Report mixed on HISD spending, student performance
The Houston Independent School District is making above-average gains in student test scores but isn't spending taxpayer money as efficiently as many of its suburban neighbors, according to a state study released Wednesday.
HISD, however, outperformed Dallas ISD, the state's second-largest school district in the first-of-its-kind report.
The analysis, ordered by the Legislature, lauds 43 districts — or 4 percent of those statewide — for making strong progress in student performance while keeping costs low. These districts received five stars, the highest rating.
"In a time of economic uncertainty across the country, it is very appropriate to look at spending for large sectors of the economy such as public education," Comptroller Susan Combs, whose office led the study, said at a news conference in Dallas.
The local districts netting five stars are Angleton, Clear Creek, Conroe, Cypress-Fairbanks, Friendswood, Katy and Pearland. Houston ISD, the state's largest school district, got three stars.
The study comes as school officials brace for major cuts - perhaps between $3 billion and $5 billion - due to a state budget shortfall.
Combs, in a phone interview, estimated that the state could find at least $1 billion in savings in public education. She suggested easing the 22-student class-size limits in elementary school, expanding access to online courses and using electronic textbooks.
Alief ISD board member Sarah Winkler, president of the Texas Association of School Boards, said she worries deeps cuts would slash academic improvement statewide. Her district earned four-and-half stars.
"I think we work very hard to make sure we're efficiently using taxpayer dollars," Winkler said. "I don't think there is a billion dollars to be found. Everyone thinks school districts should operate just like a business, but we aren't the same as a business that turns out a product. This is a people-intensive business."
HISD got the same rating as Austin ISD and did better than Dallas ISD (two stars) and San Antonio ISD (one-and-a-half stars).
Waiting to comment
Several school officials said they were hesitant to comment on the 380-page study because they had not had time to analyze it. HISD issued a statement saying it would look to the report for guidance in spending decisions.
Nearly 10 percent of districts statewide got the lowest grade. Ranked among the bottom locally are Hitchcock ISD with one-and-a-half stars and Texas City, North Forest and Hull-Daisetta, in Liberty County, with two stars.
A spokeswoman for Texas City ISD, Melissa Tortorici, noted that the comptroller's report reflected old information. The study looked at financial and academic data over three school years ending in 2008-2009.
"Texas City is now a 'recognized' district," she said. "They're using old data, and we've moved beyond that."
The comptroller's grades - dubbed FAST ratings, for the Financial Allocation Study for Texas - were based on a formula that adjusted for differences among districts, including salary levels and student demographics.
For the academic piece, researchers used a so-called value-added method that looked at student improvement on the TAKS test in reading and math over three years. The financial review considered per-pupil operational spending, excluding transportation and food services.
"It's not a perfect system, but it's certainly nice when you're ranked high," said Cy-Fair Superintendent David Anthony, who served on the comptroller's advisory panel. "I was pleased to see that the report validated the work of our employees as far as academic progression and success and the budget reductions we've made."
'The timing is good'
The report recommends that the Texas Education Agency analyze why the growth in the number of high-paid administrators has outpaced the addition of teachers.
Over the last decade, the report said, Texas has doubled its spending on public education to nearly $55 billion, pushing per-pupil spending up 63 percent.
State Rep. Rob Eissler, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said he looks forward to reading the report before lawmakers reconvene.
"I'm hopeful about being able to use it," he said. "The timing is good."
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