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From The Texas Tribune: Texas school finance panel approves final report to lawmakers

By Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
Dec. 19, 2018

Texas Commission on Public School Finance member Todd Williams of Dallas, left, speaks with Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath and state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, on Jan. 23, 2018. | Photo by Bob Daemmrich for the Texas Tribune

Texas school finance panel approves final report to lawmakers” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The vote was the culmination of nearly a year of meetings and hours of testimony from school superintendents, education advocates and policy experts.

Panel members have bickered for months about basic foundational concepts, including whether the state had been underfunding public schools and whether they actually need more money in order to improve. The report takes a middle ground approach, promising more money to school districts that meet certain criteria or agree to offer specific programs such as dual language or merit pay for teachers.

Many of the debates among panel members Wednesday reflected their political divisions, with Brister — a conservative and Abbott appointee — arguing against citing a specific amount lawmakers should infuse into the public school funding system and school officials saying the panel should take an explicit stand based on its research.

An earlier version of the report said lawmakers should take the “important first step” of approving more than $1.73 billion in “new funding” for “the vast majority (if not all)” of the proposed programs.

The recommendation the commission approved Wednesday dropped that dollar figure.

Brister said he was uncomfortable sending a report to lawmakers that pressured them into making specific financial decisions.

“I am willing to say we will have to add new money to do these things. I am not willing to say, ‘And the first step is, every dime has to come from new money,” he said.

Nicole Conley-Johnson, chief financial officer of the Austin Independent School District, unsuccessfully argued to keep the paragraph in its original form.

“The spirit by which we were convened is to establish the changes and make recommendations,” she said. “I feel like we need to have the foresight to put in the estimated cost.”

Education advocacy groups criticized Brister’s decision. “There can be no real school finance reform that fails to address adequacy,” said Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Public Educators, in a statement after Wednesday’s vote. “ATPE is disheartened that some members on the commission were unwilling to acknowledge the reality of the limitation of our state’s current funding levels out of fears of sparking litigation.”

The report still includes cost estimates for recommended programs and changes to how funding is divvied up among schools. But it no longer implores state lawmakers to pay for them.

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

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

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/12/19/texas-school-finance-panel-approves-final-report/.

 

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Finance commission group meets to discuss revenues

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance working group on revenues, led by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), met Tuesday at the Texas Capitol to hear testimony. Sen. Bettencourt began the meeting by stating the state must “wean” itself off of the “Robin Hood” system of wealth equalization through recapture.

School finance commission working group on revenues meeting November 13, 2018.

Bettencourt set a target date of November 27 for a vote on recommendations and anticipated sharing those recommendations with the full commission in December. The commission’s report is due to the legislature by the end of December.

Austin ISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Johnson followed up Bettencourt’s remarks by stating a separate goal of identifying $6 billion in additional funding for public schools. Johnson and Bettencourt have stood on opposite sides of most school funding discussions.

Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association (TTARA), was the first witness invited to testify. Craymer testified that the recapture system is likely required based upon school finance court rulings, and noted that reducing recapture and reducing property taxes are not one in the same. Craymer suggested property taxpayers could be provided relief by using value growth to reduce the compression percentage downward, yet offered no direction with regard to relief for schools. Craymer suggested legislators must first determine what outcomes are desired before determine how much funding is needed.

Chandra Villanueva with the Center for Public Policy Priorities testified that recapture is necessary to level the playing field between school districts with vastly unequal property wealth. Instead, Villanueva testified that the overall system has failed and suffers from underfunding. Villanueva suggested instead updating the costs of education, adjusting for inflation, and slowing the growth of charter schools, which are pushing some districts into recapture.

Scott Brister, who chairs the commission, challenged the notion of inadequate funding. Villanueva responded that adequacy targets are an appropriate goal, and waiting to invest more resources only deepens the deficit lawmakers must eventually address. Johnson launched into an impassioned explanation of the fiscal challenges facing schools, which have seen funding decline while being asked to do more.

Vance Ginn with the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a think tank funded by supporters of school privatization, offered a number of discredited claims regarding school funding, and argued for eliminating school district property taxes in favor of reduced state funding.

David Thompson testified that the shift from the state toward local property taxpayers is being driven by value growth, and urged legislators should commit at least a portion of value growth to increasing the basic allotment every session. Thompson also recommended closing a number of tax loopholes, such as for online retailers, and increasing the gas tax.

Speaking on behalf of Gov. Greg Abbott, former state Sen. Tommy Williams testified that the state should pay teachers more and reduce the burden of property taxes, which will require additional state funding. Notwithstanding this, Williams said funding should not be increased without accompaniment by school finance reform. The governor’s plan contains three essential elements: Rebalancing the state share of funding, paired with compression of local school property taxes rates; slowing the growth of local property tax bills; and treating all students equally, based on individual student needs as opposed to school district property values, which will require reducing the growth of recapture.

Williams then proceeded to outline the governor’s plan, which can be found here. In it, the governor’s office suggests capping school district Tier 1 maintenance and operations (M&O) tax revenue growth at 2.5 percent and replacing the lost funding with state dollars. The plan does not specify a funding mechanism or source. The plan also proposes outcome-based bonuses, awarding charter school attendance credits, and paying stipends to teachers who teach in more difficult classrooms, along the lines of Dallas ISD’s ACE program. This marked the first time the plan has been presented in public.

Asked by Sen. Bettencourt what the governor’s idea of additional state aid looks like, Williams suggested he would rather lawmakers not “back into that number” from available revenue, but rather to try and put a price tag on the recommendations from the commission’s working group on expenditures. Johnson followed up with a question regarding how much it would cost to buy down the tax rates as suggested by the governor. Williams did not offer an estimate.