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From the Texas Tribune: Are charter schools private? In Texas courts, it depends why you’re asking.

Texas charter schools are sometimes private and sometimes governmental — a legal framework that has helped them avoid costly lawsuits.

by Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune

May 7, 2018

istock.com

In 2006, in Dallas, a construction company sued a charter school, alleging that the school stiffed workers on a building contract to the tune of a couple hundred thousand dollars.

Eight years later, in Houston, a third grade teacher sued the charter school where she worked, alleging that it had falsified test scores, that it failed to properly provide for students with disabilities and that mold in her classroom had made her sick.

Their claims did not make it very far.

The teacher couldn’t sue the charter because, the Texas Supreme Court said, it’s not a government entity. The construction company couldn’t sue, the same court said years earlier, because it was.

Questions about the legal status of charter schools — which receive taxpayer money but are privately run, usually by nonprofit corporations — are broad, existential ones in Texas, where disputes over school funding are among the Legislature’s most contentious. But those categories take on intense practical significance in the courtroom, where the rules that govern private- and public-sector employers vary widely. In two significant Texas Supreme Court cases over the last decade, charter schools and their lawyers have sidestepped lawsuits over employment and contract issues by playing both sides of that fence. In some cases, charter schools can’t be sued because they’re government entities; in others, they’re immune because they’re private.

That difference is intentional. Charter schools were designed, as former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett wrote in the construction company opinion, to “operate with greater flexibility than traditional public schools, in hopes of spurring innovation and improving student achievement.”

Because of that aim, charter schools are not subject to all the same laws as their traditional counterparts. That legal structure helps charter schools retain their “freedom and flexibility,” said Joseph Hoffer, who argued successfully for the charter school in the Houston case.

But some advocates point out that the rules for charter schools seem to target the wrong things.

The Whistleblower Act — which did not allow the teacher to sue — is perhaps the best example.

“How is it innovative to ensure that your employees are silenced if you are doing something inappropriate?” questioned Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “I would think that you would want to have those internal watchdogs looking out for kids.”

“When do the rules apply to you?”

There are a lot of unresolved legal issues surrounding charter schools, which are still relatively young educational institutions. Most of them center, as former State Board of Education Vice Chair Thomas Ratliff puts it, on the question, “Is a charter school a public school or a private entity?”

“It’s not that easy,” Ratliff said. “The answer, in a lot of cases, is both.”

In 2015, lawmakers said that for the purposes of the law, charter schools should be considered government entities when the lawmakers say so — and only then.

Some of those “when”s are common sense. Charter schools are subject to the Texas Public Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. Their teachers can be covered by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. And they enjoy, for the most part, the same protections and immunities from lawsuits that traditional public school districts have, said David Anderson, who worked as the Texas Education Agency’s general counsel for two decades.

In other instances, charter schools are considered private; in many cases, they’re protected from suit. That’s a good thing, Hoffer said.

“Remember,” he said, “since they’re publicly funded, we want to protect the public funds from being attacked.”

But traditional public schools subject to whistleblower claims are also publicly funded. Employees who claim retaliation under the law can win monetary damages or even get their jobs back. That’s not the case with charter schools, and advocates say it’s unfair that those schools are given essentially all the protections of a school district while also enjoying some benefits of private employers.

“You have a charter school that can, in one breath, say, ‘Hey, we’re a public school, don’t sue us,’ and in the next say, ‘Hey, we’re not a public school, don’t sue us,’” said Lorna McMillion, who defended the would-be whistleblower in Houston. “If you’re a charter school who wants to get funding like a public school and wants to be treated like a public school, when do the rules apply to you and when do they not?”

The public-private dance has saved charter schools, in several cases, from lawsuits — like those filed by the third-grade teacher (the charter school’s lawyer dismissed her as a “serial litigator” — the TEA looked into a “testing security” complaint but determined it did not merit a full investigation) and by the construction company (the charter school’s lawyer in that case said the school followed its written contract). In the case of the few charter schools not run by nonprofit corporations, the legal waters are even murkier.

Lindsey Gordon, general counsel for the Texas Charter Schools Association, said the organization supports the Legislature’s current framework and protested that charter schools are not harder to sue than school districts. Every lawsuit, she argued, succeeds on its individual merits.

But would-be litigators have at least some options for suing a traditional public school that they can’t use to sue charter schools. McMillion said the Texas Supreme Court has made it impossible to sue charter schools using the most common legal avenues.

