Highland Park ISD officials fear the 85th Texas Legislature’s approach to education could mean bad news for Park Cities campuses. As the biannual session got under way, school officials were communicating
with state lawmakers and hoping to have their voices heard.
Potential changes on how the controversial Robin Hood law is applied could have a major impact to district funding, district leaders say.
Under the current formula, districts deemed property-rich, such as Highland Park, are forced to divert money to poorer districts. Since 1994, HPISD has paid more than $1.2 billion to the state, including
more than $80 million in 2016. While some of that money eventually flows back into the district, there is little to no local control over it.
The state’s recapture formula is based on a 1999 law that determines the amount wealthier districts owe based on property values. A new interpretation of that law last year concluded that the formula miscalculated how much wealthier districts owed. Under the new interpretation, HPISD would actually keep significantly more money. However, that proposal would create a $100 million shortfall in state funding, motivating some lawmakers to call for a return to the previous formula.
“The Highland Park community is very supportive of all schools and students, but at a certain point, we have to look at what’s going on at the state level and say, ‘We need to support our public schools,’” HPISD chief of staff Jon Dahlander said.
Compounding uncertainty this session is the fact that shrinking budgets have left officials with less money to allocate, raising the specter of education cuts. The state allocates money based on a district’s average daily attendance numbers. HPISD is pushing to increase that amount, arguing that since 2008, property taxes have increased more than 44 percent, while education funding has increased less than 13 percent.
In order to maintain state-of–the art programs, Highland Park relies heavily on such outside organizations as Mad For Plaid. If the state doesn’t find a way to maintain or increase funding, Dahlander worries that the district would have to ask the community to help even more.
“We are very fortunate to have Mad For Plaid,” Dahlander said. “So many people contribute to our schools.”
Lawmakers are again considering the possibility of school vouchers, which parents could use to help cover the cost of private schools. Some legislators have also advocated education savings accounts (ESAs), which would give families debit cards that could be used to cover tuition, school supplies, tutors, or even home school materials.
During a Feb. 5 televised debate, HP’s state senator Don Huffines advocated ESAs, contending they would foster competition, which he said, “made America great.”
“It’s what is going to make our school systems the best they can possibly be,” Huffines said.
Critics contend that the proposed voucher and ESA programs would not cover the cost of most private school tuition, but they would take much-needed funds away from local school districts.
“We fully support a parent’s decision to send their kids to private schools. That’s their right,” HPISD spokesperson David Hicks said. “What the problem comes down to is fewer tax dollars available to public schools. I don’t understand how you can create that system without taking money away from public schools.”
HPISD leaders hope that strength in numbers will help their cause.
In an unprecedented show of solidarity, superintendent Dr. Tom Trigg joined representatives from 60 other North Texas districts for a January press conference, urging legislatures to hear their concerns. The districts signed a formal resolution urging lawmakers to increase school funding, oppose vouchers, and ditch the new A-F grading system. Schools from other regions across Texas have adopted similar measures.
“The resolution was an opportunity to go on record in terms of the legislative agenda for this session,” Dahlander said “Joining together to form a common legislative agenda has not been done before.”
The grading system, which is based heavily on standardized test results, will formally go into effect in 2018. Every school in the state will be assigned a letter grade. Schools districts worry that the grades will not accurately reflect their performance. In a show of hands, nearly every district representative
at the press conference agreed that the grading system would eventually be used to divert money away from public schools to voucher programs.
Preliminary results were released last year, and while all Highland Park schools received an “A”, district officials still oppose the system.
“We are all for accountability. We hold ourselves very accountable and look at several indicators to determine the strength of the school district based on a number of factors,” Dahlander said. “We just think it’s very challenging to come up with a one size fits all strategy that accurately considers how a school is doing and boil it down to a single letter grade.”
The legislature probably won’t address the education issues until at least March. HPISD officials plan to continue lobbying officials in person as well as via calls and emails.
“We are hopeful that our legislators will support us,” Dahlander said.
HPISD’S STANCE ON THE ISSUES:
No Vouchers or Education Savings Accounts
– HPISD contends that these are tax-funded subsidies for private schools
– Unlike public schools, recipients would have no accountability to taxpayers
Repeal A-F School Accountability System
– There is no evidence that the system helps schools or students
– Other states have struggled with similar measures
– Local property taxes have risen 44.2 percent since 2008, while state aid for education increased by only 12.7 percent
– Money collected from school district property taxes should be used solely for education, not franchise tax relief