Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Since the last state legislative session gaveled out in August 2017, Rep. Diego Bernal has traveled around his San Antonio district visiting the school campuses of House District 123. Those include 55 public schools in three school districts, 20 private schools, and 10 charters. Together, they serve 30,000 children.
After about 50 such visits to get input from teachers and administrators on how to improve the State of Texas' education system, the Democrat, who served as vice chair of the House Public Education Committee last session, identified five issues for potential legislative action when the Legislature reconvenes in January: equity in internet access, the state school funding formula's dependence on attendance over enrollment, the positive impact of pre-kindergarten preparation, the need for mental health resources and personnel, and literacy.
Some of these issues can be addressed with more funding to school districts, he said, and making changes to one aspect of the school funding formula would provide districts with more money from the State.
The formula currently depends on average daily attendance. In the simplest terms, this means that if a school's enrollment is 500 students, if only 400 typically show up per day, the campus more or less gets funded for 80 percent of its enrollment. This formula has a big impact in Bernal's district, where some schools face chronically high absenteeism that results in campuses not capturing their full potential for funding.
Bernal notes that absenteeism is often out of a student's control, especially at the elementary school level, where the ability of parents and guardians to get a child to school often is the determining factor in attendance. By changing the funding formula to account for enrollment in elementary schools, campuses will have more funding to address those factors that prevent a student from making it to school, he said.
Because of what's often referred to as the "digital divide," many students lack access to high-speed internet and therefore can't complete homework that requires some kind of internet connection.
According to 2016 census data, 9.4 percent of San Antonio households have a computer but no internet access, and 6.6 percent of homes don't have a computer. Last year, an official with South San Antonio Independent School District, which is not within Bernal's House district, estimated that 20 percent of the district's students may not have internet access at home.
Inside his district, which stretches from just south of downtown to north of Loop 410, Bernal visited with teachers and principals who make homework decisions based on whether they thought their students had internet access.
"[The digital divide] is kids that are going through their whole public school career without access to internet [while] other kids have internet," Bernal said. "What does that look like after eight years, 12 years?"
To create more equity in this area, Bernal said there has to be some effort to ensure all students have access to internet.
Another solution that Bernal said could positively impact education is increased state funding for high-quality, full-day pre-kindergarten programs.
San Antonio is home to Pre-K 4 SA, a full-day pre-kindergarten program that serves 2,000 students and is funded by the City of San Antonio. While many school districts also offer pre-kindergarten, Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray estimates that 6,000 San Antonio children don't attend pre-K.
In school after school, Bernal said, teachers would identify a full-day pre-K program as a key factor contributing to a student's success. He would like to see the State fully fund districts already offering full-day, quality pre-K programs and ensure all districts have the capacity to do so.
School administrators frequently stressed the need for additional personnel who specialize in mental health and literacy, Bernal said.
"I would ask a question to principals [and] say, 'If funding is not an issue, if you had enough money for salary and benefits for one more person on campus, what would it be?' And inevitably it was a social-emotional [specialist] ... or a reading coach, reading specialist, someone who touched on literacy," Bernal said.
As the national debate over school safety continues, Bernal hopes Texas schools also will devote more resources to mental health by offering professional development for all educators on how to address those issues in the classroom.
"The school safety conversation has lent itself to highlighting the importance of those [mental health professionals] not just in helping to avoid another mass shooting, but also it has led into a much more thoughtful conversation about the mental health of students and trauma," Bernal said.
Beyond these issues, one topic will likely loom over each and every education debate at the statehouse come January. School finance drove many of the conversations Bernal had at schools, but he notes that the issue likely will take strong political will to change Texas' current funding system.
"I think the Legislature and leadership are at a point where they can no longer punt on ... how much does it cost to educate an economically disadvantaged student," he said. "We are at a point where ... it would be a dereliction of duty to not get some answer to that."
Last session, lawmakers faced what many considered an urgent need to address the school finance formula after the Texas Supreme Court ruled in May 2016 that the funding scheme was constitutional but in need of reform. Justice Don Willett wrote in the opinion that the court would "decline to usurp legislative authority by issuing reform diktats from on high, supplanting lawmakers’ policy wisdom with [their] own."
Some expected the Legislature to act in 2017, but no overarching bill to reform the system was passed into law.
Bernal said he believes that the situation is more urgent than ever and that lawmakers will feel more pressure to act because representatives from both parties have "continued to beat the school finance drum relentlessly."
"It has made the issue sort of inescapable," Bernal said.
In the remaining months before the 2019 legislative session, Bernal plans to complete his visits to district campuses and develop a legislative agenda.