Meanwhile, charter schools have to follow some of the laws that many educators argue most directly impede schools’ ability to innovate. Charter schools are subject to the same test-based accountability system as school districts.

The legal exemptions, advocates said, seem not to foster creativity but rather to help the non-traditional schools avoid costly litigation.

“Charter schools are straddling the fence, on both sides, to make sure they have an advantageous legal position where it is harder to get them,” sad Evan Lange, a Dallas workers’ rights attorney who recently lost a case to an area charter school. “They take the benefits of being private and the benefits of being government. They’re choosing both.”

The Legislature has, in the past, added legal restrictions to charter schools when the need presented itself. In 2013, the Legislature brought nepotism laws for charter schools in line with those for other public schools. The change came after the Texas Education Agency investigated several potential abuses where charter school board members hired family members and paid them generous salaries.

The Whistleblower Act might very well go that way, said Thomas Fuller, a North Texas lawyer who works mostly with charter schools. While the law continues to develop on the relatively new species of school, there may be some “curious outcomes,” he said.

“It left a lot of us scratching our heads, too,” Fuller said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a number of those [bills] filed in the next session making charter schools subject to the Whistleblower’s Act.”

But in the meantime, advocates warn, the ruling could deter other charter school teachers from reporting abuse they see at work. Just this year, Michael Feinberg, the founder of one of the country’s most successful networks of charter schools, was dismissed following claims that he sexually abused a student in Houston in the 1990s. Cases like Feinberg’s make clear why it’s important for school personnel to feel safe bringing forward such allegations, advocates said.

And while the Legislature can go back and correct oversights that arise, it will be difficult for lawmakers to predict every possible legal fight that could ensnare a charter school — meaning more oversights are near-unavoidable.

“Not a good place to be an employee”

The peculiar legal status of charter schools has a particular impact on employees.

Teachers in traditional public schools enjoy a suite of protections that is not mandated for charter school teachers — including, for the most part, year-long contracts that grant teachers due process rights, Exter said. Texas charter school teachers don’t all have to be certified teachers, meaning they’re more easily replaced. They’re easier to fire in the middle of the year. And if they’re fired, they have even less recourse for challenging the decision.

And unlike teachers at private schools, charter school teachers don’t get the shield of the National Labor Relations Act, which contains some of the nation’s strongest protections against unfair labor practices. Texas charter schools — unlike other states’ equivalents — are not included in that protection because they are considered arms of the government. Texas is, so far, the only state whose charter school teachers are not protected by that act.

That’s thanks to a ruling that came down in March. The case made a difficult scenario worse for teachers in a state that’s already “not a good place to be an employee,” said Lange, the Dallas workers’ attorney.

Charter school supporters might argue that more freedom for the schools allows them to get rid of bad teachers and bring in better ones.

But in a sector of public education with far less oversight than traditional school districts, it’s easy to see how a teacher could find herself fired and out of options. A public school teacher who speaks out against a school practice she disagrees with — STAAR testing, say — is protected from government retaliation by the First Amendment.

But, Lange said, a charter school employee, who enjoys no such protection, could be fired more easily. Their schools, meanwhile, can in one breath claim the privileges of being public and in the next enjoy the freedom of the private sector.

“They literally want to have their cake and eat it too. That’s all charter schools do,” Lange said.

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/04/20/texas-teachers-employee-benefits-dead-last-retirement-funding/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Guest Post: Learn about Republican party precinct conventions

Party Precinct Conventions:
How educators can influence Texas politics from the grassroots up – it’s easier than you think!

By Mark Terry
March 2018

As an educator, you’ve done your civic duty; you have voted in the primary election and made your voice heard. And, you are to be applauded for exercising your right to vote, as a citizen and an educator! We are all hoping that our ‘teacher voices’ will be heard. If all 700,000 teachers across Texas vote…in a primary that usually has less than 2 million voters, we will definitely be heard. But, would you like to change the course of politics in a way that is lasting and takes far fewer dedicated educators? It can happen!

Yes! You can dramatically change the way both political parties view public education. Imagine: You can set the party platforms, you can help select public education friendly candidates, and you can play an active role in the leadership of your precinct-county-state party leadership! And, it only takes the amount of time you want to commit.

Let’s talk grassroots influence starting with the basics.

