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EduLege Tracker 11-30-17

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EduLege Update Volume V, Number 82
November 30, 2017
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

A punishing decade…

Since 2008, when the Great Recession led to major funding cuts to public education in school districts across the country, Texas has lagged behind most states in restoring those dollars, according to a new study.

Per-student state funding in Texas in 2015, the latest year in which data on spending on public education is available from the U.S. Census Bureau, was 16 percent lower than in 2008, when adjusted for inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

That was the sixth-biggest decline in state education spending during that period—behind Arizona, Florida, Alabama, Idaho and Georgia. Nineteen other states actually increased funding between 2008 and 2015 by as much as 96 percent.

Increased reliance on local tax revenue and sluggish oil prices, among other factors, contributed to stagnant state education funding, according to the CBPP study.

In Texas, the funding cuts were also exacerbated by a grossly inaccurate revenue estimate by then-State Comptroller Susan Combs, which prompted the State Legislature to cut funding for public education by more than $5 billion in 2011.

As a result, school districts have had to cut teachers, staff and student programs, particularly those that serve low-income students, said Michael Leachman, one of the study’s authors.

“These trends are very concerning to the country’s future prospects,” Mr. Leachman said. “The health of the nation’s economy, our quality of life, will depend crucially on the creativity and intellectual capacity of our people. If we neglect our schools, we diminish our future.”

With diminished state money—the Legislature now funds only about 37 percent of the cost of public education—local school districts have had to rely more heavily on revenue generated from local property taxes. Even when local tax dollars are factored in, Texas’ per-student funding level is still 4.8 percent below the 2008 level.

“Property taxes are simply too high, and the state’s investment is too small,” said Drew Scheberle, Senior Vice President at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

The CBPP study also says tax cuts are to blame for states’ struggles to return to 2008 education funding levels.

In 2015, Texas legislators passed a multibillion-dollar tax relief package that increased the property tax homestead exemption and reduced the business franchise tax by 25 percent.

“While it might be popular to give tax cuts, we then have to pay for those tax cuts and fill that hole, rather than (make) a greater investment in our schools,” said Christy Rome, Executive Director of the Texas School Coalition, which represents mostly property-wealthy school districts.

Ms. Rome said the CBPP study doesn’t take into account the greater challenges Texas faces compared with many other states. The state’s student population has grown about two percent each year to 5.3 million, with many of those new students non-native English speakers and from low-income families.

Special education services, bilingual programs and services for students who are at risk of dropping out were hit hardest by the Texas Legislature’s funding cuts in 2011.

To read the full report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, click here.

A delightful evaluation…

Supporters of Pre-K 4 SA are delighted in the results of the program’s fourth annual report—and the first to evaluate all four of its pre-kindergarten centers at capacity—which found that young San Antonio students have achieved significant academic, social and emotional gains.

“It just consistently shows that Pre-K 4 SA is working, and that’s exciting,” said Sarah Baray, CEO of the program. “If you look around, everything shows it should be, but without data you can’t verify that claim.”

Westat, the independent consulting firm that was hired to conduct the yearly reviews, found that while Pre-K 4 SA students came into the program’s 2016-2017 school year with below-average scores on five out of six measurements compared to a national sample, they exceeded that norm by springtime in cognitive, literacy and mathematics measurements, and were up to par in oral language, physical and social emotional skills.

Pre-K 4 SA is a San Antonio program that provides full-day, high-quality pre-kindergarten to approximately 2,000 four-year-olds at four city-run centers, in partnerships with local school districts. In exchange for teacher training and a chance at grants to bolster their own programs, participating districts share part of their state Pre-K funding to supplement a 1/8th-cent-per-dollar sales tax that San Antonio voters approved in 2012.

Championed by former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro as part of his Brainpower Initiative Task Force, the citywide Pre-K program has received national recognition.

The Westat report said there was no significant difference in children’s performance among the four widely dispersed centers.

