

The next panel featured witnesses from Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, along with Dallas County Community College and the Dallas County Promise program. College partnership programs allow students to earn industry credentials or college credits by taking courses through local higher education institutions. While praising the work of PSJA ISD, Williams suggested college completion rates in these programs are not always where many would like to see them. DCCC Chancellor Joe May testified that the Dallas program is an efficient way to get students to a four-year degree at a quarter of the typical cost.

The final panel on district-level efficiencies was led off by San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who highlighted new innovative campuses and advanced teacher training. Martinez made a compelling argument against basing too much accountability on end-of-course exams, pointing out that SAT scores have a far greater impact on the future trajectory of individual students. Martinez also laid out a nuanced way of tracking income demographics for the purposes of equalization within the district. More controversially, Martinez discussed bringing in charter operators from New York to take over a local elementary campus. These types of arrangements receive financial incentives from the state as a result of SB 1882, which was passed by the 85th Texas Legislature despite warnings raised by ATPE over the potential negative impacts on students and teachers. In consideration of these criticisms, Martinez suggested adding Dallas ISD’s ACE model or similar teacher retention programs as a third option under SB 1882. Martinez further acknowledged that charters are not interested in taking on the task of educating the most economically disadvantaged students.

The commission also heard from Paul Hill, a Washington-based policy consultant whose work has been affiliated with handing campuses over the charters and supporters of broader education privatization, including vouchers. Midland ISD Superintendent Orlando Riddick spoke of districts of innovation (DOI), and confirmed that districts are eager to waive requirements for maximum class sizes and teacher certification. ATPE has repeatedly warned of DOI being used to hire cheaper, uncertified teachers and assign larger classrooms.

The meeting ended with testimony from IDEA Public Schools charter founder Tom Torkelson. While acknowledging that well-trained teachers should earn more money, Torkelson also suggested that class size limits designed to protect students should be waived in order to place more students in a single classroom. Torkelson also suggested eliminating regional education service centers (ESCs), which were designed to increase efficiency by consolidating various support tasks in order to service multiple districts. Torkelson gave no indication what should replace the ESCs in his estimation.

State Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), who chairs the House Public Education Committee, concluded Wednesday’s hearing by directing members to the task at hand: Finding a way to pay for public education for all Texas students. Anything short of that, he reminded members, will not help Texas out of its current predicament. The commission will next meet March 19, and members of the public will be allowed to testify.

Abbott announces special session to include many public education items

ThinkstockPhotos-99674144Governor Greg Abbott released his plans for a special session today following a week of growing anticipation. For educators and public education advocates, the fight isn’t over. Beginning July 18, the Texas Legislature will to return to Austin to address a long list of issues identified by Governor Abbott. Only one, continuing the Texas Medical Board, requires “emergency” attention; once that has been addressed, Governor Abbott expects the legislature to immediately address 19 additional items.

Two of those additional items are particularly familiar to public education advocates and educators who just spent the last five months defeating them. By adding them to the special session call today, the governor revived vouchers for special education students and a prohibition on payroll deduction for educators. Both issues were ones addressed and rejected by the legislature during its regular session. ATPE immediately responded to the news with a press release calling payroll deduction a “shameful attack on public school employees.”

The governor also added school finance to the call, but he only called on lawmakers to create a commission to study school finance. He did not call on lawmakers to pass the pieces of legislation debated during the regular session that actually sought to fix the school finance system. For instance, HB 21 by Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Humble) and SB 2051 by Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendwood) took separate approaches to fixing the school system, but each addressed current school funding issues and received strong support. The school finance fix was ultimately derailed when Lt. Governor Dan Patrick added a voucher and refused to compromise on any bill to fund schools if a voucher wasn’t included.

Two items that got little attention during the regular session but topped the governor’s list of special session items today were a $1000 pay raise for teachers and flexibility for administrators in hiring, firing, and retaining teachers. The governor gave little detail on how to address either item, but did say that he expects the pay raise to be carried out through existing money and within existing budgets, meaning he doesn’t want the legislature to dedicate any new funding to the effort.