Mark Terry | TEPSA Deputy Executive Director

Click here to see Mark’s video about precinct conventions.

When you vote, you vote in your precinct; it’s kind of like your neighborhood. Each legislator’s district is made up of many smaller precincts, and House member districts are smaller than Senate member districts. For example, my precinct is 3035 within my Texas House District 98 and Senate District 12. Each precinct has a precinct chair. The chair is responsible for helping candidates of their choice to win election (more on that later) and for the Republican party, holding a “precinct convention” immediately after the primary election. Wait…I know you just rolled your eyes, keep reading.

When I was first ‘elected’ to be the chair of Precinct 3035, I thought, “No way! I put in enough time as an educator and I do not want hundreds of people yelling at me.” Well, it doesn’t work that way. Your precinct convention is held 30 minutes after the polls close at your primary polling place. You, gather a dozen or so seats together in corner, and you hold your convention. My first convention had 11 people, and four of them had my last name. Four more were neighbors who were public school educators. And, the election judge has all the directions and forms you require for your convention! Your lesson plans are ready!

What did we do at the precinct convention? Well, first we elected delegates to the senate district convention. (Check out my video where I show maps for precincts, house districts, and senate districts.) We also reviewed the party platform (Republican in my case) and adopted it with any resolutions brought forth. Here’s where it gets fun! No one had any resolutions except one person…me! One resolution stated, “We resolve that the State of Texas shall NOT use any public funds for private education.” The second resolution I proposed said, “We resolve that the Republican Party shall support and adequately fund Texas’s system of public education.” Both were unanimously passed! Those resolutions and the names of the senate district convention delegates we elected that night next went to the Tarrant County Republican Party for review.

I bet you never knew there were resolutions of this sort presented to the Republican Party. Why didn’t anyone see these resolutions after our precinct approved them? It’s simple. When the resolutions went to our senate district convention, the party’s Resolution Committee didn’t give them a hearing. Remember, you are fighting those who run the party. So, I made a combined resolution from the floor during our senate district convention. Even though I was told I wouldn’t get a second, I did…and the measure failed 57% – 43%. If there had been a few more delegates, the resolution would have gone to the Texas Republican Party’s state convention that summer.

This is where the conversation on education can change. Sounds like a bunch of rhetorical mish-mash to me, but elected officials look to the party platform for guidance. Delegates set the platform at the precinct level, at the county or senate district level, at the Texas political party level…and, at the national level. Those 11 propositions that you’ve seen on the Republican primary ballot this year…same thing. They are not binding, but your legislator looks to the results to justify his or her votes!

Do you see where this is going? How many educators do you think are in your precinct? I can tell you…there are plenty. More than 11? You bet! (And, you have access to the voter rolls, which you can compare to the school districts in your voter district.) What would happen if 25, 50, or even 75 educators showed up at each precinct convention and each passed the same resolutions? What if those same educators elected themselves as senate district convention delegates and then state convention delegates? You’d change the course of party politics in our state!

Is that all precinct chairs do? For many it is, but your sphere of influence just grew. For one, you’ll receive requests for donations from everyone running in your senate district. You’ll also be the first to see the nasty little rumors and comments about ‘the other candidates’ as folks from county commissioners, to family court judges and up, try to curry your favor. Most importantly, folks in your precinct look to you for who should receive their vote. Again, do you see where this is going? You can campaign for your chosen candidate, in my case a conservative Republican who supports public education. The candidate will give you all the information you need to make “block walks” around your neighborhood with friends to introduce your candidate (he or she will often go with you) and you can put together four or five educators to man an “educator phone bank” (remember the voter lists). The point is, you and a small group of your educator buddies have an inordinate impact on who is elected in your voting district.

One last thing, how do you think the Tea Party took over the Republican Party? Protests? Voting? Nope, it started at the precinct conventions. Who told me that? A Tea Party-elected legislator.

You can do this! We can do this! We must do this for the sake of children, teachers, and the soul of our state. If you want more information, or to be reassured you can actually make it happen, give me a shout at mark@tepsa.org or @tepsamark on Twitter.


Mary Terry with Giovanni Capriglione

Mark Terry with his legislator, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione

Mark Terry is a former school principal and the Deputy Executive Director of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA). He serves as a Republican party precinct chair within House District 98 and Senate District 12.

