Journal Vol. 8: The Anxiety of Uncertainty – Back to School (Sort of)

Apr 7, 2021

Remember the excitement of getting a new lunchbox at the start of the school year? My 1976 Bicentennial aluminum lunchbox featured a cartoon of a guilty-looking kid standing next to the noticeably cracked Liberty Bell, hiding a slingshot behind his back. My own kids generally lost their lunchboxes pretty early in each school year, so we resorted to paper lunch sacks. That brought up the paper-waste environmental issue. It’s a discussion we’re not having this year. This year it’s in-class or virtual, when, how, and how often.

For a closer look, see the back-to-school Policy Spotlight below.

In the news:

  • WFAA News 8 invited me to share my reaction to the most recent spectacle of state overreach into local authority: threatening to interfere with the constitutional power and obligation of cities to manage their own budgets – including for law enforcement, which the state neither funds nor has authority to govern. This news segment presents a balanced look, in an area where the hubbub contains a lot of hyperbole.
  • In mid-July Fox News asked me back, to talk more about COVID-19 shutdowns, taking care of people, revenue, jobs, and health insurance. You can catch my (exceedingly brief) remarks here. (Had the other guy not eaten up my time, I would have brought attention to the sad fact that, as one of the few remaining non-Medicaid expansion states, Texas is ill-equipped to deal with the COVID job-loss fallout.)

In and around the District, virtually, in May:

  • The elections must go on. Anticipating a shortage of people to staff the polls, local high school student Sydney Watson contacted me regarding her initiative – Students Step Up ­– to recruit other students to train and serve as election workers for the November 3rd General Election. Way to go Sydney! It’s a serious need. Many perennial poll workers are in the age range of high vulnerability to COVID-19, and are understandably reluctant to serve again this year. Interested in helping? Here are links to information for students and information for adults, or contact my office for details. Applications due September 29, 2020.
  • Our Virtual Food Drive benefitting the North Texas Food Bank exceeded our goals, bringing in food and supplies for a great many people in need. Sincere thanks and appreciation to all who supported the effort.

Back at the office:

  • With less than five months until the start of the 2021 legislative session, policy meetings are in full swing. Over the past month I met with UT Dallas faculty about wind energy, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition about reform proposals, and regional pioneers about Texas’s IT infrastructure and regulatory regime. On the public health front, UT Southwestern convened regional legislators for an overview and explanation of their research project to better understand, contain, and treat patients with COVID-19.
  • Earlier this year I helped strengthen the cooperation between One Man’s Treasure, a North Texas non-profit, and the State Department of Corrections. The organization works directly with men who are exiting the state prison system, providing professional attire and help with job interviews and networking opportunities. More recently I had the opportunity to donate 500 masks for use in their clothing site (along with some of my gently used suits) in appreciation of and support for their continued service. They do good, kind work.

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.