Gaining Ground

Public Education


As Texas turns the corner toward the year 2000, our public schools are poised to enter the next century in much the same condition they entered the last.

There are those who will argue that we shouldn't "meddle" in educational affairs. We disagree. In fact, we would go so far as to say that all of us have not just the right but the obligation to "meddle" in our public schools, to turn ourselves into informed and demanding consumers of what is arguably Texas' most important product.

In 1981, Texas' most recent high school graduating class had just entered kindergarten. By the time the 1994 commencement exercises rolled around, 25 percent of them were dropouts. Among minority students, the dropout rate was twice as high. And even for those who persevered, school took up surprisingly little time in their lives. On their 18th birthdays, students who had diligently gone to class six hours a day, 180 days a year, from kindergarten through 12th grade, had spent only 9 percent of their time on earth under the schoolhouse roof.1

The best Texas schools offer a lot of learning during that 9 percent. But when a 6-year-old arrives in first grade lacking a basic vocabulary, unaware of the rudiments of group behavior, unfamiliar with books or mesmerized by TV, 9 percent isn't much time. And if that child makes it to high school with a drug problem, alcohol addiction, a child of his or her own, a part-time job at night or a mounting record of delinquency, 9 percent seems puny indeed.

Meanwhile, attention to public education issues over the past quarter century has been dominated by the challenge of school finance. Edgewood and other legal disputes over the disparities among property-rich and property-poor schools, while extremely important, have consumed the bulk of the state's efforts.

Regardless of whether the school finance dilemma is resolved in the short-term -- even if it isn't resolved at all -- Texas now must move beyond the issue to tackle the larger long-term legacy of underinvestment in human needs that predates even the Edgewood court case.

A series of recommendations in Gaining Ground would, if approved by the Legislature, begin to shift the emphasis on public education's processes to its products and away from its complex rules about how students learn toward performance-based measures of whether they learn.

Encouraging local control. Cynicism about government's ability to perform even its most basic duties has fueled a movement toward more local control of public education. Concerned parents and taxpayers are angry. They resent the limited choices offered by Austin's centralized education bureaucracy. They want to wrest their classrooms away from state control and be free to decide on their own how best to educate their children.

What many don't realize is that there are many things they can do under current law. School districts are allowed to implement a variety of voluntary choice plans, often across school district boundaries. Local school boards have the right to contract with others for educational services. School districts may petition the Commissioner of Education for waivers from most state regulations, and many do. A range of other exemptions are also available to individual campuses or even entire districts that meet basic achievement requirements.

Local problems deserve local solutions. In Garland, for example, students and parents may select any school in the district, subject only to the availability of space and federal court decisions regarding ethnic balance. In northwest Texas, Coleman County's four public school districts have developed an informal open-enrollment policy that helps students and parents choose campuses across district lines. In both Sherman and Wylie, school officials are negotiating with private vendors to manage one campus in each district as a pilot project. Floydada Alternative High School, up in the High Plains, serves more than 100 at-risk students from seven area school districts. These and countless other programs are pushing back the limits to local choice in Texas' public schools.

TPR strongly supports these trends. In fact, we recommend a Parents' Bill of Educational Rights to let Texans know what they have a right to expect from their children's schools. TEA should ensure that every school child's parents receive a copy. It should contain a list of options for parental and community involvement in critical education decisions, as well as information about innovative practices in other parts of the state that may be replicable in a local district. For local control to be successful in Texas, parents and taxpayers must be informed about their rights and responsibilities.

Cutting the central bureaucracy. Three state agencies direct public education in Texas: the State Board of Education, the State Board of Vocational Education and the State Department of Education, better known as TEA. The Commissioner of Education serves as the chief executive officer for all three.

With expanding local control, however, comes less need for a centralized structure. As local school districts claim more say in their children's education, even some of the remaining duties left behind in the Austin bureaucracy should be transferred to other existing state agencies. The result would be a more seamless public education system throughout the state.

For example, we propose that the Legislature transfer TEA's school financial audit division to the State Auditor, who already performs similar functions for other agencies. We also believe that many of TEA's current work force development programs should be consolidated into a new Department of Work Force and Economic Competitiveness, recommended in Gaining Ground.

At the same time, the ability of the central education system to support the Regional Education Service Centers (RESCs), operated by TEA, should be strengthened. The RESCs would work best if they were retooled to become competitive and market-driven, and expanded into clearinghouses for information about creative programs tried successfully in other Texas school districts. And the Legislature should move to both decentralize and deregulate the Texas textbook approval process, by providing public school districts with new incentives and authority, under appropriate state guidelines, to choose instructional materials that best meet local needs.

Finally, lawmakers should simplify the state textbook approval process. Unlike most other aspects of public school funding, textbooks are paid for entirely with state dollars through the Available School Fund. Because state taxpayers foot the bill, minimum standards are appropriate. And there should be no limit on the number of books that may be adopted in each subject area.

Developing school district cooperatives. In 1992, when the Comptroller's Texas School Performance Review studied three small public school districts -- Cherokee, Richland Springs and San Saba -- we found that by sharing transportation, purchasing and other services, they could have saved a combined $245,000, or about $81,700 each. Unfortunately, these three districts didn't implement our suggestion. But others should learn from this example, because the idea holds promise for large and small districts throughout Texas.

