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School finance commission discusses initial recommendations

School finance commission meeting Dec. 11, 2018.

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met Tuesday in Austin to discuss recommendations for the commission’s report, which is due to the legislature by the end of the month. The initial draft recommendations can be viewed here, and additional resources can be found here.

The draft report includes a recommendation that the 86th Texas Legislature “inject significant additional annual state revenue” through new strategic allotments and weights outlined in the commission’s report, including about $1.7 billion in specific areas. The report adds that for the purposes of new funding, members should note that an increase of $500 million in state funding is equal to a roughly 0.9 percent increase over the last budget biennium. This would be formula funding, targeted at the neediest studies, and tied to specific outcomes.

Commission Chair Scott Brister voiced reservations, suggesting that asking the legislature for significant additional funding is not the commission’s job. He later clarified that his chief opposition was to placing a dollar figure on additional funding. Several members pushed back, including House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston), who said he would not sign a report that does not call for additional school funding.

The report also calls for reallocating $5.34 billion in existing funds to more impactful spending and greater system-wide equity. The commission recommends significant investment to substantially increase third grade reading levels. Outcomes-based funding would be targeted toward early literacy and post-secondary access of career, military, or higher education without remediation.

The commission is recommending a high-quality teacher allotment, initially funded at $200 million, for districts wishing to offer differentiated compensation to pay their most effective educators higher salaries sooner in their career. This would be contingent on districts creating locally-developed, multi-measure evaluation and compensation systems based on an outline created by the legislature. This includes the state setting a goal that top teachers have a path to a $100,000 salary and incentivizing districts to assign top teachers to the most challenging campuses.

Finally, the draft report calls for statutorily increasing the basic allotment, though it does not specify a specific amount. It calls for increasing the yield on “copper pennies” and compressing the rate in order to provide tax relief, as well as reducing the role of recapture in the school finance system. The report makes no recommendations regarding special education, instead suggesting that the current corrective action plan approved by the U.S. Department of Education should be completed before any additional reforms are discussed.

Discussing the commission’s major findings, Brister acknowledged that schools are being asked to do more than ever before. This includes higher security standards and providing for the physical and mental well-being of students in addition to educating them. He then asked to strike language from the report that says the state has failed to adequately fund public education.

After breaking for lunch, the commission returned for more in-depth discussion on individual recommendations. Commission member Todd Williams of the Commit Partnership in Dallas pointed out that the teacher compensation portion of the plan (Section D) does not include specific funding for strategic staffing such as that implemented by the Dallas ISD ACE program, which is intended to incentivize top teachers to teach at the highest-need campuses. Williams argued the evaluation system and strategic staffing system should be treated as separate and funded accordingly.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) then laid out the recommendations from the working group he chaired on revenues. The group’s primary recommendation is to adopt Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to cap local property tax revenue growth. The plan suggests capping growth at 2.5 percent annually, and replacing revenue lost by school districts with state funding. The governor’s office does not specify how much this would cost or from where the replacement funding would come.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez presented a chart addressing the three plans endorsed by Bettencourt’s group, which suggests that the governor’s plan would reduce local maintenance and operations (M&O) tax collections by nearly $1 billion and increase school district revenue by $300 million in 2020 at a cost of roughly $1.3 billion. By 2023, the governor’s plan is projected to reduce M&O tax collection by $3.7 billion while increasing school district revenues by $74 million. Lopez pointed out that this is primarily a tax relief plan, as opposed to a school finance plan, which explains why future funding is projected to flatten out.

The commission discussed the level of emphasis that should be placed upon the governor’s revenue cap plan. Members pointed out the interrelation of property taxes and school finance, as well as the need to focus on the commission’s statutory charge, which is to fix the school finance system. The governor’s plan alone would not change the fundamental mechanics of the school finance system.

Sen. Bettencourt has argued that the state’s coffers will be flush heading into the next budget cycle based on tax revenue from booming oil and gas production, but the state comptroller has yet to release a formal biennial revenue estimate (BRE) with hard numbers upon which to base a budget. State Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian), who represents oil and gas-dependent west Texas, cautioned against relying on oil and gas as a reliable, long-term funding source. A combination of the governor’s plan and the commission’s recommendations for additional public education spending could add up to a price tag north of $5 billion for the upcoming budget biennium.

