Texas Commission on Public School Finance: Sophie’s Choice

Texas Commission on Public School Finance: Sophie’s Choice

If the Texas Commission on Public School Finance were a Hollywood movie, we’d be nearing that part in the movie when the main character has figured out the plot, who is involved, and what can be done to stop it. But, because we watch a lot of movies, we also know that things aren’t going to play out like they should. We know there’s going to be a catch, or a twist, or a betrayal. Our hero isn’t safe yet.

In Texas school finance, we know some things.

But knowing won’t save us.

We know, for instance, after the testimonies on May 3, that early childhood education—when done well—is one of the single biggest difference-makers in education. We have testimonials and data showing that low income children who attend full-day pre-k with teachers certified especially to teach early childhood are twice as likely to be kindergarten ready as their unschooled counterparts coming from similar homes.

We know that kids who are kinder ready are more likely to read on grade level in third grade.

We know that kids who are reading on level at 3rd grade are less likely to need remedial instruction or get held back. Those who stay on time along their academic are less likely to drop out.

We know this. Yet, in Texas pre-k is only funded for half a day, and only for students demonstrating financial need. Teachers are certified for early childhood through 3rd grade. Because 3rd graders will be tested, the strongest teachers are funneled up to help bolster test scores, leaving the newest and often the weakest teachers with the pre-schoolers and their rapidly developing brains. (Of course there are those who fight to stay in pre-k, but with half-day programs, the salaries are not handsome.)

Our reading scores tell the story, said Alexandra Hales, executive director of research nonprofit Good Reason in Houston. Texas’s early literacy NAEP scores are 46th in the nation. Across the state, the highest performing districts only have 50 percent of student reading on level by 3rd grade.

On May 3, Houston ISD, Brownsville ISD, and researchers from Dallas and Austin all offered supporting data and expert testimony to the 13 members of the Texas Commission on Public School finance. Extend and fund compulsory full day pre-k for every student, they said. Create a narrowly focused early childhood teaching certification, they said, backing their testimony with data along the way.

If you don’t, they said, the children who suffer will be the same children who always suffer most from underfunding in education: low income kids, those currently eligible for state funded pre-k. Those whose parents can’t afford to stay home and take them to museums, libraries, and parks.

From Good Reason Houston presentation to Texas Commission on Public School Finance

“A half-day program is not feasible with a full day work schedule,”  Hales said. 

Data shows that the inverse is true as well. While all kids benefit from pre-k, low income kids— those whose days would otherwise be spent in non-teaching day care or at home without access to learning opportunities —benefit the most. 

The twist, of course, in this plot, is money. Not the money that the State would save by reducing the need for special education, speech therapy in later grades, remedial instruction, and student retention. Not the $30 million impact on increasing the high school graduation rate among the workforce, as former Seton Healthcare CEO Jesús Garza testified. No, no. The twist is in the additional $515 million it would cost to bring pre-k enrollment to 80-85 percent of Texas four-year-olds.

From Good Reason Houston presentation to Texas Commission on Public School Finance

In Brownsville, the district funds full day pre-k through a bill that allows high school students to graduate in three years, with the money from their foregone senior year going toward full day pre-k for qualifying students. If every high school student in the state were suddenly to forego their senior year, commission member Todd Williams calculated, $2.6 billion would be available.

Of course, he acknowledged, “Football coaches aren’t going to like that.”

Double twist. For every good idea, there’s the sliver of privileged interest waiting to jab it in the heel.

Another money saver might be more universally popular. Less profitable, most likely, but worth looking into: figure out how much we spend on outdated compliance practices. Forms that could be auto populated online, records that could be consolidated electronically, redundancies, etc.

Just knowing what we’re spending might be a good places to start, really. When it comes to the various outdated “weights” placed on populations requiring extra services—gifted/talented, special education, English language learners, career technical education, and at-risk students— costs are unclear, and reporting is inconsistent.

No one knows how much districts spend in filing compliance reports. No one knows how much could be saved (if any) if districts or schools were allowed to spend money as they see fit, rather than according to direction from the State. Brownsville ISD superintendent Esperanza Zendejas suggested that freeing up those funds would allow money to be spent on pre-K, which could result in the cost savings mentioned above as student matriculate on time without need for remedial or special education services.

The weights themselves also merit update. Not only have the formulas been the same since 1984 in most cases, but even then they were not set at the recommended percentages.

As Austin ISD CFO and commission member Nicole Conley Johnson pointed out—how much the state gives each district for their special populations does not dictate how much they spend or need. In special education and English language learner instruction districts are spending more than they are getting per student. That’s expensive news for Texas, where 23 percent of students are English language learners, and the special education population is likely to explode now that the the unconstitutional cap imposed by the Texas Education Agency has been removed.

Actually, all of the special populations are growing. While the student population of Texas has grown 63 percent since 1986, special populations have grown by 772 percent.

At the same time, more programs are also vying for weighted funding. P-Tech, the industry-led, early college, career technical training program out of Dallas ISD has seen great success, and even business-loving commission member Sen. Paul Bettancourt lit up over the idea, saying, “this is the kind of thing we need to be replicating.”

It’s a great model…in Dallas. Where IBM, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, AT&T, and Cisco are within spitting distance and the Dallas Community College System offers subsidized tuition. It’s a less viable model in more rural districts. Nonetheless, even in Dallas, the program is sustained by $10 million in private philanthropy and and additional $15 million per year from Dallas ISD.

Weighted funding could also help grow initiatives to place high quality teachers in highest need classrooms. Previous testimony showed how effective these initiatives could be. Yet all of those who spoke on these Master Teacher/merit pay/ strategic compensation models explained that they needed more money to sustain them. Right now many funds allocated through the weights are not allowed to be spent on teachers. Dallas ISD also has a highly developed strategic compensation program. 

Dallas ISD, where Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath was formerly a trustee, is constantly testifying before the commission. They have tons of great, effective ideas. And, as Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said, “We spent all our money on teachers, and now we don’t have any (money).”

So for every added or increased weight, expect another plot twist. What do you want to cut?

When it comes to spending, Williams signaled an eery end to this Hollywood movie, comparing the assumption of a zero sum budget to “Sophie’s Choice.”

Ironically, in that critically acclaimed film, Sophie has to choose which of her children she wants to save, which is not unlike the conversation–albeit in abstract and mass scale–happening in the State legislature.

Commission chair Scott Brister was not squeamish when asking educators and panelists where they would get the money for these highly effective programs. What should be cut?

It was the businessman, not the educators who spoke up in reply. Garza called such zero sum budgets short sighted.

“I understand it’s not popular in this state, but if you need more money, I as a citizen and a taxpayer am willing to pay more money,” Garza said.

That sentiment may or may not be shared by enough Texans to levy a new tax—income, sales, or otherwise. The bigger question is, would lawmakers even consider it? Or are they okay with the Sophie’s Choice?

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