State Hearing on School Finance: Ills Acknowledged, Cures Disputed

The state’s Joint Select Committee on School Finance, Weights, Allotments and Adjustments met today with a roster of invited business and academic witnesses chosen to support a specific agenda. Their testimony and responses from several committee members (Sens. Florence Shapiro, Republican of Plano, Sen. Dan Patrick, Republican of Houston, and Rep. Rob Eissler, Republican of The Woodlands) yielded a familiar narrative that goes roughly as follows:

(1) Funding for public schools has increased dramatically for the last decade and more while producing no academic achievement gains;

(2) there are admittedly wide and unfair disparities in funding among districts, but some districts show it’s possible to do more with less;

(3) a system-wide solution requires “maximum deregulation” and introduction of “competitive forces,” including…

(4) turning over public schooling to private operators such as K12, Inc., whose chief executive was helpfully on hand to testify that his computer-based “virtual schools” do a great job for only 65 percent of the cost of traditional public schools.

It all sounded like the extended-play version of a line we’ve been hearing from Gov. Rick Perry for nearly a decade (even as state education funding in real, inflation-adjusted terms has stagnated): “We need more education for our money, not more money for education.”

It was left largely to Rep. Scott Hochberg, Democrat of Houston, to find ways to inject some inconvenient facts into the discussion, facts suggesting a different narrative entirely. Thus, regarding the alleged failure of increased spending to spur achievement gains, Hochberg pointed out that the state has never provided the extra funding that studies have shown should be devoted to students in high-need categories. “When we get that information, we have historically ignored it because it’s too expensive,” he said.

Similarly, regarding sweeping claims by Sen. Patrick and others that class-size reduction has made no difference in achievement, Hochberg noted that the national data being cited had no bearing on the question, because the statistics referred to total employees per pupil, not the teacher-pupil ratio.

Hochberg also contested the assertion by several colleagues that a moment of budget stringency is the “best time” to revamp the school-finance system, forcing schools to fund only what’s essential to academic achievement. The Houston lawmaker said that in his experience the programs that get cut when money is tight are precisely the ones that are most needed to help struggling students.

One final note: The assumption of superior performance by private charter-school operators like K12, Inc., is not supported by the evidence. The current accountability rating for K12’s Texas Virtual Academy, for instance, would have been “Academically Unacceptable” but for the ratings boost provided by the much-questioned “Texas Projection Measure.” By that shaky measure, a student’s actual failing score on the state achievement test is counted as a passing score for purposes of a school’ accountability rating, based on a debatable estimate of the student’s likely future academic performance. Many lawmakers have said the use of the TPM to raise accountability ratings misleads the public by creating a false picture of a school’s performance.