Using school district cooperatives, TEA's Regional Education Service Centers could help public school districts cut their costs. RESCs have already established purchasing co-ops for office equipment, computer supplies, food service, library materials, insurance and even fire extinguishers or counseling services. This consolidated buying power has brought volume discounts, especially for small or isolated school districts.

TPR recommends that the Legislature direct RESCs to develop a statewide network of public school district co-ops to help pool resources, improve student services and keep as many education dollars as possible in the classroom -- where they belong.

Modifying state payments. While local school districts have uniform expenses throughout the year, their income varies at different times on the calendar. During the first two or three months of the school year, for example, few districts have enough cash on hand to pay the bills. Then, starting in late November, with the arrival of the first local property tax revenues, most districts are able to get their creditors off their backs. Trouble is, many go into debt to finance their first two or three months of operations. And even these short-term borrowing needs bring loan service charges and other associated costs with them, taking money away from classroom instruction.

TPR recommends modifying the schedule of Foundation School Fund payments to public schools so that local districts can receive a higher percentage of their money in September and October. This would allow districts to better synchronize the money going out with the money coming in throughout the year, resulting in both lower interest costs and higher interest earnings -- a total of nearly $13 million worth. The state would also boost its interest income by $1.2 million a year.

Setting up worksite schools. In 1987, a group of residents in Dade County, Florida, started a satellite learning center -- a public school at their worksite. Since then, dozens of other states have joined in. Some of the employers include banks, hospitals, hotels, power plants, universities, high-tech companies and even an airport.

Satellite learning centers typically team with an established elementary school, beginning with kindergarten and 1st grade, then add grades each year until they reach the fifth after which science labs, extracurricular activities and the preference of most children not to attend school so close to their parents make worksite schools less effective. In most cases, a lead teacher is in charge, while curriculum development, payroll and other administrative operations are handled by the "parent" school. Under contract with the school district, the corporation or worksite business helps fund the facility and classroom maintenance.

How well do they work? In Dade County, student test scores have risen above the average and attendance has improved dramatically. Parents there report that the programs allow them to spend more time with their children, to increase their school involvement and to reduce the complexities of their daily schedules.

TPR encourages public school districts to develop worksite schools wherever appropriate to help hold down new construction costs, improve student services and increase parents' ability to participate in their children's public education.

Improving health care delivery to school children. Kids from low-income families are four times more likely than others to miss school because of illness. They suffer higher rates of many disorders, most of which could be easily prevented with a minimum of care.

Schools provide a unique opportunity to improve health care for Texas children. From immunizations to counseling to early screening, school-based clinics can help children and their parents find the access to basic health care they often lack. It also costs less to treat them on campus than in hospital emergency rooms.

A few Texas communities have established school-based health clinics. The Dallas Independent School District, for example, began providing health care services to adolescents as far back as 1969. In San Antonio, officials support more than a dozen cam-pus clinics. Fort Worth's local schools use a combina-tion of public funds and private grants to serve students' primary health needs.

TPR believes that the Texas Department of Health and TEA should make at least 17 new school-based clinic grants available each year. The program should concentrate on public school districts with high numbers of disadvantaged students. To qualify for state start-up grants, school districts should be required to show evidence of at least one funding partnership with a community health clinic or area business. The Department of Human Services (DHS) should also apply to the federal government for Emergency Assistance funds to help pay for certain costly services.

In addition, public school districts should be encouraged to seek federal Medicaid reimbursement for the health services they provide. DHS should make eligibility information available to schools, and filing requirements should be streamlined. These recommendations could bring in nearly $235 million over the next five years for Texas school districts to help provide meaningful health care to their students.

Offering surplus property to public schools. Less dramatic, perhaps, but still part of the education equation, is the issue of surplus state property for public schools.

Texas government agencies, school districts and volunteer groups looking for bargains on furniture, computers or other equipment can now shop from an on-line catalog of surplus property through Window on State Government, the Comptroller's on-line computer bulletin board. The electronic listings have helped sell taxpayer property valued at $28 million in fiscal 1994.

In the past, the General Services Commission distributed a bulky computer printout of property listings each month to about 350 public agencies and volunteer groups. Now, the state can electronically advertise this surplus property to a broader audience.

There's a catch, though. Texas law gives state agencies priority over school districts when purchasing surplus property. For 35 days after a school district offers to buy, say, some used computers, it's required to wait while state agencies look to see if they want to exercise their right of first purchase. At any time during that month, a state agency may negotiate directly with the agency holding the computers and take immediate possession of them, while the school district is left with an empty classroom and the choice of buying the computers from a private vendor at a higher price.

But here's the real problem. No matter how often school districts complain about the possibility of being pre-empted by state agencies, they rarely have been. That's why we believe the priority provision is unnecessary. We urge lawmakers to eliminate the 35-day waiting period and amend state law to allow all agencies, assistance organizations and public school districts to take immediate possession of surplus property. Not very dramatic, we admit, but a great improvement over the current situation.

Endnotes

  1. Chester E. Finn, Jr., We Must Take Charge: Our Schools and Our Future (1991), pp. 20-21.