 

 

Guest Post: Following the money in Texas politics

Following the money in Texas politics:
A citizen’s look at the influence of mega-donors in contested elections 

By Christopher Tackett
February 2018

There is a saying that a fish rots from the head down. In Texas politics, there has certainly been something rotten going on, but I wasn’t quite sure where the smell was coming from until Jan. 11, 2018.

Learning about Texas State Rep. Mike Lang and the Wilks Family

I’m not a political wonk by any means, but I try and pay attention; and when I see something that I think impacts my community, I say something. I’ve had concerns with my current state representative, Rep. Mike Lang. It seems to me that the things he has supported while in office don’t line up with the interests of the bulk of his constituents in House District 60. When I looked at Lang’s campaign donations received since announcing his run for the office in March 2015, I was floored. Sixty-five percent of all his donations had come from one family, the Wilkses, who are billionaires from Cisco, Texas. The Wilks family members have very specific views and have advocated strongly for private schools and vouchers. They have given a lot of money to different political candidates, with Rep. Lang looking like the biggest recipient. Not surprisingly, Lang has acted and voted like a representative who has been bought and paid for by a big donor. If you look at the Wilkses’ goals for Texas, that is how Rep. Lang votes, every time.

I will not hide the fact that I’m a supporter of Dr. Jim Largent, who is challenging Rep. Lang in the 2018 Republican primary race for HD 60. But, I have been surprised at how Empower Texans and the Hood County Republican Party have attacked Dr. Largent after he announced his candidacy. Why would they attack someone who is so well respected in the community? I understand not agreeing with every aspect of a candidate’s positions, but this has been something different. My interest piqued, I decided to look at Empower Texans the same way I looked at Lang. I knew Empower Texans had been widely regarded as a vehicle for another billionaire, Tim Dunn, and I figured that’s what I would find in my research. I was wrong.

Pulling the campaign finance reports from the Texas Ethics Commission from the period of Jan 1, 2015, through June 30, 2017, you have a really solid look at the Empower Texans PAC from the beginning of the 2016 election cycle and the beginnings of the 2018 election cycle. I found that the Empower Texans PAC has received $1,863,033.10 in total donations, broken down as follows:

  • $922,000 came from the Wilks family (49%)
  • $295,000 came from David Middleton (16%)
  • $180,000 came from Dick Saulsbury (10%)
  • $170,000 came from Kyle Stallings (9%)
  • $90,000 came from Tim Dunn (5%)
  • All other donors totaled $206,033.10 (11%)

The guy I thought was calling all the shots for Empower Texans, its chairman Tim Dunn, appears to have been relegated to being a minor player. The Wilks family and a few other big money followers are the drivers of Empower Texans, which portrays itself as a grassroots, “for the little guy in Texas” organization. I believe that people like the Wilkses typically give such large sums of money for a few reasons: To buy the necessary influence to impose their beliefs onto others, to make even more money, or both. Empower Texans’s propaganda, which is all any of their communications are about, is designed to sow fear and discord, and to convince people there are things in their community to be feared and mistrusted. The group promotes fear of things like public schools spreading a “liberal” agenda, local government, and teachers voting. They aren’t really about “empowering Texans” —the people like you, me, and those in our communities—at all. They are in it for themselves.

Now I understand why Empower Texans has been attacking Dr. Jim Largent, considering that Empower Texans is getting significant direction from the Wilks family. Now I understand why the Hood County Republican Party fears Dr. Largent. If he wins, their money and influence train will dry up, as Dr. Largent isn’t likely to toe a Wilks family line. Now I understand why politicians from other districts seem so interested in the District 60 race and so vocal in their social media criticism of Dr. Largent. Politicians like Reps. Jonathan Stickland and Briscoe Cain (and many others) have also been bought by Empower Texans andthe Wilks family, just like Rep. Mike Lang.

Let’s be clear about campaign finance. The Wilks family is giving a lot of money. Is it illegal? Nope. If it’s their money, can’t they spend it as they see fit? Yes.

The Wilkses have enough money to buy attention, and they are. They are pouring immense amounts of money into the political process to convince politicians, communities —almost the whole state —that their beliefs are the beliefs of the majority, and things that are different are to be feared. If the Wilkses were just doing it in their own name, that would be one thing, but they are instead creating confusion by funding and attributing their message to multiple sources. When people hear ominous messages from multiple sources, citizens start to think, “Wow, there are so many people who believe this. What I believe must have no chance, so voting seems like a waste of my time.” What voters in Texas don’t realize is that all those sources are being directed by the same family. So what feels like lots of voices telling you something, making you believe there is broad support is just a few people behind a curtain. It becomes propaganda.

