TAKS scores: Some guidance for parents

Results announced Tuesday say how students performed on the TAKS statewide.

But what about your child?

If you haven’t already, you should soon be receiving a Confidential Student Report, or CSR, from your child’s school. Some districts, such as the Arlington ISD, sent scores home Monday. Others, including the Richardson ISD, expect to distribute scores with regular student report cards this week.

What to look for

The most basic question: Did your child pass? (It’s not as easy to tell as you might think.) Look for the word “yes” or “no” under the heading “Met Standard.” There should be a separate mark for each subject area your child was tested in.

See what knowledge areas your child needs work in. Each test is divided into distinct objectives. For instance, sixth-grade math includes probability and statistics, geometry and spatial reasoning, and mathematical processes and tools. Check which of these objectives your child missed the most questions in. (Explanations for what the objectives mean should be in a brochure accompanying your child’s CSR.)

In each subject, your child has been given a scale score – a four-digit number roughly between 1,000 and 3,500. Caution: These scores are not directly comparable, so a 2,100 in science doesn’t necessarily equal a similar skill level as a 2,100 in social studies. The passing level on scale scores also varies from grade to grade and test to test.

If your child failed one or more sections, his school should provide a study guide to help him practice skills over the summer. If your child doesn’t receive one, ask when he will. Sample tests from last year are available online at www.tea.state.tx.us/student.assessment. Click on “Released Tests.”

— Joshua Benton

State: DISD lags in teacher quality; District says numbers are better than those reported to TEA

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Nearly a third of DISD teachers in core academic subjects fall short of federal teacher-quality standards, according to a new set of data from the Texas Education Agency.

That is by far the worst showing among Texas’ large urban districts – more than twice the percentage of second-worst Houston.

But Dallas Independent School District officials said their numbers are substantially better than what they reported to the TEA. That’s because they intentionally underreported the number of qualified teachers to make sure their numbers were solid, officials said.

“We wanted to make sure we could stand by what we reported,” said Mary Roberts, Dallas’ deputy superintendent for human resources.

The federal No Child Left Behind law requires that all public school teachers be “highly qualified” by the 2005-06 school year, though the law prescribes no penalties for schools that fall short. The new TEA numbers are based on 2002-03 information.

Under the law, each state is allowed some leeway to define what, exactly, makes a teacher “highly qualified.”

In general, a Texas teacher must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified or on a path to certification, and demonstrate knowledge of his or her subject area. The knowledge requirement is most often satisfied through a standardized test or through college coursework.

In Dallas, 30.4 percent of teachers in core academic subjects were not highly qualified. Among the state’s largest 10 districts, Houston and Fort Worth were closest to DISD’s figure. Both reported that about 12 percent of teachers were not highly qualified. No other major urban district had more than 10 percent.

That performance matches what The Dallas Morning News found in an analysis of state teacher data last year. The Teacher Preparation Index measured how many of a school district’s teachers are experienced and fully certified in the areas they teach. On a 1 to 10 scale that compared districts with one another, Dallas schools scored a 2, the lowest of any major urban district.

But Ms. Roberts said Dallas’ performance shouldn’t be compared to other urban districts because DISD was conservative in reporting how many teachers were “highly qualified.”

The district did not have enough time to fully audit its teacher records before data were due to the TEA in January, she said.

Instead, the district used state teacher certification data in compiling its numbers.

“That’s a higher standard,” she said.

She said that the audit of teacher records had been completed and that she expected to report different “highly qualified” totals this summer.

Still, she acknowledged that the district was having trouble finding qualified teachers in certain critical areas, such as bilingual and special education.

TEA data also showed that Dallas had 1,309 core academic teachers who were working on nonstandard teaching permits, including emergency, nonrenewable or temporary permits. That’s the largest number reported of any district in the state.

“We’ve got a very big challenge ahead of us,” Ms. Roberts said.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Lancaster and DeSoto were the only other districts to have more than 20 percent of their teachers less than highly qualified. In addition to Fort Worth, Garland and Keller also had between 10 percent and 20 percent.

The TEA’s information was gathered from a voluntary survey of school districts done late last year.

