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EduLege Tracker 4-30-18

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EduLege Update Volume VI, Number 27
April 30, 2018
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

You’re going to hear this over-and-over again for the next eight months….

When the Texas Legislature convenes in January 2019, legislators are going to find themselves in a serious financial hole when it comes to writing the new State Budget, and it’s largely their own fault.

Writing the budget is by far the most important thing the Texas Legislature does.  Indeed, under the Texas Constitution, it’s the one responsibility that legislators have.

Budget debates are convoluted and filled with arcane language, and the most important decisions are rarely discussed in public.

So just how bad are things? Pretty bad.

For the next two years, the Legislature is projected to be significantly short of the money it needs just to maintain the current meager level of funding for public education and other basic state services. 

According to State Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the 86th legislative session will have a relatively paltry $105 billion to spend. But the Center for Public Policy Priorities estimates that in order to fund the current level of state services for another two years will cost more than $111 billion.

So, there’s an effective shortfall of some $6 billion, and that’s without considering any new spending proposals.

Where’d the money go?

In 2015, at the urging of the Legislature, Texas voters approved diverting billions of dollars in state sales tax revenue to the Highway Fund. That’s money that state budget-writers no longer have available for schools, prisons and health services for children and the poor. 

And then there are the tax cuts, mainly for Texas businesses.

In 2013, the Legislature significantly cut the state business tax, which has now drained some $1.1 billion from the Treasury over the last four years. Then, in 2015, largely at Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s initiative, the Legislature passed several additional tax cuts that blew another $4.5 billion hole in the current two-year State Budget.

Together, those tax cuts and tax diversions total a little less than $6 billion.

You do the math: there is an almost one-to-one ratio between the size of the hole in available state revenue and the cumulative effect of the last few years of legislative tax-cutting. 

But the Texas economy is booming, right? Won’t additional sales tax revenue help cover the budget shortfall?

“No,” says Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget expert with the CPPP. “Legislators have to do something about revenue.”  

The problem, Ms. DeLuna Casto says, is that major revenue generators, like the state sales tax, aren’t keeping pace with population growth. As the state cuts more and more, the tax burden shifts to local cities and school districts, which must, in turn, levy high property taxes to fund what the state won’t. 

If anything, Ms. DeLuna Casto fears that the Texas’ budget situation is likely to get worse.

As Baby Boomers age, their property taxes will be frozen, which will place additional funding strains on local governments.

And there’s the ever-present possibility that—after a remarkable decades-long winning streak—the Texas economy cools, sales tax revenue declines…and the state budget situation becomes even more dire.

Money they don’t have…

The Texas Education Agency plans to spend nearly $212 million over the next five years, trying to fix systemic problems with Special Education programs in public schools, according to the agency’s final action plan.

Funding for any new programs by the Legislature in 2019—as noted above—will be a major challenge.

TEA officials have acknowledged that students with special needs lag far behind their peers in reading and math skills and say their plan includes efforts to boost academic achievement, as well as address corrective actions required by the U.S. Department of Education.

The federal agency determined that the state illegally established an 8.5 percent benchmark—many parents and parents considered it a de facto enrollment cap—on the number of students receiving Special Ed services, well below the national average of 13 percent.

TEA officials have repeatedly said the 8.5 percent benchmark was not a cap but an “indicator of performance.” But in practice, Texas school districts used the number as a cap, the Department of Education found, and denied or delayed services for children across the state.

The final version of TEA’s corrective plan comes after months of draft proposals and public hearings with parents, educators and Special Education advocates. 

The state now proposes to increase its monitoring, to ensure that school districts are complying with all Special Education laws; better train teachers and staff on services for needy students; increase family engagement opportunities and identify previously unidentified students who may still be eligible for Special Education services. 

In the next five years, the state plans to spend $90 million on professional development, $65 million on compensatory services and nearly $20 million on new monitoring staff.

Steven Aleman, a policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas, said TEA’s proposed funding for the corrective action plan is “only a down payment” for truly meeting the needs of Special Education students. 

“It’s encouraging that there is a tremendous opportunity to make changes in the system,” he said. “But so many of the details are left to be determined that it is still unclear whether, at the end of the day, systems will improve and be more responsive for students.”

It’s a Texas-sized standoff…

The Houston school board’s decision to take no action on a controversial proposal to turn 10 underperforming schools over to a charter school network has left the state’s largest school district facing several politically unpopular options.

Under the terms of a 2015 law, the Texas Education Agency must now either close the schools, which have not met state standards for five or more years, or take over management of the Houston school board.

Or, the state could blink—deciding that the damage done by Hurricane Harvey is grounds for issuing a waiver and granting the nation’s seventh-largest school district more time to bring the 10 struggling campuses up to speed.

Education Commissioner Mike Morath has said that he will announce in June whether schools and districts that have been affected by the hurricane will be given accountability waivers.

Whatever the final decision, it’s a high-stakes one for both TEA and 214,000 Houston students. 

The district’s sheer size likely makes the prospect of a state takeover daunting to agency officials. And while critics say the Houston district has a long history of kicking the can down the road, a waiver from complying with the state’s tough accountability laws—because of the hurricane—could provide it with a well-justified year’s reprieve.

She’s hired, but will she return?

The Mansfield school board has renewed the contract of an elementary school art teacher who was suspended earlier this year after at least one parent complained that she had discussed her sexual orientation with her pupils.

The Mansfield district had placed Stacy Bailey on paid leave, saying that parents had the right to “control the conversation with their children, especially as it relates to religion, politics, sex/sexual education, etc.”

Ms. Bailey's attorney, Jason C.N. Smith, says that the 31-year-old teacher wants to continue teaching because it is her passion, but he didn't say whether she planned to stay in the Mansfield district.

“The fact that Mansfield ISD renewed Ms. Bailey's contract just confirms that she is an excellent teacher who is a positive influence on the students,” Mr. Smith said.  “Ms. Bailey will be reviewing all of her options going forward.”

Go West…

State leaders in Arizona are the latest who are trying to cope with an unprecedented teacher strike, following similar walk-outs by educators in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma.

Many public school teachers in Arizona walked off the job last week, saying that they are fed up with lagging salaries and what they see as an equally dangerous attack on their profession—school vouchers.

Arizona is the nation’s leader in the movement to expand voucher programs.  Arizona legislators have also heaped tax breaks and incentives on charter schools in a state with the largest percentage of students in charters nationwide.

Republican Governor Doug Ducey, who's facing re-election this year, is offering a nearly 20 percent raise to Arizona teachers by 2020 and says that he doesn’t understand why educators were still protesting.

Some teachers say their anger with Governor Ducey is fueled over his latest expansion of a voucher-like Education Savings Account program. Arizona already has one of the most ambitious ESA programs in the country.

We’re going to take a little break for a family wedding.
EduLege will return on Tuesday, May 8.                                                                                                      

- Andy 

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.