Author: suem

How a charter can be “high performing” without hiring teachers with college degrees

There are several ways in which Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s proposed charter proliferation rules threaten public education and the taxpayers who pay for it. I am referring to the relaxed standards by which an existing charter operator could be deemed “high-performing” and allowed to open new campuses.

One standard is so relaxed it would allow charters to hire teachers without college degrees and still be considered “high performing.”

Charters would be rated under a new “performance framework,” and those charter holders that score 80 percent or more on the framework would virtually be given carte blanche freedom to open new campuses without considering the academic need for the new schools or the negative financial impact on the school districts in which the new campuses were located.

The proposed penalty, if you want to call it that, for a charter chain that breaks the law and hires teachers without college degrees would be the loss of only one point – one point — on the commissioner’s new performance framework. Not only could the charter continue to operate, but it also could expand, provided it met enough other requirements to meet the required score of 80.

As my colleague, TSTA policy specialist Carrie Griffith, testified in a hearing against the rules changes, the same charter chain “could replicate across the state and might even erect a $20,000 taxpayer-funded billboard promising ‘highly qualified teachers.’”

Carrie also pointed out that a charter chain that fails to meet federal requirements for special populations or English learners also could be rated “high performing” and allowed to replicate because those failed responsibilities, which are critical to thousands of Texas school children, are worth only one point to the commissioner’s office. That’s the size of the proposed penalty anyway.

And what about a charter school that fails to file PEIMS data in a timely manner or fails to handle STAAR materials or student records promptly? Again, the penalty is just one point.

“It is almost absurd that this is where we’ve come with all this, but it is the recommendation of the Texas State Teachers Association that charter schools in the state of Texas not be allowed to break the law,” Carrie testified. “At minimum, their statutory compliance should be a threshold requirement for being allowed to submit an amendment, especially one for expansion.”

The commissioner has not yet made a final decision on these rules, but if they remain unchanged, they will let charters proliferate almost like flies.

You can swat flies. But unnecessary charters will keep sucking up tax dollars from an underfunded public education system.

Don’t let the Legislature forget about education and teacher pay raises

There is a fact of life in Austin that every educator should remember. What the Texas Legislature giveth during one session can be taken away in the next session, and this includes teacher pay raises. Whether that happens depends on what happens in the in-between year – the election year.

The 2020 elections will begin with the March party primaries, but already legislative leaders in Austin are signaling that they are more interested in cutting taxes during the next legislative session in 2021 than they are in building on the 2019 session’s commitment to education funding.

In the biggest pro-education session in years, the Legislature last spring increased state education funding by $6.5 billion for pay raises and other important classroom needs.

But that was just a start, a down payment, toward lifting Texas out of the bottom half of the states in its commitment to public schools. Altogether the Legislature spent $11.6 billion on increased education spending and school property tax relief for the current two-year budget cycle, but the $5 billion or so spent to buy down property taxes didn’t increase overall school funding. It just transferred more of the funding to the state.

Much of the $11.6 billion came from a $9 billion revenue surplus that may not be available the next time the Legislature convenes. Meanwhile, the Legislative Budget Board has projected the cost of this year’s school finance bill will increase to $13.4 billion for the next budget cycle, and it will continue to increase in subsequent years if future Legislatures keep the new-found commitment to public education funding.

So far, though, I have detected no interest in the legislative leadership in finding significant new revenue sources for schools — or to improve educators’ health care and retirement benefits. Instead there are proposals to reduce existing revenue sources even more.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who will be back on the Senate podium in 2021 because he is not up for reelection next year, has asked the Senate Finance Committee to consider ways to further tighten the constitutional cap on state spending and reserve more money for “tax relief.” He also has asked the committee to consider more exemptions for some business property taxes.

Patrick has instructed the Senate Property Tax Committee to recommend legislation to “improve, enhance or complete implementation” of Senate Bill 2, the new law that strictly limits the ability of local elected officials to raise property taxes. Does he want to squeeze local budgets, including school district budgets, even more? He certainly doesn’t want to increase them.

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has directed the House Ways and Means Committee to seek more property tax relief, “including potential sources of revenue that may be used to reduce or eliminate school district maintenance and operations property tax rates.”

This would be replacement money, not new revenue.

Meanwhile, some members of the business community will be seeking further reductions in – or a phasing out – of the franchise tax, and many legislators will be receptive.

The leadership already has backed a constitutional amendment, Proposition 4, which Texas voters approved in November, to make it more difficult to enact a state personal income tax. The same proposition abolished a constitutional provision that dedicated revenue from a future income tax to education and school property tax relief.

