Texas House Hearing Serves as Precursor to Upcoming Special Session on School Choice

The governor is expected to call a special session this fall to consider education savings accounts and other public education issues.

With a property tax relief compromise wrapped up, state lawmakers are preparing for a promised special session later this year to take up public education funding, accountability, and long-thwarted proposals for Texas school choice options.

Over two days of invited testimony this week, the House Select Committee on Educational Opportunity and Enrichment heard from representatives of traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, and multiple supporting organizations.

“It is my hope that these hearings highlight the need for action on issues that did not cross the finish line during the regular session, bring to the foreground policies we may have missed, and offer solutions and perspectives that we may not have heard until this opportunity,” said committee Chairman Brad Buckley (R-Killeen) upon opening the meeting.

Multiple witnesses urged lawmakers to increase a portion of public school funding known as the basic allotment, last increased to $6,160 per student in 2019. Lawmakers approved a $8.7 billion increase in education funding this year and have set aside an additional $4 billion of the state’s budget for teacher raises and schools, but legislation specifically allocating the funds failed during the regular session due to opposition to a limited education savings account (ESA) program.

Josh Sanderson of the Austin-based Equity Center said the surplus funds could increase the basic allotment to $6,445 per pupil, or $6,700 per pupil in the second year of the state’s two-year budget cycle.

“That gets us about a nine percent increase, which is still below where we know we need to be, but it’s a pretty significant jump forward,” said Sanderson, who added that about $350 million would be “diverted” to public charter schools.

Sanderson and others stated that to restore the buying power of the 2019 basic allotment now diluted because of inflation, the state would have to add $1,000 per student, a proposal that some lawmakers have estimated would cost an additional $14.3 billion.

Montgomery Independent School District Superintendent Heath Morrison testified that with weighted additions, his district received less revenue after changes in funding last session and now gets about $6,500 per pupil from the state. Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls) clarified that funding from all sources brought Morrison’s funding up to about $12,000 per student.

Morrison said he was not opposed to competition but that any ESA program should require private school recipients to take students with disciplinary problems or special needs and adhere to the same accountability standards as public schools. He also said if the ESA program gives $8,000 per pupil as proposed, his district should get an equivalent amount from the state portion of funding.

The executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, Laura Colangelo, argued against accountability concerns, countering that private schools were accountable to parents and students and had to go through “robust” accreditation processes that were in some cases greater than those of public schools.

“The accreditation teams are on campus for three to four days and they study the school’s finances, facilities, programs, health and safety, curriculum, standardized test scores, and they even watch the school carpool line,” said Colangelo.

While noting that private schools often administer their own standardized tests, she said that requiring ESA recipient students to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) would not be appropriate, since private schools may have a different sequence for teaching subject matter. Colangelo also objected to identifying ESA students and separating them from the student body.

Regarding special needs students, Colangelo explained that private schools operate under contract law creating an agreement between a parent and school on how to meet the needs of a student.

Tracy Hanson of Oak Creek Academy in Killeen said 98 percent of her students had some kind of “learning difference” and about 61 percent were autistic.

The committee also heard from the Texas Education Agency on a three-year pilot for a proposed alternative test to the STAAR, which would in some grades replace the end of year exams with shorter tests during the year to allow teachers to track student progress.

Other witnesses expressed concerns over changes to the state’s school and district rating system implemented this year that raises the Career, College, and Military Readinessstandard for high schools to earn an “A” from a pass rate of 65 percent to 88 percent.

Mary Lynn Pruneda of the non-partisan policy organization Texas 2036 urged legislators to maintain rigor and end-of-course exams.

“The end goal is this: every student should leave school ready to enter college or start a career,” Pruneda said. “None of this is possible though, without high-quality and actionable data that helps parents understand their student’s outcomes and informs our state’s investments in the K-12 system.”

Several representatives from public charter schools also spoke to the committee regarding funding concerns, with La Toya Jackson of Lubbock’s Rise Academy suggesting charter schools needed additional funding for facilities and security measures.

“We are a smaller charter school held exclusively in modular portable buildings which is unsafe due to our exposure to active violence in the community and ever-changing weather conditions,” said Jackson, who explained 88 percent of her students are low income. “I do carry my gun at work.”

Jackson noted that public charter schools received less than traditional public schools and are not allowed to levy local taxes.

While most of the testimony this week regarded testing, finances, and ESAs, Casey Taylor of ExcelinEd testified about the need to abandon a discredited reading instruction program. Known as “Three-Cueing,” the program eschews phonics instruction in favor of whole words and guessing based on cues or clues. Studies have found the approach inhibits reading ability for many students.

Taylor told the committee that about 60 percent of public schools nationwide still used the program.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, the committee observed a moment of silence for Tamoria Jones, Chief of Staff for Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston). Jones, age 35, died in Houston on July 2. She had been a vocal advocate for improving educational outcomes, and Dutton has requested that Gov. Greg Abbott revive legislation prohibiting the use of the three-cueing method, with the measure renamed the Tamoria Jones Act.

Buckley advised that the select committee will likely hold additional hearings prior to submitting a report on findings. Recommendations are due in August.

Source: The Texan