The 19 additional items, as described by Governor Abbott’s office are as follows:

  1. Teacher pay increase of $1,000
  2. Administrative flexibility in teacher hiring and retention practices
  3. School finance reform commission
  4. School choice for special needs students
  5. Property tax reform
  6. Caps on state and local spending
  7. Preventing cities from regulating what property owners do with trees on private land
  8. Preventing local governments from changing rules midway through construction projects
  9. Speeding up local government permitting process
  10. Municipal annexation reform
  11. Texting while driving preemption
  12. Privacy
  13. Prohibition of taxpayer dollars to collect union dues
  14. Prohibition of taxpayer funding for abortion providers
  15. Pro-life insurance reform
  16. Strengthening abortion reporting requirements when health complications arise
  17. Strengthening patient protections relating to do-not-resuscitate orders
  18. Cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud
  19. Extending maternal mortality task force

Dan Patrick’s voucher bill

Near the beginning of session before senators starting filing their bills, the lieutenant governor routinely reserves a block of the first fifteen to twenty bill numbers for high priorities. This year, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick reserved numbers one through thirty for his preferred bills. While Lt. Gov. Patrick cannot file bills himself, he works with various senators to carry what are unquestionably his priorities and marks them as such with one of his low bill numbers.

Vouchers have always been a top political priority for Lt. Gov. Patrick. This session, Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) is the state budget bill; SB 2 is the lieutenant governor’s tax relief bill; and third on the list, SB 3, is the lieutenant governor’s voucher bill.

SB 3 contains both an education savings account (ESA) and a tax credit scholarship. While each program funnels public tax dollars to private, non-transparent, and largely unaccountable education settings, making both programs clearly voucher programs, the mechanics of how they shift those dollars are separate and distinct. Here’s a more detailed look at each program contained in SB 3:

Dan Patrick’s ESA program:

The ESA program as proposed in SB 3 would apply to any child who either has been in the public school system during the preceding school year or has never been in the public school system but was born after September 1, 2012. It would give those children access to a bank account from which their parent or guardian can at their discretion pay for “educational expenditures” using a debit card. The amount that a child would receive under the program is dependent on two factors, household income and student disability. Here is an approximate breakdown based on a family of five (two parents, three kids):

  • A family with a household income over $105,118 would receive $5,510 for each eligible child.
  • A family with a household income under $105,118 would receive $6,888 for each eligible child.
  • A child who is eligible to participate in an ISD special education program or has a Section 504 designation would receive $8,266 regardless of household income.

The numbers above are based on a percentage of the average state and local public education funding a child receives in Texas, which is approximately $9,184*. That amount does not include federal funding; nor does it include additional weighted funding a student in the free or reduced price lunch program or a student identified as needing special education services may receive. For reference, the median household income in Texas is $55,653.

In every circumstance, a student receives less funding under an ESA program than the child would receive as a student of a public school.

As stated above in the ESA plan, parents may legally spend entitlement dollars on “educational expenditures.” These would include:

  • Tuition and fees at:
    • an accredited private school (ex. – IQA, Winston School);
    • a postsecondary educational institution; or
    • an online educational course or program (ex. – K-12 Inc.);
  • Textbooks or other instructional materials
    (Under an ESA neither the content nor quality of textbooks or instructional materials is publically vetted as they are for public schools. Here are examples of some texts that could be published using tax dollars under an ESA program for use in a non-public school: Sharia Law, Wicca, Young Earth Science.);
  • Curriculum
    (Much like textbooks, neither the quality nor content of curriculum is vetted under an ESA program. Here is an example of a commercially available curriculum program that could be paid for with public money under an ESA, although it would never be found in a public school – ATI (what is ATI);
  • Fees for classes or other educational services provided by a public school, if the classes or services do not qualify the child to be included in the school ’s average daily attendance;
  • Fees for services provided by a private tutor or teaching service (so vague it could cover almost anything);
  • Fees for educational therapies for a child with a disability;
  • Computer hardware and software and other technological devices, not to exceed in any year 10 percent of the total amount paid to the program participant’s account that year (ex. $551 – $826, multiplied by the number of children with a voucher, toward a new flat screen TV);
  • Fees for a nationally norm-referenced achievement test or examination, an assessment instrument adopted by the agency under Section 39.023, an advanced placement test or similar examination, or any examination related to college or university admission; and
  • Fees for the management of the participant’s account charged by a financial institution.

Swiping Credit CardSome parents will, of course, seek to cash in their student’s entitlement or directly spend the taxpayers’ money on unsanctioned purchases, such as rent, food, or even less scrupulous items. The primary means of deterring financial mismanagement on behalf the parent or guardian, assuming they get caught, is criminal prosecution. Having an incarcerated parent is not typically a precursor to improved academic performance.

