School finance plan gets messy with pay for test scores; Texas charter chains granted millions to expand

Things get messier on school finance and its ties to tax proposals, but Senate plan author says it’s just part of the process

State Sen. Larry Taylor finally unveiled his school finance plan in the Senate Education Committee last week, and things got messier as reporters and education advocates scrambled to read the 289-page bill in one night, while also trying to compare its differences to the House Plan unveiled and approved in that chamber much earlier this session.

Taylor tried to ease worried minds by lifting one hand, calling it the House bill, then lifting his other and calling it the Senate Bill, then folding them together — as if praying — and saying that they would become one bill. Well, that’s likely to happen at some point, but there are some key problems with Taylor’s plan — namely that it includes language that would mandate and incentivize the use of students’ standardized test scores for teacher pay that will make the path ahead a lot bumpier for school finance overall. (The House plan did not include the pay-for-test-scores provisions.) The Dallas Morning News was first to try and untangle the bill:

Earlier this month, Texas House members celebrated passing legislation to overhaul schools by increasing salaries, lowering property taxes and giving every district in Texas a significant increase in money to educate students. On Thursday, the Senate countered with its plan, and education leaders scrambled to determine the winners and losers.
…Taylor’s rewrite of the House education bill offers more property tax relief than the House did and bigger raises for teachers….And unlike the House’s plan, Taylor’s school bill doesn’t include any raises for school staff, such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers, counselors and school nurses….Taylor’s bill also differs from the House’s because it includes two controversial policies: merit pay for teachers and outcomes-based funding — a policy that offers bonuses to schools who have high student achievement.
Conservative and business groups favor the two plans because they believe they offer incentives for innovation that will improve student performance. But Democrats and teachers unions don’t like that standardized testing would probably be a factor in determining how these awards are allocated.
….Kelli Moulton, Galveston ISD superintendent and president of the Texas School Coalition, said giving them new money that’s tied up in mandatory teacher pay raises prevents them from spending money on other necessities like staff, reducing class sizes, mitigating budget deficits and innovation.
Conversely, Texas American Federation of Teachers President Louis Malfaro applauded the Senate for the large salary increase for teachers, which also is extended to librarians. But he criticized the plan for creating a system that would likely rely on STAAR testing to judge teachers under the merit pay system.
“The Senate’s plan fails to recognize that pay for test scores is a misuse of the STAAR test, and it’s not essential to the goal of incentivizing teachers to work at struggling campuses,” he said.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our three Dallas ISD teachers (and Texas AFT members) who have benefitted under the district’s pay-for-test-scores model, yet wholeheartedly objected to the program being used as a state model and outlined the negative impacts of the system before the committee.

Also glaring in its absurdity, the Senate plan includes use of student surveys for evaluating teachers and rewarding them with more pay. But the bill also includes some interesting changes to STAAR test structure and administration as well as a bold proclamation that schools can’t start until the third Monday of August, regardless if they have exempted themselves from the fourth-Monday requirement in law by becoming a “District of Innovation.”

Meanwhile, the property tax reduction proposals tied in many ways to school finance have become a tangled mess of competing ideas from senators, representatives and the governor. While state leadership always wanted property tax relief and school funding to go hand in hand, Ross Ramsey at the Texas Tribune notes that some House reps may have glued those hands together. Or to use his analogy and headline…”Analysis: The Texas House is handcuffing property tax relief to education reforms”

Texas isn’t going to get any action on property taxes without reforms to school finance, if the latest House maneuver is the barometer.
The House Ways and Means Committee approved its version of a Senate property tax bill Thursday, inserting an all-or-nothing clause that makes the tax bill contingent on approval of a related school finance measure.
….But this stuff is hard, and the easy thing to do with less than five weeks remaining would be to pass some property tax restraints and push the education stuff into a special session — or into the next regular session in 2021.
Not gonna happen. First, because nobody will say out loud that it’s a good idea. And now, more firmly, because a House committee has handcuffed the property tax bill to the education bill.

With so much attention put on passing a school finance bill with increased school funding and higher educator pay, it seems unimaginable that lawmakers would head home at the end of May with nothing accomplished.

Three Texas charter chains get millions in taxpayer money to expand in Houston

Kindergartners as an IDEA charter school in San Antonio. (Photos: Jerry Lara/San Antonio Express-News)

Remember how we’ve written about the millions of dollars Texas charter schools get to expand — namely from foundations pushing privatization? Well, they get fed money as well, and apparently the biggest “grants” ever were just given to Texas chains that will use the money for rapid expansion in the Houston area. The Houston Chronicle has the story:

IDEA Public Schools, the KIPP charter school network and Responsive Education Solutions, which combine to educate nearly 82,000 children in Texas, were awarded five-year grants through the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program, one of the largest federal supports for charter expansion. The grants to IDEA Public Schools, based in the Rio Grande Valley, and the national KIPP Foundation, which partners with its Texas-based affiliate, are the two largest awards in the program’s history.
….The grants come as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and charter school advocates push for greater financial support, while charter critics argue the publicly-funded, privately-operated networks drain money from traditional school districts and lack accountability to voters.
IDEA Public Schools will receive about $116.8 million…with an estimated $9 million dedicated to the network’s first foray into the Houston area. The KIPP Foundation won an $86.3 million grant to spread around its 29 regions….Responsive Education Solutions, the smallest of the three networks, was awarded about $15 million, aiming to grow or open three campuses in the Houston region.
The grant will boost IDEA Public Schools as it seeks to open 20 schools over a six-year period in the Greater Houston area….Officials at KIPP Texas, which operates about 50 schools in the Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio regions, said they are unsure how much of the national foundation’s $86.3 million grant will trickle into the Lone Star State. The network runs 31 schools in the Greater Houston area, where the first KIPP campus was founded, with plans to add another high school in the Greater East End in 2020. KIPP Texas also is eyeing El Paso for expansion, according to its grant application, though Larson said no plans have been finalized.
“We’ll grow as fast as we can and as slow as we must,” Larson said. “That has to do with real estate availability, with talent, with what waitlists look like in different cities.”

For a better idea on why Texas AFT has called for a moratorium on charter school expansion, see www.TimeOutForCharters.org.

By Rob D’Amico, Texas AFT Communications Director
(Follow on Twitter @damicoaustin and @TexasAFT)