Destroy a school, destroy a neighborhood. Destroy a neighborhood, destroy a town. That’s what local educators, civic activists, political party representatives and other local leaders worry could happen if state lawmakers don’t take a hard look at public education funding in the special session legislative session starting Tuesday.
Community members joined in a public town hall meeting organized by the McLennan County Democratic Party on Saturday at the West Waco Library to discuss how to save the state’s education system.
Representatives from Waco ISD, the State Board of Education and other educational organizations touched on everything from state funding, teacher retirement insurance premiums and unfunded mandates to school vouchers and accountability rating systems.
They urged anyone who supports public education to become active in rallies Monday in Austin or to make phone calls or write to lawmakers.
“One of the things that’s happened in Texas particularly is that the Legislature has begun to micromanage everything teachers, everything principals do, everything superintendents do, and there are so many rules about what you must do for accountability’s sake to prepare for the expletive-deleted tests,” said Bonnie Lesley, a former educator and founder of the political organization Texas Kids Can’t Wait.
Lesley said lawmakers have attacked teacher benefits and pay raises, and called Gov. Abbott’s proposed unfunded mandate to give teachers a $1,000 raise next year a sham.
“Divide $1,000 by 12, take out taxes and retirement and everything else, and you haven’t got enough for a hamburger or a pizza,” she said. “In a month’s time, it’s nothing. And then they don’t fund it? They say to the school board, ‘You guys are just wasting money right and left, you all fund it.’ ”
Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson and school board member Norman Manning both brought up school finances and the state’s new A-F plan for academic accountability.
“Running a school district is like running a household. When your income decreases, you have to start making certain cuts or you may not be able to take that vacation that year or whatever,” Manning said as he looked back to six years ago to when the district closed several schools. “And I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the state funding (we get) per student. Midway (ISD) gets paid more per student than we get paid per student. It would be nice if it was comparable all the way across the state, but that does not happen.”
With the state set to start an accountability system next year that will rate campuses and districts with letter grades “A” through “F,” Nelson said school officials worry how the general public will react to the ratings.
Parents may try to remove children from a district based on the ratings, ultimately cutting into the state funding that district gets, he said.
Waco ISD has seven campuses rated as “improvement required” by the state, and the new rating system is Waco ISD’s highest priority listed in a 17-page summary of legislation the district is monitoring during the special session, Nelson said.
He has testified before the Legislature twice on the matter and said the district is working intimately with state officials on the new system.
“When you really understand the political structure, there’s this focused attempt to end public schools,” Nelson said. “In a place like Waco, that could never happen for so many reasons. It would undermine everything this community was built on.
“The idea or concept of competition is welcoming. We want to know how our kids are doing, but as a city and as a community, we really have to ultimately be judged by what we do for our neediest children. If we leave them to some type of system that leaves them at a disadvantage, it should eat at our conscience.”
School districts have options to raise money independent of state formula funding, including voter-approved property tax bumps like the measure Waco ISD voters approved almost two years ago. But the state limits local control, Manning said. The $8 million that initiative brings in can only be used for specific purposes outlined at the time of the vote, and the state caps local tax rates, he said.
During the regular legislative session, lawmakers debated school funding reform but failed to pass a bill that would have directed $1.5 billion to public schools and simplified outdated funding formulas.
The special session is expected to include the creation of a special commission on school finance.