States

Texas Republicans Eye Cash Rewards for Districts

By Daarel Burnette II — March 05, 2019 5 min read
Visitors and guests line up in the rotunda of the Texas State Capitol for the beginning of the 86th Texas Legislative session. Lawmakers are poised to tackle a range of school funding issues this session.

For district administrators, just how much does money talk when it comes to boosting test scores?

Texas Republicans are in the thick of designing a statewide funding formula that could answer that question in a very big way.

Under a proposal being prepared by legislative leaders, the state would set aside $800 million annually to reward districts that have various strong outcomes.

In decades past, extra federal and state money across the nation has been distributed to districts that struggle academically. Texas is proposing to, in effect, flip that model on its head by spending more money on districts that meet certain state standards and less money on those that don’t.

“We decided, right or wrong, that it’s better to provide financial rewards, or carrots, than to try to improve districts through our A-F accountability system,” said Todd Williams, the CEO of The Commit Partnership, a Dallas-based advocacy group, who helped design the funding formula. “I think that more money doesn’t necessarily produce great results, but I think money invested strategically can have transformative results.” (The state doesn’t plan to get rid of its controversial A-F system.)

Arizona and Ohio have similar outcomes-based incentive models. And a legislator in Arkansas last month proposed a bill that would punish schools with low reading scores by taking away money set aside for schools with high poverty rates.

Risky Experiment?

But critics in Texas say such an experiment would result in the state shoveling even more money toward already wealthy and academically successful districts, further punish impoverished and academically struggling districts, and give an incentive for superintendents to attempt to game the system.

They point out that proficiency scores have a strong correlation with poverty and that boosting them requires a host of resources, including talented teachers, strong curricula, and wraparound services that can ameliorate the effects of poverty, all of which cost more—not less—money. A rewards-based system would ultimately exacerbate the divide between the haves and have-nots and force teachers to teach to the test, they say.

“Leave it to Texas, the birthplace of statewide testing, to double down on something that research shows does not work,” said Noel Candelaria, the president of Texas State Teachers Association. “We’re just going to end up punishing poor districts for having low test scores and rewarding middle class and rich districts with better funding.”

Teachers plan to rally at the state capitol during their spring break next week to protest the measure, among other things.

Fiscally conservative Texas Republicans, who control the state capital, rushed to replace the funding formula after the state’s supreme court decided in 2016 that, while the state’s spending was discriminatory and ineffective in boosting outcomes, it wasn’t the court’s role to decide how the legislature should spend K-12 dollars.

Taxpayers have long complained about the way the state has captured money from property-rich districts and distributed it to property-poor districts, what’s known as the Robin Hood effect.

A statewide commission recommended in December that Texas spend much more than it has in the past on the state’s poor students, students with special needs, and English-language learners. It also recommended that the state kick in more income and sales tax revenue to offset local property tax revenue.

But what’s gotten the most attention in recent weeks is the proposal buried in the 165-page document that the state set aside incentive money for districts to raise test scores.

While the recommendation deals only with 1 percent of the state’s budget, it could be a windfall for a district where a large portion of students meet statewide benchmarks.

Under the proposal, districts would receive $1,450 more for every student achieving 3rd grade reading proficiency, an amount that would more than double if the student is low-income.

Similarly, a district would receive $2,015 more for every high school student who goes on to enroll in college or the military or graduates with a industry-accepted certificate. That amount also would more than double if the student is low-income. Districts would be allowed to use the extra cash for, among other things, professional development, full-day pre-K, or personalized learning initiatives.

Williams said that the project wouldn’t result in wealthier districts ultimately receiving more money than impoverished districts, since the proposed funding formula would provide more money to districts serving at-risk students.

Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who has used a controversial $15 million teacher-pay-incentive program to boost test scores, said administrators would be responsive to a state model that offered them more cash for improving academic outcomes.

“While many of my colleagues are opposed to it, I’m willing to take a look at it,” he said. “Part of our success is, we’ve changed how we’ve organized ourselves to make sure we’re more successful, and none of my employees got a raise until we could prove we’re moving the needle academically.”

In Arizona, state legislators three years ago decided to provide districts with up to $400 more per student in extra state funds for every student who met statewide benchmarks. That came after the state recalibrated its funding formula and replaced it with one that resulted in several tiny, wealthy suburban districts losing millions of dollars.

A study by Anabel Aportela, the director of research for the Arizona School Boards Association, shows that most of that incentive money went to some of the state’s wealthiest districts. The incentive program, she said, never really resonated with district administrators since all the administrators know beforehand which districts will get the money at the end of the year.

“Politicians are assuming that folks are sitting back and waiting for the right set of incentives before they do their job,” Aportela said. “Educators are working very hard to serve these students.”

About 35 states use a similar outcomes-based funding formula for public universities.

While such an approach is highly popular among politicians, said Kevin Dougherty, a researcher at Columbia University’s Teachers College, it has yet to produce tangible outcomes in the higher education arena, according to several studies.

In fact, many researchers point out that the approach has discouraged colleges from enrolling poor high school students who are less likely to complete college in six years, and has financially punished Hispanic-Serving Institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities institutions, whose purpose is to serve those students.

“Outcomes-based funding formulas are a way for the government to say to schools that ‘we’re tough, we’re demanding and we’re not going to take excuses.’ This is still a potent rhetoric with the public.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Cash Rewards Weighed for Districts in Texas

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