Budget, School Finance, Accountability Issues of 2011 Session Foreshadowed in Upcoming Hearings

Some noteworthy hearings in the next couple of weeks will preview issues sure to preoccupy lawmakers when the legislature meets for its next regular session in January. For example:

September 14–The state’s budget for public education for 2012-2013 comes up for a public hearing next Tuesday in front of staffers of the Legislative Budget Board and Governor’s Budget Office. These legislative and executive budget staffers, standing in for their bosses, will examine the budget proposed by the Texas Education Agency, which contains deep and unwise cuts in key education programs (e.g., science labs, teacher mentoring, after-school programs for at-risk students). The agency’s budget proposal reflects budget cuts demanded by Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Joe Straus. Speaker Straus has said these cuts are “just the beginning.” Texas AFT will be testifying for a more balanced approach to current budget problems, one that taps the state Rainy Day Fund (containing more than $8 billion) to weather current recession-induced revenue shortfalls. Along with our partners in the Texas Forward coalition, we also will make the point that a longer-term shortfall in education funding is the result of wrongheaded decisions by lawmakers in years past that reduced state and local revenue streams for public education–and the solution now is not to shortchange education even more.

September 16–A select committee of state senators, representatives, business leaders (and a few educators) will consider options for change in state school-finance formulas. The committee, co-chaired by Sen. Florence Shapiro, Republican of Plano, and Rep. Rob Eissler, Republican of The Woodlands, is made up of appointees of the governor, lieutenant governor, and House speaker. Given its composition, and given that we’re in the midst of election season, we don’t exactly expect a searching critique of the policy mistakes that have put us in the financial fix described above. But this committee still will likely be an incubator for policy initiatives in the 2011 session, even if some good ideas may only see the light of day in a minority report.

September 24–The Senate Education Committee (chaired by Shapiro) and the House Public Education Committee (chaired by Eissler) will hold a rare joint hearing, focusing on the topic of school accountability, with particular emphasis on the changes made by the legislature in 2009. The state’s test-based accountability system, heavily reliant on the standardized Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) and its successor, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR), is still in need of a drastic makeover, in Texas AFT’s view, and we will make the case for an alternative approach. Hallmarks of that Texas AFT alternative:

–end reliance on a single test to measure success;

–use multiple measures to gauge growth and guide instruction, including social/emotional learning measures;

–restore teachers’ authority over instructional time, reducing excessive emphasis on test prep;

–bar use of inherently flawed “value added” statistical models for individual teacher evaluation;

—end punitive sanctions, use supportive interventions;

–use appropriate tests for students with disabilities and English Language Learners;

–hold school districts accountable for providing a supportive environment for learning that reflects real employee input and collaboration;

–build community services for students and families into neighborhood schools.