The competing plan in SB 3 is a Tax Credit Scholarship.

Dan Patrick’s Tax Credit Scholarship program:

This part of SB 3 would allow an insurance company to redirect tax dollars out of state general revenue and into the coffers of a private vendor, which would then use those dollars to selectively grant scholarships for private schools. The bill also creates the bureaucratic framework under which the vendor would be awarded this lucrative administrative contract from the state.

Under SB 3, the Texas Comptroller would select a single 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity (such as a religious organization or private school operator) to serve as the states “Educational Assistance Organization” (EAO). In exchange for a 10% administrative fee retained on all the money it takes in, the EAO first receives dollars from insurance companies and issues those companies a receipt they can give to the comptroller for a dollar-for-dollar deduction on their taxes, up to half of their total tax bill. The EA then disperses those scholarships directly to private schools in accordance with SB 3. So for every $100 million the EAO takes in, it gets to keep $10 million in administrative fees right off the top. Additionally, the EAO can hold onto the money it collects for up to two years meaning that it could also quite easily invest that money (e.g. in a jumbo CD or other investment that carries virtually no risk) and collect yet another $1 -$3 million in profits off the earnings. All in all, this is a pretty good deal for the vendor that lands the contract.

The initial cap on the Tax Credit program in SB 3 is $100 million, but it would rise to approximately $260 million over the first 10 years and more than a billion dollars within 25 years. At that point, the EAO vendor would be able to draw approximately $130 million off the program annually.

Under the tax credit scholarship plan, the EAO vendor can make two different types of payments:

  • a scholarship payment of either 75 percent of average ADA ($6,888 for 2015-16) or 50 percent of average ADA ($4,592 for 2015-16); or
  • an educational expense assistance (EEA) payment of $500 (this amount increases by 5% each year).

An eligible student may be awarded both a scholarship payment and an educational assistance payment. In order to be eligible a student must meet the following eligibility requirements:

Income: The family’s income cannot exceed double the free or reduced lunch guidelines, which is $105,118 for our family of five.

The student must also:

  • be in foster care;
  • be in institutional care; or
  • have a parent on active duty in the military

Additionally, the student must:

  • have attended public school the preceding year;
  • have never attended public school, but be starting school in Texas for the first time (this could be a kindergarten student, first grader, or out of state/country student); or
  • be the sibling of an eligible student. (This would make students who had been attending a private school but who have a sibling who is eligible under the former bullets also eligible.)

Using 2015-16 numbers, a private school could be awarded a scholarship of $4,592 plus $500 in EEA money for a student from a family of five with an income between $78,839 and $105,118. A private school could be awarded a scholarship of $6,888 plus $500 in EEA money for a student from a family of five earning less than $78,839. Again for reference, the median household income in Texas is $55,653. A public school could be awarded $500 in EEA money for a student from a family earning less than $105,118. However there is no requirement, or even encouragement, in SB 3 to award any money to public school students.

Unlike SB 3’s ESA plan, these tax credit scholarships, don’t go to parents, but rather they go directly from the private EAO to the private school(s). This vendor preference and enhanced level of control have made this the voucher of choice for the Catholic Dioceses of Texas and its network of private religious schools, as well as for the Private School Association of Texas.

What if the Legislature were to pass both provisions of this bill?

NO VOUCHERS

If both of Gov. Patrick’s vouchers were to come to fruition under the current language of SB 3, many students would be eligible to double dip from both programs.

In any scenario, these vouchers are a reckless choice for the 85th legislature to pursue.

* There are many ways to calculate average state and local funding which result in variations in the total.

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.

Competing priorites for public education

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick held a press conference yesterday to lay out his priorities for the 85th Legislative Session. To no one’s surprise, those priorities were heavily centered on the privatization of public education and the defunding of neighborhood schools through passage of the latest voucher fad. Certainly, there are many priorities the state can and should address to improve the way we meet our constitutional obligation to make available a system of free public schools to the state’s roughly 6 million school-aged children, but vouchers are not one of them.

In addition to costing the state potentially billions of dollars, the consensus of the research finds that voucher programs don’t, in any uniform or significant way, increase educational outcomes for the students who use them. Additionally, despite voucher proponents’ claims to the contrary, the research does not find any competition-driven boost to the public system. The competitive effect that can be observed is a diversion of money from the classroom into marketing budgets.

