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Harris County stay-at-home order extended

Not a surprise.

Be like Hank, except inside

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday extended her stay-at-home order through April 30, as cases of novel coronavirus infections in the Houston area continue to rise, three county officials with knowledge of the plan said.

Hidalgo could further lengthen or shorten the duration of the order, depending on the success of efforts to combat the outbreak, the sources said.

[…]

The original stay-at-home measure, which closed most businesses and prohibits public gatherings of any kind, is set to expire Friday. Health experts say extending the restrictions to daily life are necessary to prevent a spike in cases that could overwhelm hospitals.

Hidalgo signaled at a news conference Monday that she would do so.

“It’s not a matter of if the stay-at-home order will be extended; it’s a question of for how long,” she said.

Violations of the order are punishable with fines or jail time, though Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said authorities have yet to make any arrests. She said her investigators have answered about 2,500 calls from residents with questions and focused enforcement efforts on reminding businesses of the rules.

The rules are the most restrictive in a series of steps taken by local officials this month to limit interactions between people that can spread the highly communicable virus. Turner ordered the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo closed on March 11. Hidalgo closed bars and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery on March 16.

I know it feels like forever, but the Harris County stay-at-home order was issued eight days ago. HISD was closed beginning March 13, and I’d say most people who could work from home began doing so on the 16th, so we’re a bit more than two weeks into this. And speaking of the schools:

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday told Texans to stay at home for the next month unless they are taking part in essential services and activities, announcing a heightened statewide standard to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. He also announced that schools would remain closed until at least May 4.

During a news conference at the Texas Capitol, Abbott declined to call his latest executive order a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order, arguing such labels leave the wrong impression and that he wants Texans to know, for example, they can still go to the grocery store. But in an interview afterward, he said “it’s a fact” that the executive order nonetheless brings Texas up to speed with states that have issued orders with those labels.

“States that have adopted stay-at-home policies or even some that use shelter in place are very close to ours, which is, if you had to put a label on it, it would be ‘essential service and activities only,'” Abbott said. “If you’re not engaged in an essential service or activity, then you need to be at home for the purpose of slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

The state has outlined a list of more than a dozen sectors that provide essential services that comply with Abbott’s order, which is largely aligned with federal guidance on the issue. Those include health care, energy, food and critical manufacturing. Texas’ list adds religious services, which are not included in federal guidance.

The order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday and lasts until April 30, aligning it with the new end date that President Donald Trump announced Monday for social-distancing guidelines.

The order supersedes one that Abbott issued March 19 that limited social gatherings to 10 people, among other things. The new order narrows that standard significantly, asking Texans to “minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.”

In using terms like “minimize,” the order’s language stops short of explicitly banning nonessential activity. But Abbott made clear he expects all Texans to adhere to the guidance or face criminal punishment — and that there is only wiggle room in the language to account for potential “exceptions to the rule.”

“You never know what the exception would be, like let’s say there’s some emergency where you have to go do something or whatever the case may be,” he said. “And you don’t want to get people subject to being in violation of a law for a lack of clarity.”

[…]

At the news conference, Abbott encouraged churches to conduct their services remotely but said that if they must meet in person, they should follow the federal social-distancing guidelines.

“I’m unaware of a church that would want its constituents, its parishioners, to be exposed to COVID-19, and I think there’s enough public information right now for them to be aware of the practices that are needed to make sure that their members don’t contract COVID-19,” Abbott said in the interview.

Still not a statewide shelter-in-place order, which the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Nurses Association are calling for, but it is what it is. As for that exception for religious services, we’ll see what that means.

Abbott said religious services should either be conducted remotely or in-person using social distancing guidelines. He added that “drive-up services,” where congregants would remain in their cars, which some churches plan to use this Easter, would “satisfy the criteria that we’re talking about.”

David Duncan, pastor of Houston’s Memorial Church of Christ, said he appreciates Abbott’s recognition of the “importance of religion.” But he added, “The second greatest command is to love our neighbors as ourselves. For me, at this moment, the way I love my neighbor is by giving them physical distance.”

Many congregations moved away from in-person gatherings prior to orders by local officials, including one by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo that banned gatherings. Hidalgo said Tuesday afternoon that the county was reviewing Abbott’s order.

“We will continue doing what we have been doing,” said Mike Miller, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Jacksonville. “Gathering crowds in any way that would make 6-foot separation impossible is not acting responsibly.”

[…]

Josh Ellis, head of Houston’s association of Southern Baptist churches, declined to comment on Abbott’s order.

Ellis did, however, advise churches to continue suspending in-person services. “Ministry is essential, and continues, while continuing to keep the most people safe,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which suspended in-person services earlier this month, also said it is reviewing the governor’s order.

We’ll see if this has any effect on the Hotze death wish lawsuit. I still think the full-on ban was the correct move, mostly because assholes like Hotze have now demonstrated they don’t give a shit about anyone else, but if this avoids a nasty court ruling, I can accept it.

(By the way, has Dan Patrick been a little quieter than usual lately, or am I imagining it? Just wondering.)

STAAR testing waived

This had to happen, given everything else.

In an unprecedented move, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday he would waive testing requirements for this year’s STAAR exam, as many schools expect to be closed at least through the April testing window, due to the new coronavirus.

He also said he would ask the federal government to waive this year’s federal standardized testing requirements, which apply to all states. According to the state, as of Sunday afternoon, 569 school districts had announced closures due to coronavirus concerns. Texas is not alone, since more than 30 states have closed schools due to coronavirus, affecting at least 30 million public school students nationwide.

The federal government has previously said it might give out targeted waivers from testing for areas where the COVID-19 disease has had significant impact.

The state will not mandate that districts offer the exam, but some superintendents may want the test data to see how their students are doing, according to the TEA. Agency officials are working to support those school districts, if necessary.

[…]

State leaders are giving schools more leeway than they have in the past, showing the increasing seriousness surrounding the COVID-19 disease.

When Hurricane Harvey decimated Houston-area and Coastal Bend communities in 2017, [TEA Commissioner Mike] Morath hesitated to give them a break on testing or accountability requirements, arguing that doing so would harm student learning. He argued that getting rid of state testing requirements would violate federal requirements and put federal funding at risk.

Eventually he agreed not to hold poor STAAR results against schools and districts, though he did not waive the requirement that they test students.

“Accountability results have been waived for Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Harvey. But never has testing itself been waived,” said Dee Carney, a longtime school accountability consultant in Texas. “It’s absolutely an unprecedented event requiring extraordinary measures of our schools and our teachers and our communities.”

It is not clear exactly what the implications are for students who need to take certain state tests in order to graduate from high school or move on to the next grade. Morath said he would send more specific guidance on student testing and school accountability this week, likely before Thursday.

So three things here. One, given the likely closure of schools through the rest of the academic year, this was basically inevitable. There’s too much disruption, and the test results would be essentially meaningless. Which was the same argument lots of people made following Harvey in 2017, but this time the message was received. Two, this is going to be a months-long, if not years-long, experiment in unprecedented actions and figuring things out as we go, because what else can we do? And three, we just may find out that some of the things we’d been doing all along we can do without, or do differently, and some things we’d never done before become new habits. That’s what happens with big disruptions. Maybe one result of all this is we’ll completely re-evaluate the need for high-stakes testing like we have now. Or maybe we’ll decide we need even more of it. I don’t know what will happen, but I’ll bet that five years from now when we look back on all this, we’ll be amazed at how different things became.

Schools could be closed for the rest of the academic year

Lots of school-related news on Monday.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told school superintendents and lawmakers Sunday to be prepared for long-term school district closures, potentially through the end of the school year, especially in areas where the new coronavirus has spread.

According to individuals who participated in two separate conference calls with the commissioner, Morath said he would still leave the decision up to local superintendents. This comes as hundreds of school districts announced they would suspend classes for at least a week, with concerns about COVID-19 spreading through their communities.

Morath suggested superintendents consider telling parents sooner rather than later that closures would stretch beyond a few weeks. The extended school closures would be a burden for low-income and working parents, who would more likely struggle to keep their children home for long periods of time.

The state has already said school districts with prolonged school closures due to coronavirus concerns may avoid financial penalties, as long as they can prove they are teaching students remotely. But not all school districts have the experience or resources needed to offer remote instruction, and many students lack access to consistent internet at home.

This is not unexpected. At this point, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t happen, though obviously if that’s the case then there will be wildly disparate effects on the students, between those who will have access to online instruction, and those who will not. Maybe – stay with me here – that should be something the Legislature addresses going forward. You may now be thinking “How can they possibly do the STAAR test if no one is at school?” I say to you, keep reading.

School could be out for awhile

We got the news on Thursday that HISD schools were going to be closed until March 31 due to coronavirus. (This week is spring break, so the kids got an extra day off before the start of break, then a week and a day after it.) But there’s a very real possibility that schools will remain closed well after that.

Houston schools could remain closed well beyond the end of March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, requiring unprecedented efforts to deliver meals and educational materials to hundreds of thousands of children, several local superintendents said Friday.

One day after nearly all Houston-area districts canceled classes through at least next week, local education leaders said their staffs were crafting contingency plans under the assumption that schools will remain closed long-term. Public health experts have said the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is expected to last months with the potential to infect millions of Americans.

“We’re planning as if we’re going to have to do school remotely for the remainder of this (school) year,” said Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre, whose district serves about 78,400 children.

For now, no area school districts have canceled classes past March 30, the date when Houston and Fort Bend ISDs are scheduled to return to school. Many district leaders said they plan to reassess their calendars next week, when updates about the virus are available.

However, several education officials said they expect the continued spread of COVID-19 and growing public awareness about its potentially devastating effects likely will prompt extended cancellations.

“If we’d had this discussion two days ago, I think we’d have said (school closures) would last a couple weeks, maybe to the first week of April,” said Curtis Culwell, executive director of Texas School Alliance. “I think the reality that’s beginning to sink in is, this could be longer than that.”

[…]

The Texas Department of Agriculture received a federal waiver Friday allowing districts to serve school meals off-site and to small groups, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement.

On the academic front, districts are grappling with multiple challenges in providing high-quality instruction, including lack of access to technology among lower-income and rural students, inexperience with remote learning tools, concerns about attentiveness among elementary-age children and the delivery of special education services.

The Texas Education Agency told district leaders Thursday evening that they must commit to “supporting students instructionally while at home” to avoid extending the school year.

