I live in one House District while working in another. The advantage to this is that I get to work with both state representatives legitimately. I sent the questionnaire to both of them. One, State Rep. Tommy Merritt, Longview, completed his and returned it via email today. Thanks so much for doing that, sir. I have to say, my work with Rep. Merritt over the years has been mostly positive as it pertains to public education. Even when he votes opposite of what I would prefer, he shares his reasons. It is better than I get out of most state reps that cover our region of the state. One has a standard response of “I will vote with the recommendation of the committee.” That is political speak for “I have to see what the leadership wants me to do first before I can take a position.” But I digress.
So, get ready for more education conversation than you found in ALL of the presidential debates combined. Rep. Merritt is unopposed in this race. Well, let me rephrase that. He had a last minute alternate party candidate join the race ONLY because he did not want to just see one name on the ballot. He is not actively campaigning. Please find below the questions and answers directly copied and pasted from the email. I have made no changes to either of our parts of this (questions are in bold print):
Q1: Do you favor the current method of funding schools in Texas? Why or why not? (If you do not favor the current method, what method will you suggest?)
I don’t favor the current “target revenue hold-harmless” method of funding schools because it does not reflect the actual cost of educating our children. Because of target revenue funding, more than 90% of school district funding is determined by a snapshot of what existed in the 2005-06 school year. We already have a formula system in statute that would provide a sound basis for an equitable, cost-based system. We need to fund it at an appropriate level and move away from the target revenue concept.
Q2: Gathering from your history in the legislature, you suggest additional funding for education programs. How will you propose to pay for such programs while lowering property taxes but not generating more income via a state income tax?
As the Texas economy continues to grow faster than the rest of the nation, the increased revenue at current property tax rates should be funneled back into public education by increasing the funding yields that provide the foundation for an efficient funding system. This will go a long way in enabling districts to meet funding challenges such as those created by inflation and increasing accountability standards—and, it helps districts avoid tax rate increases because it provides more money for the district at the same tax rate.
Q3: Texas schools are behind other states in spending for technology. How will you suggest that the legislature help schools get up to the same level of technology spending that other states have been at for years and be prepared for future technology needs?
First, we need to recognize the reality of the current situation. Until the 2002-03 school year, public schools were eligible for grants from the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF). Districts would not necessarily receive a grant each year, but the average annual disbursement was about $30 per student. In addition, the Available School Fund provided a $30 per student technology allotment. Now, five years later, that $60 per student average has dropped below $30—based on a “sum-certain” appropriation.
This funding level is inadequate and should be raised to at least $150 per student, perhaps with a phase-in of a $50 per student technology allotment in 2009-2000, $100 in the second year of the biennium, and $150 per student for each year thereafter, dedicated from the Available School Fund.
The third component must be efficiency. We must make sure that every technology dollar is spent wisely, but true efficiencies will not come from outside the system. They must evolve from collaboration among stake holders, from the sharing of resources, and from the use of innovative teaching.
Q4: In our part of the state, there are many families without access to the internet due to the lack of infrastructure (fiber) running into our rural communities. Yet, much if not all of the state educational information is located on the internet. We are effectively not allowing these parents to be part of the education of their children. How will you address this issue?
Given current technology and the size of Texas, providing fiber-access to every parent, regardless of where they live, would be an impossible task, as you know. An answer may eventually lie in newer technologies like broadband over cell or broadband over power lines, but those are commercial builds for the obvious reasons.
While technology has certainly enhanced communication between parents and public schools and plays a very important roll, the higher question of ensuring parent participation in the education of their children is not limited to internet access. Regular contact with your child’s teacher is the essential component.
Q5: School districts across the state must respond to unfunded mandates from both the state and federal levels. For instance, in a few years, the state will require all student statewide testing such as End of Course and TAKS tests to be administered online. The state is not providing any additional monies to districts to make sure they have the equipment, bandwidth, and facilities to provide for this. Can you address exactly what you will do to help districts with unfunded mandates, both from the state and the federal levels?
If a thing is worth mandating, then it is worth the funding it takes to respond to the mandate. If a thing is not worth funding, then it shouldn’t be a mandate.
Unfunded federal mandates should be addressed with your Congressman. State mandates that are without benefit, whether they are unfunded or not, should be eliminated.
The first step is for those directly involved in public education—educators, parents, and other taxpayers—to identify the mandates that should be eliminated. If the case can be made, then I will work to eliminate them.
Q6: How do you plan to address the continuing teacher and administrator shortages? Which of these are viable plans in your estimation:
Recruit teachers from other countries.
Rehire retirees with few restrictions.
Help districts reimburse individuals who go to or return to school to become certified teachers.
Help districts reimburse individuals who return to college while still teaching to earn administrator certification.
All of the strategies you mention are good strategies for eliminating teacher and administrator shortages. The best approach, however, must begin with competitive salaries.
Q7: One of the greatest expenses in any school district is the installation of technology followed by the maintenance and eventual replacement of said technology. What is your plan to give districts relief from the costs associated with these instructional and administrative tools?
Appropriate technology is essential in any school district, as are faculty and staff salaries, healthcare, transportation, and on and on. A school funding plan written with intent to address a specific cost will most likely fail to address other, equally important costs. Adequately funding a cost-based formula system—which includes solid, dependable funding for technology—should be our goal.
Q8: What is your stand on electronic textbooks as opposed to traditional paper texts?
Each has benefits, neither is a remedy. Both should be used in the best way to meet the needs of children.
Q9: Student assessment like the TAKS test has mutated over the years from a simple student diagnostic to a high stakes program where people’s jobs are placed in jeopardy if scores are not met. Do you support high stakes testing such as the TAKS test? Why or why not? How do you see these tests changing in the future?
I voted for SB1031 replacing the TAKS test with end of course exams for high school students. In addition, I support replacing the TAKS test for middle and elementary students with end of course exams. A single test should not determine a student’s or teacher’s success or failure.
Q10: What can you do specifically to help House District 7 schools and parents during your legislative session in Austin?
Listen to the concerns expressed by schools and parents. Communicate their input and feedback to my colleagues and vote for legislation that supports their needs.
Thank you for your time.
I look forward to reading and posting your responses.
Scott S. Floyd, M. Ed.
White Oak ISD Instructional Technologist
Big props to Rep. Merritt for taking the initiative to respond to my inquiry. I appreciate this candor in several of the responses. As always, I look forward to working with him during the upcoming session. I will leave the commentary to the comment section. Who is the first to weigh in on this?