Category Archives: Special Session 07-2017

Educational Choice for Students with Special Needs: The Issue

Educational Choice for Students with Special Needs: The Issue

From Texas Public Policy Foundation’s 2017-18 Legislator’s Guide, Special Session Edition, Educational Choice for Students with Special Needs

A majority of states have some form of private school choice.
Texas has none.

Every Texas child should be afforded the opportunity to select the educational options that best suit his or her individual needs. Children with special needs are a particularly vulnerable group in need of expanded, individualized options that will allow them a customized education designed to meet their unique needs.

Texas is behind many states in educational opportunity. In 2017, Arizona passed the most comprehensive choice program in the nation that would allow almost every student in the state the freedom to select the best educational program for their own educational needs. Arizona did this through an Education Savings Account (ESA) program, which they refer to as the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. An ESA is innovative because it can be used for a variety of educational expenses throughout a school year, including therapy, tutoring, test fees, textbooks, or tuition. In addition, families can roll over unused ESA dollars from one school year to the next. Funds remaining upon graduation can often be used for higher education. Modeled after Health Savings Accounts, the ESA concept provides an offset to many of the third-party pay problems inherent in education today. Figure 4 illustrates how ESAs might work.

Half the nation’s state legislatures have established educational choice programs.

ESAs have been established by legislatures in Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida. Arizona’s program is the leading model currently in operation because of its near-universal availability. Arizona students are eligible for the program if they have been enrolled in public schools for at least 100 days of the prior fiscal year and must be a member of a limited number of populations, among them children with an active IEP or Section 504 plan. Over the next four school years, all Arizona students will become eligible as long as they meet the 100-day requirement. Arizona has had an ESA program since 2011, and parents have taken full advantage of the program’s flexibility. About one-third of ESA funds are expended on multiple items; in other words, a sizable number of parents choose not to use the entire ESA on tuition.

Arizona special needs students were the first to be given access in 2011. In 2015, they comprised 58 percent of the 2,406 Arizona ESA holders. Parent satisfaction with the program is notably high: a survey of over half of participating families in the 2012-2013 school year found that 71 percent were “very satisfied,” 19 percent were “satisfied,” and 10 percent were “somewhat satisfied.” No respondents registered negative or neutral feedback.

A survey of Florida’s current and previous McKay scholarship programs (an educational choice program for children with special needs) found similarly high levels of parent satisfaction. A total of “92.7% of current McKay participants are satisfied or very satisfied with their McKay schools; only 32.7% were similarly satisfied with their public schools.” The researchers also included parents no longer participating in the program to see if dissatisfaction with the program was higher in that group. They found that, “Perhaps the strongest evidence regarding the McKay program’s performance is that over 90% of parents who have left the program believe it should continue to be available to those who wish to use it.”

For the general student population, student performance improves as a result of educational choice. According to the Friedman Foundation, of 18 empirical studies on this topic, 14 found that student achievement improved and two found no measurable impact. The two studies that found a negative impact were both of the program in Louisiana, known for its overbearing regulations on participating private schools. Choice also has been shown to improve public school performance. Of 33 empirical studies surveyed by the Friedman Foundation, 31 found that public schools improve when students are allowed a choice. Only one found no measurable improvement and only one found a negative impact.

We are unaware of studies examining student performance in relation to educational choice strictly within the special needs student population. However, students with special needs would have been eligible for many of the programs studied above.

Call Item 4: School Finance Reform Commission

From Funding Public Schools for the 21st Century, Texas Public Policy Foundation’s 2017-18 Legislator’s Guide, Special Session Edition.

The Issue

The Texas Constitution establishes public education through Article VII, Section 1, which states:

A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be
the duty of the Legislature of the 
State to  establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an
efficient system of public free schools.”

Since 1989, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled six times on school finance. In the process, the Court has laid out three tests that the system must fulfill in order to be constitutional. These are illustrated in Figure 1, and are explained in detail in Texas School Finance: Basics and Reformed-finance-constitutional-tests

Critically, the Qualitative Efficiency test had not been addressed by the courts until the most recent ruling in 2016. In 2005, the Texas Supreme Court wrote that it wished to rule upon Qualitative Efficiency, but did not do so because no petitioners at that time appealed to this test, which asks: does the system produce results with little waste? Like the courts, the Legislature must address this test, which requires an appropriate relationship between inputs and outputs.