Here’s the HISD announcement, in case you missed it. I have to say, I have no idea what to expect at this point. I don’t see any way that the overall coronavirus situation is better or noticeably under control by March 31, so I do believe schools will be closed longer than that. How much longer, and what the schools do about it, that’s the big question. This could wind up being a mostly lost year from an educational perspective, which is another scary thing to contemplate. And with all this disruption, does it make sense to proceed with STAAR testing as if nothing else were happening? State Rep. Jon Rosenthal thinks we should cancel the STAAR for this year, and I’m hard pressed to see the argument against that. How can that test mean anything in this context? Again, I have no idea what to expect. It’s going to be a super bumpy ride, and we’ll have to do it in our own spaces. Hang in there.

HISD takes a step towards a bond referendum

Just a step. If there’s to be a bond referendum on the ballot, this year or later, they’ll have to vote again to authorize that.

Houston ISD trustees kept hopes alive for a November bond election during Thursday night’s board meeting, voting to approve spending on a facilities assessment that must be completed before asking residents to provide tax dollars for campus and security upgrades.

Board members voted 6-3 to spend up to $5 million on the assessment, which will document the conditions of HISD’s aging schools, space needs for campuses and demographic trends in the district. District officials said they will use the assessment to guide the creation of any bond proposals, which remain in the early stages of development.

[…]

Trustees and administrators who backed the assessment argued the analysis will provide vital information needed to create an accurate and updated picture of the district’s facilities needs. HISD last commissioned a facilities assessment in 2016, but the work only documented building conditions, with no alignment to academic and space needs.

Three trustees voted against the bond — Judith Cruz, Dani Hernandez and Elizabeth Santos — amid questions about timing of the assessment.

Board members and Lathan have not held extensive discussions about their detailed vision for the district since January, when four new trustees joined the nine-member board.

In addition, public trust in the district has waned over the past two years following extensive in-fighting, as well as the possible ouster of elected trustees due to multiple findings of misconduct by board members and chronically low ratings of Wheatley High School.

“It feels rushed, and I want to make sure we’re doing this the best way possible,” Cruz said.

The vote came after nearly 20 students, parents and educators spoke in favor of rebuilding crumbling schools, describing outdated facilities that disappoint children and scare away prospective families.

See here for some background, and here for a preview story from Thursday, when the vote was taken. The last bond was in 2012, and it’s getting to be time to do some more capital spending. Previous bonds have passed without too much commotion, and even with HISD’s current issues I think they’d be able to get one passed this year, if they do a decent enough job presenting what it would do and get sufficient buy-in from the community. The looming TEA takeover may work in their favor, as I for one have no idea whether a board of managers could or would attempt to authorize a bond, and waiting around for another four or five years seems like a terrible idea. Let’s see what the assessment says and we’ll go from there.

No metal detectors at HISD schools

For now, at least.

Houston ISD trustees shelved a request from administrators Thursday to authorize up to $3 million for metal detectors, arguing district officials need to provide more concrete recommendations and plans for school security before the board votes to allocate money for the machines.

The board’s decision comes as Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s administration continues to solicit feedback and analyze security protocols following last month’s on-campus fatal shooting of Bellaire High School student Cesar Cortes, 19. Lathan said she has not yet decided whether to install metal detectors in some middle and high schools, but her administration wanted quick access to funds for the machines if district leaders decide to buy them.

Some trustees suggested they remain open to possibly deploying metal detectors at access points in schools, though they said administrators and the board first need to conduct more detailed conversations about districtwide security plans. Several trustees questioned why Lathan asked for authority to spend on metal detectors now, rather than waiting until she decided to purchase the machines.

“It’s so easy to try to put a metal detector out there as a quick fix,” Trustee Anne Sung said. “I just want to make sure we’re being thoughtful and utilizing a strategy.”

[…]

Lathan said the prospect of installing metal detectors has received some public support, but three other security measures top her list of potential recommendations as of now: increasing the number of police officers on campuses; bumping up police officer pay to reduce vacancies and turnover; and adding social workers to address students’ social and emotional needs.

Students attending the district’s high schools have been particularly supportive of placing more police officers on campuses, Lathan said. Her comments came after closed-door meetings with about 25 Bellaire students last month and 35 high school students from across the district earlier this week.

“I thought that was powerful,” Lathan said. “Especially in this day and time, when there’s still animosity in some communities when it comes to police officers, what I heard is, we want more police officers.”

HISD trustees have not yet held extensive discussions about specific security recommendations, many of which would require the board to authorize additional funding. Some board members have asked Lathan to present data on the efficiency of metal detectors in schools, though relatively little national research exists.

“I think we need to have a conversation on what our philosophy and approach is as a district, rooted in conversation with community members and students — which I know we’ve begun to do — but also research and policies,” Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said Thursday.

See here for the background. I’m glad we are not charging ahead with this, and I agree with Trustees Sung and Vilaseca that we need to put a lot of thought into this and do some research. And put me down in opposition to increasing police presence at schools, because the research we have on that shows that more police at schools is a key component of the school-to-prison pipeline. Too many kids win up getting citations for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level – that’s what police officers do, after all – and that has significant and long-lasting effect on the kids. Let’s take a long, serious look at other options before we go down this path, because the potential for unintended consequences is great.

Chron overview of the HD142 primary

Also known as the How Mad Are People At Harold Dutton? primary.

Rep. Harold Dutton

Longtime state Rep. Harold Dutton is facing the most serious re-election test of his 35-year political career in an acrimonious primary against two Democratic opponents.

The race, which has generated few headlines but produced ample tension between the candidates, pits Dutton against Houston District B Councilman Jerry Davis and transportation logistics executive Richard Bonton. A fourth candidate, Natasha Ruiz, does not appear to have a campaign website and has yet to file any campaign finance reports.

Imperiling Dutton’s re-election is a well-funded challenge from Davis, who since 2012 has represented much of the same northeast Houston territory as Dutton, including Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens and Trinity/Houston Gardens.

The candidacy of Bonton, who ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 2018, also raises the prospect that Dutton could be forced into a runoff for the first time since his initial run for the seat in 1984, said Michael Adams, chairman of Texas Southern University’s political science department.

“I think it’s a very competitive race,” Adams said. “Harold is a long-standing incumbent, but that cuts both ways, because Jerry has a lot of recognition from his city council races.”

Nothing has drawn more attention in the race than Dutton’s role in crafting a 2015 law that requires the Texas Education Agency to penalize a district if any of its schools fails state standards for five consecutive years by closing the school or replacing the school board.

[…]

Dutton shrugs off the criticism over HISD, noting that the law received widespread bipartisan support when it sailed through the Legislature five years ago.

“I stand by it totally,” Dutton said. “I just couldn’t in good faith sit there and do nothing while these students linger in the education toilet. HISD, like most school districts, could have taken the opportunity to fix the schools. That’s what could have happened and should have happened, but didn’t happen.”

I just don’t know what to make of this one. It’s certainly the strongest challenge Rep. Dutton has faced in a long time – he made it through the Craddick years without being targeted – I just don’t know how much people will hold the TEA takeover stuff against him. He’s right, the bill had broad support when it passed, and there’s certainly a case that if a school continues to struggle year after year, it’s being failed by its district as much as anything else. On the other hand, he doesn’t have much money, he probably doesn’t have much of a field operation (since he’s never needed to have one, and he’s far from the first name you think of when you think of team players in the countywide campaign), and he doesn’t have much in the way of establishment organizational support. Labor has mostly sided with Davis (with the exception of the Texas State Teachers Association, which may see him as a friendly incumbent), as has the GLBT Caucus, while HBAD has endorsed Bonton, and the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats co-endorsed Bonton with Dutton. Maybe the high expected turnout will help him, as he’s likely the best known name on the ballot even after Davis has won three elections, and maybe less-frequent voters will feel less affinity for him. I really have no idea. If you live in the district and have seen the campaign activity there, please leave a comment.

Meanwhile, the HISD Board of Trustees is still a thing

Meet the new Board, not the same as the old Board.

Hours after Houston ISD’s four recently elected trustees took office, enshrining the district’s first all-female school board, the new-look governing team on Thursday made its first big decision.

Trustees voted 8-1 to postpone approving a facilities assessment contract sought by the district’s administration, which would serve as a significant step toward asking residents to approve a multi-billion bond package in November. Board members will return in February to decide on the contract, giving them additional time to consider the ramifications of the deal.

Multiple board members said they wanted more discussion between the administration and trustees before spending up to $5 million on a facilities assessment. HISD likely will face headwinds in gaining support for a bond package, the result of dramatic state intervention looming over the district and a decline in public trust following months of board in-fighting.

“If it were that important, these conversations should have happened months ago,” HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said. “To spring it on brand new board members and expect a vote is unfair.”

HISD administrators said the facilities assessment would help the district craft a bond proposal, which would involve extensive construction projects at dozens of campuses, major investments in school security and hundreds of millions of dollars in technology upgrades.

Derrick Sanders, HISD’s officer of construction services, said the delay in a facilities assessment “wouldn’t be a fatal blow, but it would be a challenging one” for placing a bond request on the November ballot.

District officials have not placed a price tag on any potential bond packages, but it would likely exceed $2 billion and come with little to no increase in the tax rate. HISD residents last voted on a bond in 2012, approving a $1.9-billion proposal. Nearly all projects financed by the package have been completed.

So the obvious question to ask here, which the story did not address, is whether there could be a bond election called by the Board of Managers. It’s been long enough since the last bond election that there’s surely a need for some capital spending, and waiting four or five years till the elected Board is fully back in place could ensure that the need is too great to be sufficiently addressed. These bonds usually pass without too much trouble – the 2012 bond got 69% of the vote – but it’s not hard to imagine a 2020 issue being controversial. I don’t know what the best course of action is here, but I hope the new Board figures it out quickly. Aren’t y’all glad you signed up for this?

Meet your Board of Managers wannabes

Lots of people want that gig.

[Frank] North is one of nearly 250 people who applied for positions on the prospective replacement board, which Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath plans to install in the coming months. Morath announced in November 2019 his intention to temporarily oust the elected school board, citing Wheatley High School’s seventh consecutive failing grade and multiple findings of misconduct involving current trustees, though a preliminary injunction issued last week and ongoing litigation could threaten those plans.

The applicants, according to a list provided by the TEA, represent a broad cross-section of the district, home to about 210,000 students from wide-ranging economic, ethnic, racial and social backgrounds. They include Houston ISD employees, former political candidates, business professionals, higher education staffers and advocates with children attending district schools.

