Every New Beginning...

The 83rd Texas Legislature is done with education. That's not to say our lawmakers are done; they're currently in the midst of a Special Session, called by the Governor primarily to address re-districting issues. Technically, Governor Perry could add education matters, or Martian exploration, or anything else he pleases to the session call at any time. But evidence, along with the rumor mill, suggests the Legislature is finished dealing with K-12 for 2013.

Education reformers, myself included, had high ambitions when the session started back in January. We wanted private school choice in Texas. We wanted reforms to the state's accountability system. We wanted to improve our charter and online/distance learning policy. Noble goals all, but in retrospect, definitely on the lofty side in terms of what could be accomplished in one session, especially in a state where education reform moves as glacially as it does here.

But, just because Texas education reformers did not manage to build Rome in a day doesn't mean progress wasn't made. For the first time in years, we elevated the cap on our open-enrollment charter schools and addressed the ballooning waitlist of students trying to attend those schools (in the fall of 2012, the waitlist clocked in at over 100,000). The process for private and non-profit providers of content for online learners has also been streamlined, which should significantly improve course options available to Texas students, particularly those in rural areas.

Small victories, but victories none the less. It's shaping up to be an interesting year in Texas education. We're still in the midst of a lengthy school finance trial, and the end is not in sight. The Legislature pumped a substantial amount of money into Texas schools in the 2014-2015 budget. A questionable move, given Texas' history of K-12 spending, but one that addresses the complaints of school districts who are in the midst of suing the state for unfair funding practices. In light of the new monies, Judge John Dietz, who initially ruled in February that the state's school finance system was unconstitutional (though never actually produced as written version of as much), has said he might re-open the case.

Re-opening the case would further delay any appeals process, possibly all the way into next winter. Whether anyone--the state, the school districts, the "efficiency interveners" attempting to make the Texas education system more competitive--will appeal ultimately depends on the ruling. History suggests they will. Major school finance reform in Texas almost always comes at the behest of our Supreme Court, but they won't be able to take it up until the 250th District Court is finished with their process.

So, at this point, the only certainty is uncertainty. After the session dustups over school funding, and testing, and charter school reform, education has drifted to the back burner for the time being. Summer is here, and things are quiet. Until the school finance trial re-opens or a final ruling is handed down from Judge Dietz, the education community as a whole stands at ease.

Texas is still a state in need of significant education reform. Our student body is growing substantially every year, and trees, or at least money trees, don't grow forever. Eventually we will be forced to find a more efficient way to fund our education system. Competition, specifically the kind driven by private school choice, would be a strong step toward bringing efficiency to our schools (and it might help a few kids out, too). But, for now, we are forced to wait. The 83rd Texas Legislature has closed up shop on education reform. It's time to start laying the groundwork for the 84th in 2015.