The best testimony on the state of education in Texas sounded terrible.
Last week, at the Texas House Committee on Public Education hearing, former House Ed Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock was invited to testify along with two other former chairmen, Rob Eissler and Kent Grusendorf.
While all three of the former chairs shared a great deal of wisdom on the school finance system and the state of education in general, Aycock's testimony was particularly powerful. Testing, the cost of education index (CEI), teacher evaluation, teacher pay, recapture; Aycock covered it all. It was clearly apparent that Aycock not only has a great deal of knowledge as it relates to the Texas education system, but he also genuinely cares of creating a system that does what's best for kids.
The only problem with Aycock's testimony?
The sound. For the first ten minutes or so, the microphone Aycock was using created a ton of static. Thankfully it magically stopped about halfway through his testimony, but the first half was pretty rough.
And that is really unfortunate because what he had to say was incredible.
All is not lost, however. Through the magic of technology, I was able to filter most of the static out of his audio. I've made his testimony available on YouTube in two forms: 1) the entire testimony; and 2) as a 5-minute overview of his best lines. Both videos are linked below.
I also transcribed his entire testimony. The terrible static and Aycock's strong rancher twang most definitely caused me to misinterpret a few sections, but I did my best to provide his words as accurately as possible. They are most definitely worth reading if you have anything to do with education in Texas.
Aycock's full testimony:
Thank you Chairman. Good to be here today. Um…I think. Some of this you’ve already heard. I’ll go over it again. I’ll try to keep it brief. For some of you it may not surprise you that I might wade off in the weeds in a few places. I’ve been known to do that before. First I’d like to take a few moments for those who I haven’t served on the committee with, who haven’t tried to beat this school finance stuff before, and talk about why it’s so doggone hard to do school finance. I believe there are three major factors you need to be aware of as you wade into this quagmire that you’re at the front end of.
First, our system is based on the taxable wealth per student. Think about that for a minute. It’s not about the wealth of the family or the wealth of the student. It’s about the taxable wealth per student. And there are enormous differences across the state in that taxable wealth per student. So immediately the legislative body is confronted with, “Do we favor enormous inequity? Or do we favor enormous redistribution? Or do you try to find a balance somewhere in between?” So far we’ve tried to find the balance in between, and finding that balance is never easy.
Second, you don’t get to start with a blank slate. You start with an existing system. There are known disparities within that system. And part of your problem as you folks go forward will be the fact that those that have a disadvantage complain loudly and those that have an advantage want to hold on to the doggone advantage they’ve got. So politically it becomes very difficult.
Third, and probably most important, each one and every member of this body is elected not to represent 5.5 million children, but to represent those that live in your district. That’s hard to digest sometimes, and the public gets very frustrated with that sometimes because they think we out to represent those that live across the state. But you get elected to represent those that are in your district.
The complexities of those three interactions makes school finance very difficult. Historically, the only times there have been major movements made in school finance issues is either when there has been the court pressing the issues, when the court says you’ve got to go do this, and y’all have been through that more than I have. The other time it’s happened is when there has been stellar leadership by the state elected officials. I’m not casting stones at anybody. I’m just saying that it’s very difficult for individual members to get up to speed. It either takes and almost requires either a court order or a governor or a lieutenant governor historically to move this needle.
Changing topics: I’m going to talk about trip wires that are built into the system. Things that you’ll stumble across as you go through this. First on hold harmless. Beginning years ago, every time there is a major school refinance, somebody puts in a hold harmless. It goes back into the early 1990s, and some of them are still in place. Every time there is a school finance bill there is a hold harmless built into it. It’s inevitable. As you move forward with school finance this session, if you talk about tax compression, which I think will probably be talked about some, remember that as you talk about that you almost certainly create another hold harmless. It’s almost unavoidable. How you deal with that, whether you put that in for a self-expiration time, or if you sunset the hold harmless, it is important how you deal with that. It’s an important issue.
Second trip wire, this issue of recapture. It has now become a huge source of revenue for the state of Texas. It’s billions of dollars, and the state depends upon it for its revenue stream now. It now includes large urban areas, which was never the case when it first began. It has Austin, and Houston, and Dallas. Large urban areas with a large number of votes in this body getting drawn into recapture. It becomes politically unsustainable. Sooner or later those large urban areas will team up with the smaller people who are also in recapture and do something about it, and you may be very close to that precipitous point right now.