Attendance rates have been stable for Pre-K 4 SA’s lifespan, Westat reported, hovering above 90 percent.  

In 2020, near the end of the special sales tax allocation, the San Antonio City Council will have to decide whether to place it back on the ballot for a November vote to extend the Pre-K 4 SA program.

Feeling vindicated…

Superintendent Darrell Brown believes that the Birdville school district has been “vindicated” in its legal fight to support student-led prayers at board meetings.

“The speeches given by students at the board meetings are their own—not something they are told to say,” Superintendent Brown said, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

“Occasionally, students will open the meeting with a prayer. We believe the students have the right to express themselves in this manner if they choose,” Superintendent Brown said.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to weight-in on the issue leaves in place an earlier ruling from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which found that the prayers fell under an exception that allows legislative bodies to conduct prayers in government buildings.

This legal fight began when Isaiah Smith, a 2014 Birdville High School graduate, and a member of the American Humanist Association, sued the school district.

Mr. Smith’s lawsuit alleged that the school district has allowed two students to open board meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance and a short statement, oftentimes a prayer. Mr. Smith said the prayers made him feel “violated and uncomfortable.”

Smith had argued that the student-led prayers, most of which included references to Jesus and Christ, were the school district “endorsing particular religious ideology over his and all others, as well as religion over non-religion.”

Feeling ‘dissed’…

For 15 years, the federal tax code has recognized U.S. school teachers with a small perk that has now come to illustrate a larger philosophical divide as Congress tries to push through a sweeping tax overhaul.

The House tax bill, approved earlier this month along party lines, would eliminate the provision that allows teachers to deduct a portion of their expenses for classroom supplies.

Democrats and educators say the House’s decision to end that deduction is yet another example of Republicans favoring corporations and the rich over the working class. They argue that principals, teachers, librarians and counselors should be allowed take a small deduction of business-related expenses that is more often used by private employees who have home offices.

The House bill “shows President Trump and the GOP's clear commitment to the rich and powerful at the expense of children, educators and families,” said Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers.

The proposed Senate tax bill, would double the annual deduction, to $500.

“The deduction is a small token of appreciation for teachers who make financial sacrifices to benefit their students,” said U.S. Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, who wrote the law that created the educator tax credit in 2002, and now wants to expand it.

The deduction—which reduces taxable income, rather than providing a dollar-for-dollar credit in a tax bill—does not yield a large return for classroom educators. The most a teacher could recoup is $100, and most see a return of about $40, a small fraction of the $500 to $600 that surveys have estimated that teachers spend a year.

But for the more than three million American teachers who claim the deduction, it’s still money in their pockets.

Worth noting…

State Representative Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, is retiring from the Texas House of Representatives after 13 terms.

“After much prayer, combined with careful and thoughtful deliberation with my family, I have decided not to seek re-election," Representative Giddings announced. "This is obviously a difficult decision, and one that tugs at my heart."

First elected in 1992, Representative Giddings now serves as Vice-Chair of the powerful House State Affairs Committee. She also is Chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

During the 85th legislative session earlier this year, Representative Giddings overcame repeated obstacles raised by ultra-conservative Tea Party/Freedom Caucus members and won passage of her bill that prevents school districts from “shaming” students whose cafeteria meal account balance is zero.

Representative Giddings' announcement came midway through the candidate-filing period for the 2018 political primary elections. The filing deadline for the March ballot is Dec. 11.

Honoring the best…

Friends of Texas Public Schools will honor three Texans at its 13th annual Awards Gala next Wednesday, Dec. 6.

The honorees are:

  • Friend of the Year – Pastor Charles Foster Johnson, founder of Pastors for Texas Children
  • Ambassador of the Year – Principal Virdie Montgomery of Wylie High School
  • Distinguished Service Award – Johnny Veselka, the retiring Executive Director of the Texas Association of School Administrators.

The banquet will take place at the Baylor Club, inside McLain Stadium, in Waco.

EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.