The Legislature appropriated more funding for public schools this year because educators got out in force to vote in 2018’s elections, made education their priority and elected new education friendly candidates to the Legislature.

Now, many of those education friendly legislators will be facing stiff reelection opposition. So, educators must do even more in next year’s elections – or risk losing their hard-fought legislative gains.

The lottery, the under-educated and school finance

The biggest myth about the Texas Lottery over the years has been that it was going to put public education on Easy Street. It does raise money for education – it transferred more than $1.6 billion to the Foundation School Fund in fiscal 2019 – but that’s only a small part of the $50 billion-plus spent on Texas public schools each year.

The biggest irony about the Texas Lottery is that much of the money it raises for education is wagered by the least educated among us, and that share may grow, now that the Texas Lottery Commission is ready to launch a special partnership with Dollar General.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the Lottery Commission will make tickets available at every check-out aisle in all of the nearly 1,500 Dollar General Stores in Texas, which cater primarily to customers on low and fixed incomes.

Various studies of lotteries throughout the country have shown that lower-income people are disproportionately more likely to play the game, hoping to strike it rich on a lucky ticket. Not all poor people are under-educated, but many are.

The same Chronicle article cites a 2018 survey by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, which found that Texas Lottery players represented all income levels. But the survey also determined that the lower a player’s education, the more he or she spent on tickets.

Players with a high school education or no high school diploma spent almost four times the amount on lottery tickets than a person with a graduate degree. Players earning less than $20,000 a year made up the highest-spending group.

Then-Gov. Ann Richards had to twist a lot of arms to get the Legislature to approve the lottery during her administration in the early 1990s, and in doing so she, intentionally or not, helped create the myth about the lottery becoming a major funder of public education.

As the Chronicle points out, some legislators still can be heard criticizing the lottery as a “tax on poor people.” But in the end, most lawmakers find that preferable to coughing up more general revenue for schools.

Since 1997, when lottery proceeds were first dedicated to education, the lottery has contributed $24.1 billion to the Foundation School Program, the Texas Lottery Commission reports. That’s a lot of money, spread over 23 years, but it still is about half – or less – than the total public education budget for this year alone.

Deal with Dollar General revives concerns Texas Lottery is targeting low-income players

Proposition 4 is anti-public education

House Bill 3, which provided billions of dollars in new state aid for educator pay raises and other classroom needs, got most of the attention during this year’s legislative session, as well it should have. It had been several years since the Legislature made such a heavy investment in Texas’ future, and it happened only because TSTA members and other educators voted education first in last year’s legislative elections.

We replaced several anti-education incumbents in the House and the Senate with new lawmakers who knew that being pro-public schools was much more than and smile and a pat on the nearest teacher’s head.

But the Legislature, with the votes of several lawmakers who should have known better, also slipped in and passed a proposed constitutional amendment that will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot as Proposition 4. If voters approve it, its effects may not be felt for years, but eventually it could end up shuttering public schools and crippling other important services.

Proposition 4 would make it more difficult to enact a personal income tax, something that isn’t going to happen in Texas anytime soon anyway. But of more critical importance to Texas’ future, Proposition 4 also would wipe out a constitutional provision that dedicates any future income tax revenue to education.

This provision, the so-called Bullock amendment, was added to the Texas Constitution, with voter approval, in 1993, when the legislative majority had a much keener sense of the future and the growing needs of a growing state than the current state leadership demonstrates. The provision says that a personal income tax can be imposed in Texas only with the approval of a majority of Texas voters. And at least two thirds of the revenue from an income tax would have to be spent to reduce school property taxes and the remainder to increase education funding.

All that potential education funding will disappear if voters approve Proposition 4. The Legislature at some future date could still approve an income tax on a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate and, with voter approval, could choose to spend the money on anything.

Supporters of Proposition 4 would like you to believe that Texas has an income tax “crisis.” We don’t. With or without Proposition 4, the Legislature isn’t likely to approve an income tax for years. But sooner or later, lawmakers may have to consider an income tax to meet growing spending needs, and Proposition 4 will make their jobs more difficult, with schools forced to scramble for funding.

Proposition 4 could even provoke a more-immediate crisis. Because the amendment doesn’t define individuals as living persons, it could encourage business groups to go to court and seek rulings exempting corporations from having to pay billions in state franchise taxes. If they are successful, billions of dollars would have to be cut from education and other programs.

The only viable recourse for educators is to continue voting for education first. That will include voting for more education friendly legislative candidates in 2020…and voting AGAINST Proposition 4 this fall.

Early voting has started and will run through Nov. 1.