Local leaders watch education issues as Legislature begins this week
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
It may sound like a broken record, but another legislative session is set to begin next week and education funding promises to once again be a hotly debated topic.
There are no high-profile lawsuits over funding and no decisions coming from the Texas Supreme Court, but a report issued Monday by the Texas Commission on Public School Finance should keep the issue in the forefront throughout the session.
The primary issue is how to restructure public school funding and possibly get away from Chapter 41, which has been in effect since 1990.
“There’s talk, but it’s not as simple as it looks,” said former LHISD Superintendent Dr. Rob Hart. “And there’s so much that is going to be going on that I think it will get a band-aid, and a little increase in funding here and there, but the whole system needs to be changed. The method of funding needs to be changed.”
The issue has become so big that finding a solution in a regular legislative session seems overwhelming.
“It needs a lot of attention,” Hart said. “It needs a special session. But it needs a program going into the special session, not just create a special session and just talk about it. Come in with some plans, do some background work, do some interim work.”
New LHISD Superintendent Steve Snell echoed Hart’s thoughts, reiterating how complicated the issue has become.
“I think the school finance system has gotten very complicated over the last 30 years,” he said. “They’ve just been putting band-aids on it instead of fixing the whole system. It’s interesting because I think everyone will agree that we need to fix school finance. One of the biggest issues that public schools have in the state of Texas is that we have a finance system and an accountability system that is very hard to explain to the general public.”
What constitutes a solution to the problem is also up for debate, whether it is schools looking for more funding and equity, or taxpayers looking for relief.
“We fought that lawsuit with the state and went all the way to the (Texas) Supreme Court on our current system, and the best way I have heard it explained is they said it was ‘lawful but awful,” Snell said. “Everybody knows it needs to be fixed, but one of the biggest questions is, fixed for who? Is it fixed for schools, is it fixed for taxpayers? Who are we fixing this thing for?
“Every superintendent will tell you we don’t have enough money. But if you are able to increase the state’s share and decrease taxpayers’, then taxpayers see a little relief, which is a good thing, but schools really don’t see any more money.”
Both Snell and Hart agree that what comes out of this session will be somewhat dependent on who emerges as the next Speaker of the House after the departure of Rep. Joe Strauss.
“The House seems to be very friendly when it comes to school finance and we’ve had the state finance commission, which has thrown out some good ideas, so we will see what comes from that,” Snell said.
The debate over school choice and vouchers is also one that both said should be watched, though Hart said there has not been a huge public push preceding this session.
“School choice is going to be an issue that hasn’t popped up lately,” Hart said. “I think what will happen is the funding bills that come up, possibly out of the Senate, will have voucher riders attached to them. When it hits the House, hopefully the House will not accept them. We’ve had a good run of people who have been pro public education on that committee.”
Snell and Hart both oppose a voucher system that would take public funds for private schools.
“The whole idea of taking tax dollars and giving it to private schools is wrong,” Hart said. “It’s unconstitutional. It’s not what public education was set up to do.”
Hart likened it to the issue of choosing to drive on toll roads.
“My tax dollars have provided a perfectly appropriate transportation option, but I chose to take the toll road instead, so should I get the state to pay for my toll fees because I didn’t want to use what was already provided for me? No,” he said. “A free and appropriate public education is required by the state to be provided to all residents of Texas. If they choose to not use that and use private schools that’s their business and it shouldn’t be funded by the state.”
At the core of the funding debate is the growing property tax burden on Texans. Snell said the portion of school funding that comes from property taxes has increased in recent years, and to change that, the state will have to find other sources of revenue.
“I might be the superintendent looking out for my school district, but I’m also a taxpayer and I want some tax relief, too,” Snell said. “The answer is not to raise property taxes. I think it’s unfair to our taxpayers to have to pay into a broken system when you live in Liberty Hill and pay a certain percentage and our district doesn’t necessarily benefit equally for the amount of dollars we pay.”
One issue state leaders have talked about is capping property value increases, which could tightly restrict how much taxes increase without raising rates. But those increases have proven vital to school districts all over the state as costs of running a district increases.
“I don’t think it can happen,” Hart said of potential caps. “The state would have to come up with the difference. Schools are funded primarily now by local property taxes based on values. It’s not that simple to say we’re going to cap it at 10 percent, because it will affect cities, schools, counties, because now you will have changed the whole funding structure completely. What are you going to do for the rest? Budgets still have to be done. It won’t work.”
Hart said attempts to retool how bond elections are conducted and how ballot wording must be done are things districts should look out for as well.
“There was an attempt last session to force entities that have a bond issue that raises debt to pass it by a two-thirds majority rather than a simple majority, which would make it a whole lot more difficult to pass,” Hart said. “You also had to put the amount of debt on the ballot and how much it would increase the debt. To me, that’s an educational issue in the campaigning, not a ballot issue. You should already know that when you go to vote. It is meant for sticker shock.”
The most recent iteration of district accountability ratings – the A through F grading system, is something Snell would like to see changed, but he is not optimistic.
“The state has the power to curb that, but I don’t know what the political will is to do that,” Snell said. “I understand what they’re trying to do. I understand they’re trying to make a much more understandable rating for the public to understand, but the problem comes in the definition of the rating. The last thing anyone wants is for the state to come in here and put a label on anything.”
Testing is critical in evaluating progress, but it can go too far.
“I think testing, if it is done for what it’s intended for, which is to assess a child’s progress and then give the school a plan to bring that child up or celebrate their performance, that’s one thing,” Snell said. “But when you use it to pit schools and communities against each other that’s not a good thing, especially when you look at the inequities involved in funding and every aspect of our schools.”
When a community gets a B or C, Snell said it could lead a community to discount progress made, but even better ratings can cause issues.
“When you get an A, you may be incorrectly validating everything you did,” he said.
With personnel being 80 to 85 percent of a district’s costs, and regular raises for teachers and staff always near the top of everyone’s wish list, Snell also wants to see the Legislature address the growing insurance costs for teachers.
“The costs keep going up, so even if we give teachers a cost of living raise, a lot of times they don’t see that or even lose money,” Snell said. “I’d like to see some relief there.”
Having already discussed the issue some with county and state representatives, Snell wants to see a greater emphasis placed on mental health issues as they relate to growing school security concerns.
“I think the Governor and Lt. Governor both are very concerned and want to free up money for school safety, especially on the mental health side,” Snell said. “Unfortunately, we have to have this conversation. We have to do everything we can to keep our kids safe.
“You have a security side to that, which includes the hardening of our schools, whether it is limiting access or metal detectors, police officers. And then there’s the safety side, which is everybody keeping their eyes and ears open and paying attention to our kids and getting kids some help when they look a little detached or upset.”
In the end, Snell simply wants to see what he believes are real issues addressed that will help public schools across the state.
“I’d like to see them focus on more important issues than vouchers and bathrooms. Let’s focus on things that matter, and put things in place that make everybody better,” Snell said, adding that many decisions would be better made locally. “I’m a believer in local control,” Snell said. “I think the community of Liberty Hill needs to have more of a voice in the design of Liberty Hill’s schools than the state. I wish the state would stick to just compliance issues like they do in other industries and not try to legislate excellence.”
Regardless, Snell vows to follow the issues throughout the session and make sure local needs are heard.
“The people we elect to represent Liberty Hill, they will hear from us and they will hear our needs as a school district,” he said.