Valentine ISD, home of the 4-1 student-teacher ratio

Texas has about 5.4 million public school students, and 39 of them go to school in Valentine ISD, a one-school district that is so isolated in the mostly empty reaches of West Texas that, to most of us, it may as well be on the moon. There is no gasoline station in the tiny town, and residents have to drive 30 miles to the nearest grocery store.

But Valentine is not on the moon. It is under the jurisdiction of the Texas Education Agency and operates within the gravity pull of the STAAR-spangled Texas accountability system. And, as the story from Marfa Public Radio, linked below, reports, it earned an A in the new A-F grading system last year.

There is no way, of course, to compare the challenges of a rural, one-campus, 39-student district with the multitude of issues of Houston ISD and its 200,000-plus urban enrollment, or even to compare Valentine ISD with most rural districts. You also can make a valid argument that Valentine shouldn’t even be rated on the same scale as Houston or Dallas or Austin ISD. For that matter, why do we keep wasting time and resources on STAAR anyway?

But all those issues aside, the Valentine experience showcases the basics of education – the value of teachers and small classes. Valentine has 10 teachers for its 39 students, a student-teacher ratio of 4-1, with teachers crossing grade levels and giving all their students lots of individual attention.

Individual instruction from teachers, in Valentine or Houston, is crucial to student success, not only on STAAR but also on the more important goal of public schools – preparing students for life. And even though there is high teacher turnover in rural Texas, most of Valentine’s teachers are experienced educators, and they obviously are making a difference.

Valentine was one of 38 single-campus districts that received a scaled score of 90 or higher (the equivalent of an A) on the accountability ratings last year.

Some may suggest that tiny districts should be consolidated with their neighbors, although that isn’t always feasible because many West Texas schools are many miles apart. In some cases, consolidation also may be strongly opposed by local residents who fear it would destroy their sense of community.

Consolidation aside, the teacher is the heart of education, and the critical issue – in Valentine or Houston or anywhere in between — is class size. A 4-1 student-teacher ratio, of course, is not realistic for the vast majority of Texas school districts. But 22-1 is, or it should be, and it is the law for kindergarten through fourth grade. But districts continue to plead financial hardship and get waivers for larger classes.

It is time for legislators to put limits on the waivers, and the only realistic way to do that is to increase state funding for public schools.

School finance reform is on the agenda for this legislative session, and real school finance reform starts with more state funding, including for higher teacher pay and smaller classes.

How one tiny school district in rural West Texas is making it work

Property tax bill would promote teacher layoffs, not pay raises

We are hearing a lot of talk from state leaders at the beginning of this legislative session about reforming school finance and raising teacher pay, but in what may be a sign of rough sailing to come is the fact that the first bill scheduled for a committee hearing is a measure, SB2, that would impose crippling limits on property taxes.

You don’t reform school finance or raise teacher pay by enacting a law, as SB2 proposes, to make it impossible for local elected officials to raise the necessary revenue for schools, police and fire protection and other important public services for their growing communities. If SB2 passes without a significant increase in state funding for public education, we are looking at potential teacher layoffs, not teacher pay raises.

Yes, initial budget proposals in the House and the Senate would increase state education funding, and Gov. Greg Abbott also is kind of talking about it. “The state will be making new investments in education,” he said in his State of the State address, without giving us any idea what size his commitment might be. The first step toward real school finance reform and real property tax relief is not unreasonable caps on property tax increases. It is a significant infusion of new state dollars into the public education budget.

Property taxes are high not because local officials are going crazy raising tax rates. Property taxes are high because of rising property values and state government’s passing the buck on public school funding to school districts.

The state now pays for only 38 percent of the Foundation School Program, while property taxpayers pay the remaining 62 percent, the Legislative Budget Board has calculated. You change that imbalance with more state funding, and this year the Legislature has the money to at least make a big down payment on doing the right thing.

The comptroller has projected additional general revenue of as much as $9 billion is available for lawmakers as well as a record $15 billion balance in the Rainy Day Fund.

