With a budget shortfall of historic proportions looming and legislators looking desperately for savings, state Rep. Fred Brown, R-Bryan, is proposing a drastic step: the elimination of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
“If there was ever a time to get this done, now’s the time,” says Brown, who has filed a bill that would shutter the agency. “There is going to be some really nice savings for the state, but that shouldn’t be the justification for the bill.”
The justification, he says, is that the state needs to begin thinking of K-12 and college as part of the same pipeline instead of as two distinctly different worlds. His bill would merge the Coordinating Board with the Texas Education Agency to create a single state agency focused on preschool, college and everything in between. “There’s always been a real disconnect,” he says. “We need to be thinking about K-16. For the sake of our students, it just makes sense.“
Brown isn’t the only one from his district pushing such a proposal. “I think you should consider creating a single state entity that is responsible for education,” Texas A&M University System Chancellor Mike McKinney testified before a joint meeting of the House and Senate Higher Education Committees in August. “I would not call it P-16. I would call it P-20-plus. I think you need to include professional schools, the medical schools, the dental schools.”
McKinney described the distinction between primary education and secondary education as “artificial,” warning that it “creates silos that hinder the continuity of education.”
As originally filed, Brown’s bill would have folded not just the Coordinating Board but the responsibilities of the elected State Board of Education into the TEA. Brown says that was a mistake, and he's redrafting the bill to preserve the State Board’s duties. Under the umbrella of the proposed public education agency, higher education would fall under the SBOE’s often controversial, and often partisan, purview.
State Education Commissioner Robert Scott is agnostic about the bill’s merits, but cautions, “There are serious governance structure discussions to be had. There are serious policy implications across the board. It’s not just an efficiency thing.”
Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes, whose position would be eliminated under such a proposal, sees several problems with the bill. “First of all, higher ed is pretty much overseen by appointed boards, and public ed is primarily overseen by elected boards,” he says, “and I don’t know how you reconcile that fundamental difference.”
For fiscal year 2011, the Coordinating Board, which makes recommendations and advises the legislature on the distribution of money and services to state universities, has a total budget of more than $945 million. But Paredes doesn’t anticipate that Brown’s bill would provide much in the way of savings. About $680 million of that total is designated for financial aid. And Paredes suggests that there would be initial costs associated with merging the two agencies. Higher education and public education are so distinct, he says, that “it’s hard to imagine a giant, combined agency being very different from what we have now.”
Aims McGuinness, a senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, says that only four states have a P-20 governing body of the sort McKinney and Brown are advocating: New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and Idaho. “In reality,” McGuinness says, “not one of them really functions like a P-20 operation.” The worlds of higher ed and public ed grapple with such “fundamentally different issues,” he says, that they tend to be managed separately even in the few states where they are bureaucratically combined.
McGuinness notes that every state in the country is pushing for a more comprehensive P-20 approach to education. As for the specific role of the coordinating board, he says there is a need — especially in a state as large as Texas — for an entity “that keeps a focus on the agenda for the state, but plays a coordinating role and not a governing role.” He recommends improving efficiencies not by killing the whole agency but by eliminating superfluous “barnacles” that the Legislature has appended to the coordinating board, allowing it to focus on its effort to bring student achievement in Texas up to par with other states.
Brown says one of his chief concerns is that Texas has “two agencies that barely even talk to each other.” While that may have been true in the past, Scott and Paredes say their agencies have stepped up their cooperation and coordination in recent years. In 2003, the Legislature formally created the state’s P-16 council; lawmakers strengthened it in 2005. Co-chaired by Scott and Paredes, the college-readiness-focused body also includes members of the Texas Workforce Commission and the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services. Additionally, there are 40 regional P-16 councils throughout the state.
Brown knows his bill might face some opposition, and he says he anticipates significant changes in committee. House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, says he appreciates Brown’s interest in and desire to improve efficiencies in education but has some concerns about the distraction of rearranging government agencies. “While I’d say there are still opportunities for greater efficiencies,” Branch says, “this might cause more damage to substantive reform and economic efficiencies simply because it’s a real reach to try and combine these two agencies.”