Instead of continuing to focus on this perennial distraction on behalf of those few but influential interests who stand to gain from the privatization of our public schools, the lieutenant governor and the legislature should work on behalf of all students and parents to address the state’s real educational priories. To highlight a few, they could:

  • address the preparation, retention, and equitable distribution of classroom educators, the single most influential factor on a child’s educational attainment;
  • address the stress-inducing drill-and-kill environment in many of our struggling schools created by the state accountability system, which makes it virtually impossible for these children to learn according to neuroscience;
  • address the state’s continuing struggle to attain universal, full-day, and high-quality prekindergarten; and
  • address our flawed system of school finance; address its inadequate weights for low-socioeconomic groups, English language learners, and special education populations; address the layer upon layer of inefficient and inequitable “hold harmless” provisions.

The lieutenant governor cited 239,517 students attending persistently struggling schools, which he calls “failing,” in his speech yesterday. If the lieutenant governor truly wants to help these students and so many more, setting any one of these as a priority (if not all of them) is the more effective approach. After decades of research, it’s not a matter of not knowing what works and it’s not a matter of blindly throwing money at the deficiencies. We know what works. Other countries have taken the research we have conducted and put it into concrete, policy-driven practice with amazing results. It’s simply a matter of taking what we know works and making it a priority here at home.

House education committee discusses voucher proposals the Senate is expected to push

The House Public Education Committee met for its final meeting before session earlier this week. The interim hearing was focused on its charge to study “school choice,” and marked what is likely to be the last public hearing for two of the committee’s members, Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) and Chairman Jimmy Don Aycock (R-Killeen).

The term school choice encompasses a broad spectrum of options, including magnet schools, in-district charter campuses, open enrollment charter schools, other specialized campuses, and open enrollment policies. All of these exist within the public school context. However, in this case, the committee used the hearing to focus on analyzing the effects of the two voucher programs likely to be pursued by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and the upper chamber in the upcoming session.


In related news, Lieutenant Governor Patrick laid out his 85th Legislative Session policy priorities today before business leaders in Dallas. Patrick called “school choice” a top priority, vowing to continue to fight session after session for his “school choice” agenda, an agenda that includes vouchers. Read more about Patrick’s education priorities in tomorrow’s weekly wrap-up.


The committee heard from two panels of invited witnesses. The first panel was made up primarily of proponents of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and Tax Credit Scholarships, both forms of vouchers or neo-vouchers. The second invited panel, which represented voucher opponents, was comprised of outgoing SBOE member Thomas Ratliff, the head of Pastors for Texas Children Charlie Johnson, and a lead researcher with the National Education Policy Center, Luis Huerta.

With near unanimity both Republican and Democratic committee members questioned, challenged, and ultimately signaled their rejection of the proposals voucher proponents put forward. The reasons brought forward by concerned committee members varied, but the conclusion was all the same: Texas has plenty to build upon within the public education system and they don’t need nor want a state-created, state-run school voucher program.

In a growing twist these legislators are finding support in their opposition to vouchers from what many would consider an unlikely source. At least half a dozen home-school parents were on hand to voice their opinions during public testimony, and they uniformly stated that they were opposed to a state voucher program, including ESAs. One mother put it best in an exchange between herself and Chairman Aycock when she acknowledged that home-school parents don’t want government dollars, they “just want to be left alone.”

For those interested in viewing the full hearing for more information, archived footage can be found here.

 

Tennessee voucher bill fades while vouchers remain a Texas election issue

We reported during school choice week about a handful of voucher proposals on the move around the country. One of those bills was a Tennessee private school voucher bill that passed out of a House committee in late January and was sitting in the Tennessee House waiting for consideration. At the time, the bill seemed greased to become law, but late last week the bill was taken off the table after proponents realized it didn’t have the votes to pass.

Just before the bill was expected to be debated and passed on the Tennessee House floor, the bill’s author announced that it would be removed from consideration. He later explained that he didn’t have the votes to pass the legislation and didn’t expect there to be enough momentum to bring it back in the future.

The ability of public school supporters to beat the Tennessee voucher bill is a reminder of what is at stake in Texas as we head to the polls for the primary election.  Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) has never hesitated to express his strong support for privatization in Texas and recently reminded a pro-privatization crowd that school choice will be one of his top priorities for the 2017 legislative session. He “vowed to pass a bigger and better tax credit scholarship program — and possibly other school choice legislation — out of the Senate in 2017,” according to a Texas Tribune article posted last month.

