Education panel focuses on finance

From left: Texas Tribune public education reporter Brian Lopez moderates a conversation with panelists Bridget Worley, chief state impact officer for the Commit Partnership; Michele Rinehart, superintendent of Alpine ISD; and Josh Sanderson, deputy executive director of the Equity Center on Nov. 1, 2023. This solutions-focused conversation centered on items beyond the current special session. Credit: John Jordan/The Texas Tribune

Accountability, funding — or lack thereof — and teacher preparation were just some of the topics touched on by The Texas Tribune’s Public Education: Beyond the Special Session event Wednesday.

The event was held in the Tribune’s Studio 919 in downtown Austin and livestreamed. The Tribune’s public education reporter, Brian Lopez, moderated a discussion with Alpine ISD Superintendent Michelle Rinehart, Josh Sanderson, deputy executive director of The Equity Center, and Bridget Worley, chief state impact officer of Commit Partnership.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he had “reached an agreement” with Speaker Dade Phelan and House leaders on school vouchers, but Phelan stopped short of calling it a done deal. Meanwhile, education advocates say other issues require lawmakers’ attention, from teacher recruitment and retention to funding formulas and improving student performance, a news release said.

Wednesday’s panel discussion talked about what is not included in the special session, what that likely means for Texas educators, school administrators and families, and how we can address these pressing challenges to public education going forward.

Rinehart jumped right in on the deal regarding Education Savings Accounts.

“I think there’s no need for a deal,” she said. “It’s been Alpine ISD’s position throughout that the governor is holding public education funding hostage for 5.5 million public school children in the state of Texas and also our teachers’ livelihood hostage in order to prioritize and move forward a pet project … so in our mind there’s no need for these two topics to be tied together — specifically vouchers and public education funding.”

Rinehart added that the need to increase public education funding and fully fund every Texas public school is well documented. “That’s what the call needs to be about and if there was enough support for a voucher bill specifically it would have passed, or wouldn’t have to be tied to public ed funding in order to move it through,” she added.

Sanderson said it’s a false choice.

“Our position this entire time has been that this is a false choice that if there was public support, legislative support for an ESA or a voucher type program that it should stand on its own merits and be voted on based on the proposals within that voucher-ESA proposal,” Sanderson said.

Worley said if you look at the House proposal and Senate ESA proposals, they are looking at less than 1 percent of the public school students in Texas and that conversation is holding up a lot of needed policy and funding for the other 99 percent of students.

“Commit is pro public education. Bridget Worley is pro public education and I am hopeful that a deal can be reached that we can get back to focusing on the students that are in our public schools,” Worley said.

The starting salary for teachers in Alpine is $33,000 a year.

In Alpine, Rinehart said, they don’t receive 15 percent of what they’re due from the state, which is $1.5 million on a $10 million budget.

What causes that is disputes between local county appraisal districts about what our property should be valued at and the state comptroller about what the state thinks they should be valued at.

“Because of those disputes, the state ends up withholding funding from school districts even though we have nothing to do with our local CADs (County Appraisal Districts). We are completely separate entities. We have nothing to do with how values are determined, but they punish school districts by withholding money from the school district as a way to try to put local pressure on the county appraisal districts to increase property values,” Rinehart said.

“Our big stance on this is leave us out of it. We have nothing to do with the CAD. Quit punishing Texas school children by withholding money from schools for something that is completely separate from us so we lose $1.5 million every year to that issue,” Rinehart said.

The second issue is the property tax relief bill passed this summer by the legislature.

“They included a provision that districts that have a local option homestead exemption have to continue that for five years. We’re blessed to have had a local option homestead exemption that’s basically an additional homestead percentage that the district gives to its homeowner. We do 10 percent. We’ve done that when the state wasn’t doing property tax relief, but that now costs us about $600,000 a year. We’re looking to rescind that because the state finally stepped in to give property tax relief to property owners. Now it is mandated that we continue to provide that for the next five years and the state does not make up that lost funding,” she added.

“Those two issues alone are a $1.6 million loss off the top in our district every year. I can’t fix those. Only our legislative leaders can fix those and it’s not just Alpine. It’s 150 districts across the state that struggle with these issues,” Rinehart said.

The district’s starting teacher salary are well below the state average of $60,000 a year. That figure isn’t on their teacher salary schedule for a teacher with 25 years of experience.

“That is just absolutely unacceptable, so what causes that? What keeps us at underfunded salary levels? For us it is persistent and chronic underfunding of our public school district. We are the 15th lowest funded district in the entire state of Texas … the bottom 1.5 percentile. We only receive 85 percent of our state determined allotment, which means that the state sets how much funding that we should receive and we don’t receive 15 percent of that every single year. So that’s how you end up with teachers earning a state minimum salary that is entirely too low,” Rinehart said.

Support positions like paraprofessionals start at $20,000 a year, which she said is below the poverty level if they have children.

“This is a public education funding issue. The Texas Teacher Vacancy Task Force came out with a number of actionable recommendations across three buckets, the latter two buckets about support and training we’re able to actualize a lot of those in the district. But No. 1 is compensation and we can’t actualize that without legislative action on behalf of public schools to address the nuances that keep districts like Alpine ISD deliberately underfunded,” Rinehart said.

On accountability, Sanderson said the system is getting more rigorous, as it is designed to do, but funding has remained stagnant.

“If you want to look at what inflation has done to funding,” he said, “we’re down about 14 percent from the buying power we had four years ago in 2019. You’ve got two pieces of this equation moving in opposite directions and there are numerous things in House Bill 1 that would help address this from our perspective and substantially increasing the basic allotment, giving schools the resources they need to see to their local needs. Just getting us back to the buying power we had four years ago would cost about $7 billion a year. It’s a substantial move. There are other provisions in House Bill 1 that would help address this; give schools some additional tools. I believe both versions of the school finance bill address helping schools get students back in the classroom with programs like Communities in Schools. All of these are important. It’s a multi-faceted problem, but primarily from our lens it’s that first and foremost you have to give schools the resources that they need in order to address this academic issue and getting student scores up.”

Worley said there are three primary areas in accountability — student performance, meeting students where they are and continuing to monitor and assess performance.

“The No. 1 thing you can do to help a student who is behind grade level get to grade level is that small three to four student to one teacher high-impact tutoring. It takes scheduling. It takes people. It takes doing things a little bit differently, but I think looking at that acceleration of 9 percent we have to figure out how to do something differently, or we are never going to get our students caught up. Then I think the third is continuing to monitor and assess performance,” Worley said.

Commit recently did an analysis looking at third graders across Texas who were not scoring on grade level. Nine percent of those students who were economically disadvantaged had caught up by sixth grade.

“It is just a fact that students who are not at grade level by third grade struggle to catch up beyond third grade,” Worley said.