Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the TASB/TASA Legislative Conference in Austin. It was one of the most informative events I have attended in recent years. Among the presenters were Ross Ramsey, co-founder and executive editor of the Texas Tribune, Senator Larry Taylor, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Beaman Floyd, lobbyist and consultant for TASB, Senator Royce West, Dineen Majcher, co-founder of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, Representative Jimmie Don Aycock, and Representative Larry Gonzalez. There were also presentations given by representatives of TASA and TASB.
The main focus of the conference was to discuss the current legislative session. In this session, there have been almost 6,500 bills filed. As you would expect, a number of these bills deal with education. Some bill deal directly with the actual instruction in the classroom; other bills are more indirectly related to education. There is no way I can present each bill that was mentioned, so I will try to include the major issues.
Both the House and Senate are considering measures to lower taxes that Texans pay. The Senate is focusing on property tax relief with a possible increase in the homestead exemption. One proposal would provide the “average” homeowner in Texas with a $264 annual savings. While I am all for lower property taxes, we have already seen that property taxes can be difficult to control. In 2006, the legislature “reduced” property taxes by decreasing the maximum tax rate for school districts. Unfortunately, most of this relief has been eroded by rising property values (over which school districts have no control). In addition, if property taxes are lowered, the revenue lost to school districts will have to fall to another source.
The House is looking at possibly lowering the sales tax rate. Both proposals have positives and negatives to consider.
Senator Taylor provided his beliefs on what would provide the innovation necessary to best prepare our students:
- Teacher Preparation and teacher pay. Senator Taylor stated that districts needed more flexibility in they pay teachers.
- Money – Not just more money, but how we spend the money in education. Senator Taylor pointed out that the Health and Human Services budget now exceeds the education budget.
- How do we assess our students?
Beaman Floyd gave a very detailed discussion on the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. He discussed the three major components of the retirement system: TRS Benefits, TRS ActiveCare (the insurance program for current school employees), and TRS Care (the insurance program for retired teachers). The TRS Benefit program is in sound financial condition and should continue to be so in the future. The TRS ActiveCare program, which was established in 2001, has been subject to extreme inflationary pressures. He pointed out that the state has not increased their contribution to employee’s insurance since the beginning of the program. Many school districts have either increased their contribution or provided salary increases to employees to help offset the increased cost of premiums. Finally, TRS Care is not doing well financially at all. It is suffering from serious underfunding. The legislature will need to provide an additional $800 million this biennium to keep the program sound; however, this is not a long term solution. The problem will continue into the future.
Dineen Majcher discussed the Texas high stakes assessment system. Since 2000, Texas has spent about $1.2 billion on high stakes testing. She pointed out that the majority of both parties supported reducing high stakes testing. She also pointed out that Texas requires more high stakes testing for graduation than most other states. Ms. Majcher also discussed numerous bills that have been introduced that would either reduce the number of high stakes tests or eliminate some of the tests entirely. Several of the bills focus on the writing assessments in grades 4, 7, and high school. Other bills are seeking to eliminate the social studies and science tests at the 5th & 8th grades.
The greatest surprise came when Representative Aycock announced HB 1759 that would repeal the entire school finance system. He believes that it is within reach to make significant changes to how Texas funds its schools. Among the bills highlights include basing the transportation allotment on ADA (transportation allotment has never been increased since its introduction), eliminating the Cost of Education Index (which again has never been modified since its inception) and putting that money back into the funding formulas, and eliminating the Mid-Size School Formula. The new system would add $3 billion into school funding. Representative Aycock stated that 94% of the children would see a funding gain.
There have been several bills that would introduce vouchers, grants, tax credits, or taxpayer savings accounts to allow public funds to be used for private schools.
There have also been numerous bills introduced that would alter the school start and/or ending date.
Today, I received a notification that the Senate has passed a bill that would begin rating all campuses on an A-F scale. The bill now goes to the House for consideration.
If you have any questions about any of these topics, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, I have summarized greatly in this article. If you are interested in knowing about specific bills, please let me know.