The Senate under the control of Lt. Gov. Patrick successfully passed a voucher bill out of their chamber during the 2015 Texas legislative session. That bill ultimately failed to move in the House, but it garnered 18 votes in the Senate (12 senators voted in opposition). You can find out how your senator voted by checking out his profile using our 2016 Races search page.

NO VOUCHERSBefore last session, voters had elected enough anti-voucher legislators to narrowly defeat vouchers in both chambers, but when the makeup of the Senate changed in 2014, vouchers crept closer to passage. That is why it is critical that we continue to vote pro-public education candidates into office. In order to continue to keep vouchers out of Texas, we need to elect members to the legislature who will oppose all forms of privatization. ATPE strongly encourages you to use Teach the Vote to research the candidates in your area and vote for the pro-public education candidate(s) who will help ensure vouchers have no place in Texas.

Vouchers gain attention during School Choice Week and heading into March primaries

School Choice Week is being observed around the country this week and putting private school voucher proposals back in the spotlight.

In Congress

In Washington, D.C., the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce was slated to hold a hearing on school choice on Jan. 26, but the meeting was postponed because of Winter Storm Jonas. Now, the committee’s hearing entitled “Expanding Educational Opportunity Through School Choice” will take place on Feb. 3 in the nation’s capital.

Legislative activity in other states

Meanwhile, “school choice” and privatization bills are on the move right now in several states. A Tennessee House committee voted on Tuesday, Jan. 26, to approve a private school voucher bill and send it to the full Tennessee House for consideration. It’s reported to be the most progress voucher supporters have made in that state in many years. The bill is being called an “Opportunity Scholarship Act” and would provide vouchers to students primarily in inner-city schools that are struggling to meet academic standards. In North Carolina, legislators are weighing a bill to set up a statewide Achievement School District (ASD) for schools in the state that are struggling. The ASD schools would be run by private, for-profit charter operators with a state-appointed superintendent. The ASD concept has already been tried without much success in New Orleans and Tennessee, and we’ve seen similar proposals to create an ASD in Texas during the last two legislative sessions that did not pass. Indiana’s legislature is debating a bill to expand an existing voucher program in that state, while the Commonwealth of Virginia is looking into the possibility of “education savings accounts,” under which parents could access state funds to pay for their children to attend private or home schools. The Virginia bill is similar to one that was filed in Texas last year by Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas).

What’s at stake in Texas

The determination of voucher supporters to pursue legislation in other states reminds us of the privatization battles we can expect to face in 2017 when the 85th Texas Legislature meets. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) told a pro-privatization crowd earlier this month that school choice will be one of his top priorities for the 2017 legislative session. As reported by The Texas Tribune, the lieutenant governor “vowed to pass a bigger and better tax credit scholarship program — and possibly other school choice legislation — out of the Senate in 2017.”

During the last Texas legislative session, the Senate passed a voucher bill that died in the House. Senate Bill (SB) 4 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R) called for giving tax credits to “educational assistance organizations” that would pay “scholarships” for students to attend private schools. (Several other pieces of legislation originated in the Texas Senate in 2015 that called for giving tuition grants and vouchers directly to parents.) The Senate passed SB 4 last year by a vote of 18-12. Fortunately, the bill did not get heard in the House.

Of the 18 state senators who voted for vouchers in 2015, only one (Senate District 27’s Sen. Eddie Lucio) has a primary opponent this year, while two others are giving up their seats creating a pair of high-profile open races:

  • In Senate District 1, four candidates who are all Republicans are vying for the office, meaning that the Republican primary will determine the winner of this crucial contest and there will be no contested race in November. The candidates in the east Texas race are current state representatives Bryan Hughes and David Simpson, joined by “Red” Brown and Mike Lee.
  • Over in Senate District 24, six Republican candidates have filed to run: Brent MayesDawn BuckinghamJon CobbReed WilliamsRyan Downton, and current state representative Susan King. While there is also one Democrat, Jennie Lou Leeder, in the race, Senate District 24 is drawn in a manner that favors a Republican candidate and makes it likely that this spring’s Republican primary will determine the ultimate winner of this race, too.

As you can see, the public education community’s success defeating all varieties of vouchers next session will depend largely on the outcomes of the upcoming elections, and especially the Republican primary election taking place on March 1. ATPE strongly encourages you to use our 2016 Races search page to look up profiles of the legislative candidates in your area, find out where they stand on vouchers and privatization, and vote for pro-public education candidates in March.