Third factor that is a trip wire. Antiquated, obsolete factors that are built into that formula. Wow. They go way back, people. There was no logic in them much to begin with because it was what the legislature could afford, not what made sense logically. You can talk to the old timers that were here. “What can we afford? That’s what we’ll set the figures at.” So that largely drove the history of these formula factors. But by far what I think is the worst and most troubling of the factors is that wonderful thing we call CEI, the cost of education index. One. Two. Three. Four chairs have now tried to get rid of the cost of education index. Well, why is it so important? Because it’s obsolete. It hasn’t been updated for many, many years, since ’91 I believe is correct. It’s obsolete. It’s based on ’89 factors of the cost of education. 1989 people! 1989 factors that are still in play. So, what do you do about it? One suggestion possibly is to update it every two years like it was supposed to be, but the problem with that and the reason it hasn’t been updated is back to that point I made about having the advantage. Once you have the advantage of a high CEI, you sure as heck don’t want to give it up. So you hold onto it through the legislative session, and the high CEI is pushed back for another time, and another time, and another time. Even if you could succinctly pin CEI perfectly this time, it would only be a matter of a few years before somebody would say, “Well you can’t just take it away from us because we’re funded at this level.” I would submit to you that the CEI is not only obsolete and imperfect, it will always remain so because it multiplies at the beginning of the calculation. When you think about that long formula, the CEI multiplies by the student count early in that formula, and therefore exaggerates its influence. It not only exaggerates its influence, but it makes it almost impossible for the other weights to function as they were intended to function. Because if you change the other weights, their multiplication by the CEI now becomes such an enormous movement of money that it’s not possible to move that amount of money without great political consequence. So it’s ineffective, it’s inaccurate, it’s a drag on adjusting the other factors.
Then you get into the other weights. Let me suggest to you that all three, there are five weights as you know, at least three of them—SpecialEd, CompEd, and ELL—are probably undervalued, in reality. And they’re undervalued partly because of that CEI multiplier factor.
As you wade through this, let me encourage you to spread those weights. They’re intended to account for the differences in students. And if you’re going to keep this system in place, which nobody has had the boldness to do away with the core of the system—we’ve tried a couple of times, but it hasn’t happened—if you’re going to keep this system in place, let me encourage you to spread those weights a little bit. Spread those weights to where they are more realistic in how they actually….
Chairman Huberty: Mr. Chairman, can I ask you a quick question? I recall that one of the things that you were trying to do, and I believe it was in ’15, and I think you tried in ’13 too, but you basically said it just needs to go away, you were going to reshuffle, well not reshuffle the decks, but you were looking at that money to into the basic allotment, is that right?
Aycock: Take, I’ll talk about basic allotment in a minute, but take that CEI money, and if you flow it right, you can spread the weights, in a more realistic way so that the ELL kids, and the CompEd kids, and the SpecialEd kids, can get the money they’re entitled to without spending on the multiplier of the CEI up front.
I told you I’d wade in the weeds a little bit.
Let me shift gears again. We’ll come back to some of that again in a minute in another point.
You’ll talk a lot about testing. It probably doesn’t surprise any of you but those of you who’ve been around here for a while know that I’m not a big fan of high stakes testing. I’m not a big fan of the STAAR test, in particular. I’m not a big fan of test results driving funding. I know there will be some talk about that, and a small amount of that might be tolerable, but please don’t get carried away with a lot of money being driven by test results. Testing should be used to inform and improve instruction for individual children, not be used to drive the structure of a funding system. It drives perverse reaction, ranging all the way from test prep that’s excessive to try to get kids up so that you can look better on the test but they’re not really learning, to the really perverse the things that we got into with the test results last time with fraud. Some people went to jail over testing. Adults take perverse measures when money is involved.
Change gears: teacher pay. Heavens knows they’re due more. We must pay more. We must attract better teachers. We must retain better teachers. Teacher pay is an essential part of what you’ve got to struggle with. But be aware that for many years the state has been trying to get out of the business of dictating teacher pay. The state minimum salary schedule is only used by a handful, just a tiny, like less than 50 school districts use the teacher minimum salary schedule. Each district presently sets its own salary schedule. And there is a wide variety of those, from real high to real low. So be careful that you don’t wade the state back into the business of dictating teacher pay too much. Be careful of that issue.
Local leads. There is so much from a Houston, to a San Antonio, to a Pan Handle community, to rural Texas, it is almost impossible for this body to set teacher pay. When you come to issues like mental health guidance counselors, there will be a wide variety on the school safety issue of how those health counselors need to be used. When you talk about guidance counselors which will direct kids to college and career readiness, there is a wide variety of needs. Does a school need aides in early grades education? Do they need more VoTech or technical classes? Those are so varied across the state, you need to be cautious when the state starts dictating how you’ll direct that money in a particular way. Teacher pay should be encouraged but largely left to those local districts.
So what really works? What are some of the things and examples of things that are really working across the state?
Early intervention in difficult populations is working better than almost anything else the state has tried. Pre-K is working where it’s being done well. Reading academies, which were started before my time, worked well. But both of those issues have been start and stop funding. Chairman Huberty, you did a pre-K bill in one of your early sessions, and the funding went away almost immediately.
Chairman Huberty: It did.
Reading academies, during your tenure and Charlie Herrell’s tenure, worked well. And it was you and (name?) who did the reading academies, is that right? Or at least y’all were certainly part of it. They worked well. They were funded. And then the funding went away. It’s no wonder we’re having trouble reading.
Teacher evaluation, and by the way, those things, early childhood development and reading programs that are funded by the state, you do have control over.