Some districts, including Plano and San Antonio’s North East, chose not to complete the survey. TEA officials said the survey will not be voluntary in the future.

Disappointed but not surprised; Educators say many issues, little consensus doomed finance plan

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2A

If you’ve ever wondered how long it takes for hope to turn to disappointment, the answer appears to be 24 days.

The quiet demise of the Legislature’s special session on school finance – once a source of optimism for educators – took just that long.

When Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Friday what others had been murmuring for days – that no bill would reach the governor’s desk before the 30-day session is shuttered – educators reacted with a mix of sadness and anger.

“It is not an option to go home and not do the job,” said Irving ISD Superintendent Jack Singley. “I don’t want my legislator to come home. I want them to stay there until they solve the problem.”

One common complaint: What began as a session on school finance seemed to focus on everything but school finance – video gambling, tax caps, payroll taxes, cigarette taxes.

“There were so many issues that legislators tried to address that it became hard for them to tackle them all,” said Plano Superintendent Doug Otto. “They had so many balls in the air that I think they fell down from the weight of it all.”

Arlington Superintendent Mac Bernd said the inaction was caused by the session’s emphasis on tax relief rather than boosting school funding.

“When you broach the subject of tax relief, you’ve got so many competing interests with extremely strong points of view at work,” he said. “Every interest immediately begins to calculate their losses and gains with each idea. You set up a condition where nothing can get done.”

The turning point, several said, came when the House could not pass a school finance bill without gutting the most controversial revenue elements, including a constitutional amendment allowing video slot machines. Instead, the House sent the Senate a largely empty measure.

“That was the beginning of the end,” said Michael Downes, superintendent of Big Spring schools. “I still had a slim amount of hope in the Senate. But I’m not exceptionally surprised.”

Cathy Bryce, superintendent of the Highland Park schools, said the session was productive even if it won’t produce legislation. “Everybody’s laid out their differences,” she said. “We know where there’s not consensus. That allows you to build a plan.”

But Dr. Otto said he had hoped the state had reached that point before the session began on April 20. “We’ve had almost three years of special interim committees and studies and all kinds of pronouncements that something was going to be done,” he said. “I had high hopes. But I think in the final analysis they had too many issues stacked on their plate.”

Superintendents differed on whether it would be a good idea for the governor to call another special session immediately.

“I think everybody involved needs a breather,” Dr. Bernd said. “I know a lot of times when I’m faced with a problem, I come up with a better idea if I step away from it and sleep on it. That may be what we need here.”

Mr. Downes said that waiting until January’s regular session may not be an option. In August, the Travis County District Court is expected to hear the West Orange Cove case, in which a coalition of school districts accuses the state of underfunding public schools and imposing an unconstitutional statewide property tax.

Mastering the art of control

Gov. Rick Perry’s not giving up on this session.

Speaking in an interview with TXCN on Thursday, Mr. Perry said “it’s important that we continue to be optimistic” that a school finance bill could be passed before the session ends next week.

“We’ve got a few very good hours left. … We’re still talking. As long as we’re talking, there’s progress.”

The Senate continues to tweak finance changes that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst hopes to pass shortly. But some lawmakers have said passage before the 30-day session ends is doubtful.

“The ball is basically in the Senate’s court,” Mr. Perry said. “They haven’t passed anything.”

On another matter, the governor said he has a “thick skin” and is not bothered by the House’s 126-0 rejection of his revenue plan. “I continue to tell members, ‘Come up with something better,'” he said.

–Joshua Benton

Leaders hold out hope for school bill in week; Dewhurst confers with Craddick; Perry meets N. Texas homeowners

By Terrence Stutz and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

Page 4A

Despite growing doubts that a compromise can be found, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday he and other legislative leaders are still aiming for Senate approval of a school finance bill by week’s end.

Toward that end, Mr. Dewhurst polled senators Wednesday on whether they could support a scaled-back plan that would provide less property tax relief and be funded through increased sales taxes and a revamped business franchise tax. The plan also proposed increases in state taxes on cigarettes and beer.

The lieutenant governor also met for nearly an hour with House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, to discuss what mix of revenue-raising options might be acceptable to House members.

