Texas Commission on Public School Finance: Time is money…and some kids don’t have either

Texas Commission on Public School Finance: Time is money…and some kids don’t have either

The March 7 hearings before the Texas Commission on Public School Finance were basically the equivalent of me going to New York Fashion week. A parade of amazing and beautiful things that I can’t afford.

I think my frustration was shared by commission member Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Humble). At the end of the meeting, Huberty praised the initiatives laid out by presenters as amazing opportunities for a what equates to a handful of Texas students. Right now, students in those districts who can court philanthropy, shift money, or win grants are benefitting from opportunities that aren’t available to students in other districts. Even those currently leading the state in innovation—thanks to budgets held together largely by chewing gum and duct tape— like Dallas ISD are looking at a deficit in the tens of millions of dollars if State funding doesn’t change.

“At some point I’m hopeful that in one of these meetings we’re going to start talking about how we’re going to pay for this,” Huberty said.

The answer to this frustration simply wasn’t on the agenda…yet.

What was on the agenda? More innovative initiatives made possible by a patchwork philanthropy and sheer muscle from superintendents, principals, and teachers.

The focus of the hearing was efficiency, moving students (especially low income students, but all students, really) toward mastery when they have years of ground to make up. Ultimately moving students quickly toward higher earning potential is a cost saver, and a money maker for the State. Unfortunately for Texas, it’s going to require some investment.

Classroom Level Efficiency

In the classroom, Amy Dodson of Cisco ISD and Karen Hickman of Pasadena ISD spoke about blended learning, the use of technology to help kids learn at their own pace.

The technology should not supplant the teacher, commission member Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) confirmed, but “enhance” their ability to work with students one on one to catch up or accelerate.

That is the case, according to Hickson and Dodson. While students are working on computers, teachers are working one-on-one or in small groups. Students who are far ahead will stop what they are doing to help their classmates.

(Note: I’ve actually seen this in action in Harlandale ISD, where students use Reasoning Mind software in their math class. It works exactly like the educators described in their testimonies.)

“This model for educating our students has the potential to revolutionize our educational system,” Hickman said. Teachers and students love it, as both feel more empowered, less constrained by a curriculum schedule.

“In light of the more bang for your buck connotation, what’s the investment like to do this?” Bernal asked.

The financial “heavy lift” of getting a blended learning program going—the tech and the training— came from the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation in Pasadena ISD, Hickson said.

In Cisco ISD the blended learning initiative could make up for those startup costs, but the state will need to allow the district to be released from some required spending, and give it breathing room to innovate.

“Give us permission to try new things. Give us permission to struggle and to have ups and downs,” Dodson said.

Campus Level Efficiency

At the campus level, efficiency can be achieved through the early college model, according to Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD superintendent Danny King.

When the state’s higher education coordinating board set the goal known as 60×30, that by 2030 Texas college graduation rate would be at least 60 percent, King knew that his district would have a harder time than most hitting that goal. He was having a hard time getting student to graduate high school, let alone college.

When the district embraced the Early College model they saw drop out rates go from twice the state average, to half the state average, King reported. They partnered with local higher ed providers, created workforce training facilities, and paid attention to the needs of individual students. The more relevant high school became to their future, the more students stuck with it.

The district also began to support students all the way through college…even if it took longer than six years to achieve their degree. Many of them work and raise families as they go through college, but King said that even with this reality, more are choosing to pursue a degree than to stop at professional certification.

For those supporting family or climbing out of poverty, certifications can allow them to earn higher wages earlier, commission member Sen. Paul Bettencourt  (R- Houston) pointed out. “time is money in these situations.”

The free college credits during high school also shave expensive time off their degree plan, King added.

“Dr. King is more of the exception than the rule,” commission member Todd Williams said. The state has not provided nearly the funding required to reach the 60×30 goal. The Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD program is fueled by free tuition agreements with community colleges.

The Dallas County Community College system, through partnership with the Dallas County Promise has seen similar success through a strong partnership with the school districts. They focus on the “hand-offs” between middle school and high school, between high school and college, and between 2-year and 4-year institutions. Free tuition for high school students is part of the deal.

Not everyone has that luxury, San Antonio ISD superintendent Pedro Martinez said at the beginning of his testimony. SAISD’s early college high schools—Travis, Brackenridge, and St. Philip’s—currently pay $1 million to the Alamo Colleges for courses taken by high school students.

District-Level Efficiency

Opening up the district-level efficiency portion of the testimony, Martinez walked the commission through the district overhaul to embrace the System of Great Schools model. Open enrollment schools— many of which have partnerships with universities, nonprofits, and charter schools— have brought options to the district for the first time.

“This is the first time (the community has) ever seen San Antonio as one of those districts with choices,” Martinez said.

Every program has to be the “top of the top” Martinez said, highlighting the district’s partnerships with the Culinary Institute of America. Even the culinary program needed to be elevated to open up new possibilities for students, he said. The push for excellence is not about prestige, Martinez explained, but efficiency, in fact. Pushing students toward universities with low graduation rates is encouraging them to waste their money.

“The reason we push tier one (universities) so much is because they have 70, 80 percent graduation rates,” Martinez said, “It’s a better investment.”

These efforts have built momentum, but they have been largely jump started by philanthropy and intense fundraising in the community, Martinez said. Now, he feels the district has to continue to deliver.

“There is a tremendous amount of hope in this community that we’ve never seen before,” Bernal, who lives in SAISD, said.

Midland ISD is also pursuing the System of Great Schools model, and confirmed that the results have been positive for the community, allowing them to serve students in a way that is more tailored to students, proactive with new and high-need families, and in the end a better fit for the relatively isolated West Texas district where school choice is not as robust as it is in the large, urban centers.

Within those urban charter networks, the commission learned, there are opportunities for greater efficiency. IDEA Public Schools, a charter network from the Rio Grande Valley, is experiencing explosive growth in San Antonio, and soon will move into El Paso, CEO Tom Torkelson told the commission.

Nothing moves students more efficiently than great teachers and principals implementing rigorous curriculum, Torkelson said. He would see a realignment of the teacher pay structure to prioritize high levels of achievement for low income kids or English Language Learners. IDEA currently recruits teachers from the top of the class at top universities, and pays them according to their efficacy, Torkelson explained, “Let’s find a way where people who could choose medicine, who could choose engineering, who could choose accounting, choose education.”

Refer to the previous commission hearings to learn about the economic feasibility of highly paid teachers under current finance structures.

In the end, every testimony of a highly effective strategy faced the same question from the commission: how much did it cost up front? How much to get it started?

The universal answer: More than we currently get from the State.

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