The PACs and their Orbits

Digging through the campaign finance data, I realized that Empower Texans wasn’t the only PAC getting money from the Wilkses. From Jan. 1, 2015, through June 30, 2017, the Wilks family looks to have given $3,345,734 for political causes, which does not include the $15 million they gave to a Ted Cruz for President PAC. There are three PACs getting a large portion of those dollars:

  • $922,000 to Empower Texans PAC
  • $475,000 to Texas Right To Life PAC
  • $475,000 to Texas Home School Coalition PAC

When I went and pulled the campaign finance reports on these PACs from the Texas Ethics Commission website, lo and behold, here were the same names that had been funding Empower Texans. What I have figured out also is that a handful of other big dollar families seem to run in the same “orbit” as the Wilkses. If the Wilks family gives to a cause or a candidate, the others seem to do the same. Granted, there is a candidate or a PAC here or there that doesn’t seem to have everyone pile on, but there is certainly a pattern among these families:

  • Wilks family is at the center ($3,345,734 in contributions)
  • Middleton ($827,014 in contributions)
  • Saulsbury ($708,825 in contributions)
  • Frost ($699,500 in contributions)
  • Stallings ($697,530 in contributions)
  • Tim Dunn ($590,000 in contributions)

What makes it challenging to find the totals here is that these folks make donations to campaigns and PACs and things get recorded differently. Say one donation is from the husband, the next is captured as the husband and wife, a third is captured with the middle name, etc., which means when these donations roll up, they may be credited as being from a “different” person. I’m not saying it’s intentional, but it makes it very hard to follow the trail of breadcrumbs.

These six families are pumping millions of dollars into Texas politics. They are giving directly to political campaigns; they are giving to PACs that are then giving to exactly the same political campaigns; and in some cases, they are giving to PACs that are then giving to other PACs that are giving to exactly the same political campaigns. If you want to talk about huge dollars being given and someone trying to amplify their voices to create the appearance of a whole bunch of people believing something — when it’s mostly six families behind a curtain — THIS IS IT.

The last PAC I will call out is called the Constituents Focus PAC. This one is interesting, in part because $55,000 of its donations came from the Texas Home School Coalition PAC. Yes, that’s the same one that I just detailed above.

If you look at every one of these PACs, they aren’t dominated by the little guy chipping in a few bucks every paycheck to have his voice heard. It’s a few big money donors buying influence and setting themselves up to make more money, which gives them the ability to gain even more influence and money. It’s a vicious cycle. It only gets broken when voters wake up and decide they are going to vote in what is actually their own best interest, not in what some big money PAC or billionaire tells them is good for them.

Let me reiterate one more time. When you hear ANYTHING from one of these PACs, remember it’s five rich families and one extremely rich family telling you what to do and what to think, not the grassroots organizations they pretend to be.

The Beneficiaries

This group of families has invested HUGE dollars into a handful of political candidates. I’ve consolidated the contributions to those candidates from what I call the “Wilks & Their Orbit.” Here is the list of those candidates who have received more the $100,000 as of June 2017 from this small group of people and the PACs they fund:

  • $528,500.00 to Attorney General Ken Paxton
  • $519,841.09 to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
  • $502,250.00 to Rep. Jonathan Stickland
  • $425,575.62 to Rep. Mike Lang
  • $293,666.00 to Thomas McNutt, candidate for House District 8
  • $229,008.00 to Rep. Matt Rinaldi
  • $226,500.00 to Gov. Greg Abbott
  • $218,865.16 to Bo French, candidate for House District 99
  • $216,861.90 to Rep. Briscoe Cain
  • $208,502.29 to Rep. Valoree Swanson
  • $185,500.00 to Rep. Tony Tinderholt
  • $178,006.00 to Jeffrey M. Judson, former president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation
  • $137,000.00 to Sen. Bryan Hughes
  • $133,200.00 to Sen. Bob Hall
  • $128,700.00 to Sen. Konni Burton
  • $119,636.27 to Stuart Spitzer, former state representative/current candidate for House District 4
  • $117,542.36 to Rep. Kyle Biedermann
  • $117,044.90 to Bryan Slaton, candidate for House District 2
  • $115,006.00 to Molly White, former state representative

For example, take HD 73 Rep. Kyle Biederman, who received 30 percent of his campaign contributions since 2015 from the Wilkses and their orbit. Seems like a lot of influence, but it there is still 70% of his campaign funding coming from elsewhere. Compare that to HD 128, where 44 percent of Rep. Briscoe Cain’s campaign contributions came from the Wilkses & their orbit. In HD 92, Rep. Jonathan Stickland has broken the 50 percent threshold, with 53 percent of his donations coming from this group of people.