“I don’t know that we’ve reached any firm conclusions because I have to go back to the Senate and look at a lot of details, but it was a constructive conversation,” Mr. Dewhurst said of the meeting.

“We’re still looking at the revenue package. We’re also looking at how we fund new resources if in fact there aren’t the votes over in the House for a constitutional amendment.”

His reference was to the constitutional amendment that would be required to legalize video gambling casinos at seven dog and horse tracks and on three Indian lands to raise $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion a year for school funding and property tax relief.

House members dodged the video gambling proposal last week, and key lawmakers said there still are insufficient votes to pass it in the chamber. A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate.

Key senators have decided that it may be possible to secure passage of legislation in the House if the measure does not require any constitutional amendments.

That would mean lawmakers would have to turn to reform of the business franchise tax and a sales tax increase to generate the necessary revenue for the legislation. An increase in the state cigarette tax is also part of the mix.

“I still favor a broad-based business tax that is fair and uniform and has a low rate,” Mr. Dewhurst said. He and other Senate leaders have supported a reform of the current business franchise tax so that all businesses pay the tax.

Gov. Rick Perry is opposed to new business taxes, however.

The proposal under consideration in the Senate also would scale back the proposed property tax cut to 25 cents per $100 valuation rather than the 50 cents outlined on Tuesday. A 25-cent reduction would be a 17 percent decrease in the current maximum rate of $1.50.

Mr. Dewhurst said he remains hopeful of passing a bill in the Senate by Friday. The current special session ends Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Gov. Perry was in Arlington to push for his package of property tax relief. He held a miniature town-hall-style meeting at the home of Bruce Deramus, chairman of Concerned Taxpayers of Arlington.

Mr. Deramus said the property tax bill for his home on Rocky Point Court had gone up 74 percent in the last seven years.

The governor pitched his plan to a supportive small group of mostly older residents from Grand Prairie, Arlington and Fort Worth.

“Right now, Texas is a highly desirable place to live,” the governor said. “If our tax appraisals keep going up, it won’t be any more because no one will be able to own a home,” he said.

The governor has proposed limiting property tax increases by capping the increase of property appraisals at 3 percent per year and preventing local government spending from growing faster than inflation and population growth without a vote of the people.

Mr. Perry indicated he still has hope that the Legislature can put a bill on his desk before the end of the special session. “There’s no reason we can’t do this in 48 hours,” he said.

In other developments Wednesday, the trial in a lawsuit filed by 46 school districts against the state was moved back two weeks and will now start Aug. 9. The school districts, including Dallas, contend they are underfunded by the state and that the current $1.50 maximum tax rate is unconstitutional.

Column: Turnover becomes a principal concern

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Janet Smith loves being a teacher. She knows that a lot of her students – poor, from single-parent homes – don’t have many constants in their lives. She likes being one.

“Over time, you build up a rapport,” says the 20-year veteran. “The parents get to know you. They come up to you and say, ‘Oh, you’re going to have my Brian in two years!’ I love that, being part of the community. I like that stability.”

Which is why she doesn’t like the fact that she’s worked for five principals in the last six years.

“It’s crazy,” said Ms. Smith. (That’s not her name, but I’d rather she not get in trouble for talking with me.) “You never know what the new person wants. You spend all your time trying to be careful and keep your head low. It’s not the way to run a school.”

The folks who study how kids learn say that stability is key to a good learning environment. When you cycle through superintendents at the speed that DISD did in the 1990s, nobody knows who’s in charge. When you have to replace a third of your teachers each year – as some suburban Dallas districts do – you can’t keep any momentum going.

But in between teachers and superintendents are the principals. More than anyone else in education, they’re the ones in charge. They’re close enough to the kids to know their names, but high enough on the chain of command to think strategically.

If you’re running through them like Kleenex in hay-fever season, best of luck improving your schools.

“If you’re constantly turning over your principals, it’s impossible for teachers to feel they have an idea where the school is going,” said Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “The culture is constantly disrupted.”

Ms. Smith moved to Dallas six years ago, after teaching in Illinois and Arizona. She started in a South Dallas middle school. In three years, she had three principals.

“Each one had their own unique shortcomings,” she said. “The first year, students were literally running the halls in gangs. They’d burst into my classroom, screaming and laughing, throw candy at the kids, then run out. Nothing would happen to them. There was no discipline.”

