Accountability refresh sparks controversy amid stagnant funding
As the Texas Education Agency (TEA) prepares to refresh the state’s accountability system this fall, educators are bracing for the likelihood that more school districts and campuses will receive lower grades despite many of their students having made strong gains in learning.
No one disputes that high standards are essential to providing all students a quality public education across the state, but there’s a lot of debate about whether the formulas being proposed by TEA are a fair measure of student and school performance.
What’s at Stake
Many superintendents have spoken out against the proposed accountability changes and a growing coalition of school districts have opted to sue TEA Commissioner Mike Morath in response. They assert that the changes are being applied retroactively and without providing the required "measures, methods, and procedures" to school districts at the start of the 2022-23 school year, as mandated by statute.
“The state has created a system using really complicated methodology to grade schools that doesn’t make sense,” Waco ISD Superintendent Susan Kincannon told KWTX in a news story about the lawsuit. “That system was changed on us without proper notification according to the Texas Education Code. Our scores have increased and yet our ratings are projected to decrease.”
Imagine being evaluated for your past year’s job performance on a set of criteria you didn’t even know about — and then not getting that raise or promotion you were so diligently working for because of the new standards?
There’s a lot at stake for school districts as well. Just look at Houston ISD, which was taken over by the TEA in June as the result of failing grades at a single campus in a sprawling district of 276 schools.
Then there’s also the issue of public perception and how it can hurt a district. Many prospective public school parents use the ratings to gauge the quality of their schools and make important educational decisions for their children, including whether to seek other options such as private or religious schools. Teachers also make decisions about where to work based on these ratings.
Opening the Door to Vouchers
That’s why the timing of TEA’s accountability refresh seems especially suspect, coming this fall amid a special legislative session that would secure pay raises for teachers only if lawmakers also approved a hotly contested voucher program that would send public tax dollars to private schools.
Certainly, those lawmakers and special interest groups that are pushing vouchers would have a lot to gain from an accountability refresh resulting in more Texas public schools earning a D or F. The ensuing headlines would help make their case that Texas families need more choices to get their students out of so-called failing public schools.
But parents and voters across the state should be asking another question, especially since lawmakers entered the regular session with a record $32.7 billion surplus but failed to reach an agreement on teacher pay raises or make any substantive investment in public education at all: Who’s failing who in Texas public education?
Texas boasts one of the top 10 largest economies in the world, but it ranks near the bottom in the U.S. in terms of its per-pupil spending — about $4,000 less than the national average. While state leaders have failed to provide adequate support to our local public schools, they continue to increase mandates and sanctions that hinder educators’ ability to focus on student outcomes.
Districts Struggle Amid State Budget Surplus
If the voters of Texas could assign a performance rating for their lawmakers when it comes to public education, not just this past session but since 2019, the grade would be an F. Despite the unprecedented surplus — and unless lawmakers take action during an upcoming special session — Texas public schools will have endured six years without an increase in the basic allotment despite double-digit inflation and record teacher shortages.
The results of that stagnation are evident across the state as many districts were forced to dip into reserve funds or approve deficit budgets for the 2023-24 school year. Even those districts that have been traditionally viewed as property-wealthy are feeling the pinch, and some are taking the unprecedented step of withholding their mandatory recapture payments to the state that then get redistributed to poorer districts — part of Texas’ complex public school financing system commonly known as Robin Hood. This funding shortfall doesn’t just mean that school districts can’t fund teacher raises. The effect is much more profound and having a real impact on student academic outcomes, especially those kids who require special education services. In the 2021-22 school year, school districts and charters spent more than $2 billion on students with disabilities in excess of what the state special education allotment provides
In fact, nearly 100 districts reported a special education shortfall of more than $5 million that year.
Both the basic and special education allotments are essential to ensuring districts have the funding they need to adequately serve their students and to even have a chance of being successful on the TEA’s A-F accountability system because those monies have a direct influence on what happens in the classroom.
Who’s Failing Who?
What’s especially frustrating about the A-F refresh, now slated to be released in late October, is that the rules are changing retroactively and without districts having the time and resources to invest in those areas of performance that will be measured.
“Dallas ISD believes in holding ourselves accountable, and we expect to meet and exceed high standards,” said Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde, in a news release to explain the district’s decision to join the lawsuit against the TEA. “But we should know ahead of time the expectations and rules. Instead, the new state A-F refresh will be applied retroactively after the test has been taken and a new school year has already begun. This does not reflect our district’s recent improvements, which currently outpace the state in many areas. Put simply, our test scores have gone up, but under the new system, our ratings are projected to decrease. This does not make sense.”
So as TEA officials prepare to update the A-F accountability system with different performance standards, the answer to who’s failing who is clear. By all measures, the state is failing in its obligation to support and maintain its public schools. While the state is neglecting to adequately fund its public schools, it’s tightening the screws on our students and staff by retroactively changing how their academic performance is measured.
State leaders unfortunately failed when the regular legislative session closed in May without an agreement to increase the basic or special education allotments. And any lawmakers who want to tie funding increases for public education in a special session to the passage of a voucher scheme are failing to understand basic math. Quite simply, private school subsidies will subtract from the amount of money available for public education.
More importantly, it would be a huge failure for our state if the door is opened to private school subsidies as part of a funding deal. Public education in Texas would be irreparably harmed and changed forever.
An Opportunity for Lawmakers
Yet there’s still optimism that our leaders in Texas can earn a better grade. Earlier this month, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath announced the delay in the release of the A-F accountability refresh until late October to “allow for a further re-examination of the baseline data used in the calculation of progress to ensure ratings reflect the most appropriate goals for students,” the TEA said in a press release.
Let’s hope the new formula gives districts credit for the real growth of their students, not lower grades for better performance.
And if there’s a special session this fall, lawmakers have the opportunity to increase funding for public schools so districts can invest in the classroom with high-quality instruction — the biggest influence on student achievement. The question will be if funding will be contingent upon the passage of vouchers, which was the political play during the regular session when voucher supporters acknowledged that they didn’t have the votes to pass those bills on their own merit.
Simply put, diverting public tax dollars into private and religious school subsidies will mean less money to invest in the overwhelming majority of Texas children who attend public schools. The state needs to step up and adequately fund its constitutionally required public schools before siphoning away funds for private school vouchers.
It’s time to stop failing Texas kids, families, and teachers: Invest in them today.
Sylvia Wood is the division director of communications for TASB.