The Texas Legislature is considering numerous education bills, but few policymakers have aligned their proposals to address longstanding statewide problems that may have grown during the pandemic. A few commonsense policies could go a long way for Texas students.
One longstanding problem is the state’s struggles to monitor its schools and create a high-quality accountability system.
Just in the past five years, for example, the state had several incidents including a charter school system leasing a corporate jet, an investigation into statewide special education practices stemming from the delay and denial of needed supports to thousands of students with disabilities, and an outdated $90 million annual testing system that has crashed twice in recent years.
The Texas Education Agency commissioner is designated as the educational leader in the state and has broad authority to improve public education, yet the governor-appointed position has one requirement: U.S. citizenship. The state requires significant education and training for a kindergarten teacher who oversees about 20 students but almost no requirements for an individual responsible for millions of students.
A commonsense improvement would be to increase required qualifications for the commissioner role, especially as some proposed legislation calls on the commissioner to identify evidenced-based teaching practices and programs to accelerate learning as schools reopen.
Another problem confronting Texas is the rapid proliferation of charter schools without sufficient concern for the financial impact on nearby school districts or for the efficient allocation of education tax dollars systemwide. Increased transparency related to charter authorization and financial reporting makes sense. Texas House Bill 1746 and House Bill 1748 are a good start because they limit the commissioner’s power to waive preexisting charter expansion requirements and mandate the disclosure of any taxpayer funds and jobs leaving Texas for out-of-state charter groups.
The school finance system has also been a longstanding issue in the state partly because it allocates approximately the same level of total funding to the highest- and lowest-poverty districts. This practice goes against research showing that the higher-poverty districts require greater funding to provide equal educational opportunity. The mechanism for funding charter schools is equally troubled.
During the previous session, charter schools received additional funding, but charter advocates maintain that sector receives an unfair share of state funds.
A recent study we conducted points out several problems that could easily be addressed through reforms. Larger charter districts were relatively overfunded, while smaller charters received less funding than otherwise similar traditional public schools. A more commonsense policy would be to ensure the charter school finance system adjusts for district size and facilities costs.
Many Texans agree our costly testing system needs reform. The overemphasis on testing creates undo pressure on teachers and students. SB 2094 could make matters worse. According to Raise Your Hand Texas, the bill would fund students based on their performance on the STAAR exam, which may increase the emphasis on testing, further the inequitable funding distribution, and create a punitive school finance system based on test results.
Although some progress has been made in prior years, the state’s ability to create an inclusive curriculum has been a longstanding battle. This year, SB 174 emphasizes educator training to promote student free speech and examine social injustice and civil rights issues.
However, two proposed bills (SB 2202 and HB 3979) discourage classroom discussions about racism, sexism and other injustices. Texas students need access to a curriculum that helps them make sense of current events and inspires them to meaningfully participate in our democracy.
After a year of disruption, now is the time to address these critical issues with commonsense policies so Texas students can reach their fullest potential. Most Texans would probably agree to less testing and a greater emphasis on civic engagement and responsibility. Now our policymakers need to focus their attention on turning commonsense reforms into reality.
David DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.
David S. Knight is an assistant professor of education finance and policy at The University of Washington.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman, San Antonio Express News and the Waco Tribune Herald.