Legislators, Opinion Leaders Preview Agendas for 2011

At this week’s meeting of the Texas Education Reform Foundation in Austin, the roster of legislators on hand to discuss the upcoming session reflected the strong partisan tilt in Texas politics confirmed by the November election. Every legislator heard from was a Republican. To varying degrees, all bowed in their remarks to the partisan conventional wisdom around the capitol, which holds that the looming revenue shortfall presents not just a problem but an “opportunity” to be seized. Thus, Rep. Rob Eissler, Republican of The Woodlands and chair of the House Public Education Committee, promised to review “every mandate” in state law, with the goal being to “turn loose” (i.e., deregulate) school districts that are achieving desired results. The possibility that this approach might mean tossing the baby out with the bathwater (i.e., by getting rid of the quality standards and safeguards that have produced those desired results in the first place) received short shrift.

Still, along with the buzz words of “no new revenue” and “flexibility,” there were significant differences of emphasis on the all-Republican legislative panel. Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas, who has been a significant legislative player in both education funding generally and higher education specifically, called for sustaining the state’s momentum toward achievement of top-tier status for the state’s leading public universities. More than most of his colleagues, Branch also acknowledged that the state’s fiscal troubles are not a result of overspending. He said that Texas ranks 50th among the states in its level of taxation, and he noted that 2006 tax changes enacted by the legislature created a structural, ongoing revenue shortfall.

Rep. Geanie Morrison of Victoria, who also has worked at the intersection between education funding and goal-setting for higher education, commended to her colleagues the example of successful dual-enrollment collaborations between colleges and school districts in her part of the state. Morrison argued for more of this type of regional planning and decision-making, and she stressed that it needs to reach beyond educational institutions to include providers of human services starting with pre-natal care and early-childhood education. To maximize results, Morrison said, the policy framework for fostering students’ educational development should be “pre-birth through 20,” not just “K-16.” That emphasis on “getting it right in the early years” earned the strong approval of Rep. Diane Patrick of Arlington, a lawmaker long associated with efforts to expand and improve pre-K. Rep. Patrick noted that Texas has been a leader since the education reforms of the 1980s in its level of support for early-childhood education.

A final panel of non-legislators included former state education commissioner Jim Nelson, now employed with a private educational venture but still heavily involved in state education policy. Nelson was recently called on by legislative leaders to coordinate a “work group” of superintendents and business leaders charged with making recommendations for a revised school-finance system. While Nelson made the usual references to the need for flexibility, he also sounded another theme. If improved international competitiveness in education is our goal, he said, it is “time for us to move beyond being quite so test-focused.” Testing has “gotten to be the only thing we’re known for,” he added. To be sure, Nelson said, we do need measures of critical thinking, reading, and writing skills, and we still need to disaggregate the data to show progress by student subgroups. But we need a less test-focused system that does a better job of cultivating a more creative, entrepreneurial, innovative spirit, he concluded.