Now let me finish my examples with the representative I started this piece on: Rep. Mike Lang, HD 60. He had 65 percent coming from just the Wilks family, but when you consider the orbit as well, Lang’s campaign funding from this group of donors jumps up to 76 percent!

The numbers speak for themselves. If anyone believes that a representative who is getting 30, 40, 50, 60, even 70 percent of his funds from one small group of millionaires / billionaires would ever make a move to upset those donors by voting against their interests, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Texans need to understand who is really being represented. Hint: It isn’t the little guy. The only way to beat this is to ignore the noise and vote for candidates who actually will represent you. Look at who is financing your candidate. Think about whether those funds are coming from inside your district. And then understand where and who your representative is really representing. One vote at a time, one election at a time, we can make a difference.


 

Christopher Tackett is a Granbury, Texas, parent and former trustee of the Granbury Independent School District who has been studying the relationship between money, influence, and Texas elections. You can learn about more of his findings at his website.

From CPPP: Promising School Finance Bills Stuck in Texas Legislative Limbo

Chandra Villanueva_CPPPBy Chandra Villanueva, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP)

Last month we were pleased to see the Texas House of Representatives approve a bill that would take some good steps toward remodeling our neglected school finance system. That proposal, House Bill 21 sponsored by Chairman Dan Huberty, has been sent to the Senate and is awaiting referral to a committee.

It’s in the interest of the 5.2 million Texas children in public schools – and their future employers – that the Senate consider and approve HB 21.

Meanwhile the Senate Education Committee has approved some good school finance reform bills sponsored by Chairman Larry Taylor that explore cost-neutral options for simplifying the overly complex school finance formula. These bills also deserve to move to the full Senate and on to the Texas House for approval:

SB 2142 – Repeal of the High School Allotment – Districts receive $275 through the high school allotment for each student in grades nine to 12 to supplement academic offerings and provide services to students at-risk of dropping out. This allotment is considered inefficient because funding is generated for every student in high school, rather than only for those in need, and it is not tied to an actual cost for serving students. It is the intent of the author that funding otherwise allocated under the high school allotment be used to increase the basic allotment. HB 21 also repeals the high school allotment. This bill has been sent to the House and is awaiting referral to a committee.

SB 2143 – Basic Allotment Increase – The basic allotment is the per-student funding amount and the primary building block of the school finance formula. This bill increases the basic allotment to $5,140 to reflect current levels of funding set in the 2016-2017 budget. This bill has been sent to the House and is awaiting referral to a committee.

SB 2144 – Commission on Public School Finance – This bill creates the Commission on Public School Finance, a 15-member commission tasked with developing recommendations to improve the state’s method for funding schools. This commission has the potential to bring innovative ideas to the next legislative session. This bill has been referred to the House Public Education Committee.

SB 2145 – Simplified School Finance System – This bill would strip out many outdated elements and unneeded complexities from the formula and reduce the system down to one tier, from its current two-tiered system. While this plan does a lot to improve equity, or fairness between districts, no additional funding is added to the system. This bill is currently pending in the Senate Education committee.

We encourage the Texas Legislature to move forward with these promising school finance bills. The children, parents and employers of Texas are watching.

 

This post has been republished with permission from the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP).

Guest Post: 239,517 Children Trapped in Political Rhetoric

Moak Casey logofrom Moak, Casey & Associates
Dec. 12, 2016

In an effort to solicit support for his voucher plan, the lieutenant governor recently told a group of education and business leaders in Dallas that 239,517 children attend a “failing public school in Texas.” (Source: The Dallas Morning News). Advocates of choice and vouchers often say that students are “trapped” in failing schools. The phrasing takes advantage of an accountability system that is designed to identify at least 5% of all schools in the state as “failing,” regardless of how well the schools, or the students enrolled in them, performed. Perhaps a better assessment is that students are trapped in the political rhetoric around school choice and/or school vouchers. (“School choice” is considered to be a broad term that subsumes vouchers and education savings grants, either or both of which take taxpayer dollars away from public schools and shifts them to the private sector.)

