Lawmakers in Texas only convene every two years, and with that comes the opportunity for change. For school districts it can be a time of uncertainty as state lawmakers duke it out over what they think is the best course for education in the state’s more than 1,200 school districts.
Only California serves more children in public schools, according to the Institute of Education Sciences.
With more than 18,000 students, Tyler ISD is the largest school district in northern East Texas. Its 2,600 employees also make the district one of the region’s largest employers.
Tyler ISD leaders recently sat down to discuss their hopes for the 86th Legislative Session, which kicked off on Jan. 8 and will run through May 27.
Tyler ISD Superintendent Marty Crawford, board of trustees President Fritz Hager Jr. and Vice President Wade Washmon said they are optimistic about the tone of this session.
With Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen presenting a unified front, district leaders hope to see clear and consistent messaging coming out of Austin.
“Right now I appreciate both sides looking at data and analytics from the last election. They understand for our state to succeed, we have to work together," Crawford said. “It is unusual, and if that’s going to be the direction we’re going to start going, we can really make a difference.”
Unity between the House, Senate and governor’s office isn’t always a given. Last session was marked by high tension and theatrics, including an instance in which the house threw open the doors of its chamber to yell toward the Senate in protest of bills not being passed.
As key issues are presented, Tyler ISD likely will send a delegation down to the state Capitol to lend their voices. Crawford said he’s working closely with State Rep. Matt Schaefer and expects the busiest portion of the session to come sometime in April.
The single biggest issue facing Texas school districts is the double-sided coin of reform for school finance and property tax.
For the 2018-19 school year, Tyler ISD is relying on a budget comprised of $95.5 million in local funding, $51.5 million in state funding and $3.3 million from the federal government.
State funding dropped from 37 percent to 33.9 percent, representing a net decrease of $3.69 million.
The district came out ahead thanks to increases in valuation of property taxes, but that’s after the state adjusts down its funding formula to offset the increases. The overall increase was about $6.7 million in revenue, but came to about $3 million after funding formulas kicked in.
Right now districts are capped at 4 percent growth. The governor wants to drop that to 2.5 percent.
Tosha Bjork, the district’s assistant superintendent of finance and operations, estimated that proposal would mean a further loss of $1.67 million based on the current year’s budget.
The challenge lawmakers will face is offsetting further loss with funds from elsewhere. Bjork said state funding for Tyler ISD has dropped nearly 10 percentage points, from 42 percent in 2009.
Crawford said the biggest issue the district faces in any legislative session is new unfunded mandates, a directive from the state that will cost money to implement, but comes with no new funding.
“Some people say we can’t afford property tax reform. I say we can’t afford not to reform a system that punishes homeowners, crushes businesses and cripples our schools," Abbott said. "A state as prosperous as Texas should not punish seniors who have worked their entire lives to retire in a home they have already paid off. And it shouldn’t force middle and low income Texans out of their neighborhoods.
"To fix this, Texas must limit the ability of taxing authorities to raise your property taxes," he said. "At the same time, Texas must end unfunded mandates on cities and counties. ...”
One reason educators worry about unfunded mandates is because perennial issues that legislators will again push this session will have substantial costs.
High quality pre-K programs will again be prioritized, as will teacher raises.
Abbott made a push in 2015 to help districts fund high quality pre-K programs. Many districts were able to move away from half day pre-K programs thanks to the funding attached. The legislature declined to renew the nearly $150 million in funding in 2017.
Bjork said Tyler ISD has added new pre-K classrooms each year and spent about $500,000 of local money on the programs last year.
Early childhood literacy continues to be one of the district’s biggest priorities. Closing gaps in pre-K through third grades has been key as Tyler ISD worked to remove campuses from the state’s “Improvement Required” list.
Another component in the district’s turnaround has been incentivizing teachers, but that comes with a cost.
In the most recent budget Tyler ISD gave across the board $1,500 raises to all of its teachers at a cost of $1.8 million.
The state initially pushed for $10,000 raises, but more recently the senate’s budget settled on $5,000 with the possibility of pulling money out of the state’s Rainy Day fund to finance it, a move that would cost the state $3.7 billion dollars.
Whether the state would renew that commitment in 2021 is unclear. If it doesn't, districts could be stuck footing the bill.
“When you talk about funding in a biennial budget, it could be in this one, but not the next,” Crawford said.
Tyler ISD leaders also are hoping for some funding for incentive raises that would go beyond regular increases to reward exemplary teachers. Crawford said being able to do so would be a powerful recruiting and retention tool.
“We’ve had a good run of giving teachers raises,” Crawford said. “With incentives, we can do that on the margins within existing funding, but not without replacement (of lost funding).”
Those watching are now left asking how the state will pay for true school finance reform and whether it's reform if lawmakers don’t have a long-term plan in place.
Bonnen said during a recent Texas Tribune town hall that the Legislature is committed to adding "true, new dollars into public education."
“I’ve heard the governor talking about (property tax) and school finance reform, but where does that money come from?” Washmon said. “If we get a little more money in our pocket (this session), that’s great but we’re used to the two-year pivot.”
Crawford said he has confidence in the district’s advocates in Austin.
“They’ve got a difficult, complex issue that they’ve got to solve,” Crawford said.
Hager and Washmon agreed that at the end of the day, they’ll continue working to make Tyler ISD the best district they can at the local level, whether that is with the help of or in spite of the state.
“We tell our kids all the time, control what you can control,” Washmon said. “We’re going to do what we have to here in Tyler ISD and we’re going to thrive.”
What’s up with standardized testing?
A bill recently filed by State Rep. Brooks Landgraf, of Odessa, proposes eliminating STAAR testing.
With a new accountability system in place this year and other lawmakers wanting to incentivize educators by giving more money to those schools with higher performance, Landgraf’s bill is likely to join the pile of thousands of bills that die each session.
The Texas Tribune reports that of the 6,600 bills filed in the previous session, only about 1,150 became law.
What about other frequent contenders?
One result of the unity seen in Austin is the swift death of some of the more controversial issues that dominated previous sessions.
During a recent Texas Tribune town hall Bonnen said the chance of a “bathroom bill” restricting restroom use for transgender people is slim to none.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also declared the issue dead earlier in the month.
As for vouchers and major shakeups in the school choice fight, those issues also are not likely to make much of an impact this session.
Bonnen said he has been an opponent of vouchers since his first term in office.
“I’m not going to force my views on members, but it’s clear (vouchers are) not going to happen,” Bonnen said during the town hall.
What would TISD like to see?
Over the past year, at board meeting after meeting, as academics were discussed, one item kept coming back. Comprehensive summer education.
Tyler ISD has seen great success with its Rose City Summer Camps partnership with The Mentoring Alliance, but they want to expand access to high-quality summer learning to all district students.
The faith-based program is growing each year, but fewer than 1,000 students participate each summer.
“There are still two huge unmet financial needs in our district,” Hager said. “Summer school and pre-k.”
The district also hopes to see lawmakers make an infusion into the teacher retirement system to keep it healthy.
“In my mind, it’s the best pension program for a public servant,” Crawford said.
Maintaining a healthy pension system also will be key for recruitment, as the state faces a shrinking pool of qualified teachers, with more retiring than are beginning their careers.
“If we want better results, then we have to recruit the best teachers,” Crawford said. “We’re at a crisis here.”