Legislature to weigh bills that address tuition, accountability, cafeteria food
By ERICKA MELLON | Houston Chronicle
Dec. 30, 2008
Texas lawmakers plan to tackle a range of education issues when they convene next month, from slashing the fat in cafeteria food to overhauling the school accountability system.
While rising college tuition is likely to dominate much of the conversation in the upcoming Legislative session, school districts are lobbying for an overhaul of the K-12 funding system as well. Lawmakers aren't making any promises.
"Are we going to start school finance from the ground up? I don't think so," said Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, who chairs the House Public Education Committee. "But we'll certainly look for a way to be more effective."
In 2006, the Legislature revamped the school funding system when it ordered districts to lower their property tax rates. While the move granted relief to some homeowners, school officials complain they are strapped for cash since the state essentially capped their funding.
Rep. Dan Branch, a primary author of the 2006 legislation, said he has several bills in the works that would bring more money to school districts. One proposal, which he has yet to file, would raise the minimum level of per-student funding that districts receive. Under the current system, some districts end up with around $12,000 per student while others get closer to $3,000.
Branch, who chairs a special committee that has spent the last year studying school finance, said his per-student funding change would affect between 200 and 250 of the state's 1,000-plus school districts.
The Dallas Republican also is working on a plan that would give all districts more money for middle school reform.
Two years ago, the Legislature targeted the upper grades, giving districts an allotment of $275 for each high school student.
"We're doing well in the elementary grades. There's evidence of that all over the state," Branch said. "Where are we slowing down? Middle school."
Robin Hood formula
The state's two largest districts, Houston and Dallas, also would get relief under Branch's bill to slightly revise the so-called Robin Hood formula, which redistributes money from property-wealthy districts to poorer ones. His plan would remove the two districts, which serve large numbers of poor, at-risk students, from the wealthy category.
State Sen. Florence Shapiro, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said she expects that any financial fixes adopted this session will be "a bridge to get to that major overhaul that's necessary."
"It does need to be restructured," she said of the state's school funding system, "but that is a very large undertaking. You prepare for that change a year-and-a-half before you go into a Legislative session."
After the 2009 session, lawmakers aren't scheduled to meet again until 2011.
Jacqueline Lain, the lead lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards, said districts are worried about short-term fixes, especially since lawmakers have another hot topic to consider in two years: congressional redistricting.
"School districts are facing huge financial stresses and see it only getting worse," Lain said. "With redistricting looming, we know if we don't get something done this session, it's going to be at least two sessions."
Besides finance, another major issue on the 2009 education agenda is redoing the school accountability system, which primarily is based on student test scores. The bill still is being worked on, but a special legislative committee released a report earlier this year recommending significant changes.
The committee, co-chaired by Shapiro and Eissler, called for a system that rates districts based on their academics and their finances. In addition, schools would be given credit for student improvement on standardized tests, even if students didn't meet the passing standard.
Lawmakers also could call for a broader and more relevant test to replace the oft-maligned Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, Shapiro said. And even the ratings — currently, "exemplary," "recognized," "acceptable" and "unacceptable" — could change.
"I think you will see a system that is more about rewards and less about sanctions," said Shapiro, R-Plano. "And I think you will find a structure that will emphasize post-secondary readiness."
Lain, the school board lobbyist, said districts support the general concepts being discussed about a new accountability system but are waiting to see the details.
Dozens of other bills involving K-12 education already have been filed:
Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, has proposed eliminating the cap on the number of charter schools the state allows. The state reached its limit of 215 last month. The bill already is generating resistance from some school districts, but it has "promise" to pass, Eissler said.
However, Alief school board President Sarah Winkler said: "I'm not real happy with that bill. There are some good charter schools, but if you open that door, is there somebody that's going to be there to check if they're operating appropriately?" said Winkler, who also is president-elect of the state school board association.
Another bill, filed by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, would require schools to stop serving foods with trans fat. He's also proposed that school board candidates be required to post their campaign finance reports on the Internet, which the state already requires of most other elected officials.
"I've noticed quite a few unfunded mandates," Winkler quipped.