That principal was replaced with one from an elementary school. “She wanted to be best friends with the kids, so she’d side with the kids on everything. She’d talk bad about the teachers right in front of the kids. That undercut us.”

A year later came someone else – a disciplinarian. “He’s like Attila the Hun,” she said. He would roam the halls paddle in hand, she said, ready to dispense justice at all times. Discipline improved, but she thought: “I’ve got to get out of here.”

Ms. Smith moved to a high school – and a principal she liked. But that principal retired after two years, bringing in yet another new leader. And a new everything.

Each principal had a vision for the school. Each wanted Ms. Smith teaching different classes. Each had different ideas about paperwork, different ideas about discipline, different ideas about teaching.

Whether they’re good ideas or bad ideas, they’re just too many ideas.

“They all walked in and said, ‘Excuse me, but this is my school now and this is how I’m going to run it,'” she said. “Then you had to adjust to it.”

Ms. Smith isn’t the only one who had to deal with principal churn. The Dallas Independent School District has 218 schools. When the current school year began, 61 of them had new principals. A year earlier, 52 of them had new principals. That means that roughly half of all Dallas schools have a different principal now than they had two years ago.

Now, I can’t pass judgment on these principals, old or new. I don’t have the slightest idea if they were brilliant or awful. Superintendent Mike Moses, no doubt, has his reasons for moving people around. And Dallas isn’t the only district that cycles through principals.

But even if you had to deal with five wonderful, brilliant bosses in six years, I bet you’d have trouble getting better at your job.

“It’s bad for the kids, bad for the teachers,” Ms. Smith said. “You see a complete erosion of respect, up and down the ladder. There’s no single person at the helm with a steady hand, and the kids know it.”

Bill may spell end of TAKS; High school exam would be replaced; some fault timing in special session

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

It has taken five years for Texas high schools to get ready for the TAKS test.

It might take just a single 30-day legislative session to throw it away.

A little-noted section buried in the finance bill given final approval by the House on Wednesday would kill off the high school TAKS entirely. Its replacement: a new series of 13 course-specific tests tied to classes such as world geography and English II.

Some Texas education leaders say they’re astounded a decision so big could be made at a time when lawmakers are focused on things like whether to allow slot machines and how much to raise the sales tax.

“It’s a mistake,” said Sandy Kress, a former Dallas school board president and education adviser to President Bush. “We’ve spent so much time and energy over the last five years building this system up. To scrap it in a special session about school finance would be a serious, serious mistake.”

Although the proposed move survived in the House, its fate in the Senate is unclear.

The Senate education committee will take up its education proposal today.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who chairs the Senate education committee, declined to say whether she would support the change.

“The Senate is in deliberations about what its plan will include, and until it is fully vetted, I don’t know what form it will take,” Ms. Shapiro said through a spokeswoman. “There are many elements being considered, and the TAKS test is only one of them.”

TAKS history

The Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills was authorized by the Legislature in 1999. Students in grades three through 11 took it for the first time last year, when it replaced the old TAAS.

Starting with this year’s junior class, high-schoolers must pass all four sections of the 11th-grade TAKS to earn a diploma.

One reason lawmakers are considering tossing the high school TAKS: Students haven’t done well on it. Last year, about half of all juniors failed at least one section. While this spring’s scores aren’t in yet, it’s expected that around 100,000 students will be at risk of not graduating next year.

“A lot of students are going to find themselves in an awkward position at the end of their high school career,” said Rep. Fred Hill, R-Richardson, who said the expected high failure rate for juniors was a major reason he supported the change.

Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, whose name is on the amendment, and Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, chairman of the House public education committee, did not return calls.

The bill would require the Texas Education Agency to have these new end-of-course exams – four in science and three each in English, math and social studies – in place by the 2008-09 school year.

Once the end-of-course tests were in place, students would have to pass at least eight – two in each of the four subject areas – to graduate.

Details unclear

It’s unclear what would happen until then. The bill says the TEA “may retain” TAKS and use it for calculating school ratings. The measure leaves the task of creating a transition plan to the commissioner.

DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the TEA and Commissioner Shirley Neeley, said the agency wouldn’t comment until a bill becomes law. “At this time, we’re just watching and providing support as requested,” she said.

Mike Moses, the Dallas superintendent and former state education commissioner, said that he is not pushing for a change but that he could be happy with either the TAKS or end-of-course exams. “I don’t have a problem as long as we don’t try to do both,” he said. “I think that would be too much testing.”

Previous exams

Texas has had end-of-course exams before. A biology test made its debut in 1994. Algebra followed the next year, and English II and U.S. history were added in 1998.

Proponents liked the way that the exams allowed evaluations of a specific class, since they were given as soon as the school term was over.

But end-of-course exams were never the focus of the state’s testing system. There were no penalties for schools or students who didn’t do well on them, and all but the algebra test were eliminated with the advent of TAKS.

Some have criticized the TAKS test as not being tied to specific coursework.

For example, the 11th-grade social studies exam includes some history material generally taught in eighth grade.

“I’d rather not wait a few years until we discover that students don’t know the material,” Rep. Hill said. “I’d rather determine what the problems are early on and work on fixing them.”

Less stressful?

A system of end-of-course exams could also ease the stress on high school juniors and seniors, since many of the exams required for graduation could be taken in ninth or 10th grade.

Mr. Kress and others said there are valid arguments for and against end-of-course exams. But they said schools and educators have spent too much time preparing for the TAKS graduation requirements to eliminate the test without careful thought.

“We haven’t given it a run to see how it’s going to work,” said John Stevens, executive director of the Texas Business and Education Coalition. “I can understand why lots of people are focused on taxes and school funding. But this is a big deal, too.”

From his law offices in Austin, Mr. Kress said, “If I were a high school principal and I’d just finished going through what I’ve gone through in the last 18 months, I’d think somebody had slipped something in the Kool-Aid down here.”

State funding for stadiums may halt; House school bill bans spending on buildings not mostly for teaching

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 8A

Football may be king in Texas, but it might end up getting dinged by the Legislature.

One section of the school finance bill given final approval by the House on Wednesday would prohibit the use of state money to construct or improve buildings not used primarily for instruction.

That would eliminate state assistance for football stadiums, as well as things such as central administration buildings or transportation facilities.

Because only property-poor school districts can receive state funding for such projects, they are the ones that would be affected by the move. Wealthier school districts typically pay for stadiums through bond issues backed by local property taxes.

“The districts that can least afford to pay for these facilities are the ones who would be most affected,” said Lisa Dawn-Fisher, the Texas Education Agency’s assistant director of state funding.

Ms. Dawn-Fisher said the agency would spend a total of $427 million this year in its Existing Debt Allotment program, the only TEA program that helps schools pay for stadiums and the like. That total includes money for both schools and noninstructional facilities; she said the agency doesn’t know how much of that money is spent on things other than classroom buildings.

“We want to focus the limited amount of money we have at a state level to assist school districts to build instructional facilities,” said Rep. Fred Hill, the Richardson Republican who proposed the bill language.

The facilities measure is one of several provisions in the bill unrelated to the main issue of how to generate and distribute revenue for schools. Some others:

*A provision mandating standardized school board elections and terms. All board terms must be four years long, and all elections must be in November. Many districts, including Dallas, have elections at other times during the year.

*A requirement that students take SAT or ACT exams. The bill requires all eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students in Texas to take one or the other exam to judge their college readiness and allow them to be compared with their peers in other states.

*A mandate for computerized testing. The provision requires that all state tests be given on computers by the 2006-07 school year.

*A measure requiring Texas to come up with a “value-added” system. The provision directs state officials to create a system that tracks students’ abilities from one year to the next. That would allow, among other things, an evaluation of how much “value” teachers add to student learning.

A study in rising costs; Irving ISD illustrates reasons for school finance overhaul

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Alma Jimenez’s prospects would dim in a crowded classroom.

The teachers love this bright, hard-working 11-year-old. But Alma didn’t know a word of English when her family came to America two years ago.

Twenty years ago, she might have been thrown into a 35-student class and expected to fend for herself.

But today, at Irving’s de Zavala Middle School, she’s learning social studies in a class of four.

