Commission on school finance starts laying out issues

Expert witnesses on school funding started laying out issues for the Texas Commission on Public School Finance at a hearing in Austin on February 8. Commission chair Scott Brister announced that three working groups would be formed soon—one each on revenue, expenditures, and outcomes. Brister also set out three further meeting dates:  February 22, March 7, and March 19 (this last one providing a chance for public testimony). Reflecting the views of the man who appointed him to the commission—Gov. Greg Abbott—the chair also said preemptively and repeatedly that working groups’ recommendations for changes in school finance should all fall “within existing resources.”

Issues raised by the experts had a familiar ring. As noted by Texas A&M professor Lori Taylor, there was broad consensus that it costs more to educate economically disadvantaged students, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities—but not a consensus on how much more. It was also acknowledged that regional variations in costs have to be factored into school-funding formulas. And it was generally conceded that the current Texas formulas accounting for student and regional variation are woefully out of date.

Under questioning from several commission members, Texas commissioner of education Mike Morath acknowledged that his graphs purporting to map an inconsistent relationship between district revenue and achievement levels did not meet a standard of statistical significance. On the other hand, one of his charts did show a meaningful pattern, making it crystal-clear that poverty and performance are closely correlated. But there was no agreement among experts or commission members on how to overcome the undertow of poverty.

The strong showing of Texas black and Hispanic students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math and reading, relative to other states’ pupils, came in for considerable discussion. Commission member Todd Williams, a Dallas businessman and “education reformer” (also an Abbott appointee) suggested that international comparisons make U.S. performance look decidedly worse than these NAEP results. However, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) comparisons he cited historically have not been apples-to-apples comparisons of U.S. students in schools with low or moderate poverty rates and countries with comparably low poverty rates. If you adjust for socioeconomic characteristics, U.S. students often have actually outperformed most of the world.

It’s also worth noting that top PISA performers do not follow the self-styled “school reformer” agenda. They do not stress standardized testing or private-school vouchers or charters, but rather equitable funding that directs dollars to schools and students with greatest needs. Also contrary to the American “school reformer” agenda, the sponsor of the PISA studies (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), says “the higher a country is on the world’s education league tables, the more likely that country is working constructively with its unions and treating teachers as trusted professional partners.”

Professor Taylor’s closing presentation on “incentives” and “efficiency” in school funding pointed toward the destination a number of commission members clearly hope to reach:  some form of outcome-based funding accompanied by the elimination of regulations like class-size limits in grades K-4, which Taylor said are not cost-effective. (Ironically, the state’s own study of best practices in pre-K a couple of years ago concluded to the contrary that pre-K programs should emulate K-4 class-size limits and even further reduce class sizes to merit state funding reserved for high-quality programs.)

We are sure to hear a great deal more at upcoming meetings about the “efficiency” agenda professor Taylor presented. One or both of the next two meetings will focus on best practices of successful districts and campuses, commission chair Brister said.