Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith interviewed state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, and Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who are chair and vice chair of the House Public Education Committee in a Texas Tribune Live Event Thursday morning.
About 100 people, mostly education advocates, lobbyists and elected officials showed up at the Austin Club to listen to the discussion. You can watch an excerpt of the interview, which focuses on testing, here.
Smith began the conversation with a test question in honor of the STAAR, which students across the state are taking this week. He asked the lawmakers, in multiple-choice form, how much did they cut from public education, if anything, last session. It was a tongue-in-cheek approach to get at the ongoing argument among lawmakers and policy wonks on both sides of the issue. While lawmakers undoubtedly cut $4 billion from the Foundation School Program and another $1.4 billion in education grant funding, some have tried to skew the statistics to say education funding remained the same or, some say, even increased.
Both legislators agreed that schools suffered cuts, though Eissler said that looking biennium-to-biennium, funding was about flat. He did concede, taking into account important factors like enrollment growth and the loss of stimulus funding that "the overall effect was a reduction." Hochberg was more blunt, saying "the bottom line" was that public education was cut by more than $5 billion.
When asked if they'd like a "do over" on the 2011 legislative session so they could put more one into public education, Eissler replied: "I don't know where we would've gotten the money."
Neither legislator (Hochberg doesn't plan to run for reelection) offered any optimism for a rosier revenue picture in 2013.
Eissler spent some time talking about efficiency and the fact that better performance isn't necessarily tied to more money. He said he'd like to see districts subject to fewer mandates and allowed more flexibility and also eluded to Senate Bill 1557 - the bill championed by TASA that will create the Texas High Performance Schools Consortium - as an example of innovation that could lead to promising change.
Hochberg spent much of his time talking about the inequities of the current funding system, how districts that spend more money per student consistently perform among the best on the state's accountability system. He said lawmakers are unwilling to change the system because they don't want to take too much away from districts at the top of the funding spectrum, but can't afford to bring the bottom districts up to that level, so the gap remains.
Smith brought up the push back to standardized testing and asked Eissler to defend the STAAR.
"Testing tells us where we are," Eissler said. "Whether our schools are delivering instruction, the diffusion of knowledge we set out to do…It's very important."
He said the STARR is supposed to be an improvement over TAKS, in that it is a ramp to college readiness that measures where a student is in grade levels along the way. The TAKS, on the other hand, often covered material students may have learned several years before.
When asked about the implementation of STAAR, Hochberg was critical. He recalled a hearing where he, Eissler and Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro heard from Texas Education Agency staff about STAAR implementation:
"There were three blank stares from us saying, ' Huh? That's not what we thought we were getting,'" Hochberg said.