“It’s wonderful,” said David Seright, her English as a second language world cultures teacher. “I can go over everyone’s mistakes with them individually. I can read to them individually. I can develop a rapport with them individually. It makes a great big difference.”

School districts say the $30 billion they spend each year isn’t enough. Why have their needs gone up so much?

As with any financial question, the answers are complicated.

But part of the answer is students such as Alma. Texas schools are expected to deal with a more diverse set of students than ever before. More students who can’t speak English. More students who need special education. More students who show up to school not ready to learn. And Texans demand better results than ever before.

“Back in the old days, we had a few kids with special needs,” said Jack Singley, Irving’s superintendent. “Now, we have a lot more.”

Irving ISD is an appropriate case study that helps explain why lawmakers, now a week into a special session on school finance, are under so much pressure.

The cost of educating Texas children has outstripped the capacity of a system heavily reliant on the taxing of those who own property. Nearly half of districts tax at the maximum allowed under state law for operating expenses – $1.50 for each $100 of assessed property value, a limit that has stood since the 1950s.

While it is one of the state’s largest districts, Irving is in many ways average. Its test scores are usually within a few points of the state mean. Its boundaries hold both urban grit and suburban calm. And, like Texas as a whole, its student body has shifted over the last two decades from middle class and white to mostly poor and minority.

Irving is also like many Texas school districts in one important respect: It’s out of money.

“Our capacity has run out,” Mr. Singley said. “We have no control over our revenues. All you can control is your expenditures. So you cut.”

Irving’s property tax rate for day-to-day operations is $1.50. Add in 31.5 cents to pay for bond issues and facilities, and an Irving taxpayer pays a tax rate just short of $1.82.

Twenty years ago, that taxpayer paid 68.9 cents.

Over that span, per-pupil spending in Irving, adjusted for inflation, has increased from $4,818 to $5,625.

Where does all that extra money go?

*Most of it goes to the classroom.

On a per-pupil basis, Irving spends less money on the services of employees such as janitors, nurses, guidance counselors and central office administrators than it did in 1983-84. As finances have tightened, expenses distant from teaching and learning have gotten the most scrutiny and faced the biggest cuts. In contrast, spending on classroom instruction has jumped more than 35 percent since 1984, even after adjusting for inflation.

“The classroom teacher is where the action is,” Mr. Singley said. “All the rest of us, we’re just support staff for the classroom teacher.”

*Lots of it goes toward salaries.

In 1984, Irving had one teacher for every 20 students. Last year, it had a teacher for every 14. And those teachers are substantially better paid now than they used to be. Twenty years ago, a rookie Irving teacher made about $16,200 a year – about $29,900 in 2004 dollars. This year, a starting salary was $36,350.

Add in the rising cost of employee benefits – most notably health insurance – and you end up with a school budget made up almost entirely of payroll costs.

In 1984, $4 out of every $5 spent in Irving schools went to salaries and benefits. Today, it’s $9 out of every $10.

That means cutting costs is almost impossible without lowering salaries, reducing benefits, or laying off employees – all unattractive options.

*More goes toward special education.

Twenty years ago, special-ed students were typically cordoned off into separate classes. Little was expected of them academically. Today, thinking about special ed has evolved. Many such students “mainstreamed” into regular classrooms, and school ratings are determined in part by how well they fare on state standardized tests.

The result has been significant increases in special-education spending.

In 1985-86, a typical American school spent $6,335 on each of its special-education students, according to a study funded by the U.S. Department of Education. By 1999-2000, the cost was $12,474.

To see how large special ed looms in Irving’s budget, consider last year’s budget cutbacks. Shortfalls forced Irving to eliminate 6.3 percent of all regular teaching jobs in the district. But only 0.4 percent of special-ed jobs were eliminated.

*Much goes to meet higher academic expectations.

When many of today’s lawmakers were in school, dropping out wasn’t unusual.

“People like to talk about the good old days,” said Bill McAlister, principal of de Zavala Middle School. “Well, in the good old days, half of your kids quit school and could get a job and make a living and have a family. You could get a job working with your hands.

“That world has died and gone. We all have increased expectations.”