The commission is scheduled to meet next Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018, to vote on final recommendations. The commission is required by law to submit its report to the legislature by December 31.

Finance commission group finalizes recommendations

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance working group on revenue met Tuesday at the Texas Capitol to discuss recommendations to deliver to the full commission. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), who leads the working group, indicated he is open to using the economic stabilization fund (ESF), which is commonly referred to as the “Rainy Day Fund,” to help fund public education.

School finance commission working group meeting November 27, 2018.

Bettencourt opened the meeting suggesting that state revenues are looking bullish heading into the next budget biennium. Again, Sen. Bettencourt emphasized his priority is phasing out the “Robin Hood” system of wealth equalization through recapture. According to Bettencourt, freezing recapture would cost approximately $2.3 billion.

Before Bettencourt began his presentation, commission member and Austin ISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Johnson told the group she had identified $14 billion in new programs to propose to the commission.

According to figures Bettencourt provided to the group, the state comptroller increased the revenue estimate for the next biennium to $110.2 billion in July 2018 from $104.9 billion in 2017, a $5.3 billion increase. During the first two months of fiscal year (FY) 2019, sales tax revenues, which represent 58 percent of all state tax collections, are expected to be up ten percent compared to FY 2018.

Bettencourt asserted two point upon which most agree: Without school finance reform, the state’s share of public education funding will continue to shrink, and the amount of funding districts pay into recapture for wealth equalization will continue to increase. Bettencourt emphasized his prediction that increased revenue in FY 2019 will provide additional general revenue (GR) which will be available to help fund schools.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), who is vice-chair of the House Public Education Committee, raised a question over how equity would be preserved if legislators make changes to or eliminate the recapture system. State Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian), who is also a member of the House Public Education Committee, also raised a concern that any increase in school funding will need to be sustainable.

Bettencourt presented the governor’s tax cap plan as the solution. The plan would increase funding for districts that increase teacher pay and improve student outcomes, however Rep. Bernal noted that outcomes-based funding threatens to reward districts that already have the resources necessary to improve while neglecting districts that have failed to improve precisely because they lack the necessary resources. The plan would also limit property tax revenue growth to 2.5 percent per year, which the plan promises to make up for with state funding.

Another proposal discussed by Bettencourt is one presented by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a far-right pro-voucher organization, which would aim to eliminate all school district maintenance and operations (M&O) property taxes. This would cost roughly $51.3 billion for the 2018-19 biennium. The TPPF proposal claims to be able to pay for itself by dedicating future increases in state revenues to public education, but Bettencourt conceded that this is an optimistic view.

Bettencourt also briefly discussed the idea of “sharing” recapture. In this plan, property value growth would be divided by thirds, and the benefits from the growth in property values would ostensibly be shared. Additionally, Bettencourt suggested using the increase in production severance taxes – largely due to oil and gas activity in the Permian Basin – to help fund public education. This funding stream currently already flows to public education and general revenue, with an overflow stream that is bifurcated between highway funding and the ESF. Despite the Senate’s opposition to spending ESF dollars in previous legislative sessions, Bettencourt indicated he’s now open to spending ESF money to help fund public education. Johnson argued that this represents a redirection of existing revenues and does not represent the new revenue necessary to improve school performance.

The working group voted to advance each of the proposals except the plan offered by TPPF to be considered by the full commission. Rep. King made the motion to table the TPPF plan, which he declared nonsensical. Several members expressed similar concerns. Closing the meeting, commission chair Scott Brister suggested that legislators should feel less constrained by court rulings enforcing equity. As a justice, Brister was a dissenting voice in the West Orange-Cove school finance ruling.

The full commission will meet Friday, again on December 5, and at least once more during the third week of December. The commission will get a chance to react to Tuesday’s recommendations and will arrive at a decision by the December 5 meeting on what the final report should look like. The following meeting will focus on what the report should say. The commission is required to submit its report to the legislature by December 31.

Brister asked commission members to do their best to reach a unanimous consensus on recommendations, and said that in lieu of a minority report, individual members will be allowed to place letters in an appendix to the final report.

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: November 16, 2018

Here’s your weekly wrap-up of education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


TEA Commissioner Mike Morath addresses SBOE, November 14, 2018.

The State Board of Education (SBOE) met this week to discuss a variety of topics in what would be its last series of meetings before the year’s end.

