With public education a major topic of the 85th Texas Legislative Session, which began Tuesday, State Sen. Craig Estes and State Rep. Larry Phillips, who both represent Grayson County, have weighed in on the A-F school accountability system, as well as other facets, including state funding for education, school choice and proposed voucher programs.

These topics have sharply challenged and divided those involved in public education — from the classroom to the courtroom.

Estes, a Republican, may have summed up the current state of public education in Texas best: “I think the one unifying principle is that we want every child in this state to have the potential to reach their full potential with a good education. From there, you jump off into differences of opinion everywhere you go.”

A-F accountability ratings

In 2015, the 84th Texas Legislature passed House Bill 2804. The bill is meant to provide the public and state with an idea of how public school districts and each of their campuses are preforming. It accomplishes that by assigning a single letter grade ranging from A through F. The grades are based heavily from the results of the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test, the state’s standardized exam. Texas public schools are currently graded on the “met standard” or “improvement required” criteria. The new accountability system will go into affect next year.

The Texas Education Agency released unofficial A-F grades earlier this month to show the state’s districts and schools how they would have fared under the new system. The state graded schools and districts on four criteria: student performance; student achievement; closing performance gaps, and students’ postsecondary readiness. The grades do not replace the 2016 appraisals, are considered unofficial and are not punitive.

Across the state, districts earned largely lackluster grades, most racking up Cs, Ds, and F’s. The Sherman and Denison independent school districts, Grayson County’s largest ISDs, received mostly Cs and Ds. The county’s smaller districts tended to score higher with mostly Bs.

Supporters of HB 2804 say the system is easily understood by the public and the state alike and that’s vital in understanding how schools are doing and where they need to improve. Critics of the bill say its reliance on the STAAR test in generating the grades does not provide an accurate reflection of the work of students do and that it will stigmatize districts and schools.

Estes voted in favor of HB 2804 in May 2015. He said the A-F ratings provide a level of clarity that didn’t exist in the previous accountability system.

“It’s non-confusing to parents and taxpayers,” Estes said. “Everybody understands A through F. Nobody really understood the other nomenclature.”

Estes said he has heard the concern of school districts after last week’s publication of the grades, but stressed the fact that they are only preliminary and said the bill is a work in progress.

“I understand educators’ fears, but I also understand the fact that everybody understands A-F,” Estes said. “We’re working as hard as we can to make it fair. And going back to ‘recognized’ or all the other different nomenclature — we’re not going to go back. We’re probably going to forge ahead and make it as fair and equitable as possible.”

When asked if there were components of HB 2804 he would personally like to see changed, Estes he had not filed any legislation to do so, but would consider others’ submissions.

“I do not have a bill right now to significantly change that,” Estes said. “But, I’ll be interested to see what others may file.”

Phillips, a Republican, was absent from the May 2015 House vote on HB 2804, but later submitted an amendment to have the A-F system struck down. He said he had numerous concerns about the system and how it will affect districts.

“I had concerns about the criteria and that school districts would be compared, that it relied too much on the standardized tests, which we’ve been trying to move away from,” Phillips said.

Phillips said he also worries the A-F grades could negatively affect a community’s business prospects and real estate values if its schools received less than ideal grades. Moreover, he said he had concerns that it could fundamentally change a school district’s approach to education and its priorities.

“We might end up changing the education process to make sure we hit those high grades, hit those marks,” Phillips said. “We want our students to succeed and do well on those tests and do well on these categories, but there may be a domain in that criteria that (the state has) chosen and it may not be the domain the local school district needs to focus on for their students.”

Phillips said he and critics of HB 2804 still want a strong accountability system for public schools, but such a system requires more input from the community and a broader scope not possible through the primary lens of a single, standardized test.

State funding for public schools

The Texas Supreme Court unanimously ruled state funding for public education constitutional in May 2016, a ruling that has only been passed down one other time in 32 years. Since 1984, the state has been repeatedly sued by districts on charges of inadequate allotment for education and the court has historically ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. While all nine justices ruled unanimously, the court, in its majority opinion, acknowledged inherent flaws in the state’s system for funding public education.

“Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement,” the court’s decision says. “But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements. Accordingly, we decline to usurp legislative authority by issuing reform diktats from on high, supplanting lawmakers’ policy wisdom with our own. The Texas legislature, the center of policymaking gravity, is not similarly bound. And smartly so. Our constitution endows the people’s elected representatives with vast discretion in fulfilling their constitutional duty to fashion a school system fit for our dynamic and fast-growing state’s unique characteristics. We hope lawmakers will seize this urgent challenge and upend an ossified regime ill-suited for 21st century Texas.”

Estes said he had no opinion on the adequacy of the state’s funding of public education but referenced the court’s decision.

“No, I don’t really,” Estes said. “They looked at it fairly and squarely, said it’s basically adequate, but not ideal. That’s the way I interpret it.”

Estes said within his political district, he has heard a variety of opinions from constituents and school districts on the level of funding.

“We’ve heard everything from not enough money, to too much money, to just right,” Estes said.

Phillips said he felt state funding was inadequate, but in a particular sense.

“We have a problem with equity,” Phillips said. “So I don’t think it’s adequate until we achieve true equity where we have the same types of dollars spent on our kids as in other parts of the state.”

Charter and private schools / vouchers and rebate programs

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a multitude of state officials and lawmakers have voiced their support for “school choice” in recent months. The idea is that families should have a choice to enroll their children in either public or private schools students and the latter should be financially feasible for all. To do so, some lawmakers have floated the idea of vouchers and rebates, which are funded by taxpayer dollars and go toward tuition at private institutions.

Critics of theses financial incentives say that’s both unfair and a bad investment because it takes public money away from public schools and gives it to private schools, which are not held to the same level of accountability and aren’t required to take part in standardized testing.

Estes said he has been a staunch supporter of school choice for the better part of two decades and it has the potential to benefit urban school districts in particular, because they often struggle to reach the same level of academic performance as other more suburban and rural districts.

“Since the day I was elected 15 years ago, I have always said that we should try some sort of pilot program in our urban areas.”

Estes said he does not think a state-level push for school choice would influence the support and enrollment of more rural school districts.

“I think for rural Texas, some sort of school choice won’t mean a whole lot,” Estes said. “In the other areas it may.”

When asked whether he supported the idea of vouchers, Estes said, “I’ve always, from day one, been in favor of the concept. The details are the hard part.”

Phillips said he too was strongly in favor of the options afforded to families and students through school choice.

“Parents have a right to send their kids to public schools, private schools or home-school,” Phillips said. “I’m a strong supporter of parent’s having that choice.”

The state representative said he generally has not favored voucher programs, as they don’t provide much of a benefit to his constituents. He also expressed apprehension that vouchers funded with public money could open up private institutions to increased government scrutiny.

“I have concerns with the impact it would have on private schools ending up having to admit to government controls,” Phillips said. “I’ve got some fundamental issues with that.”

Phillips did, however, say that he didn’t rule proposed voucher programs out completely and they could work in certain areas.

The future of Texas public education

Estes acknowledged that the state of Texas is currently dealing with multiple important issues in regards to education, but those challenges haven’t shaken his optimism that solutions can be reached and a promising future for public education in the state is still possible.

“I think our future is bright,” Estes said. “I think we have problems that we can address, but I think overall our teachers and administrators do a wonderful job and we want to make sure they have the tools they need to succeed and to help these kids succeed.”

Phillips said the future of Texas public schools will be influenced by the federal government and incoming presidential administration, particularly in the areas of standardized testing and school choice.

“I think we’ll know more over the next 12 months, because we’re going to have to adjust to what they do,” Phillips said. “I’m hoping that we’re going to see better accountability and less emphasis on so many high stakes tests. And I think we’ll see continued support of our current technology programs and a continued focus on getting our kids college ready.”