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East Texas educators: Legislators should address finance, ratings, STAAR

By Bridget Ortigo
Jan. 11, 2017 at 4 a.m.

As the first day came to a close Tuesday for the start of the 85th legislative session, East Texas lawmakers and educators expressed hope that significant steps would be taken to resolve issues pertaining to the state's public education system.

"I think it was a great first day and it's always good to get back with colleagues to address problems and challenges that are facing our state," State Rep. Chris Paddie said Monday. "It was also great to see Speaker (Joe) Strauss re-elected unanimously, with a vote of 150-0, for a record fifth time. I think that shows a great start to the session as far as everyone being willing to come together and work toward solutions."

Some of the issues East Texas school superintendents on Tuesday said they would like to see addressed by lawmakers this session included: school finance, the new A-F accountability ratings system, the small school penalty and the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test.

"We're clearly looking at a tough budget but it's still too early to tell what could happen this session," Paddie said. "I do think the school finance piece will be addressed with the goal continuing to be to address equity issues within the system. A large portion of Speaker Strauss' speech today was devoted to dealing with issues in the public education system."

School finance and funding issues have plagued legislators and school chiefs since 2011 when districts sued the state after lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from public education to help balance a deficit in the budget.

State District Judge John Dietz declared the school funding formula unconstitutional in 2013 and again in 2014.

In May of 2016, the state's Supreme Court ruled the system "constitutional" but said in an opinion that "Texas schools deserve a revamped, nonsclerotic system for the 21st Century."

The court charged lawmakers with the task of finding a solution.

"The school finance system has been a wreck for a while," Waskom ISD Superintendent Jimmy Cox said Tuesday. "I would like to see a system with equity and adequacy because the research shows us that we are not spending what other states are spending on their students."

When it comes to school finance, the school chiefs said there are several facets that should be addressed, especially regarding Chapter 41 or "Robin Hood" schools and schools affected by the small school penalty.

"For Karnack ISD, the biggest issue is Chapter 41 but I'm not hopeful we will see any significant change regarding that out of this session," Karnack ISD Superintendent Amy Dickson said Tuesday. "When it comes to Chapter 41, it can't be one size fits all."

As a Chapter 41 school, Karnack ISD is required to send almost one third of its yearly budget back to the state, Dickson said.

"Karnack ISD is declared a Chapter 41 Wealth Equalization District by the state," she said. "This code requires school districts that are 'property wealthy' to share their 'wealth' with school districts that are property poor. This is an extremely misleading and unfair system of equalization for our district. In 2015-16 school year, Karnack ISD gave the state about $1 million out of our total $3 million budget."

Dickson said though her school is considered "property wealthy," the school isn't actually benefiting.

"It is true that there is property wealth in our district with the oil and gas industry but this wealth does not touch our school or in particular our students," she said. "We are the only district that has a 100 percent low socioeconomic student population and we have the lowest tax rate in the state."

Dickson said the district is also hit by the state's small school penalty.

"The small school penalty says that if your district has a student population of less than 1,600 students or is less than 300 square miles, you pay a penalty," she said.

Waskom and Harleton ISDs are also affected by this penalty and Cox, as well as Harleton ISD Superintendent Craig Coleman said they would like to see this more than 30 year old rule marked off the books.

"If it weren't for the small school penalty, Waskom ISD would have had $750,000 in extra funding this school year," Cox said. "There's is a lot I could do for our students with $750,000."

For Karnack ISD, the toll was about $50,000 this year and for Harleton, Coleman said about $775,000.

"It's a penalty punishing small and rural districts," Cox said. "It's completely not fair or equitable."

Coleman, Cox and Dickson said they have all spoken with Paddie about their concerns and feel positive he is working to better the system for public schools and its students.

"Talks with him have been very positive and I'm confident he is working to further public education and schools as much as he can," Dickson said. "I believe he has a good understanding of the issues and he reached out to area superintendents about a week ago to talk about concerns."

Senator Bryan Hughes did not return multiple calls for comment from the News Messenger on Tuesday and area superintendents said they have not spoken with Hughes recently about their concerns.

Another hot topic area school chiefs said they'd like to see addressed this session was the new A-F ratings system for school accountability.

"I don't care if the system is new or old, I just want it to be fair," Marshall ISD Superintendent Jerry Gibson said Tuesday. "We need to make sure we're comparing apples to apples and not apples to oranges."

A large percentage of the accountability ratings formulation is made up of results from students' STAAR tests.

"There are a lot of other things that the state could look at to determine if a school is effective or not," Gibson said. "And, I absolutely belive the STAAR needs to be fixed."

Issues have plagued the STAAR tests, especially in spring of 2016 when multiple errors were found on the test by its vendor.

More recently, a poet whose poems are used in the English testing portion of the STAAR for junior high students said she was unable to correctly answer the test questions regarding her own poems.

"How can that possibly be fair to a student," Gibson said. "The author of the poem couldn't even correctly answer the questions about her own poem."

Poet Sarah Holbrook, whose poems "Midnight" and "A Real Case" were used on the English STAAR test for seventh and eighth graders, said she was never asked by test makers what the correct answers to the questions were and the answers could be up to anyone's interpretation.

"These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids' futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions," Holbrook wrote in an article to Huffington Post.

School chiefs said this is a great example of how the data being used to formulate districts' accountability ratings is flawed.

Coleman said while accountability ra"tings don't affect funding, they do affect enrollment when parents may be deciding where to send their students to school and enrollment does affect funding.

"I've been in education for 20 years," Coleman said. "Every one of those years, schools have had some form of assessments but last year, the STAAR test had the most glitches and problems with any test than I've ever seen. I don't mind our students taking a test but that test should be used as a diagnostic tool to make improvements."

School chiefs also worried Tuesday that the release of the preliminary "trial run" A-F ratings on Friday had a negative impact on public schools, possibly designed in a such a way to push lawmakers into a decision to vote positively on school vouchers.

The voucher system is something legislators and education officials have spent the past decade debating. The system would allow students vouchers, partially or completely, subsidized through state funding to allow students to attend private schools rather than a "failing" or "poor performing" public school. The voucher system is also often referred to as "school choice."

Public school leaders argue the voucher system, if approved, would leave already struggling public schools vying for state funding that would then be split with vouchers, thus making it even harder for public schools to perform.

"To me, it all just looks like a strong movement toward school choice, or school vouchers," Cox said. "Whether school vouchers are good or bad, the bottom line is the money for them has to come from somewhere and that will mean less money for already financially burdened public schools."

Coleman said with the state of Texas gaining more than 80,000 students a year, the state has not made budgetary adjustments for those students and tax payers have been left to make up the difference.

"I just want equity," Coleman said. "A tax payer in my district should get equal benefits for the equal tax effort as another district. This is a big, diverse state and every time lawmakers do something, there are winners and losers but we should do what's best for students across the state overall."

Gibson said he's confident positive change is on the horizon for public schools.

"I'm confident that we are now electing officials that are in favor of public schools," Gibson said. "I'm positive we can get this fixed."



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