There’s even an acronym for the way teachers feel about these late winter and early spring months: EDOFMA, the eternal darkness of February, March and April. It’s a time when education seems like an endless slog, with little visible progress.
As one blogger puts it, “For the first few weeks back from the holidays in January, things seem OK, but then reality sets in. Hard.”
It’s much the same with education reform. But as dedicated teachers know, foundations are being laid even when progress isn’t visible. That’s how improvement often happens; incrementally, through persistence and dedication. What seemed like a slog is shown to be a rewarding journey.
A year ago, as the 86th Legislature got underway, we at the Texas Public Policy Foundation set out a list of six goals for Texas public education. And on each of those, progress has been made. There’s more work to do, of course. But the foundations have been laid for real, measurable education reform.
The first goal TPPF laid out was requiring school boards to set meaningful goals for student progress in reading and math. And happily, that was a key component of House Bill 3 in the 86th Texas Legislature.
But HB 3 did much more than that. It updated the school finance system and set the state’s focus on student outcomes. It contained more money for teacher salaries, bilingual education, students with special needs, and disadvantaged students. It included improvements to reading instruction and encouraged effective use of blended learning in the classroom. There was even a new incentive program that rewards districts with more money for every student they graduate college, career or military ready.
The bill also achieved our second goal—providing incentive pay to reward and retain our best teachers. While local school districts still control spending, there’s now funding to allow—and plenty of evidence to support—incentive pay for effective teachers.
Likewise, our third goal—improved civics education—was achieved with House Bill 1244. Better civics education means better citizens, with a clearer understanding of what makes the American experiment in self-governance unique in history.
Our fourth goal was property tax reform. And though there’s much work to be done, local taxpayers are now shielded from skyrocketing school property tax bills. House Bill 3 limits future school district spending increases to 2.5 percent.
But TPPF is working on a way to separate property taxes from school finance once and for all. That’s the only way we’ll equitably fund public education throughout the state, and end recurring constitutional challenges to our system.
A fifth goal was to end taxpayer-funded lobbying; though that wasn’t achieved in the 86th session, lawmakers such as state Rep. Briscoe Cain are gearing up to challenge the all-too-common practice when the Legislature convenes in January 2021.
One of the less-visible yet fundamental reforms achieved in the last legislative session is the mandating of efficiency audits for districts. Our sixth educational goal announced last year, efficiency audits make sense; if we’re to provide the best education we can to Texas schoolchildren, we must ensure that every dollar is being spent wisely and effectively.
State Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood and state Rep. Dan Huberty of Humble were invaluable in including and keeping efficiency audits in House Bill 3. Huberty served as chairman of the House Education Committee, and noted that if schools are going to ask taxpayers for more money, “you should prove that you’ve been operating as efficiently as possible.”
Sen. Taylor chaired the Senate Education Committee, and said from the outset that his goal was to “ensure an innovative, equitable and efficient system for all Texas kids.” Efficiency audits will help do just that.
Don’t let these long winter nights and slow winter days fool you; we’re making real progress on education reform. With the solid foundations laid in the 86th Legislature, efforts will be even more effective in the 87th. And Texas schoolkids will reap the benefits.