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Relief from Robin Hood

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I occasionally write about the status of public education in Texas, and today’s column will present an update on some of the changes approved in the recent legislative session as well as the challenges our state faces.

The 2019 Texas Legislature passed House Bill 3, the most significant educational reform in a generation.

This resulted from recommendations made by the Texas Commission on School Finance, formed after the 2017 legislative session failed to modernize our financing system. Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and then-House Speaker Joe Strauss appointed a 13-member commission to study the finance system and student achievement with the goal of recommending positive changes.

This effort was in response to numerous complaints from Texans about escalating property taxes, the controversial Robin Hood system, and the business community’s strong desire for improved college, career or military readiness upon high school graduation.

Texas public schools, with an enrollment of 5.4 million students, have some daunting demographic challenges. Among them are: 59 percent of K-12 students are considered economically disadvantaged (one-eighth of the nation’s total), and 14 percent are English language learners, the second highest rate in the nation.

Many people have advocated that Texas spend more money on public education. While money is definitely a factor, achieving better results is not simply a result of increased spending. How money is spent with appropriate accountability is paramount.

According to InvestEdTx, a non-profit, pro public-education group that focuses on Texas public schools and the importance of smart spending, Texas ranks 43rd in the nation in spending per pupil, but 28th in student achievement outcomes. Were a bell curve to be used to compare Texas’ performance to states with similar demographics, we would rise to the top 10 states.

Analyzing four-year graduation rates supports this. Texas has the fourth highest graduation rate in the USA, at 89.7 percent, compared to 85 percent nationally and only 82 percent in California and New York.

Our 4-year graduation rates for both African-Americans and Hispanics are ranked second in the nation, and are well ahead of the aforementioned states, both of whom spend a lot more per student than we do even when factoring in cost of living adjustments.

What this means is that Texas is getting good value for its dollar. However, the bell curve analogy is not exactly comforting, as this is not how the real-world works. If we want our state to continue its economic prosperity, then actual results, not those tied to a bell curve, must improve. Mediocrity is not very Texan!

This is where HB 3 comes in. One of its main focuses is improving third grade literacy, where our state currently lags. Studies show that if a student is below grade level in reading by the end of third grade, this gap continues throughout their educational career and increases the rate of high school dropouts, who earn far less over their lifetime than those who achieve this metric. They also lack the skills required for so many newly created jobs.

HB 3 funds full day Pre-K for eligible students, including low income, English language learners and children of those serving in the military. It also added aid for dyslexic programs, an option to add 30 days to the school year to avoid what is referred to as the “summer slide,” where some students do not retain what is taught the prior year, and also introduced outcomes-based funding.

While opposed by some, giving outcomes bonuses for improved achievement is as American as apple pie. Don’t we want to improve? And shouldn’t we expect better results if we invest more in education?

Another component of HB 3 is improving college, career, and military readiness for high school graduates. Added to this is extending CTE (career & technical education courses) aid to middle schools.

The business community is asking for improved career readiness and more workers for the trades – this emphasis will help achieve that. Outcomes-based funding is also tied to this component.

HB 3 also modernized many of the funding formulas and reduced overall Robin Hood recapture by 47 percent statewide. In Boerne ISD, our $10.7 million Robin Hood payment was completely eliminated for the foreseeable future, with half of the money going to reducing the district’s Maintenance and Operations tax rate from $1.04 to $.97, and the other half to getting the district closer to the state average of spending per pupil, which due to Robin Hood had reached almost $1800 per student below state average.

Improvement in recent years has been consistent among Texas students, and it is certainly our hope that this continues and is accelerated in future years. The long-term prosperity of our state depends on it.