The next two things I’ll mention have diminishing control from your perspective. Teacher evaluation, training, and placement programs. You can encourage those programs to some degree. But reality is that most of those programs have to be in place and built by the local district, because again there is such a variety from Houston to Terlingua. What works in Houston or Dallas may not work very well at all in rural Texas. You have some ability to encourage that—evaluation, training, placement type strategies—but you don’t have a lot of control of that at the state.
And the third one you have essentially no control over at all, and that’s community engagement. One of the things it takes to make a school work well, especially if it’s a school that’s in trouble, is community engagement. There are stellar examples of that. Some of the schools here in Austin have great turn-around success stories. Dallas is undergoing a great turn-around success story. Waco is undergoing a great turn-around success story. And there are others. But in each of those cases it’s involved a strong commitment from that community to say that we’ll spend our money better, we’ll get involved in local school board decisions, and we’ll be involved as a community and drive the improvement of our schools. And quite candidly you as a state body has very little or no control over that community’s ability and willingness to help do those kinds of things.
Others: Roscoe, Phar San Juan Alamo, there have been other great success stories all over the state. But those communities have bought in early on, even before there was trouble, and said, “We’ll step in and be a community that is engaged in our schools and is meeting the needs of our local community.”
I’ll talk about money and what matters. Let me give you three examples of things around the state where the money is making a difference, or it is being spent in ways that make a difference.
The ACE program in Dallas, you’ve all heard about that one. It’s basically a teacher evaluation and placement strategy that that board and superintendent developed with great controversy. It is not highly test based. About half of it is test based on the teacher evaluation. The rest of it is based on principal evaluation, leadership of the schools, and the decision was made to place those most difficult schools with good teachers. It was expensive. They testified before your committee that it was unsustainable in their present financial situation. So what’d they do? They went out and passed a tax election. And they hope to keep it rolling forward because it’s making a huge difference in their schools.
Second one: San Antonio pre-K initiative. Working. We’re now in our third year. The cohort of kids who started in pre-K from the most difficult households in San Antonio are now reading at much better levels than they would have been without the program. There is adequate data to prove that at this point. Pre-K is working for San Antonio. But it costs money. They had to go out and farm a whole new concept in taxing that wasn’t a part of the school tax system. Took a totally different approach to funding that. They said, “Let’s kind of go away from our normal school tax system and do something different.” But it worked.
The third example that I’d like to give you that is less talked about and much more nebulous is the phenomenon that is happening in Region 1 in South Texas. When you look at the success of the Region 1 schools, Region 1 has the highest rate of A-rated schools. Has the second highest rated, percentage-wise, of B-rated schools. It has the second lowest rating of F-schools. And that’s a school population that is by all accounts some of the most difficult in the state. Region 1 rose to the top in our education system of all 20 education service regions. Now there’s a lot of factors why, I think. Some of it’s family concerns. Some of it’s the urge to push those kids out of poverty and the commitment of those communities to get them out of poverty. But I would submit that some of it’s money. When you look at the funding in Region 1, it is second highest per student in all the state regions. Why is that? Because they have a lot of heavily weighted students, and there’s the predominance of that thing called the CEI in Region 1. For some reason back in the ’89 evaluation, the CEI was placed real high in Region 1, disproportionately high in relation to the rest of the state. And they benefitted from that. They now get $779 per student per year more than the average of the other regional service districts.
Chairman Huberty: Hmm…
Aycock: Yea. It surprised me.
Money makes a difference and how you spend it makes a difference. When these communities make decisions, they emphasize early education, they emphasize Phar San Juan Alamo Community College agreements, they’ve done a lot of innovative things in the valley that are right. But many of them cost money. So money makes a difference, and certainly how you spend it makes a difference.
So in closing, as you wade through these thorny issues in the months ahead of you, weeks now, it’s not too many months, let me ask you to ponder a few big things.
When you talk about testing, let it guide instruction. Let it be directed toward the individual guidance of students and their instruction.
Let me encourage you to widen those weight spreads so that those ELL kids and the Special Ed kids can more accurately weighted in the great scheme of things. And do not multiply those weights by the CEI. And by the way that’s going to cost a little money, you can fund that delta because it will create a delta from your present level funding to those spreads.
Back to your basic allotment issue a while ago. I know everybody wants to put money here and yonder, but let me encourage you that most of the money needs to be put into the basic allotment. Why? Because it helps your hold harmless problem, because mathematically it moves the needle and your hold harmless because less of a problem. Mathematically it re-does the calculation so that your recapture problem is less. It distributes the weights more equitably if you fund that into the BA and let the weights carry the money to where it needs to flow to the right children.
There’s been a lot said about applying pressure to school systems. I took a lot of critique at the end of my tenure in this room for some of the bills we passed that applied pressure to school systems. Let me encourage you not to apply pressure to children so much, but to feel very free to apply pressure to the adults in the business. Whether you’re talking about school board members, whether you’re talking about administrators, there are adults in the business that should be held responsible for the performance of those schools. Don’t be timid about expecting them to rise to the occasion because most of them, not all of them, but most of them will rise to the occasion. So let me encourage you to not be timid about applying pressure in the form of ratings, TEA interventions, required training. There are tools that you have that can apply pressure to school systems that are having difficulties. Don’t be timid about that.