Education Commissioner Mike Morath recently told the TASA/TASB convention audience that, “We get beaten up for what we do, but our public schools are doing as well as they’ve ever done.” The same can be said for the parents and teachers of children in schools that have high educational risk factors. What do the numbers really tell us about Texas students and the accountability system that shadows their daily walk in Texas public schools?

  • During the 2015-16 school year, Texas public schools enrolled 5,284,252 students. That means that over 5 million (5,044,735 or 95%) students were enrolled in campuses that received a TEA rating of Met Standard.
  • In fact, 7,667 out of 8,673 or 88% of Texas public schools in 2015-16, inclusive of charter schools,received a Met Standard rating. When charters are excluded, the figure rises above 89%. (Source: TEA 2016 Preliminary Accountability System State Summary, as of September 14, 2016.)
  • The number of schools not meeting standards has declined each year since 2013, when the count stood at 768 Improvement Required (IR-rated) campuses compared to the most recent count of 467 IR-rated campuses — even as the accountability system has become more rigorous.

Those who indiscriminately cite the 239, 517 figure for shock value fail to tell the REST of the story. While it’s true that 239,517 students are enrolled at one of the 467 public and/or charter schools that received a TEA rating of Improvement Required for the 2015-16 school year, that does not mean that the students, or their schools, are “failing” as some voucher advocates state. Here are the numbers behind the rhetoric that tell the REST of the story.

  • Over half of the IR campuses (259 out of 467 or 55%) were rated IR for the first time. (Table 2)
  • Over half of the 239,517 students (52%) are enrolled in a campus that was rated Improvement Required (IR) for the first time. (Table 2) Historically, Year 1 IR campuses quickly improve and are removed from TEA’s IR list faster than other IR campuses.
  • 72% are enrolled at a Year 1 or Year 2 IR campus. (Table 2)
  • 51 campuses missed only one – out of four possible – index target. (Table 3)
  • Only 35 out of 8,673 campuses missed all 4 index targets. (Table 3)
  • 25,218 students are enrolled in one of the 68 charter schools with an IR rating. (Table 1) To our knowledge, no students are required to attend charter schools.
  • Out of the 467 schools rated in 2016 as Improvement Required, 102 graduated a total of 10,558 students in SY 2014-15. Of those, 8,349 or 79% of the graduates had completed rigorous programs of study, including Recommended High School Plan, Distinguished Plan, Foundation Plan with Endorsements, or Foundation Plan with Distinguished Level of Achievement.
  • The phrasing, “trapped in failing schools” paints a picture of “no way out.” In fact, all 399 IR-rated non-charter campuses were subject to Public Education Grant (PEG) requirements to offer choice options to each one of their enrolled students. Over 1,100 more schools that were not rated as Improvement Required in 2015 also were subject to PEG requirements, due to IR ratings in either of the prior two years and/or performance criteria distinct from state ratings. None of this takes into account any other forms of choice available within the districts right now.

And finally, those who disparage public schools fail to point out that in Texas, at least 5% of the schools will be designated by TEA as “failing” simply by virtue of the accountability system’s design.

  • The current accountability system (based largely on STAAR tests) is designed to identify at least 5% of schools as missing standards, or “failing” – because the targets it uses are built on a quota established in federal law.
  • That means that we can reasonably anticipate that at least 264,000 (5% of Texas enrollment) students will be enrolled in low performing campuses – even if their campuses performed better than they did the year before; and even if their local communities rate them as Exemplary, Recognized or Acceptable on the Family and Community Engagement Ratings that are required by state law.
  • The shift to an A-F rating system, in which both D’s and F’s are statutorily required to signify “unacceptable” performance, automatically ensures that more students will be enrolled in “failing schools” if the bottom 5% of campuses are given F’s and the next 10% are given D’s. This predetermined outcome will feed right into a fresh, new round of rhetoric from “school choice” advocates, even though the “increase” is simply a function of the system’s design.