SB2 would impose a 2.5 percent limit on property tax increases without voter approval, which makes it even worse than the 4 percent limit that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Senate majority tried to cram down our throats two years ago. Then-Speaker Joe Straus and the House killed the idea then by countering with a proposed 6 percent limit, which would have been bad enough.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, the main sponsor of SB2 and chairman of the Senate’s new Property Tax Committee, has remarked, “The laugh line I use is the House was at 6 percent, the Senate was at 4 percent and the governor compromised at 2.5 percent.”

Ha…Ha.

When it comes to property tax “relief,” SB2 is a joke, and a bad one at that.

Who is overpaid? Teachers aren’t, but what about superintendents…or the governor?

Did you know that about 350 school superintendents in Texas are paid more than the governor? Kara Belew, one of the school privatization advocates at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, pointed that out in an oped on school finance.

Sounds like she was suggesting that maybe some superintendents are overpaid. Some educators, on the other hand, believe the governor is overpaid, if you weigh his $150,000 annual salary against his lackluster support for the school children of Texas.

Sure, some superintendents – 100 of whom, Belew notes, make $250,000 a year or more – are overpaid. Many others may be underpaid. But superintendents are not the issue in school finance because all their salaries combined make only a minor dent in the public education budget. Based on TSTA’s analysis of TEA data, traditional public school districts spend about 3.2 percent of their total funding on central administration, less than the 6 percent that charter schools do.

Nor is the issue the size of the school support staff, which TPPF notes has increased significantly over the past 20 years or so, out of proportion to the increase in school enrollment. A growing student enrollment requires more bus drivers, cafeteria workers, maintenance employees and security personnel, and it is not realistic to suggest that all schools were adequately staffed 20 years ago, or now for that matter.

The real issue is the state’s chronic under-funding of public schools — $2,300 per-student below the national average. That includes low teacher pay, which trails the national average by $7,300 a year. This governor and his immediate predecessor have both neglected that key responsibility of the office, but now, with an improved budgetary outlook, Gov. Abbott has an opportunity to start repairing the damage.

The gulf between superintendent and teacher salaries, as Belew notes, is huge. And you begin to address that problem by giving all teachers a permanent, across-the-board pay raise. You don’t single out a handful of teachers for “merit” or “incentive” pay as Abbott and the Texas Public Policy Foundation are seeking. (So is Lt. Gov. Patrick, although he is pairing his “merit” pay proposal with an across-the-board $5,000 teacher pay boost.)

Belew calls an across-the-board teacher pay raise “wasteful.” In truth, what is wasteful is failing to give all teachers a substantial pay increase. That failure would continue to force thousands of effective teachers to flee the classroom each year in search of professions that pay a more-livable income.

Texas has a whole stateful of effective teachers. We need to keep all of them in the classroom.

Want to abolish STAAR? It won’t happen if you don’t help.

I know there is a lot of opposition to STAAR among parents (myself included) and teachers out there, and many people are applauding state Rep. Brooks Landgraf of Odessa for filing House Bill 736, which would drastically reduce the role that standardized testing now plays in the lives of public school students and educators.

But, as of now, that bill has a slim chance, if any, of passing. STAAR testing has become entrenched in the highest levels of the state’s educational bureaucracy, and it will become even more stressful for children, not less, as the A-F grading law is fully implemented with letter grades assigned to individual schools later this year. That’s because those grades will be largely determined by STAAR scores.

The only way Landgraf’s bill is going to have a chance of passing — and the only way the A-F law is going to be repealed — is if legislators hear from their constituents, loudly and clearly, throughout the session that you have had it with high-stakes testing and demand that they do away with it and the letter grades. Tell your legislators to give public schools more resources, not more stress.

It’s fine to contact the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker. They also need to hear from you. But so does your own state representative and state senator –and throughout the session. Make sure they know that you are a voter in their district. If you don’t know who your state representative or state senator is, or you aren’t sure, go to this link and fill in your home address to find out who they are and how to contact them.

You don’t like STAAR testing? One state representative has taken a first step toward doing something about it, and you and your friends have started applauding him on Facebook and Twitter. That’s fine, but that won’t do much good unless you and your friends also start contacting your legislators and demanding that they actively support the bill and push it to passage.

Otherwise, like a lot of other good ideas, it will be ignored and end up on the legislative trash heap.

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