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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

Why educators oppose Proposition 4

Many politicians love to pat teachers on the head, tell them what a great job they are doing and then tell them to keep their mouths shut and let the politicians decide what’s best for them. That’s been going on a lot since TSTA announced its opposition to Proposition 4, the so-called anti-income tax amendment that wouldn’t ban an income tax but would repeal a potential source of future education funding.

One of these head-patters wrote in a recent blog post: “What’s raising eyebrows is why associations dedicated to education policy and teacher advocacy are weighing in on how tax revenue is collected.”

Teachers better be weighing in on how tax revenue is collected. Without adequate tax revenue, there would be no public school system.

Teachers and other school employees live professional lives that are determined by politics. Political decisions determine what they teach, how big their classes are and how long the school day is. Political decisions set their licensing requirements and determine their pay and benefits. And political decisions determine how well or how poorly their classrooms are equipped with the resources necessary for student success.

The current state constitution, under a provision approved in 1993, already prohibits an income tax unless a majority of Texas voters approve one. The same provision also dedicates at least two-thirds of the revenue from a future income tax to reducing school property taxes and the remainder to increasing education funding.

Texans aren’t likely to approve an income tax for years to come, if ever, but TSTA believes it is foolish and short-sighted to wipe out a dedicated source of future education funding, which is what Proposition 4 would do.

Despite what its advocates would have people believe, Proposition 4 would not ban an income tax. It would allow a future legislative session to approve an income tax on a two-thirds vote, without any restrictions on how the new revenue could be spent. Lawmakers could even choose to spend it on corporate tax breaks, rather than on education or any other critical state needs.

At its core, Proposition 4 is anti-public education, and if educators don’t raise their voices against it, who will?