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EduLege Tracker 6-5-17

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EduLege Update Volume V, Number 43
June 5, 2017
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

Broken promise…

The 85th session of the Texas Legislature broke a promise it made more than a decade ago to pay school districts for any local revenue that they would lose through a required reduction in local property tax rates.

As a result of the Legislature’s inability to continue that revenue-offset, there are still about 300 mostly-small, rural Texas school district in which officials are warning that things are going to go from bad to worse for their students, teachers and communities.

"We don't have football because of costs. We don't have ag because of costs. We don't have band because of costs," said Comstock Superintendent O.K. Wolfenbarger III.

He plans to keep cutting back on supplies, using less copy paper, finding cheaper deals on utilities and not rehiring support staff.

"If I start cutting teacher positions...I've got kids that are going to be in danger of not having the courses they need to graduate," Superintendent Wolfenbarger warned.

At issue is the promise that the Legislature made to school districts back in 2006, after the Texas Supreme Court ordered legislators to roll back local property tax rates. In response to the court ruling, the Legislature created a state aid program—known as Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, or ASATR—to make sure that school districts didn’t lose any revenue in the deal.

In the fiscal year that ends August 31, the state estimates it will pay about $400 million to almost 300 districts that still rely upon ASATR. But then, the program is dead.

In House Bill 21, Pubic Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty, R-Humble, tried to increase state funding for most Texas schools and to bring the ASATR formula up-to-date.

But the State Senate added a student voucher provision to HB 21, which the House, and many public education advocates, refused to accept because it would draw money from public schools. The bill died, and so did any chance of retaining funds for districts that rely upon ASATR.

The special ASATR allotment accounts for more than half of the state funds that the Crane and Karnes City school districts receive. It’s more than one-third of the revenue that the Andrews, Denver City and Franklin school districts receive from the state.

Across the state, small town superintendents say that they have prepared as well as they could for this situation, scaling back early to cushion their savings.

Superintendent Joe Waldron says that teachers and community members in his small town of Defors are "heartbroken" that the state aid program was not extended this session. And most parents will be "blindsided" when they find out their school district is on life support and may only have two or three years to live.

“The important thing is that the school is the only thing in this town," Superintendent Waldron said. “The school hurts, the community hurts. That's just a fact of rural public education."

His job’s done…

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar has fulfilled his constitutional responsibility of certifying that funding exists for the new State Budget for fiscal years 2018-2019, beginning on September 1.

The new budget approved by the Legislature spends approximately $107.8 billion in state funds in the next two years, including $990 million from the Rainy Day reserve fund. When federal funds are included, the new budget’s estimated two-year price tag is approximately $216.75 billion.

The new State Budget does not include any new funds for public education except to cover a projected 800,000 per-year increase in student enrollment. The new budget:

  • Continues the current basic allotment funding of $5,140 per student.
  • Adds $2.65 billion to cover student enrollment growth.
  • Appropriates $350 million to the Teacher Retirement System to continue healthcare benefits for retired educators.
  • Spends $12 million on the Student Success Initiative.
  • Allocates $31 million to Communities in Schools.

With the Comptroller’s funding certification, Governor Greg Abbott now has until Sunday, June 18, to sign the State Budget. He can also veto individual spending items.

* * *

Meanwhile, Governor Abbott now says that it will be this week—at the earliest—before he announces whether he will call a special legislative session.

Initially, as the Legislature was adjourning last Monday, the governor promised that his decision would be announced in a matter of days. Now, he’s backed off that promise.

Governor Abbott is facing pressure to bring legislators back to Austin to deal with local property tax controls and a “bathroom bill” that would regulate which restrooms transgender Texans can use. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has been pushing for a special session to address those issues.

They failed — and there’s no Advancement Committee…

The 85th Texas Legislature brought the hammer down on public education and gaveled itself into adjournment.

That’s the opinion of the Texas PTA, which says that any chance of improving funding for public schools this session was dashed by Lieutenant Governor Patrick and the Texas Senate.

“Once again, Texas legislators will go home and the lights will go out in the Texas Capitol without accomplishing the most important goal of the session for Texas students,” said Texas PTA President Lisa Holbrook.

Since legislators are so fond of issuing A-F letter grades to Texas school districts and campuses, Ms. Holbrook says the PTA decided to assign letter grades to Lieutenant Governor Patrick and the Senate:

  • F for failing to reform public school finance;
  • F for failing to increase the state’s share of the cost of funding public schools;
  • F for prioritizing private school choice over school funding reform; and
  • F for choosing politics over Texas students.

“While we are disappointed not more was done for public education, we appreciate the efforts of House Speaker Joe Straus and House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, and members of his committee, to address sorely needed reforms,” Ms. Holbrook also said.

We’re beginning to look a lot like Oklahoma…

State funding cutbacks in Oklahoma have forced school districts across the Sooner State to make painful decisions.

Class sizes have ballooned, art and foreign-language programs have shrunk or disappeared and with no money for new textbooks, students go without. But perhaps the most significant consequence: students in dozens of Oklahoma districts are now going to school just four days a week.

Of 513 school districts in Oklahoma, 96 lopped Fridays or Mondays off their schedules this past year—nearly triple the number than in 2015, and four times as many as in 2013. Another 44 districts are considering a four-day week beginning next year, according to the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

“I don’t think it’s right. I think our kids are losing out on education,” said Sandy Robertson, a grandmother of four in Newcastle, a fast-growing rural community set amid wheat and soybean fields south of Oklahoma City. “They’re trying to cram a five-day week into a four-day week.”

The four-day week is a “contagion,” said Paul Hill, a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell who has studied the phenomenon in Idaho and who worries that the consequences of the shift—particularly for poor students—are unknown.

“The problems facing Oklahoma are our own doing. There’s not some outside force that is causing our schools not to be able to stay open,” said Democratic State Senator John Sparks. “These are all the result of a bad public policy and a lack of public-sector investment.”

Few states have schools that are worse off.

Oklahoma’s education spending has decreased 14 percent per child since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The state spent just $8,000 per student in 2014, according to federal data. Only Arizona, Idaho and Utah spent less.

Are you smarter than a Texas Legislator?

You probably know that the 85th Texas Legislature refused to increase funding for public schools.

You also are likely aware that state legislators outlawed “sanctuary” provisions for immigrants, rejected student vouchers and hasn’t decided which bathrooms transgender students should use.

But what about a proposal for the University Interscholastic League to develop a football ranking system? Outlaw drone photography? The sales tax on diapers?

Take this online quiz, developed by the Texas Tribune, to see how much you know about the work of the 85th legislative session.

The Texas Classroom Teachers Association has also prepared a nice summary of what passed—and what didn’t—during the legislative session.  Click here to read it.

Want to learn more?

The Texas Association of School Boards will hold two post-legislative conferences to update local school officials on the legislation that affects their districts.

The first debriefing will be held on Wednesday, June 14, at the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter. The second will be held on Wednesday, June 21, at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel. Both sessions are scheduled to run from 5-8:30 pm.

You can find more information here.

EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.