On Wednesday, the board voted to increase its distribution from the Public School Fund to 2.9%.  This action takes place after a dispute earlier this year between the SBOE and the General Land Office’s School Land Board (SLB). Both the SBOE and the SLB manage investment portfolios that fund public education, but an unusual move by the SLB to bypass the SBOE and put funding directly into the Available School Fund (ASF) means that the SBOE will have less money to support classrooms directly.

Other topics of discussion this week included the streamlining of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for social studies, the board’s final discussion on the Long Range Plan (LRP) for public education, and the SBOE’s legislative priorities for the upcoming session in 2019.

The Board also heard from Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath. The commissioner addressed concerns that the agency’s Legislative Appropriations Request (LAR) seeks less state funding than in previous years, telling the board the agency is simply following the funding formulas established by the legislature.

During the Board’s discussion with Commissioner Morath, members also requested updates on issues such as Senate Bill (SB) 1882, a bill passed during the 85th legislative session that allows public school districts to partner with privately-run charter schools; the recent ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the U.S. Department of Education’s punitive actions against Texas for underfunding special education programs; and transparency regarding the instructional materials portal launched in 2017.

 


In a press conference earlier this week, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) announced that the race for Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives was “over,” as he had secured enough pledges for votes to make him the definitive winner. While the Speaker’s race won’t officially be over until January, when the House convenes for the 86th legislative session and formally votes for the next speaker, that hasn’t stopped Bonnen from proceeding as the presumptive speaker-elect, hiring key staff and putting in place a transition team.

Rep. Bonnen suggested that school finance will be the top priority of the Texas House in the upcoming legislative session, and he has vowed to work with his counterpart across the rotunda. Bonnen and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick released a joint statement this week affirming their commitment to unity and working together in the upcoming session. Rep. Bonnen wrote, “The Lieutenant Governor and I share a strong commitment to doing the people’s business.”


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

On Tuesday, the Texas Commission on Public School Finance working group on revenues discussed the issue of wealth equalization through recapture, which is commonly referred to as “Robin Hood” under the current school finance system.

Led by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), the group heard testimony from a variety of stakeholders, including former state Sen. Tommy Williams, who testified on behalf of the governor’s office. Williams delivered the first public explanation of the governor’s plan to cap local tax revenue. A detailed account of the meeting can be found in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 

 


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.

School finance commission discusses list of recommendations

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met Tuesday at the Texas Capitol to hear recommendations from the working group on expenditures, which is led by House Public Education Committee chairman and state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston).

School finance commission meeting September 25, 2018.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath began the hearing by presenting the agency’s annual report, which purported to show an increase in education funding since 2007. Responding to questions from commission members, Morath conceded that the numbers were not adjusted for inflation.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) asked Morath to explain the dispute between the General Land Office (GLO) and the State Board of Education (SBOE) over public education funding. Morath stated that through the School Land Board (SLB), the GLO sent $750 million to public education for the last biennium. The GLO only sent $600 million for this biennium, bypassing the SBOE, and representing a roughly $150-190 million decrease in funding.

Sen. Bettencourt appeared to come down on the side of the SBOE in the dispute. SBOE Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) suggested that the dispute will require a legislative fix. The entire SBOE sent a letter asking GLO Commissioner George P. Bush to reconsider the action and increase funding, but Bush refused to do so.

Commission Chair Scott Brister suggested that on the big question, whether to increase public school funding is not up to the commission. Member Ellis rightly pointed out that while it’s true the legislature is the only body that can appropriate funds, it is certainly the commission’s duty to discern what appropriate funding levels are and to make recommendations accordingly. This point was backed up by Austin ISD CFO Nicole Conley Johnson.

Brister added that the commission will require a half dozen meetings in November and December in order to finalize its report.