In the 2014-15 school year, Texas taxpayers spent a total of $60.98 billion on public education according to the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) 2014-15 Financial Actual Report. In the same school year, there were 4,778,559 students attending Texas public schools. As a result, Texans spent $12,761 per student, whereas the average tuition for accredited private schools in Texas was only $7,848. According to the TEA’s 2014-15 Texas Academic Performance Reports (TAPR), the average elementary and secondary school class size is about 20 students. Therefore, Texans spend about $255,00 for the average class. At the same time, the 2014-15 TAPR shows that the average annual salary for teachers was $50,715. Resources are not currently allocated in the most efficient manner to help Texas students.

Public education is funded by an unnecessarily complex and inefficient system that is not student-centered. Texas’ funding formulas have been cobbled together based on political dynamics, not by what works for students. As a result, the system fails the Texas Constitution’s Qualitative Efficiency test. In addition, the system fails the Quantitative Efficiency test on a student basis. We detail solutions to this problem in our Basics and Reform study (49-56).

The Texas Supreme Court, which has dealt with school finance reform for the last 30 years, has repeatedly encouraged the Legislature to make structural reforms to the system. Yet Texas has failed to enact any significant reform that would benefit students or taxpayers. In order to meet Texas’ constitutional obligation to provide “support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools,” we must scrutinize how our current system is failing, and make recommendations for meaningful reform. Analysis should include what the purpose is and the relationship between inputs and outputs in public schools, the relationship between public and state funding, and how we can meet or exceed the three tests to achieve a constitutional public funding system.

Teacher Pay & Administrative Flexibility: The Issue

From: Teacher Pay & Administrative Flexibility, Texas Public Policy Foundation’s 2017-18 Legislator’s Guide, Special Session Edition.

Nothing is more important to a child’s academic success in the classroom than his teacher. To ensure that students have access to the best educators, administrators must be free to hire, fire, and determine the pay of teachers. The Texas Association of School Administrators agrees:

Bureaucracies value power and authority, while learning organizations are driven by beliefs and values. Schools must be transformed from their current bureaucratic form.…  Educating our youth is not a state responsibility but a local function.  Attempts to run the schools from Austin and Washington will result in a further decline in the local sense of ownership and responsibility at the very time when local involvement is most needed.”

When parents, principals, and teachers are given the authority to make the necessary decisions to improve public education, it is the students who will win. Local administrators will have more freedom to encourage and reward their highest performers and teachers will experience increased work satisfaction and productivity. They will both provide the best product to their customer: the student and his parents. Texas spends more than $12,000 per student each year on public education. In Texas, the average elementary school class has 18 students; in high schools, the average class size is 27. Therefore, Texas spends about $216,000 per elementary school class and about $324,000 per high school class. However, the average Texas teacher’s salary in 2014-2015 was $50,715. From 1992-2014, teaching staff in Texas increased by 53 percent, while administrator and “all other staff” increased by an alarming 174 percent. If Texas had simply increased its administrative staff at the same rate as teaching staff, Texas would have saved $7.4 billion annually. Every teacher could receive a $22,100 pay raise annually.

Of course, pay raises should be based on teacher performance, not a pre-determined set salary schedule. At the same time, school leaders must be relieved of some of the most onerous limitations on staff management found in Chapter 21 of the Education Code. Meria Carstarphen, former superintendent of the Austin ISD and former superintendent in a traditionally-run union state, testified that Texas labor laws (non-union) make it more difficult to manage labor practices than the union states in which she previously worked. She found that Texas’ Chapter 21 labor laws can add up to $80,000 for each teacher dismissal process. These labor laws harm the teaching profession, force misallocation of resources, and prevent employment decisions from being made at the local level.

What is in the best interest of the child? Clearly, great teachers matter to the child. And great teachers should be rewarded and encouraged to mentor their less-experienced peers. Allowing districts—and their locally elected board members—to direct salary schedules and hiring practices helps both teachers and students. No bureaucracy in Austin should have the power to dictate how a locally run school district runs its business. That is not in the best interest of the child.