School vouchers, funding hot topics for educators in legislative session

Carolina Astrain By Carolina Astrain

Jan. 4, 2013 at 7:04 p.m.
Updated Jan. 4, 2013 at 7:05 p.m.

Vouchers, teachers' retirement and state funding are the topics area educators will be watching closely to see how the Legislature handles.


As far as private school vouchers are concerned, Victoria School Board President Tami Keeling described the program as a disservice to public education.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the newly appointed chairman to the state's education committee, has actively campaigned to give parents the choice of using public monies for private or charter school tuition.

"Public dollars should not be going to private entities, and if they are, they should be held to the same standards," Keeling said. "I have big questions about the monitoring of those funds."

The vouchers would put about $5,000 into the pockets of families with children at tending private, charter or faith-based schools.

For the 2012-13 academic school year, tuition is $8,750 at St. Joseph High School, a private Catholic school in Victoria.

"I certainly am in favor of choice of schools," said St. Joseph High School Principal William H. McArdle, in October.

If the voucher system was passed, it would be important to see what the ramifications would be, he added.

"As a faith-based school, we would never want to change our mission," McArdle said. "We're certainly blessed to have students from homes where education is a priority."


Since Dec. 9, 2011, the Calhoun County school district has been tangled up in a lawsuit over the current system of wealth equalization, often referred to as recapture, or Robin Hood.

The recapturing systems requires wealthy counties to redistribute their wealth to other counties in need.

It's a system that has frustrated wealthy county taxpayers who want their money to stay at their schools.

Calhoun took the spot as lead plaintiff on the case, representing more than 540 school districts in the state.

Calhoun schools Superintendent Billy Wiggins said the current system makes it difficult to increase the tax rates locally.

Wiggins said he does not believe the voters in Calhoun County would support an increase in taxes that would result in more money being lost to the state.

Fifty percent of what is collected in district taxes would go back to the state, Wiggins said.

"I'd like to see better student-to-teacher ratios in our schools," Wiggins said. "But the community doesn't believe in losing more money to the state."

School funding talks in the legislature are on hold until the ongoing lawsuits come to a close.

"We're expecting it should all be over by the end of January," Wiggins said.

Pension fund

Threats to the Teacher Retirement System were made in the 2011 legislative session by a Houston-based campaign called "Texans for Public Pension Reform."

The organization called for reform of teachers' pension plans, where the state matches each contribution made by a public school district employee each month.

"We need to make sure nobody messes with it," said Victoria Superintendent Robert Jaklich. "While there are no bills filed against TRS, we want to make sure we're being proactive."

The average annual state employee benefit is $17,526, and the average annual teacher benefit is $22,764, slightly higher to account for the fact that most teachers do not get to participate in Social Security, according to a March article in the Houston Chronicle.

The superintendent said he sees retaining TRS as a way of attracting good, long-term teachers into the public education system.

Rumblings of cuts to the state's regional education service centers also has the superintendent's attention.

In the last legislative session, $5.4 billion was cut from Texas public schools - a cut that has now put campuses at risk with the possibility of cuts to regional service centers, said Jaklich.

The Region III Education Service Center, which serves 40 school districts, aids the district with its online grading system, payroll, curriculum instruction, special education training and staff development.

"Their support is vital," Jaklich said. "It would be really hard for school districts to afford all these services on their own."

STAAR exam

The state's new standardized testing system, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, is another point of contention for educators across the state.

Keeling said while she personally doesn't have a problem with rigorous testing, the score reporting structure behind the exams is far too complex.

"The rollout of the STAAR exams have been a bureaucratic nightmare," Keeling said. "The implementation has come to a great cost to the district that the state does not pay for."

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