TEA Sunset Review: Improvements Needed

The Texas Education Agency’s continued existence is not really in doubt as it comes under so-called “sunset review” leading up to the 2013 legislative session. But TEA’s capacity to carry out its mission effectively is in question.

The agency has a big job, overseeing the elementary and secondary education system of Texas, which encompasses five million students, more than a thousand school districts, and hundreds of privately operated but publicly funded charter schools. The agency collects data on students, staff, and local spending, disseminates state aid, and administers the state accountability system using TAKS and STAAR tests to gauge the performance of students, schools, and districts.

The pace of enrollment gains in Texas public schools over the past decade has been truly phenomenal, accounting for more than half of all enrollment growth in public education nationwide. Over that span, the legislature has substantially increased the responsibilities of the commissioner of education who heads the agency, delegating to this gubernatorial appointee extensive powers hitherto wielded by the legislature itself (e.g., in the design of dropout-recovery policies for the state) or by the elected State Board of Education (e.g., in the definition of passing standards on state exams, in textbook procurement, and in the expansion of charter schools).

Yet at the same time the legislature has drastically cut funding for the agency, particularly in the 2011 session, resulting in losses of more than one-third of the agency staff and compromising the agency’s ability to monitor compliance with state law by school districts and charter schools. Moreover, the legislature in 2003 already had curtailed the agency’s monitoring powers in the name of local control, reducing much of TEA’s oversight work to paper review rather than on-site examination of local practices.

Weak oversight of charter schools’ academic performance and financial accountability has been one predictable result. Another result has been the perfunctory review and approval by TEA of school districts’ applications for thousands of waivers of the class-size limits established by state law for grades K-4.

The legislature’s extensive delegation of authority to the commissioner on occasion has led lawmakers themselves to question the discretionary power they have conferred on the TEA chief. Thus, in 2008 legislators said they were taken by surprise when ambiguous language in a TEA-drafted bill on dropout initiatives was used by the commissioner to assert agency authority to issue grants to private schools to run dropout-recovery programs.

More recently, they have expressed frustration over the commissioner’s failure to publish explicit standards for certifying, as the state education chief is required to do by law, whether state funds to help struggling students pass state exams have fallen below the minimum level mandated under the Student Success Initiative.

Insufficient agency staffing and excessive discretionary power lodged in the commissioner’s office may also figure in other TEA shortcomings.  For instance, in grievance appeals, which the commissioner must ultimately rule on, in some cases it takes years after the hearing officer has issued a proposal for decision before the commissioner actually renders a final decision.

Yet another issue of concern to educators and the public relates to charter-school applications. Texas AFT, parent activists, and community organizations alike have been frustrated by TEA’s contention that the applications for charters to operate these schools with public funds are not open to public view until after the State Board of Education has acted upon them. This TEA interpretation of state charter law, treating charter applications as the equivalent of sealed bids, makes it impossible to gauge fairly the community support for or opposition to particular charter proposals.

In Texas AFT’s view, the commissioner also has used discretionary authority to set too lax a standard for the opening of new charter campuses or expansion of charter schools run by existing charter holders, far outstripping TEA’s limited ability to oversee charter operations effectively.

An upcoming Hotline will provide Texas AFT members with an opportunity to register these and other concerns with the staffers of the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission who are preparing an analysis of TEA for the commission.  The commission in turn will make recommendations for improvements at TEA to the 2013 legislature.