Several candidates are well-known in civic and education circles, but most come with little to no public profile. Higher-visibility applicants include former HISD trustee Cathy Mincberg, former Houston Police Department interim chief Martha Montalvo, League of United Latin American Citizens leader Hugo Mojica and former HISD police chief Robert Mock.

[…]

State leaders will spend the next several weeks winnowing the list down to nine potential board members, conducting at least three rounds of interviews. Agency officials have said they want an ethnically, racially, geographically and socioeconomically diverse board of Houston residents with multiple skill sets. State law grants Morath the final authority on board selections.

The list released by state officials only includes first and last names of those who applied. The candidates’ work histories, educational backgrounds and personally identifiable information were not disclosed. TEA officials did not respond to questions about what information will be released as the screening process continues.

TEA officials wanted to install the board as early as this spring, but last week’s preliminary injunction blocks Morath from installing a replacement board while a lawsuit filed by HISD trustees seeking to stop their ouster is ongoing. Lawyers for the TEA immediately appealed the injunction ruling. A trial is set for late June.

As noted, the timetable here depends on the outcome of the litigation. The article contains more information about and quotes from a number of the applicants, presumably ones the Chron could identify either from their names or public statements they’ve made. I can understand limiting the data available about them for now, but we deserve full transparency going forward.

Morath’s big talk

But can he back it up?

In his first public comments about plans to strip power from Houston ISD’s elected trustees, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Tuesday that the district’s leaders have engaged in “chronic neglect” of children in long-struggling schools, requiring the appointment of a replacement governing board that will better direct resources to HISD’s neediest students.

In an hourlong interview with the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board, Morath said he wants the replacement governing board to close achievement gaps by improving the district’s pre-kindergarten offerings, placing more high-performing staff at low-rated campuses and re-establishing strong leadership practices during its temporary stay in power. He faulted the district’s elected trustees for failing to address achievement issues in HISD’s longest-struggling campuses, several of which have received multiple consecutive failing grades in the past decade.

“This is how you make real inroads on the achievement gap: you get very serious about resource allocation,” Morath said. “It’s about money and talent. This is, in fact, an underlying root cause as to why you have some of the highest-performing schools in the state and some chronically under-performing schools, all in the same district. It’s a tale of two cities.”

[…]

In his comments Tuesday, Morath made clear that he expects the appointed board to address a few key areas, including “a systemic investment in early childhood education” and “how we properly support teachers and incent them” to work at chronically low-performing campuses. However, Morath said he will allow appointed board members and the superintendent to craft plans for meeting those goals.

“I would expect the board to use its judgment and proceed in a strategic direction that they think, given the intel that’s coming to them, makes the most sense for the kids and taxpayers of Houston,” Morath said.

I mean, if Mike Morath thinks that his appointed trustees can make significant improvements without screwing anything up, blowing a hole in the budget, or taking action that significantly contravenes popular will, then more power to them. As the story notes, HISD already offers pre-K (even though the state has historically not paid for it) and also already offers bonuses for teachers who work at underperforming campuses. It’s not that no one has thought of this stuff before, it’s that doing it right costs money, and I don’t see any plans for the state to address that. But hey, if they really can move the ball forward and leave the district in better shape than they found it, then that would be great. I’ll need to see it happen first.

On a side note:

Morath added that the district’s four newly elected trustees, who will be seated in January, cannot join the appointed board. Three of the four election victors say they have applied or plan to apply, believing they were eligible.

I kind of figured this would be the case, since the word from the TEA all along has been that it will be two years or so before they start reinstating the elected trustees, but a whole lot is up in the air now, so who knows what could have been. I remain sympathetic to the argument that the newly-elected Board members have already solved part of the problem that the takeover is supposed to fix, but clearly Mike Morath is not. This is perhaps another aspect of the law in question that should be reviewed by the next Legislature.

HISD attempt to stop TEA takeover denied

Possibly only a temporary setback, however.

A federal judge on Wednesday denied Houston ISD’s request for a preliminary injunction and dismissed its lawsuit aimed at stopping the Texas Education Agency from replacing the district’s elected board, delivering a temporary victory to state officials.

However, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that HISD could still argue parts of the lawsuit in state court and did not reject a Voting Rights Act violation claim brought by the district’s largest teachers union, keeping the possibility of legal intervention alive.

In a 13-page ruling issued late Wednesday, Yeakel found that HISD officials could not legally bring federal due process and voting rights claims against the Texas Education Agency, and that allegations of First Amendment rights violations by the agency did not warrant issuing a preliminary injunction.

[…]

Yeakel, based in Austin, said claims that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath exceeded his authority on multiple occasions prior to deciding to replace HISD trustees could be heard in a Travis County court, where he remanded the case.

See here for the previous update; as promised, this was a quick ruling from Judge Yeakel. HISD could now pursue this in a state court, where I don’t think they’re any more likely to get a favorable ruling, but in for a penny and all that. In addition, Judge Yeakel wrote that his initial approval of the Houston Federation of Teachers joining the lawsuit was in error, because they have separate claims from the ones HISD was bringing. He said they should file their own separate lawsuit, which centers on Voting Rights Act claims; as the story indicates, that is what they plan to do. Again, based on the North Forest experience, I don’t think this is going to win the day, but there’s no harm in trying. So, while this was a win for the state, it’s not over yet. The Trib has more.

How the TEA takeover is going to work

The Chron answers your questions.

The complex process has raised several questions among community members. Here are answers some of the most common queries:

What is the process for identifying and selecting candidates?

TEA officials on Wednesday released their plan for crafting the new board, as well as criteria they will use for picking appointed managers. Those documents can be seen here, along with a link to the agency’s public application to become an appointed trustee.

TEA has opened the process to the public, offering residents a chance to apply. The process includes 12 steps, with no time frames established for when they will take place or how long they will last.

First, the agency plans to conduct community meetings and receive applications. TEA officials will screen the applications, conduct reference checks with community and elected leaders, and perform background checks. Next, governance training will be provided to applicants and phone interviews will be conducted. Finalists will be subjected to two rounds of in-person interviews and required to perform an unspecified task and additional governance training.

Morath ultimately has the power to select the appointed members. He is expected to choose nine people, equal to the number of elected HISD trustees.

State officials have not said when a new board would take power, but it likely would not happen until March 2020 at the earliest.

Who can apply?

At a minimum, the agency requires that potential board members must: be an eligible voter living within HISD boundaries, pass criminal background screenings, and commit 40 hours per month to the board in the first six months and 15 hours per month thereafter.

Individuals with business ties to the district, conflicts of interest, involvement with a closed charter school or intentions to seek other elected offices will be disqualified, state officials said.

See here for the background, and read the rest for more. A more concise version of this story is in this Twitter thread from author Jacob Carpenter. There will be four community meetings, two next week and two the week after, to discuss the impending board appointments. This is the critical first step, and everything follows from there, so if you have an interest in this, there’s your chance to get involved.

TEA announces its takeover intent

Here it comes.

In a move that is unprecedented in scope, Texas state officials announced Wednesday they plan on taking over the state’s largest school district, yanking power from Houston Independent School District’s elected school board members to “prevent imminent and substantial harm to the welfare of the district’s students.”

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent a letter to Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and Board President Diana Davila giving two principal reasons for the decision: the school board’s “failure of governance” and the repeated low academic performance of Wheatley High School, which received its seventh failing rating this year. In addition to appointing a board of governance to replace the elected school board, Morath will also appoint a superintendent to lead the district. The timeline of the takeover action is unclear.

“Given the inability of the board of trustees to govern the district, these sanctions are necessary to protect the best interests of the district’s current and future students,” he wrote. The decision means the state will be taking over its largest public school district, which contains more than 270 schools and educates more than 200,000 students.

Houston ISD officials still have a slim chance at averting the takeover and have two weeks to request a formal review challenging it, according to a Texas Education Agency spokesperson.

[…]

During its temporary replacement of the elected board, a board of managers has all the same powers and duties to oversee the school district. Once the state determines it has fixed the specific problems it is charged with, Morath will gradually transfer power back to the elected board.

See here and here for the background. You can see Morath’s letter to HISD here. If for some reason you want to serve on that Board of Managers, the application is here. This decision came a day after the denial of the Wheatley appeal, which was not a surprise. There is the lawsuit filed by HISD to stop the TEA from taking over, which still feels like a longshot to me but which could slow things down. Be that as it may, you can see where this is going.

I’ll just say this much. Despite the problems the Board has had, HISD is overall a pretty good-performing school district. There are problems, of course, as there always are with large, diverse urban districts that serve a population that is mostly low-income and that has a large number of non-native English speakers. I won’t defend the current Board, though after Tuesday’s elections I’d argue it’s already improved, but I’m not at all convinced that the TEA can do a better job with academic performance at schools like Wheatley than the Board has done. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong about that – I hope all of the schools improve while the TEA is in charge – but if I’m right, I don’t know what there is to be done about it. The Chron has more.

TEA recommends HISD takeover

Not finalized yet, but you can see the way it’s going to go.

The Texas Education Agency is recommending that the state take over Houston Independent School District — the state’s largest public school system — due to its elected school board’s “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern,” according to a 318-page final investigative report sent to lawmakers Wednesday.

TEA’s Special Investigations Unit Director Jason Hewitt found that school board members violated state open meetings law by discussing district business without notifying the public of their discussions, attempted to influence how contracts were awarded, and took action on district issues individually without consulting other board members. It substantiates most of the allegations made in a preliminary August report.

District officials and board members, whose responses are included in the final report, dispute many of the agency’s conclusions and argued the allegations were not investigated properly. The Texas Tribune obtained a copy of the report, which is public, late Wednesday. TEA officials confirmed that they had sent it to legislators.

Hewitt recommended Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appoint a board of managers to oversee the school district, replacing the elected school board.

[…]

Houston ISD received a B from the state this year, largely based on student test scores, but Wheatley High School failed in August for the seventh year in a row. The TEA is separately considering penalizing the district because of Wheatley’s repeated low performance.

The findings in the report are final and cannot be appealed. Morath will make the final determination on whether to replace Houston ISD’s board.

See here for the background. Remember that this is about the ethics investigation – this is the final version of the August report, which means this version was written after HISD had a chance to respond to the initial report, which also recommended a takeover. The accountability ratings issue is still pending, with the Wheatley rating being half-heartedly appealed, and that decision by Morath – a decision between replacing the Board and closing Wheatley, the latter of which everyone expects will not happen – is not due till early next year. I presume Morath has more discretion in this matter, but given that a takeover is basically inevitable at this point I’m not sure how much it matters. I suppose it may make a difference in terms of how long it may take HISD to get back in control of its own governance, and what it needs to do to get there, but in the short term it’s a distinction without much difference.

