House Public Education Committee dives in on school finance

The House Public Education Committee held its second and third meetings of the session this week, Feb. 5 and 6, both designed to get committee members up to speed on the school finance system ahead of beginning their work attempting to improve the system.

During the first of this week’s two meetings, the committee heard invited testimony from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the Legislative Budget Board (LBB). The topics covered included implementation reports on previous education bills, a school finance and legal overview, and an education budget overview.

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath reported on a range of topics including the status of two bills that were passed in the 84th session back in 2015. House Bill (HB) 1842, in addition to creating districts of Innovation (DOIs), altered the school turnaround process and created the A-F accountability rating system. Senate Bill (SB) 313 was a bill that ended up being vetoed, but the State Board of Education (SBOE) still implemented its requirements of reviewing and narrowing the content and scope of each foundation curriculum subject.

Commissioner Morath testifying before the House Public Education Committee

The Commissioner also touched on the Dallas Independent School District’s “ACE” program and Achievement School District models as potential alternative options for school districts before they reach their fifth (and final) year of “improvement required” status under the accountability system.

Finally, Commissioner Morath addressed the school accountability system for the second time in as many hearings. This time, the discussion included the interplay between state and federal law and where it would be possible to trim our accountability and assessment system without running afoul of the feds.

TEA General Counsel Von Byer presented on Texas’s school finance court cases that have shaped our current system, most notably Edgewood and West-Orange Cove. The system of Recapture was created through these court cases. TEA Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez gave a high-level overview of the school finance system, including how some of the elements are outdated. For instance, the bilingual education funding weight hasn’t changed in 35 years, the special education weights haven’t changed since 1993, and the weight for low-income children hasn’t changed since 1989.

Yesterday, the House Public Education Committee met for the second of its two hearings this week to hear invited testimony from three members of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance.

Todd Williams, CEO of the Commit Partnership in Dallas, presented on the changing demographics in Texas and how the investment of public education funding will help to reach our education goals. Some of Williams’s suggestions are broadly supported, such as utilizing a more nuanced approach to differentiating degrees of poverty and focusing resources on campuses with high concentrations of harder to educate students. Other suggestions, like teacher evaluation and pay systems based heavily on student performance and outcomes-based funding, are significantly more controversial.

Dr. Keven Ellis, who is also an elected member of the SBOE, testified on the commission’s findings about expenditures. He shared that the commission was recommending a $100 million appropriation for dyslexia identification and support, $50 million for dual language, transportation funding based on mileage, and reallocating the cost of education index funding, among others.

Nicole Conley Johnson, Chief Finance Officer for the Austin Independent School District, presented the commission’s findings regarding revenue. She shared that the commission had several suggestions, including using the state’s Economic Stability (or “rainy day”) Fund, allowing districts to tap into sales tax revenue, and providing more flexibility on spending rules (e.g. allowing the bilingual allotment to be used for teacher salaries).

Next week, on Feb. 12 and 13, the House Public Education Committee will hold two additional meetings to hear invited testimony from stakeholders such as ATPE, school district leaders, and teachers. We look forward to contributing to the conversation.

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