The original intent of our state’s accountability system was to foster, inform and support continuous improvement efforts in teaching and learning. That seemed to be a universally accepted premise. Having a predetermined failure threshold in the current system seems to 1) subvert that original, positive intent, 2) reinforce a biased narrative about the state of public education, and 3) perpetuate the notion that schools must be punished before improvements will take place. At best, it seems unwise to put faith in a system that generates predetermined results with regard to “failing” schools. Before any school is labeled as a “failure,” we need to critically reconsider the rhetoric (and the hidden agenda) of voucher advocates in using an accountability system to create a certain margin of schools as “failing” the students, parents and communities that they serve.


This article originally appeared at https://www.moakcasey.com/articles/viewarticledoc.aspx?AID=16390&DID=12732 and was reprinted with permission from Moak, Casey & Associates. 

Guest post: I’m Wondering Why—The Rhetoric about Public Schools Doesn’t Add Up

I’m Wondering Why
The Rhetoric about Public Schools Doesn’t Add Up

Andra Self

           Andra Self

by Andra Self

Lately, much of what is said by some state leaders about schools just doesn’t add up. Inconsistencies and conundrums in their statements are leading many Texans to ask questions. Here are a few examples.

Why Not Brag? 

We all know that Texas is a state that loves to brag. We brag about everything being bigger and better in Texas. We brag about how we compare to other states. But somehow, when it comes to schools, some state leaders don’t take the opportunity to brag, and I wonder why. Recently, U.S. News & World Report released its list of the best high schools in the nation. Of the top 10 high schools, four are public high schools in Texas. That is certainly brag-worthy!

For the past few years, Texas has been ranking in the top handful of states on graduation rates. In fact, Texas African American students rank first when compared to their peers in other states. Graduation rates for Hispanic students are also best in the nation. White students’ graduation rates are outdone by only one state. Texas graduation rates are something to brag about, and it seems odd that some state leaders aren’t bragging.

Why the Stance on Tests?

At the same time that state lawmakers are passing laws that allow a student to graduate without passing all the tests (Senate Bill 149), those same leaders are embracing test results to rate schools A through F (Senate Bill 6).

On one hand, the tests have lost support, while at the same time the tests are considered a reliable tool for ranking schools. It seems strange that the tests are suspect in one context, yet valid measures in another.

Why a New Bureaucracy? 

Some lawmakers are focused on what to do about “failing schools” and are creating a new statewide bureaucracy to take troubled schools away from their local districts. However, years of data from the Texas Education Agency show that local districts have a laudable track record on turning around schools that receive the lowest ranking.

In fact, districts move 80 percent of schools out of that category in the first year after receiving substandard rankings. A new bureaucracy is not needed.

Why Not Tell the Truth About Choice?

Some politicians push for “school choice”—but in truth, parents already have many choices and are exercising those choices: In addition to Texas public schools, parents can consider private schools, public charter schools, virtual schools, and homeschooling.

Furthermore, there are often many choices within the public school system: magnet schools, transfers within districts, and transfers to other districts. School choice already exists.

Why No Adequate Funding? 

The number of students in Texas is growing by approximately 80,000 each year. We topped 5 million students recently. Schools are caught in a squeeze between rising student numbers, increased daily costs (e.g., electricity, transportation, food, supplies), and unfunded mandates from state government.

However, the Legislature cut school funding by $5.4 billion in the session before last and now appears unresponsive to the judge’s ruling that public school funding should be improved. The state has plenty of dollars to fund schools, but some lawmakers seem inclined to withhold those much needed dollars.

Why Vouchers?

Vouchers are designed to allow students to attend private schools using public tax dollars, and some lawmakers are going through all sorts of gyrations to find ways to divert funding from public schools to private schools. They want to take dollars away from the many students who attend public schools (almost 94 percent) to pay for the few (about 7 percent) who attend private schools—schools that will have no accountability for tax dollars or academic achievement.

Why Not Support Public Schools?

As you see, much of the rhetoric simply does not add up. Texas public schools are doing better than ever before. They deserve our applause and support.

Some lawmakers are working hard to support public schools, and we deeply appreciate that. Others, however, are denigrating this state’s public schools with statements not based on facts or needs. As we move forward in the future, it’s critical that all Texas lawmakers work together to Stand Up for Texas Public Schools.

Andra Self, a Lufkin ISD trustee, is 2014-15 president of TASB.

Views and opinions expressed in guest posts are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of ATPE. Reprinted with permission from the July 2015 Texas Lone Star magazine, published by the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB). Copyright 2015 TASB. All rights reserved.