In the meantime, there’s this.

Lawyers for Houston ISD’s school board have asked a federal judge to preemptively stop the Texas Education Agency from stripping power from the district’s elected trustees and allow board members to select a permanent superintendent, the latest maneuver in a growing legal battle between the district and state.

In a motion filed Tuesday, the HISD board’s lawyers argued agency officials have discriminated against voters in predominantly black and Hispanic cities, overstepped their authority in suspending the district’s superintendent search and misinterpreted a new state law that requires dramatic intervention in districts with long-struggling schools.

[…]

In their motion for a preliminary injunction, HISD’s lawyers said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is attempting to “unlawfully supplant the democratically-elected board of trustees” and replace it with a state-appointed governance team. The district’s lawyers noted that 10 districts subject to major state intervention in recent years all serve large majorities of black and Hispanic students, illustrating discrimination under the Voting Rights Act.

“You could argue that it’s a coincidence. I think it’s not,” Kevin O’Hanlon, a lawyer for HISD trustees, said Wednesday.

In addition to discrimination claims, HISD’s lawyers argued that a state-appointed conservator overseeing the district’s operations of long-struggling Kashmere High School overstepped her legal authority in suspending HISD’s superintendent search last March. HISD has been without a permanent superintendent since March 2018, when Richard Carranza abruptly left to lead New York City’s public schools.

HISD’s lawyers claim the conservator, former Aldine ISD administrator Doris Delaney, only had the power to dictate matters related to Kashmere.

“Delaney was appointed to be a campus-level conservator over the performance of one of (HISD’s) schools, and was to implement and ensure compliance with getting the resources necessary to extract it from its low-performing status,” O’Hanlon said.

However, state law grants broad authority to conservators, including the ability to “direct an action to be taken” by a district’s board of trustees.

I Am Not A Lawyer, but let’s just say I have my doubts about the likelihood of success here. It’s worth a shot, but I wouldn’t go betting the rent on it. We’ll see how this goes, and how long it takes – would anyone be surprised if this is still in the courts when the TEA is handing power back to HISD? I don’t think it’s likely to go anywhere, but that’s just my guess at this time.

Risk management is hard

I have a lot of sympathy for these school officials.

At least 20 school districts in Greater Houston opted to stay open as the remnants of Tropical Depression Imelda bore down on the region Thursday, decisions that angered some parents as heavier-than-expected rains flooded swaths of the region during the school day.

Water inched in at least two Houston ISD schools while students were inside. Parents drowned their cars or waited in long lines trying to pick up students in some neighborhoods. Districts canceled after-school activities, issued shelter-in-place orders and grappled with transportation challenges as rising waters swamped roads.

At least 11 local school districts announced they would be closed Friday: Aldine, Conroe, Humble, Huffman, Channelview, Galena Park, Sheldon, Dayton, New Caney, Crosby and Splendora. Parents and others still fumed that many districts opted to stay open during the worst flooding the region has seen since Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday, Houston ISD issued a statement that all of its schools would also be closed Friday.

In choosing to hold classes, officials from districts across Greater Houston said they followed advice from emergency management officials delivered in the early morning hours of Thursday, before weather patterns took an unexpected turn. Officials in Houston, Aldine, Conroe, Willis and other school districts that remained open said the change in weather caught them by surprise, forcing them to make last-minute decisions about transportation and whether to delay or move up dismissal times.

Like I said, my office was open Thursday after we’d all been told to work from home on Wednesday. That didn’t work out so great for a lot of us, myself included. We didn’t see the Thursday deluge coming, so based on the evidence we had, that was the decision. As an HISD parent, I distinctly remember several recent occasions where schools were closed in anticipation of dangerous weather that wound up not coming. That causes lots of problems for parents, too, as not everyone has the capability of taking off time from work at the last minute. HISD and other districts – and businesses, and government offices, and so on – have to tke their best guess in these situations. Sometimes, even when they bet on an obvious favorite, that guess is going to be wrong. It sucks, but that’s life and it’s no one’s fault.

The TEA delivers its terms to HISD

As expected.

The Texas Education Commissioner has put the state’s largest school district on official notice that it could lose its locally-elected school board because of failing grades at one Houston high school.

The commissioner, Mike Morath, notified Houston’s interim superintendent, Grenita Lathan, and school board president, Diana Davila, that he may have to take action to appoint outside managers to oversee the district — or order the struggling school closed. The campus, the historically black Wheatley High School in Fifth Ward, recently had its seventh failing grade in a row.

“If the preliminary unacceptable academic performance rating assigned to Wheatley High School becomes a final rating, I will be required by TEC §39A.111 to order either campus closure or the appointment of a board managers and will notify the district of my specific decision in future correspondence,” Morath concluded in the letter.

Morath has not made a final decision and the failing grade remains preliminary until Sept. 15.

You can see the letter at the link. All signs point to the board of managers option being used, but the law does allow for the schools in question to be closed, so that got mentioned as well. Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter tweeted that there was to be a discussion of appealing the Wheatley rating at yesterday’s public meeting, though it is very unlikely to succeed. There is still the lawsuit over the ethics investigation, but even if that were to succeed it would only reduce by half the number of justifications the TEA currently has for a takeover. I’m not sure what happens next, but something will happen by the 15th. The Press has more.

UPDATE: It’s official, the board has voted to appeal Wheatley’s rating.

We await HISD’s fate

I mean, I think we know what it’s going to be, but there are still some questions.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath came to and left the Greater Houston area Thursday without addressing one of the biggest issues on his agenda: the fate of Houston ISD’s school board.

In the coming weeks, Morath likely will be forced to decide whether to replace all trustees governing Texas’ largest school district or close one of HISD’s most historic campuses, the consequence of historic Wheatley High School failing to meet state academic standards for a seventh consecutive time. While Morath was in no mood to discuss the looming decision following the release of academic accountability ratings Thursday — he hurried out of an Aldine ISD school without answering questions or making a statement on HISD — a review of comments by the commissioner, his top deputies and state education leaders offers insight into the likely process.

Barring a successful appeal of Wheatley’s grade, which became public Thursday, Morath is widely expected to strip power from the nine HISD trustees and appoint a new board of managers comprised of Houston-area residents. The process likely would take multiple months to complete, with a replacement board seated sometime in early 2020.

“These are not going to be people that live in Austin,” Morath told the Houston Chronicle in the spring of 2018, when asked about the possibility of a state-appointed board taking control of HISD. “These are going to be well-qualified people that live in Houston that just didn’t want to run for school board before, but they wouldn’t mind being appointed.”

See here for the background, with the reminder that the Wheatley academic rating issue isn’t the only peril that the HISD Board faces. I was told by someone who teaches at Wheatley that their rating basically comes down to one student. The reason for this is that there are myriad sub-categories at each school that are also included in the accountability ratings, and not meeting standard in any one of them can cause the school to get an F even if the rest of their ratings were sufficient. It’s possible Wheatley could prevail in that appeal, and by all means they should pursue it, but as noted that would still not be the end of HISD’s troubles.

At this point it seems clear that the TEA will not close down Wheatley, which is the right call, so barring anything unexpected it’s all about how they go about replacing the Board. The Chron asks some good questions about how this may play out.

Intervention must be undertaken with respect and careful attention to community concerns. New board members must reflect the district’s diversity and its values. They must understand the communities they serve as well as grasp the importance of inclusion and best practices in their governance. The panel should include experienced educators, as well as candidates with financial expertise and civic involvement. There must be a clear plan for implementation, for measuring success — and a defined exit strategy.

Parents, educators, students and taxpayers, therefore, must step up to ask hard questions and demand that the state provide honest answers. How will members be chosen? What criteria will be used to ensure that state appointees prioritize the needs of HISD students? Will there be additional financial resources to help schools improve? Will a strong ethics policy be in place and enforced?

Above all, Morath and TEA must promise — and provide — transparency. Parents need to be confident that their children’s welfare is at the center of every decision, every discussion. Houston is done accepting any less.

As we know, and as both the story and the editorial state, the history of TEA intervention is mixed at best, so we better know going in what the goals are and what the path to achieving them is. Otherwise, we’re just wasting our time.

It looks like we’re getting a new school board

What a mess.

Texas Education Agency officials have recommended that a state-appointed governing team replace Houston ISD’s locally elected school board after a six-month investigation found several instances of alleged misconduct by some trustees, including violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, inappropriate influencing of vendor contracts and making false statements to investigators.

The recommendation and findings, issued by TEA Special Investigations Unit Director Jason Hewitt, will not become final until HISD officials have had an opportunity to respond. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who leads the agency, ultimately will decide whether to oust HISD’s school board. HISD officials have until Aug. 15 to respond, and Morath likely would issue a final decision in the following weeks.

In his recommendation, Hewitt wrote that HISD trustees should be replaced by a state-appointed board due to their “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern, inability to operate within the scope of their authority, circumventing the authority of the superintendent, and inability to ensure proper contract procurement laws are followed.”

[…]

In their report, state investigators outline multiple years of failed oversight and improper behavior by HISD’s much-maligned school board, which long has grappled with in-fighting and distrust. Conflict within the board reached a boiling point in the summer and fall of 2018 when trustees clashed over whether to retain Lathan, who took over as interim superintendent following Richard Carranza’s abrupt departure to become chancellor of New York City public schools.

Five board members had grown particularly frustrated with Lathan, believing she had not been responsive to their desires for the district and failed to adequately protect them from a threat posed by a community activist.

Through interviews and a review of text messages, state investigators determined the five trustees — Board President Diana Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — secretly met with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra in two separate groups to coordinate ousting Lathan and installing him as interim superintendent. The meetings took place at a Houston restaurant on the same day in October 2018, the report said. Investigators determined that arrangement constituted a “walking quorum,” in violation of state law that requires trustees to conduct district business in public.

Three days later, the five trustees voted to replace Lathan with Saavedra, offering no advance warning to the public or the other four board members about the move. Trustees reinstated Lathan within a week of the vote following intense public backlash. Lathan remains the district’s indefinite leader.

TEA officials interviewed trustees as part of their investigation, ultimately determining that Dávila and Lira falsely claimed in interviews with investigators that they only met one-on-one with Saavedra. In separate interviews, Saavedra and Flynn Vilaseca placed Dávila and Lira at the restaurant meetings, the report states.

