Policy Spotlight: resuming school with the anxiety of uncertainty.
Who’s running the back-to-school-in-a-pandemic effort this Fall? School districts? The Texas Education Agency? The Attorney General? The Governor? Local health authorities?
Yes. And no. Over the past few weeks the TEA and state officials have issued various guidelines deadlines opinions requirements abatements enhancements restrictions and qualifications applicable to how independent school districts can “independently” run school districts. Meanwhile there is no resounding consensus among policy makers, educators, and the public. Confusion abounds and anxiety hangs in the air, for parents, teachers, and even – perhaps especially – school districts, as students prepare to head back to school either virtually or in-person or both.
Granted, this stuff is hard. There’s no manual. But let’s not let that stop us from complaining. It would be helpful if leadership and the TEA would:
- confirm that schools that close in response to objective health criteria developed in close consultation with public health officials, and that are providing virtual learning, will receive full formula funding;
- gather and disseminate efficacious and promising practices from schools and daycare providers around the state;
- commit to devoting personnel and resources to identifying and overcoming barriers to distance learning, most prevalent among disadvantaged groups and English language learners.
Meanwhile, here’s the status on some of the bigger issues:
School funding and finance. But whereas last session we had a surplus of cash, we now face a dire budget shortfall. Will the Legislature maintain the 86th session’s commitment to increased education funding?I think most legislators aim to preserve education funding (I certainly do). The question is, how? In the past the Legislature has responded to shortfalls with spending cuts and increased reliance on local property taxes. The latter option was rightly terminated by HB3. So if we don’t cut, we’ll have to find revenue. It’s going to be a scramble, and it’s far from predictable. Perhaps we’ll be rescued by federal dollars (not holding my breath), or we’ll manage to craft a combination of additional state revenue, programmatic efficiencies, and budget realignments (i.e., taking from one purpose and giving them to another). Can’t wait.
As for the present current fiscal biennium, rest assured that the formula funding for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years remains unchanged. (Yes, the TEA used federal pandemic funding to supplant the state’s current education funding obligations, but the amount that schools receive has not been altered.)
School start and COVID protocol. There is money available for pandemic costs. The state allocated (largely from federal COVID dollars) about $400 million to reimburse school districts for expenses incurred last Spring (up to 75% of total COVID-related expenses), $200 million to support distance learning (including the purchase of home internet devices for students who need them), and $100 million for PPE. Educators should stay engaged to ensure that the funding is properly disbursed and deployed.Since the beginning of July we’ve gone from:
– mandatory daily on-campus instruction as a precondition to state funding(!), to
– local health orders to keep campuses closed through Labor Day, to
– a TEA statement that that (above) is just fine, and that ISDs and local health authorities will have authority over when and how on-campus classes start, to
– the Texas Attorney General issuing a “non-binding” opinion letter (which in practical effect is pretty binding after all) stating that local health authorities do not have authority to close schools absent an on-campus COVID outbreak, to
– the TEA reversing its previous position (above) and declaring that it won’t provide funding to schools that close in response to public health orders.So we’re kinda back to where we started, except, since the Texas COVID experience isn’t going so well, the start of on-campus instruction will be delayed and funding will be preserved during the delay. Most schools will be conducting distance learning through Labor Day. After that, they can continue virtually, in-person, or as a hybrid, for up to eight more weeks (but more than four more weeks requires TEA approval).
STAAR stakes. To the great relief of a great many, the Governor temporarily waived the STAAR test for purposes of promoting kids from 5th-to-6th and 8th-to-9th grades. This reprieve from high-stakes testing will help educators give much needed attention to the many new challenges of this school year.
Closing thoughts. The tornados took 3,800 trees from various parts of Dallas. The Texas Trees Foundation is hard at work planting replacement trees. But it will take a long time for the majesty of a mature tree canopy to grace those neighborhoods again. Trees grow only as fast as trees grow.