Change vs. status quo: Which will Texas choose?

Photo by Steve Moakley

How far will the Texas education bureaucracy go to protect the status quo? That’s the question I’m asking this session as the Texas Legislature races toward the finish line to overhaul our school funding system. 

Here’s where our troubles began. For decades, the Legislature and local school districts have been increasing spending, but on expensive bureaucracy and overhead, not students and teachers. The result is that teachers haven’t had the resources — or the freedom — to meet the diverse needs of their students. A recent analysis by the Fordham Institute showed how Texas school spending has far outpaced the growth in teacher salaries. In 1989, the average teacher salary in Texas was $52,546. In 2015, it had crept up just $300 to $52,845 (inflation-adjusted). Meanwhile, spending has increased by 29 percent, from $8,110 per student to $10,483 per student, on average. If we had been investing in teachers, rather than overhead, teacher salaries would be over $67,000.

I’ve seen the waste and resistance to change within the education bureaucracy firsthand. As a teacher in a traditional ISD in the late 90s, I knew what my students needed to succeed, despite the high poverty in the community and low levels of educational attainment: a longer school day, intensive tutoring, and a rigorous curriculum. My friend and fellow teacher JoAnn Gama and I started an after-school program for our 4th graders using these approaches, and at the end of the year we asked the district if we could expand. The answer? Sure, just cut the longer hours, the intensive reading and math tutoring, and the “too challenging” curriculum. So instead of staying within the district, we applied to open a public charter school, and that’s how IDEA Public Schools was born.

That same tension between innovation and status quo is playing out again this session. On one side, you have a wasteful bureaucracy resistant to change. On another, you have a group of education leaders, superintendents, legislators and advocates asking for a better approach that puts the needs of students first. I can't say I'm surprised.

The good news: House Bill 3 as passed by the Senate reflects the recommendations of the bipartisan, bicameral School Finance Commission. The bill improves how our school districts set goals for student achievement, reward and retain the best teachers, and reward school improvement. But naturally, the education bureaucracy is pushing back. An alphabet soup of organizations, school boards, associations and special interest groups has organized to oppose any substantive policy changes beyond “more dollars” in HB 3. Identifying and rewarding great teachers, and providing incentives for them to teach in the highest-need schools? No way. Sending more dollars to schools that help students in poverty advance? Nope. 

The bureaucracy is quick to respond any time someone steps out of line. When a group of innovative superintendents across the state wrote a group letter to support ideas like merit-based pay, their local school boards and leaders of special interest groups were quick to lambast them in the press. This same group of special interests has full-time staff and the most expensive lobbyists at the Capitol daily, trying to convince legislators to oppose creative approaches, whether that’s merit pay for the best teachers or public charter schools in high-need areas. 

That approach could not be more wrong. Our schools do need more money — particularly for students with the highest level of need, such as students in poverty, English Language Learners and students with special needs. But that money needs to reach classrooms, and we simultaneously need to be expanding the creative approaches that are working in places like Dallas, San Antonio, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo and yes, public charter schools like IDEA.

Here’s what a student-centered funding formula would look like: 

  • The same dollars for students with the same level of need, regardless of what type of school they attend — ISD, charter, in-district charter or magnet; 
  • Higher salaries for the best teachers, and bonuses for those teaching in high-poverty schools and in-demand subject areas;
  • An opt-in grant program for districts (charter or ISD) that want to pilot merit-based pay programs;
  • Opportunities for districts to extend the school year;
  • Additional dollars for schools helping our most vulnerable students succeed, particularly in critical areas like 3rd grade reading and 8th grade math; 
  • And most importantly, fewer of the needless regulations that tie teachers’ hands and take time away from students.

Texas has a real chance this session not only to invest more dollars in our public education system, but also to improve student outcomes. My fear is that we will end up tinkering at the margins, rather than seizing the moment and adopting new, creative approaches that recognize the needs of individual students and reward great teachers. If the House and Senate conference committee members for House Bill 3 are brave, though, they will reject the education bureaucracy’s desire to maintain the status quo and instead adopt a new school funding formula — built for students, not the bureaucracy. 

Disclosure: IDEA Public Schools has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Tom Torkelson

CEO, IDEA Public Schools