In an interview Wednesday, Dávila said she provided her best recollection of meeting Saavedra to TEA investigators, and denied that she attempted to mislead state officials.

“They wanted us to remember things that happened six, seven months prior to us being interviewed,” Dávila said.

So in the end it will be the ethics investigation that brings down the Board. We’ll get the performance results for the schools, including the four that needed to meet standards this year, on August 15, so there may be another cause for the demise, but this one came first. This isn’t final yet – the Board has until the 15th to respond to this report, and then TEA Commissioner Mike Morath gets to make his ruling – but the handwriting on the wall is quite clear. The state is stepping in to take over the HISD Board.

The report isn’t public yet – I presume it will be by the time Morath issues his ruling – but the Chron got to see it. The other misconduct allegations reported in the story apply to Diana Davila, with Sergio Lira also being accused of not being truthful to investigators. I feel like in other circumstances, with a Board that wasn’t already under a conservator, this would be an embarrassment but not the end of the existing Board. In such other circumstances, I might be moved to outrage at the prospect of our democratically elected Board being summarily replaced, even if only for a couple of years, by state-selected trustees. I find it hard to muster any such reaction this time. I find myself resignedly in agreement with this:

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who frequently has criticized colleagues who voted to oust Lathan, said replacement of the school board is “sadly, unfortunately” in the district’s best interests.

“I think it’s tragic, but I think the alternative is worse,” Jones said.

The good news, such as it is, is that the four schools in question, which have been making progress, will probably not be closed. That was a huge point of contention with the parent groups. If that’s truly off the table, then my guess is that reaction to this will be somewhat more muted. Who is going to step up to defend the current board, and demand that the TEA leave them in place?

It should be noted that there will still be elections for HISD trustees this November. These elected trustees, along with the others that are not on the November ballot, will still serve but have much less power in the interim. At least two of the four trustees whose terms are up this year (Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who is running for HCC Board, and Jolanda Jones) have announced they are not running for re-election, with Davila being rumored to not run again as well. If the end result of all this is that in another two or four years we get to elect nine new members, and (hopefully) the sword of Damocles that is the academic standards issue is not looming over us when we do (good luck with that, whoever the TEA picks to run the place), I find it hard to be too upset about that. I’m certainly not more upset than I am about everything that led to this.

Worrying about the expanded school marshal program

This just seems like such a bad idea.

Would a teacher who volunteered to do double duty as a school marshal in Texas act any braver [than a professional law enforcement officer]? Some might. Maybe most would. Would those who decide not to engage a shooter be subject to arrest?

The bill Abbott signed June 6 removed the 200-per-student cap on the number of marshals a school may have. It was part of a legislative package he sought after the May 18, 2018 mass shooting at Santa Fe High School that left eight students and two teachers dead.

A separate, more expansive bill includes a number of school safety measures, including requirements that all teachers have access to a telephone or another electronic communication device, that school districts routinely hold drills to prepare students and personnel for an emergency, and that a statewide consortium be created to provide more children with mental health services.

While those programs appear laudable, expanding the school marshal program could lead to disastrous results. “There’s so much potential for mistakes to be made, for unintended injuries to occur,” Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, told the editorial board. “A marshal’s gun could be dropped. A student could try to take a marshal’s gun. And what kind of guns are we talking about?”

Texas’ school marshal program, which began six years ago, was modeled after the federal air marshal program. Only certain school officials, local law enforcement, and the Texas Department of Public Safety are supposed to know who the anonymous volunteer marshals are until they are called into action. That, too, is a problem, said Switzer.

“My children went to a large school where not even all the teachers knew each other. If an incident occurs at a large school, an armed marshal might be mistaken for a bad actor,” she said.

Studies showing black students are disproportionately targeted for discipline are also a concern, the gun control advocate said: “I worry about what might happen if an armed school marshal makes an assumption about a kid because of how he looks.”

The less than 40 certified school marshals in Texas in 2018 rose to nearly 200 after the Santa Fe shooting. That number is expected to grow now that the program has been expanded. Any teacher or other school staffer can volunteer to be a marshal and keep a gun in a safe place on campus for use when it’s deemed necessary.

[…]

Asking teachers, coaches, office staff, and counselors to be prepared to safeguard students in an emergency is reasonable. Asking them to take on the role of an armed protector is not.

See here for further information. I basically agree with everything this author says. It’s just a matter of time before there’s an incident, whether due to mishap, carelessness, mistaken identity, incompetence, or bad intent. The odds of that happening are so much greater than a volunteer marshal stopping an actual shooter. What do you think will happen when such an incident does occur?

Our vaccine exception rates keep going up

A small change to the law in 2003 has had a big effect over time.

As measles cases hit a 25-year high in the United States, Texas medical experts fear the state could see the next outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease. Texas has reported 15 confirmed cases of measles so far in 2019, six more than in all of 2018.

Health officials are watching pockets of Texas closely because of the number of parents requesting exemptions under Texas’s broad vaccine exemption law. Texas is one of 16 states that allow parents to bypass vaccine requirements for enrolling their kids in school by claiming a conscientious exemption, along with citing medical or religious concerns. Just last month, Washington ended conscientious exemptions on the heels of a large measles outbreak with over 70 reported cases. Three states — California, West Virginia and Mississippi — only allow medical exemptions.

Texas’ exemption law used to be stricter. In 2003, a state senator proposed loosening restrictions via a three-page amendment to a 311-page bill. After five minutes of discussion, the amendment was approved. The bill was soon signed into law. Sixteen years later, former state Sen. Craig Estes said the change to Texas’ vaccine laws that he helped enact should be reviewed in the current public health climate.

“Obviously we didn’t ever imagine what would happen,” Estes, a Republican from Prosper, told The Texas Tribune. “With what’s happened recently, I would encourage the legislature in the future to revisit that issue and debate it.”

The speedy way in which the Texas Legislature weakened the state’s vaccine exemption rules suggests that, like Estes, few in office at the time thought it would put Texas at risk for future outbreaks. However, while experts suggest Texas is now vulnerable, efforts to change the exemption law have been dead on arrival in the Capitol.

“There will be a terrible measles epidemic in Texas, and children will be hospitalized in intensive care units, just like they are in New York right now,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said last month. “That will wake up the state Legislature to realize that there’s a problem and close those exemptions.”

Kindergarteners must have 10 immunizations to be enrolled in Texas schools. Since 2006, when the state first started reporting the data, the exemption rate for kindergarteners in Texas has risen from 0.3% for the 2005-06 school year to 2.15% for the 2018-19 school year.

In Texas, school districts, private schools and charter schools are required to report their vaccine exemption rates per vaccine. The data collection is done through a survey administered by the Texas Department of State Health Services, but some schools don’t report consistently, leaving gaps in the data.

The data shows certain communities — like the Dallas Independent School District — have seen a recent spike in conscientious exemptions for kindergarteners. Others — like El Paso ISD — have seen exemptions recently plummet. Some smaller private schools, meanwhile, have exemption rates that are significantly higher than those of other schools. The Austin Waldorf School had the highest vaccine exemption rate for the 2018-19 school year, at 52.9%. Alliance Christian Academy had the second-highest rate at 40.6%.

When enough of a community is immunized against a disease, that group has what’s known as herd immunity, meaning there is a low risk of a disease spreading. Vaccine-preventable disease have different herd immunity thresholds. Measles, which is highly contagious, has a high herd immunity threshold of 95%. According to a state report for the 2018-19 school year, Texas kindergarteners statewide had coverage levels higher than 95% for all required vaccines. Yet the data from individual school districts and private schools suggests that some communities may fall short of meeting that threshold for some vaccines.

The fact that a Waldorf school is atop this list shows the problem is very much bipartisan, though the main anti-vax legislators these days are all Republicans. I’ve repeated this a million times, but the only way to improve things is to throw those anti-vax legislators out of office. Next year is a great opportunity to do that as three of them – Jonathan Stickland, Bill Zedler, and Matt Krause – all had close elections in 2018. The rest is up to us. Now go read the rest of the story for the history of how we got to this point.

Deal apparently reached on school finance

We await the details.

Texas’ top three political leaders declared Thursday that the Legislature had reached agreements on its three main 2019 priorities: A two-year state budget, a comprehensive reform of school finance and legislation designed to slow the growth of rising property taxes.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott broke the news on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, just a few days before the Legislature is scheduled to gavel out. Both chambers will need to sign off on the three negotiated bills — House Bill 1, the proposed budget; Senate Bill 2, the property tax bill; and House Bill 3, the school finance bill — before the regular session ends Monday. Language for the compromised legislation, much of which was worked out behind the scenes between lawmakers from the two chambers, had not yet been made public as of Thursday afternoon.

“We would not be here today, making the announcement we are about to make, without the tireless efforts of the members of the Texas House and Senate,” said Abbott, flanked by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and other House and Senate members who played key roles in negotiating the three pieces of legislation. Almost five months beforehand, as state lawmakers began tackling the issues before them, Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen had pledged from that same spot in front of the Governor’s Mansion to work together and deliver on meaningful school finance and property tax reform.

“Frankly, we’re more together than we’ve ever been,” Bonnen said. “The people of Texas are those who win.”

[…]

According to a flyer detailing some of the components of the compromise reached Wednesday night, the school finance bill will include funding for full-day pre-K and an increase in the base funding per student, which hasn’t changed in four years. It also pumps in $5.5 billion to lower school district taxes up to 13 cents per $100 valuation on average by 2021 — though leaders dodged questions Thursday on exactly how and where the extra money would come from.

The compromise bill, Bonnen said, would reduce recapture payments that wealthier districts pay to shore up poorer districts by $3.6 billion, about 47%. But he also said the state could not afford to completely eliminate recapture, also known as “Robin Hood,” because it would cost too much to completely reimburse school districts from state coffers alone.

The bill will include funding for districts that want to create a merit pay program, giving more to their higher-rated teachers. Though the House decided to nix this from its initial version of the bill, the Senate put it back in and apparently won the fight to keep it in.

On the surface, it sounds pretty decent, though of course the devil is in the details. Where is that $5.5 billion coming from? What does “funding for full-day pre-K” mean? How would recapture change? By necessity, we will have answers soon, as the session ends on Monday, but until then this is more a possibly tantalizing promise than anything else. Stay tuned.

Yes, they really are now pushing a sales tax for property tax swap

Some bad ideas never die.

Texas’ top three political leaders — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — threw their support Wednesday behind a proposal to increase the sales tax by one percentage point in order to lower property taxes across the state.