Rep. Huberty then walked the commission through a list of 22 recommendations from the working group on expenditures, beginning with reallocating cost of education index (CEI) funds. The recommendations are as follows:

Reallocations of existing funding:

  1. Reallocate cost of education funds. The CEI was last updated in 1991 and provides adjustment for cost of educating children in different parts of the state. Huberty argued that this formula is outdated and that funding could be rerouted to add $2.9 billion to the basic allotment.
  2. Reallocate Chapter 41 hold harmless funds worth $30 million annually.
  3. Reallocate Chapter 41 early agreement credit funds for an annual savings of $50 million.
  4. Reallocate gifted and talented allotment funds worth $165 million annually. Rep. Huberty and state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) emphasized that gifted and talented (GT) programs will not go away. Pflugerville ISD Superintendent Doug Killian cautioned that districts could come to view GT programs as an unfunded mandate, and suggested weighting GT funding instead. Todd Williams also voiced concern that eliminating dedicated GT funding could lead districts to underidentify GT students as a way to cut costs.
  5. Reallocate high school allotment funds worth $400 million annually.
  6. Move from prior year to current year property values worth $1.8 billion. Huberty suggested that this would more accurately reflect the current needs of school districts. Killian cautioned that this change will cost Pflugerville, which is a fast-growth district, $22.7 million in the first year. Conley Johnson added that this could add uncertainty to the budgeting process for districts.

Increased spending on existing programs:

  1. Increase compensatory education allotment from 0.2 to a spectrum of between 0.225 and 0.275, based on the concentration of severely challenged students. This would be worth $1.1-1.2 billion. Commissioner members engaged in a lengthy discussion on identifying metrics with which to identify need other than qualification for federal free and reduced lunches.
  2. Change the transportation allotment to a mileage-based approach based on at least $0.80 cents per mile appropriated by the legislature.
  3. Provide transportation funding to Chapter 41 districts, at an annual cost of $60 million.
  4. Recreate the small- and mid-size district adjustments as a standalone allotment, at an estimated cost of $0-400 million. Rep. Huberty argued that this would create more transparency.
  5. Increase the new instructional facilities allotment (NIFA) to $100 million per year, which would be a direct benefit to fast-growth school districts.
  6. Expand career and technical education (CTE) funding to 6th through 8th grades, at an annual cost of $20 million.

New programs:

  1. Create a new dual language allotment at 0.15, at an annual cost of $15-50 million. This is aimed to incentivize schools to transition from bilingual to more effective dual language programs.
  2. Create a new dyslexia allotment of 0.1, at an annual cost of $100 million. Currently districts do not receive direct funding for students with dyslexia, despite the fact the number of dyslexic students in Texas is estimated to be anywhere from 2.5 to more than ten percent.
  3. Create a new early childhood support allotment of 0.1, at an annual cost of $786 million. This would benefit students from kindergarten through 3rd grade, and could be used to fund any program that seeks to improve 3rd grade math and reading, including full-day pre-K.
  4. Create a 3rd grade reading bonus of 0.4, at an annual cost of $400 million. This is a simple incentive for students to meet grade level in 3rd grade reading. Williams suggested granting students facing social or economic challenges a greater reward.
  5. Create a college, career, and military readiness bonus at an annual cost of $400 million. This would provide additional funding for each graduating senior who does not require remediation after graduation or who is able to directly enter the workforce or military. This is intended to support the state’s “60×30” goals.
  6. Create a new teacher compensation program, at an annual cost of $100 million. This is a merit-based pay program that would allow certain educators to earn more by performing well on certain evaluation systems. Teachers would also be rewarded for teaching at campuses with higher levels of disadvantaged students. This program could grow significantly in size depending upon district participation. Williams acknowledged that local development involving teachers is incredibly important, and measures other than student STAAR results should be considered. Williams suggested it would be incumbent on the commissioner to develop a set of minimum standards.
  7. Create an extended year incentive program at an annual cost of $50 million. This would be aimed to reduce summer learning losses.

Additional changes:

  1. Utilize remaining funds from reallocations to increase the basic allotment.
  2. Change the guaranteed yield on tier II copper pennies from a set dollar amount to a percentage of the basic allotment.
  3. Link the tier II golden penny yield to a set percentile of wealth per student.

Many of these recommendations were also supported by recommendations from the working group on outcomes, led by Todd Williams. Williams congratulated Huberty on his working group’s efforts to find more efficient ways to provide the support students need, and added that the system will nonetheless need more money. In a final conversation around spending, Brister continued to suggest that more funding is not necessarily the solution. Member Ellis emphasized that the commission must address the adequacy of public education funding.

The working group on revenues, led by Sen. Bettencourt, is now the only working group yet to produce recommendations. Bettencourt pushed back on warnings that time is running short for the commission to complete its work, but did not provide a timeline for his work product.