Get acquainted with a phrase that will be oft-repeated in the upcoming 82nd Legislature’s brawls over public education: unfunded mandate. And there will be brawls. As lawmakers come under pressure to help schools cope with the reduced funding that the budget shortfall will surely bring, they will look to relax state regulations that create costs local school districts bear on their own or with limited help from the state. They include a wide range of well-established requirements like maximum class sizes, end-of-course exams, gifted-and-talented programs, dropout prevention strategies, assistance for dyslexic students, college-credit programs and instruction on religious literature.
In a session in which cost will frame any new policy proposals — and, more than ever, a price tag attached to legislation will be a kiss of death — the most significant substantive changes in public education could come in what the Legislature decides to do with programs already in place. Proponents say lifting some — or all — of the rules and requirements would free the superintendents who understand their districts’ needs best to decide how to spend their limited dollars. Naysayers caution that waiving many of the requirements will imperil educational quality. (Find a full report on state mandates for public school districts here.)
The rules were created because school districts weren’t doing a good job on their own, says Linda Bridges, the president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Texas branch. “I find great irony in that many of those rules and regulations by the state are what have helped these districts improve performance over the years, and now [school superintendents] want to get rid of them,” says Bridges, adding, “There's lot of false issues out there in the name of education improvement that we will be battling."
But prominent members of the Senate and House education committees argue that the current lean times provide an opportunity to re-evaluate the state of public education in Texas. Giving superintendents more control in how they allocate money is a recurring theme in their plans for the session, and the state-versus-local-control rhetoric about unfunded mandates (or underfunded, in some cases) fits neatly with the Tea Party principles that propelled some lawmakers into office in November. State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who is the vice chairman of the Senate Education committee, says his No. 1 goal for the session is to reduce the Legislature’s impact on how local school districts spend their money, and part of that is ending unfunded mandates.
“As a Texas legislator, I don't like it when the federal government pushes down unfunded mandates to the states,” says Patrick, who recently announced he was starting a new Tea Party caucus. “Therefore, I believe we should not pass down unfunded mandates to the school districts.” One freshman lawmaker, state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, has already filed a bill that will do what Patrick describes — release school districts from complying with state mandates that force them to make expenditures at the local level.
“There's not going to be very much money, so what we're going to have to do is become innovative and creative,” says state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who chairs the Senate Education committee. As long as “the outcome stays the same,” Shapiro says, releasing districts from mandates is how the Legislature “can really assist them and help them keep more of the money that we've given them.”
The challenge will be, she notes, to deal with the budget squeeze without “jeopardizing progress and reform.” For Shapiro, that means there are some “non-negotiables,” like teacher incentive programs, end-of-course exam time lines and graduation standards like the 4x4 program, which requires that districts offer four years of English language arts, math, social studies and science for students. She says that her committee would rather “use a scalpel” and identify programs that aren’t working than take big cuts “willy nilly” across the board. That will mean looking at "financial" as well as "academic" accountability, Shapiro says.
"The budget is going to be the bellwether. I can almost promise you that there will not be a bill that we look at seriously that's going to cost money unless we can find a way to fund it," Shapiro says, adding, "But at the same time, I don't want to lose any of our momentum on the things that we've already begun in the state. So it's going to be a balancing act."
State Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the House Public Education Committee prefers to think of the budget crisis as a positive opportunity for change. “The state has always been in the ‘let's add this, let's add that’ business,” he says. “We've had multiple programs and grants that cover the same stuff — multiple dropout programs, different ways of handling pre-K, and the state has always been in the supplemental role with additional money. Well, without money … we're going to have to start supplanting instead of supplementing.”
The drive to lift the state’s cap on class size for students in kindergarten through the fourth grade is quickly gaining support among lawmakers and, Bridges says, is the teachers’ union “biggest concern” about what the Legislature will do. Patrick says it forces districts to spend “millions of dollars” needlessly when they must form a new class each time there are more than 22 students. A recent report from Comptroller Susan Combs also recommended waiving the cap as a cost-saving measure.
But state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, says eliminating the cap isn’t the right way to get districts through the budget crisis. "It's the state saying we don't have the money to give you, so we're going to require that you put more children in each of your classrooms, and our teachers will bear the brunt of that, our children will bear the brunt of that,” says Davis, who sits on the Senate Education Committee, adding, “There's going to be a very real confrontation in terms of whether, how and where funding cuts to public education are to be made.”
[Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to show that the state's class size limit applies to students in kindergarten through the fourth grade.]