But that’s only if lawmakers agree to limit future local property tax increases.

The proposal would raise the state’s sales tax from 6.25% to 7.25%, generating billions of additional dollars annually for property tax relief, if voters approve a constitutional amendment. But the idea will be a hard sell to Democrats, since the sales tax is considered regressive, meaning lower-income Texans end up paying a larger percentage of their paychecks than higher-income Texans.

“Today we are introducing a sales tax proposal to buy down property tax rates for all Texas homeowners and businesses, once Senate Bill 2 or House Bill 2 is agreed to and passed by both Chambers. If the one-cent increase in the sales tax passes, it will result in billions of dollars in revenue to help drive down property taxes in the short and long term,” said a joint statement from the three Republicans.

Neither chamber has passed HB 2 or SB 2, which would require voter approval of property tax increases over 2.5%.

The House Ways and Means Committee was scheduled to take public testimony on the House’s sales tax swap proposal this week but delayed hearing the bills. Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who authored House Joint Resolution 3 and House Bill 4621, is considering changing the legislation to use a fraction of the additional money generated by the sales tax for public schools — in order to get more Democrats on board.

The bills are intended to provide another revenue source to help significantly cut down local school property taxes, which make up more than half of the local property taxes levied in Texas.

If the Legislature approves the resolution, the constitutional amendment would go to voters to approve in November, and if voters sign on the tax rate change would apply in January 2020.

See here for the background and my opinion about this lousy idea. Given that a constitutional amendment is needed for this, it will be easy enough to prevent it from happening. The progressive case against swapping out property taxes, which will disproportionately benefit commercial real estate and wealthy homeowners, for regressive sales taxes, is clear cut, and likely to hold a lot of sway with the current Democratic caucus. There’s also polling evidence to suggest that the public doesn’t care for a sales tax increase. I’m a little skeptical of that, since the question was not asked in conjunction with a potential cut in property taxes, but that’s an argument for the Republicans to make, and given the baked in doubt about anything actually reducing property taxes (for good reason!), I’d take that bet. HB2 is up for debate today, so we’ll see how this goes. The Chron and Texas Monthly have more.

Achieve 180 schools showing progress

I hope it’s enough.

Houston ISD schools covered by the district’s $16 million campus turnaround plan saw modest improvements in the program’s first year — enough to outpace gains reported across the district, but not nearly enough to pull chronically low-performing schools on par with peers.

A report published this week by HISD showed the 44 schools included in the turnaround plan, known as Achieve 180, largely exceeded or mirrored district improvements in 2017-18 on several key academic and behavioral metrics, including state standardized test scores, exclusionary discipline rates and participation in more challenging courses. The improvements were reflected in the number of Achieve 180 schools meeting state standard — and avoiding the dreaded “improvement required” label — rising from 18 in 2017 to 33 in 2018.

In some areas, however, Achieve 180 schools saw little to no positive movement. Student attendance and chronic absenteeism rates remained stagnant, which district officials largely attributed to the effects of Hurricane Harvey. Out-of-school suspension rates barely moved, remaining three times greater than non-Achieve 180 schools. Highly-rated teachers did not move in large numbers to Achieve 180 schools, unswayed by $5,000 bonuses offered by district officials.

In an interview Thursday, HISD’s area superintendent responsible for Achieve 180, Felicia Adams, said district leaders were “pretty satisfied” with the first-year results, especially since some campuses implemented portions of the initiative later in the 2017-18 school year.

“These are schools that have been struggling for quite some time. To at least get out of being an ‘improved requirement’ campus was a major gain for many of them,” Adams said.

[…]

According to the district report, which analyzed student performance in 2017-18 relative to the prior year, math and reading passage rates on STAAR, the state’s primary standardized test, rose about 6 percent in Achieve 180 schools — double the 3 percent increase seen across the rest of the district.

The use of in-school suspensions also dropped by about 21 percent at Achieve 180 schools, roughly the same rate as campuses not covered by the initiative.

Perhaps most notably, about 8 percent more students in Achieve 180 schools took an Advanced Placement exam last year, while 3 percent fewer students in non-Achieve 180 schools sat for a test.

Even with the improvements in STAAR test performance, passage rates at Achieve 180 schools remain roughly 15 percent to 20 percent lower than the rest of the district. In addition, students at Achieve 180 schools passed about 14 percent of their Advanced Placement exams in 2018, compared to 39 percent throughout HISD.

Some Achieve 180 schools also fell further behind last year, including four campuses that have failed to meet state academic standards for four-plus consecutive years.

That, obviously, is the most important metric right now. The overall improvements are great, and one wonders how much more could be done with sufficient resources and some more time, but either those four schools make standard or the TEA climbs aboard. For all the mishegas at HISD this year, and with the continued uncertainty surrounding the HISD Board, Achieve 180 is worthwhile program that has generated real results. Again, as above, I just hope it’s enough.

HISD conservator suspends superintendent search

Halt!

A state-appointed conservator ordered Houston ISD trustees on Monday to suspend their search for a permanent superintendent, an unprecedented intervention in the state’s largest school district.

In a letter sent to HISD trustees, the conservator, Doris Delaney, said she is exercising her legally-authorized power to “direct an action to be taken” by a school board. HISD trustees were days away from naming a lone finalist for the district’s superintendent position, with a final round of candidate interviews scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Delaney said she is ordering the search suspended “until the agency has completed its special accreditation investigation” into the district. The investigation, which involves allegations of Texas Open Meetings Act violations by five trustees, has been ongoing since January.

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who is not among the five trustees under review, also tweeted Monday that the investigation has expanded to include “malfeasance regarding contracts” with vendors, offering no additional details. Texas Education Agency officials said they could not comment on the ongoing investigation. Jones could not immediately be reached for comment.

Delaney’s move is a potentially ominous sign for HISD’s school board, which could be replaced by the state later this year due to chronically low performance at a few campuses or potential findings of malfeasance by trustees. If state officials replace HISD trustees, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath would have the legal responsibility of choosing the district’s superintendent, with no obligation to keep the school board’s choice.

See here and here for some background. On the one hand, I understand where Dr. Delaney is coming from. This investigation is a serious matter, and if it turns out that some number of Trustees were involved in violating the (now less potent) Open Meetings Act, one can make a good case that they have forfeited the right to name a Superintendent. On the other hand, the (resumed) search has been going on for awhile, so maybe she could have said something sooner? I wasn’t sure what to make of that at first, but perhaps this explains it.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent Houston school officials a letter detailing an expanded role for the conservator, Doris Delaney, according to the news outlet. Her duties now include “attending board meetings and overseeing the district’s governance,” according to the letter Houston Public Media posted Monday.

You can see the letter here. That seems portentious, but maybe I’m reading too much into it. All I know is that I hope this is wrapped up quickly and favorably. I can’t take any more drama. The Press has more.

Who should be managing the Permanent School Fund?

It’s a good question, and I’m not sure what the best answer to it is.

Lawmakers are proposing a wide range of fixes for the state’s public school endowment, which has lost out on billions in growth during the past decade while paying out less to schoolchildren.

One bipartisan bill backed by high-powered legislators would restore the State Board of Education’s control over nearly all of the investments for the $44 billion Texas Permanent School Fund, reverting to the way it was before a 2001 law change.

Another would allow the School Land Board, which now controls about $10 billion of the endowment, to double the amount it can send annually directly to schools — up to $600 million. Yet another would take most of the money away from the feuding boards and create a new nine-member governing body appointed by the governor to decide how the endowment invests and distributes its dollars.

[…]

A key point in the debate is which governing body should have the authority to retain and invest the state’s oil and gas royalty revenue from leases on state land. Until 2001, the land board collected the money and sent it passively along to the education board to invest. But a law passed that year allowed the land board to retain the money and invest it.

A series of law changes and constitutional amendments since has changed the way money is sent to schools. The education board was tasked with setting a distribution rate based on a complex formula that, in part, depends on how much money it receives from the land board. Lawmakers also authorized the land board to send up to $300 million per year directly to schools, instead of to the education board, but it has no requirement to do so.

The changes created a serious governance issue, said Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who has introduced a bill that would return the royalty revenue to the education board to invest. That bill has the backing of five Republican Senate committee chairs. Republican Rep. Ken King has filed identical legislation in the House.

It also is supported by the education board’s chairwoman, Donna Bahorich, who said it aims to “permanently and efficiently fix the decision-making structure that affects the performance, distributions and expenses. Consolidation of the two pieces of the Permanent School Fund into one decision-making structure would be for the benefit of putting more money to work for the school children.”

See here and here for some background, and here for the Chron’s “Broken Trust” series, which uncovered a lot of these problems. The Land Board has had the worse performance, but the SBOE’s management isn’t perfect, and it was just ten years ago that there were proposals to take PSF management away from the SBOE. At some level, I don’t care who manages the PSF. What I do care about is ensuring accountability and maximizing returns. What are the best practices – what do other institutions that manage similar endowments do, for example – and what are the gaps that need to be addressed? That’s what I want us to focus on.

House moves its school finance bill

Step two of the process.

Rep. Dan Huberty

The Texas House Public Education Committee unanimously signed off on a comprehensive $9 billion school finance and property tax reform bill Tuesday — but only after removing a controversial educator merit pay provision that had angered teachers unions.

House Bill 3, filed by committee chair Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would put $6.3 billion into public schools and $2.7 billion into property tax reform. The bill will likely head to the full House soon, where more than 100 have already signed on as co-sponsors.

“Everybody’s opinion is welcome,” said Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, before voting to approve the bill. “I would just hate to see the destruction of a valiant effort because somebody didn’t like one little piece on it.”

The initial version of HB 3 included money for districts that wanted to rate their teachers and provide the top-rated ones with more money, modeled on a Dallas ISD program that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has touted.

“The language we ended up with to some degree could have been construed as tied to [the state’s standardized test] and created a little bit too much authority as we went forward,” Huberty said, explaining the change in the bill.

[…]

HB 3 does not include an across-the-board teacher pay raise, with Huberty and Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen arguing school districts should instead have local control to decide how to use additional funding. The Senate already unanimously passed Senate Bill 3, which would put $4 billion toward $5,000 raises for full-time classroom teachers and librarians.

Educators and advocates have appeared divided in their support for the two bills, which will need to be reconciled in some form later this session.

