This article appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of The Classroom Teacher

By JERI STONE
TCTA Executive Director

Just about the time that the new school year starts to gear up (ever earlier!), so does the biennial statewide political season. With the primaries and runoffs over in May, there is a lull that roughly corresponds with rising heat and summer vacations. But once fall begins, the mid-term elections and the upcoming legislative session become the focus for political types again.

Activity has been increasing of late. Interim legislative committees are meeting, with many such hearings focusing on school safety. We’re seeing turnover among Capitol staff and lobbyists, perhaps part of the norzmal changing of the guard that accompanies an election year. It also seems like there are more staffing changes than usual among education associations, maybe in anticipation of what is likely to be another fairly difficult legislative session.

Also in line with standard operating procedures has been the initial announcement of a lean budget forecast, followed by a request from the governor’s office that state agencies submit budget requests of no more than their current budgets. They were also required to submit information to show what they would cut to achieve a 10 percent decrease. A new, more optimistic revenue forecast by the state comptroller was quickly dismissed by a recital of the many demands ranging from Hurricane Harvey to Medicaid funding that will consume those funds. This is the usual ebb and flow, and — if we’re lucky — there will be one or two potentially more positive revenue projections, one of which often comes in the nick of time in the closing days of the session in May.

There are other things, though, that are different this year. First and foremost is the assured change of leadership in the Texas House of Representatives. Former Speaker Joe Straus was inarguably a friend of public education, and he chose not to run for re-election to his House seat. At this moment, there is no obvious heir apparent, though it is possible that the choosing of a speaker for all practical purposes will take place prior to the opening gavel in January through more informal processes. While general election years (like 2016) feature presidential elections, mid-term elections (like we’ll have this November) feature races for the state’s top leadership. This year also includes a U.S. Senate race. Mid-term elections give voters the opportunity to make up for mistakes they feel were made two years prior, or to double-down on their earlier decisions.

In short, mid-term elections can be unpredictable. But then, so can general elections, unless you were among the prescient who predicted the election of our current president. It has been over 20 years since George W. Bush was elected governor of Texas, and every major statewide election since that year has been won by a Republican. So it’s hard to know what to make of a recent Breitbart (which I think of as conservative-leaning organization) poll showing the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, Mike Collier, polling within two percentage points of incumbent Dan Patrick. Even more interestingly, most polled did not even know who Collier is — which might lead to the conclusion that he was favored simply because he’s not Patrick. How likely is it that the arguably most powerful office in the state (that of lieutenant governor) might not just change hands but change parties in November? Probably just about as likely that Donald Trump would have been elected president. I recall detailed explanations prior to the 2016 election regarding the mathematical impossibility of a Trump victory, but here we are.

Along with a new House speaker will most likely come new chairs for several key committees. Adding the possibility that the Senate could see the fabled “blue wave” at least at the top, and some close state Senate elections, the upcoming session could be very different from what we’ve seen in recent memory. 

Some fresh viewpoints could be just the tonic after a long, hot summer (and decade). We seem, from an education policy perspective, to be caught in some sort of weird feedback loop. I keep noticing the symbol of the snake eating its tail (like on people’s skin — this is Austin) and thinking of the state of education policy. Though purportedly this symbol can be a positive one, indicating infinity and continuity and the circle of life, it looks to me like the lack of progress we are seeing on some key issues. 

For example, the existing school finance system is not going to last indefinitely, yet the special commission to address school finance seems — tediously — to be more focused on how education dollars should be spent (i.e, education reform ideas like teacher merit pay — it’s cheaper to give a few chosen teachers a raise than to boost everyone) than on a sustainable long-term revenue approach. 

The state’s contribution to public education employees’ health insurance program has been unchanged since the program’s inception in 2001, though health care costs have certainly not been stagnant. School employee health insurance is a bit of an “orphan” issue, since funding for it is provided by the legislature through the school finance formulas in TEA’s budget, but TRS administers the ActiveCare program. Neither agency has been requesting increases in funding, though Education Commissioner Mike Morath deserves a nod for at least recognizing and promising to consider the issue in recent correspondence to TCTA. 

The laboratories of innovation that charter schools were to represent didn’t materialize, with some notable exceptions of high-performing and well-funded charters, though they continue to proliferate as a parallel system of schools to be funded. Many continue not to accept students with a disciplinary history, though these students could benefit the most from a creative educational program. Speaking of innovation, districts of innovation have shown a distinct lack of imagination, with most exempting themselves from the same handful of laws (the start date for the school year being among those). 

In short, we seem to have a dearth of new ideas that have real potential for success, despite the many vows by state leaders to make “evidence-based” policy. One of the things I admire about Bill Gates is his willingness to try an idea, assess its outcome, and say he was wrong if it doesn’t work. He did that with his small high school initiative some years ago, and is currently doing it with performance pay for educators based on student test scores. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars seeking a linkage between student test scores and educator performance, he had the respected Rand Corporation take a look at the outcomes. The Rand conclusion was stark and in line with what most of our members have said for as long as these discussions have been taking place — “This suggests that focusing on [teacher effectiveness] alone is not likely to be the potent sort of intervention that really moves the needle on student outcomes.” Yet I can virtually promise you, based on discussions leading up to the legislative session, that performance pay for teachers in a form similar to that currently in use in Dallas ISD is going to be front and center among legislative priorities for some current key leaders. This latest iteration is not likely to be much different from the career ladder and the DATE program, which are not missed by the teachers who lived through them.

Should we expect change in the coming months and in the 2019 legislative session? It may be, at least in part, up to teachers, who have the strength in numbers to affect the November elections and to convince elected lawmakers to listen to educators when making their decisions. Whether that snake eating its tail represents repetition and stagnation or continuous re-creation and renewal remains to be seen, but I will optimistically choose the latter interpretation.