Those demands are set in state law through standards-based reforms implemented since the mid-1980s. Schools are now expected to generate strong academic performances for all their students – Anglo, black, Hispanic, rich and poor.

“My teachers are just working their tails off before school, after school, on Saturdays, to help these kids in a world where the level of expectation goes way beyond 1984,” Mr. McAlister said.

To meet expectations for students such as Alma, schools have devoted substantial resources.

The size of her social studies class – just four students – is a bit unusual. But Mr. Seright said most of his classes for non-English speakers average 10 to 12 students – substantially smaller, and more costly, than other classes.

While drawing the flag of Spain as part of an art project, Alma said she liked knowing that Mr. Seright would be available to help when she runs into trouble.

“I love my teachers,” she said. “They like to help me.”

In 1984, Mr. McAlister was principal at Irving’s Lamar Middle School.

“We had class counts of 30, 35 kids in a classroom in those days,” he said. “We could effectively do that because most of our kids were on grade level, not LEP limited English proficiency, not poor.”

In 1984, Irving was 14.5 percent minority, mostly middle class, and had a smattering of non-English speakers. Last year, it was two-thirds minority, almost 60 percent poor, and one-third LEP.

“If we took today’s population of kids and put them in those size classes and expected a teacher to teach successfully,” Mr. McAlister said, “it would not be a successful expectation.”

These factors add up to a situation Irving officials call untenable.

The state’s cap on property tax rates means the district can’t generate any more revenue locally. Cuts in the last few years have trimmed Irving’s nonacademic offerings to the bone. If the Legislature doesn’t find a way to raise more money, Mr. Singley said, the next round of cuts could be brutal.

“I don’t even want to talk about what the options are, but they will be things people will really complain about,” he said.

Mr. McAlister, an educator in Irving for 32 years, said he has never felt financial pressures like this.

“Back then, the budget wasn’t a big deal to us,” he said. “We felt like we had what was necessary to handle our kids and do what we had to do. Now you have to dig for money wherever you can get it, and there’s never enough.”

State benefits from quirk in funding formula; When property values rise, districts’ gains offset by loss of aid

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 6B

If property values in North Texas have soared over the last 20 years, and if money for schools comes mostly from taxes on property value, then school districts are bursting with money, right?

Not exactly.

A quirk in the state’s funding formula has given the benefit of rising property values to the state – not local taxpayers and not local schools. It helps explain why the state’s portion of the tab for education has shrunk and why the funding system is in crisis.

In 1983-84, the state provided $42 of every $100 that Irving schools spent. Today, it provides $29.

“The state isn’t doing nearly as much as it used to,” said Debbie Cabrera, Irving school district’s executive director of finance.

Ever since the Texas Supreme Court decided that school funding must be equalized across district boundaries, state budget makers have used a concept known as “guaranteed yield.”

The idea: Every school district should be able to generate a roughly equal amount of money per pupil for each penny of property taxes it charges.

A property-wealthy district must ship some of its money back to the state for redistribution – the so-called recapture process, or “Robin Hood.” Property-poor districts get money from the state to make up the difference.

Either way, the state promises to provide districts that guaranteed yield.

OK, so say a district’s property values go up – as they did in most of North Texas through the 1990s – meaning each penny of tax levied brings in more revenue.

The district benefits from that increase – but only for one year.

The next year, the state updates its records of district property values. If tax revenue increased by, say, $10 million, the state’s budget formula reduces the amount of state aid the district receives by $10 million.

The district will never see any benefit from that increase in property values again.

The net result is that districts with rising property values see a corresponding drop in the amount of state aid they receive. Between 1995 and 2003, for example, property values per pupil nearly doubled in the Frisco school district. In 1995, 28.5 percent of Frisco’s revenues came from the state. Last year, 6.5 percent did.

“If you’re a state budget writer and you see property values going up, you think, ‘Hey, what a deal!'” said Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a group that advocates higher levels of education funding.

“You think, ‘I don’t have to pay districts quite as much as we used to. I’ll go spend the money elsewhere.'”

And that’s how property owners across the state came to be carrying more than 62 percent of the overall costs of public education, and why districts allege in a lawsuit set for trial in July that the state isn’t living up to its obligations to schools.