See here, here, and here for some background. Now is when the real sausage-making begins, as everyone agrees that Something Must Be Done, but views differ from there. The most likely scenario is that something gets hammered out in a conference committee in the very last days of the session. It’s hard to say at this point which chamber’s bill, or which provisions of each bill, have the advantage. Sometimes it just comes down to who gets on the committee. Expect there to be a bunch of amendments to both bills as they come to their respective floors, which may bring them closer together and may heighten their differences, with the extra joy of shenanigans and other partisan games always in the offing. It’s stuff like this that makes political junkies what they are.

Inevitably, we come back to a sales tax/property tax swap

It’s an idea we just can’t seem to quit.

Texas lawmakers are considering an infusion of $9 billion to improve public schools and lower property taxes over the next two years. The additional $6.3 billion in the classroom is being billed as a transformational effort to better educate the state’s 5.4 million students, while another $2.7 billion would stem the tide of escalating property taxes for homeowners.

“If we’re going to make some strides on these really big items, it really has to happen this session,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, chairman of the influential Appropriations Committee.

While lawmakers are confident the state’s booming economy will provide big bucks to spend on public schools, they are also pitching a number of plans to increase the state sales tax in the future. The proposals include hiking taxes on items such as sweet snacks, gasoline, e-cigarette fluid and heavy machinery rentals. But the proposal with the most apparent momentum is a tax swap that would allow local governments to charge a higher sales tax in exchange for reducing property tax levies.

Even raising the sales tax by one percent “contributes a lot of money” that school districts, cities and counties could use to offset reductions in property tax revenue, Zerwas said. Some estimates predict such an increase would raise more than $5 billion a year. The statewide sales tax rate is now 6.25 percent a year. Local governments can add up to two percent.

Although Republicans are leading the charge with major tax swap proposals, it’s unclear how they will fare in the GOP-led House and Senate, particularly among lawmakers who narrowly won their reelections as Texas Democrats gain ground.

Financial implications of the bills are shaky. Several tax bills were filed a week ago, just under a deadline, and have yet to be analyzed by the Legislative Budget Board which predicts financial effects.

Increasing reliance on the sales tax troubles Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget and policy expert with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. Not only is a sales tax considered regressive for taking more money from low-income people than the rich, but its collections are more susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy, she said.

“You need to find a revenue source that doesn’t all the sudden tank on you. Or if you know that it is going to do that, you need to put most of it away for a rainy day and use it when that rainy day comes,” she said.

[…]

Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, is proposing Texas increase taxes on gasoline and close tax exemptions on items like ice cream, certain baked goods, e-cigarette vapor fluid and over-the-counter medicine.

“I don’t think people realize their ibuprofen is tax-free,” said Springer. In exchange, House Bill 2915 would allow the state to lower the maintenance and operations property tax that funds schools. His bill would also increase the homestead exemption to 50 percent of a home’s value. Texans in a home valued at $274,000 would average $1,400 a year in property tax relief, he said, amounting to $6.2 billion less in property tax collections statewide.

Another bill, House Joint Resolution 3, proposes inching up the sales tax and using money from that increase exclusively for public schools. The resolution is proposed by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the architect of the House’s $9 billion school finance plan. The measure would require a vote in November to change the state Constitution and increase the statewide sales tax, which is now 6.25 percent. Huberty emphasized that raising the sales tax is just one measure under consideration, and that it’s still too early to pencil in numbers.

“We have to put more money into the system. It’s our responsibility,” Huberty said Thursday at an event hosted by the Texas Tribune.

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie is proposing the state systematically examine each tax exemption every six years to decide whether it is needed. House Bill 3968 will raise revenue by expiring out-of-date tax “loopholes” over time, he said, and is a good alternative to raising sales taxes.

“It is important to note that Texas already has a high sales tax — 8.25 percent in most areas,” said Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “The lower someone’s income, the more it hurts, so an increase in the sales tax will hurt a lot of Texas families.”

This comes up every few years – in 2005, in 2007, in the 2012 and 2014 elections – and each time we confront the fact that swapping property taxes for sales taxes greatly benefits property owners while burdening lower income folks the most. That’s a feature and not a bug, as far as its Republican advocates are concerned. I appreciate that at least this time it’s being proposed in the context of putting more money into schools, which would then have the effect of easing the pressure on local property taxes, but the same problem remains. Rep. Turner’s proposal to evaluate tax breaks also comes up whenever sales-tax-increase bills are filed, and it usually gets quietly ignored as the higher-profile swap bills eventually die. It’s still a good idea, it just never gets any momentum behind it. Rep. Springer’s idea to expand the sales tax to more things also comes up in conjunction with swap bills, and there is merit to this approach as well, though the real money is in taxing services, which is pretty much as big a taboo as an income tax is.

To review: I support requiring a process to scrutinize and sunset every tax break we have on the books, and I support at least exploring the imposition of a sales tax on selected goods and services where it is not currently imposed. If the goal of that is to put more state money into public education, and one result is that it allows local governments to ease up on property tax collections because they are no longer trying to make up for the state’s inadequacies, I would consider that a good outcome. The Trib has more.

House passes its budget out of committee

On to the full House, then the real fight occurs.

A panel of House budget writers gave initial approval Monday to a budget that would spend $115 billion in state funds, including a $9 billion infusion of new funds for Texas public schools and property tax relief.

Now that the House Appropriations Committee has approved the 2020-21 spending plan, House Bill 1, the legislation moves to the floor of the 150-member House.

[…]

Among the highlights of the House’s spending plan are:

$9 billion in new state funding for K-12 education and property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing reforms to the way the state funds public schools. The budget does not dictate the breakdown of those funds, but a bill backed by Speaker Dennis Bonnen would give about $6 billion to school districts and use the remaining $3 billion to pay for a reduction in local school district property taxes.

A $2.8 billion increase in state and federal funds for health and human services above what the House proposed in January. That includes a $25 million increase for early childhood intervention services, $6.7 million to reduce caseloads for Adult Protective Services workers, $31 million to expand capacity at local mental health clinics for low-income Texans and $87 million to raise the pay of personal attendants, who care for the elderly and disabled, by about 10 cents an hour.

A $168 million expenditure to give some Texas prison guards and parole officers a pay raise.

Rep. Matt Schaefer was the lone No vote in committee, so presume that this will get some pushback from the wingnuts. The story notes that the House budget draws $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund, but it doesn’t specify what it’s used for. There’s more here on the House school finance proposal. The budget is the one thing the Lege absolutely has to do. With some cracks beneath the surface on other “priority” items, it’s nice to see this get a head start.

No more PSF investing for you, Land Board

Seems worth considering.

Austin Lawmakers filed bills this week that would strip the School Land Board of its ability to invest billions of dollars on behalf of Texas schoolchildren.

The bipartisan legislation, submitted Wednesday, comes amid mounting scrutiny over the management of the $44 billion Permanent School Fund, which is run jointly by the land board and the State Board of Education. The two boards are the subject of a yearlong Houston Chronicle investigation that began publishing Sunday, which found that the fund has lost out on as much as $12 billion in revenue, fueled by anemic returns, skyrocketing fees and questionable investment deals.

At the same time, students in Texas have received less annually from the endowment over the past decade, in real dollars, than they did in the two decades prior, even as the overall size of the fund has swelled.

The land board’s role has been especially contentious. It manages its portion of the portfolio — now at $10 billion — by collecting the state’s oil and gas royalty revenues and investing them, primarily in private equity. The land board has only three members, often meets behind closed doors, and since 2006 has committed or invested nearly $3.7 billion with companies run by friends, business associates or campaign donors.

The bills would end that, revoking the land board’s investment power and returning it entirely to the education board. It would still gather fees from royalties, but pass them straight on to the education board.

Consolidating the two will “put more money to work for the benefit of our schoolchildren,” Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who is leading the effort, said in a statement. “The legislature created this flawed structure, and it’s time we fixed it.”

Five Republican Senate committee chairs have signed on to the legislation, including Jane Nelson, Brian Birdwell, Paul Bettencourt, Dawn Buckingham and Bob Hall. Republican Rep. Ken King has filed identical legislation in the House.

See here for the background, and here for the full series published by the Chron. The SBOE had full responsibility for the PSF until 2001, so this would revert things to the earlier setup. Not that the SBOE has been a perfect steward of the PSF, but they’ve been a little better than the Land Board. I would not object to an overall higher level of scrutiny on the whole process. This is at least a step in the right direction.

In a statement, Land Commissioner George P. Bush called the proposal a “power grab.” He said he welcomes reforms, but only if they’re based upon sound financial expertise.

“Without expert evaluation, the school children of Texas stand to lose,” he said.

Bush, who oversees the land board, said after a meeting on Tuesday that he had not read the Chronicle’s reporting and didn’t plan to.

“I’m trying a new strategy in 2019 by not reading my media,” he said. He said his office would review the series’ findings and follow up later.

Remember when George P. Bush was the fresh new exciting face of the Texas GOP? Boy, those were the days.

Senate files its school finance bill

Here it is.

Sen. Larry Taylor

On the night of the deadline to file bills this legislative session, Texas Senate leaders turned in their first crack at legislation designed to reform school finance — rounding out a series of proposals in the upper chamber aiming to address rising property taxes and fix the way the state pays for its schools.

The bill was clearly incomplete and included some placeholder language. But its Republican author, Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, said it includes proposals that would fund full-day pre-K, incentivize school districts to improve their third-grade reading performance, offer money for teacher merit pay and increase funding for low-income students. The bill does not appear to require school districts to use standardized tests to determine funding.

Taylor didn’t give an indication of how much the bill would cost, or how it would affect local school district property taxes.

“Our focus should be on improving the academic outcomes of our low-income students, who make up the largest and fastest growing demographic in our public school system,” he said in a statement.

Some of the proposals in the bill appear similar to recommendations from a state school finance commission, which Taylor helped create.

See here, here, and here for some background. We don’t know enough about this bill yet – if there’s ever an application for the old saying about the devil being in the details, it’s with school finance bills – but so far I don’t see anything that makes me want to put my shields up. We’re starting out in a better place now than we’ve done in previous sessions. We still need to finish there.

What’s wrong with the Permanent School Fund?

For starters, it should have more money in it.

It was a grand promise, one our forefathers made 165 years ago to all Texas children, to theirs and ours and those not yet born.

With $2 million and the state’s most abundant and precious resource — its land — they created the Texas Permanent School Fund to forever support public education. It was called a “sacred trust.”

That trust, dedicated to K-12 schools, is now valued at $44 billion, bigger than even Harvard University’s endowment.

It is also broken.

The Permanent School Fund has failed to match the performance of peer endowments, missing out on as much as $12 billion in growth and amassing a risky asset allocation, a yearlong Houston Chronicle investigation reveals.

