School Finance Commission report finalized

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance submitted its final report to the Legislature on New Year’s Eve, meeting its deadline for recommendations for fixes to public education funding after nearly a year of meetings and hearings. The result is recommendations for detailed tweaks mixed with stressed policy goals focusing on “student outcomes” and a proposal that aims to increase only the salaries of  “effective educators.”

We’ll get to the ill-conceived salary recommendation, but first, a note on overall public education funding. The final recommendations were actually approved at a final meeting of the body on December 19, after a debate on whether to be more upfront about the need for additional funding. At issue was whether the report should include an honest acknowledgment that Texas has failed its schoolchildren by not providing adequate funding, and whether to include specific dollar amounts for new money to the school finance system. In the end, the commission members–spurred by Commission Chair and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister–agreed to agree on the need for more money, but it ended up being couched in terms like, “significant additional state resources to fund the data-informed strategies that will improve student outcomes.”

The Texas Tribune reported on one significant exchange in the debate:

“I am willing to say we will have to add new money to do these things. I am not willing to say, ‘And the first step is, every dime has to come from new money,'” [Brister] said.

Nicole Conley-Johnson, chief financial officer of the Austin Independent School District, unsuccessfully argued to keep the paragraph [calling for $1.73 billion in new funding] in its original form. “The spirit by which we were convened is to establish the changes and make recommendations,” she said. “I feel like we need to have the foresight to put in the estimated cost.”

Areas that were spotlighted for more funding to improve student outcomes included early childhood education and literacy, dual-language programs and of note, teacher “merit pay”–what the commission report calls a “Proposed educator effectiveness allotment.” The report recommends $100 million in funding to reward teacher effectiveness, with additional allotments of $100 million a year until the figure reaches $1 billion in 2028.

If this sounds like the same shop-worn “performance pay” initiative that the state Legislature tried in previous years (before the program was cut), it certainly has the potential to be. To a large extent, that initiative awarded additional pay to teachers based on their students’ standardized test scores. While the commission includes a variety of possible pay incentives for teacher effectiveness and stresses local flexibility in developing a “multiple-measure evaluation system” on which to base the pay increases, the proposal is still crafted from Dallas ISD’s Teacher Excellence Initiative–which based its evaluations for additional pay largely on test scores. The result has been low morale and high attrition for those teachers not awarded additional pay.

This plan calls for capping the number of teachers awarded extra compensation at 10 percent a year. (The commission seems to be going by the theory that in five years, half of all educators could be covered by this rewards system.)

The writing was on the wall for this to be a major component of the commission’s recommendations. (See our previous Hotline, “Texas House committee delves into performance pay for teachers, while giving scant attention to a statewide pay raise,” for a closer look.)

It’s going to be our job as professionals to fight for what’s truly needed, a boost in pay for all school employees statewide. As Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro testified before both the Texas House and Senate this year: “Differentiated pay is worth talking about, too, but the top priority should be to eliminate the pay gap that leaves teachers lagging behind pay in this state for jobs requiring similar levels of knowledge and skill. It will take considerably higher base pay for teachers across the board if the state really aims to attract and keep the high-quality individuals our students require.”

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