Outside fund managers have charged the endowment at least a billion dollars in fees during the past decade, records show. Some of them have had professional or personal relationships with Texas School Land Board members, who govern a portion of the fund.

And, critically, the fund is sending less money to schools than it did decades ago, in real dollars. The amount dropped to an average of $986 million annually over the past decade from an average of $1.14 billion in the previous 20 years, in inflation-adjusted dollars. Last year, the fund distributed only 2.8 percent of its value — roughly half the share paid out by many endowments.

That decline, coupled with a 2 million increase in the number of students over 30 years, has slashed the fund’s per-student distribution.

Per student, the fund has paid an average of $207 annually over the past decade compared with $322, adjusted for inflation, over the prior two decades, a drop of more than one-third.

According to the Congressional Research Service, between 1998 and 2017, the average payout from higher education endowments has ranged between 4.2 percent and 5.1 percent. If the Texas fund paid out 5 percent of a four-year average market value, as many endowments try to, Texas schools would have received $720 million more in 2018.

That’s the opening of part one of a promised four-part series. Here’s part two, in which we find that however the fund is doing, the fund managers are doing great.

Since the land board started investing with outside fund managers on behalf of the state’s K-12 endowment in 2006, it has committed or invested nearly $3.7 billion with companies run by friends, business associates or campaign donors.

Those donors together have given more than $1.4 million since 2006 to board members or elected officials with the power to appoint them, a Houston Chronicle investigation reveals.

And they’ve since charged the fund more than $218 million in fees, records show.

While the fees climbed during the past decade, the amount of money the $44 billion Texas Permanent School Fund sends to schools has declined, in real dollars, compared with the two decades prior.

Rep. Donna Howard, a Democrat from Austin, said it’s time to reassess how the school fund is managed.

“Without the right oversight, the PSF is ripe for conflicts of interest,” she said. “We have a responsibility for due diligence here.”

Read the rest, and come back for parts three and four. A better-managed PSF would not solve school finance by itself, but it sure would help. Seems like this is a prime opportunity for some high-profile legislation to improve how this works.

Here comes the House school finance plan

Not surprisingly, they go bigger than the Senate.

Rep. Dan Huberty

With Texas House lawmakers unveiling their long-awaited school finance proposal Tuesday and the Senate’s version likely close behind, teacher pay appears to be emerging as one of the biggest sticking points between the two chambers.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, laid out their reform proposal at a press conference Tuesday, calling for raising minimum salaries for a broad group of educators, increasing health and pension benefits, and offering opportunities for merit pay programs. That approach differs substantially from the $4 billion proposal that sailed through the Senate on Monday that would provide mandatory across-the-board $5,000 raises for classroom teachers and librarians.

When asked about the Senate’s proposal, which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has championed, Bonnen said, “I don’t know how you call a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise … with no discussion of reducing recapture, no discussion of reducing property taxes, no discussion of early childhood education, no discussion of incentivizing the teachers going to a tougher school to teach” a school finance plan.

“What we have is a plan,” he added. “I think teachers are some of the smartest people in Texas, and they are going to figure out that the Texas House has a winning plan for the teachers and students in Texas.”

[…]

The House proposal, House Bill 3, would increase the base funding per student while requiring school districts to meet a higher minimum base pay for classroom teachers, full-time counselors, full-time librarians and full-time registered nurses. Many districts already exceed the current minimum salaries for educators at different experience levels.

It would work hand-in-hand with House Bill 9, filed Monday by the speaker’s brother, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, which would increase the state’s contribution to Teacher Retirement System pensions over time while keeping active member and district contributions the same.

HB 3 would also provide funding for districts that offer a merit pay program, rating their teachers and providing the top-rated ones with more money — modeled on a Dallas ISD program touted among lawmakers. The Senate is expected to include a similar proposal in its school finance bill later this week.

The politics surrounding the Senate’s teacher pay raise bill this session are unusual, with Patrick, who has previously clashed with educators, advocating for a proposal many teachers like. Meanwhile, conservative group Empower Texans, a key contributor to Patrick’s campaign, has come out against the bill, with one employeecriticizing conservatives like Patrick for “kowtowing” to liberals.

That bill has divided the education community, with superintendents and school boards arguing they need more flexibility with additional funds and many teachers supporting the directed raises.

Huberty said Tuesday that the House would “certainly have a hearing on that [Senate] bill” but that the school finance panel that worked to develop recommendations for lawmakers did not include across-the-board raises.

He said HB 3 provides more opportunity for local school boards and superintendents to decide how to use increased funding. More than 85 House members have signed on as co-authors of HB 3, and in a public show of support, many of them were present at Tuesday’s press conference.

See here and here for some background. A preview story about the House bill is here, and a story about that Senate bill is here. The Senate bill covers raises for teachers and librarians, but not other support personnel like nurses or bus drivers, which is one reason why the more-flexible approach is favored by school districts; that said, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association released a statement emphasizing the need for a Senate-style guaranteed teacher pay raise. The House is also taking a different approach on property taxes, as noted in that preview story:

According to the summary, the bill would increase the base funding per student by $890 to $6,030 — the first time that allotment has been raised in four years. It would also lower school district property tax rates statewide by 4 cents per $100 of taxable property value, helping to reduce so-called Robin Hood payments that redistribute money from wealthier districts to poorer ones. The compression could save the owner of a home with $250,000 in taxable value about $100 annually in school district taxes.

That method of property tax relief is different than one proposed by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, which would cap annual increases in school districts’ tax revenues at 2.5 percent.

There’s also the Democratic proposal, some of which is in HB3. All of this is a starting point, so I don’t want to get too far into the weeds. None of these bills will be adopted as is, and some of them may not get adopted at all. This and the budget will be the last pieces of business the Lege deals with, and the main reason why there could be a special session. We’ll keep an eye on it all. The Chron has more.

Dems propose their school finance bills

It’s good to have a broad array of options.

The Texas House Democratic Caucus laid out a $14.5 billion plan for school finance reform and property tax relief Thursday, releasing a list of priorities in advance of a key school finance bill Republican education leaders are expected to file and support.

The Democrats’ plan is composed of dozens of bills members have filed — or will file — to increase teacher pay and benefits, pay schools more for educating low-income students, and provide more counselors for school districts. It does not include two policy items that may be included in Republican-filed legislation: merit pay for teachers or paying schools more for higher student test scores.

“We hope to work with our colleagues to incorporate some of these ideas into their bills,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who chairs the caucus.

[…]

Some of the House Democrats’ proposals dovetail with recommendations in the school finance panel’s report. [Rep. Mary] González filed House Bill 89, which would increase the base funding districts get per student and ensure they receive more funding for low-income students and those learning English.

A few House Democrats have filed bills that would fund full-day pre-K for all school districts, an estimated cost of $1.6 billion.

The proposal also includes $3.78 billion for teacher pay and benefits — around the same amount Senate Republican leaders have proposed in across-the-board $5,000 raises for full-time classroom teachers. House Democrats are championing proposals that would increase salaries for not just teachers, but also support staff, while also boosting financial support for teacher health care premiums. The exact amount of the proposed raises for each person has not yet been determined.

See here for more on the school finance panel report. Some of these ideas will be included, in whole or in part, in the omnibus school finance bill that Rep. Dan Huberty will file. Others are there more as a statement of values, since none of these bills will pass without sufficient Republican support. If I could pick just one thing to make it to Abbott’s desk, it would be the full day pre-K, which will have a big return on investment if we do it right. When all is said and done, I’d love to know how much of what was on offer today makes it through into the final bill.

Superintendent search will continue

For the time being, at least.

Houston ISD’s pursuit of a permanent superintendent will continue after trustees rejected a motion Thursday to suspend the search amid a recently launched state investigation into potential violations of open meetings laws.

Trustees voted 5-3 to continue the search for a permanent leader to replace former superintendent Richard Carranza, who left the district in March 2018 to become chancellor of New York City public schools. Three trustees who favored suspending the effort argued the district cannot attract qualified candidates with the looming threat of sanctions tied to the state investigation, while the five opponents argued the district should push forward despite the inquiry.

“I promised my community that I would do a superintendent search, and that’s what I’m following.” said HISD Board President Diana Dávila, who voted against suspending the search.

[…]

The three trustees who supported suspending the search — Wanda Adams, Jolanda Jones and Rhonda Skillern-Jones — have all advocated for permanently retaining Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, arguing she has proven her ability to lead the district.

The trio of trustees have been highly critical of five board members who secretly communicated with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, then voted in October 2018 to replace Lathan with Saavedra. Allegations of open meetings act violations by the five trustees who spoke to Saavedra triggered a special accreditation agency investigation by the Texas Education Agency. The five trustees have denied wrongdoing.

Supporters of suspending the search argued the potential for severe sanctions tied to the investigation will limit the pool of candidates willing to jump to HISD. If state officials order the replacement of the HISD board, new trustees could immediately replace the freshly hired superintendent.

“I cannot imagine that a highly qualified candidate who is rational and sane would come here in the face of uncertainty, when they may not have a job soon,” Skillern-Jones said.

The five trustees who voted against the motion Thursday — Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — have pushed for a nationwide search. Trustee Sue Deigaard, who previously supported giving Lathan a short-term contract and simultaneously conducting a nationwide search, abstained from Thursday’s vote, telling her colleagues she is “not going to be part of this divide anymore.”

“We all need to figure this out and not continue to be divisive on this subject,” Deigaard said.

I mean, as a matter of principle it’s generally a good idea to search far and wide for the best candidate. Under normal circumstances, the HISD job is pretty plum – it’s a big district with a good financial foundation and a lot of high-performing schools, and more than one former Superintendent has gone on to bigger things. For obvious reasons, the job isn’t quite as attractive right now – the search firm says the potential of a TEA takeover has been mentioned by numerous candidates. There’s a good case to be made for Trustee Deigaard’s position of extending Superintendent Lathan for now, and resuming the search later, say in a year or so, when the immediate issues have been clarified, if not resolved. One can also reasonably argue that with so much on the line right now, it’s wiser to leave the Superintendent in place who has been doing the work to get the four schools that need to meet standards up to those standards. By all accounts, the current program for bringing the schools in need up to standard has been working well. I don’t know enough to say that I’d support making Superintendent Lathan permanent at this time, but I’d definitely support keeping her in place for the near term and revisiting the question at a later date. As I’ve said before about all things HISD, I sure hope this works out. The Press has more.