Candidates competing in the District 58 state representative and District 22 state senate races fielded questions on public education Thursday night at Cleburne ISD Central Offices. Raise Your Hand Texas and the Cleburne Education Foundation formulated the questions.
Raise Your Hand is the state’s largest non-profit dedicated to public education.
State Rep. DeWayne Burns, R-Cleburne, seeks re-election challenged by Democratic candidate Cindy Rocha. State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, also seeks re-election challenged by Democratic candidate Robert Vick. Birdwell did not attend the forum.
Raise Your Hand representative Matthew Hall explained that the forum is purely educational adding that Raise Your Hand does neither endorses candidates nor publishes scorecards.
Cleburne ISD Assistant Superintendent of Research, Data and School Improvement. Chris Jackson served as moderator.
Burns said he previously served on CISD’s board and comes from a family of educators. Vick said he too comes from a family of several teachers while Rocha said she’s had experience with both public and private education.
Jackson noted that many believe House Bill 3, which increased public education funding, is not sustainable and asked each candidate steps they would take to ensure it remains so if elected.
“We could reinstate franchise tax on corporations,” Vick said. “Tax valuations on corporations have great advantages and we can narrow that down. I’m not opposed to legalizing marijuana as 20 states already have and using that money to fund public education, or legalize gambling.”
Burns said there are many ways to do it and he looks forward to exploring those options.
“We created a fund that a certain amount of the available school fund plus some online sales taxes can help pay for in the future,” Burns said. “I don’t know if that’s going to be enough. But I do know the legislature increased school spending by 16 percent and I think that shows a commitment to public education being a priority. And I don’t think it stops there. That’s what excites me the most.”
Rocha said everyone, including corporations in Texas need to pay their fair share.
Jackson said an 8.1 percent increase in state revenues helped fund many of HB 3’s programs and again asked how best to fund the measure long term.
“Property taxes are an absolute horrible way to fund public education,” Vick said. “We’ve shifted the burden to property owners while corporations who benefit the most are not paying their fair share.”
Quality public education, Vick said, benefits not only residents but also companies considering relocation to Texas.
Burns said he opposes new taxes but added that the state is constitutionally bound to provide free public education.
“I think everything is on the table,” Burns said. “I would like to see us move away from a property tax-driven system but I think that takes time. I’m certainly not in favor of an income tax, but think there are solutions out there.”
Rocha said that Texas being an energy state we should cycle into new forms of energy and retrain people through apprenticeship programs and other means, which businesses should help subsidize.
All three voiced opposition to the letter grade system of grading schools.
“We need to get back to teaching to the student, not teaching to the test,” Rocha said. “Those weren’t the standards many of us grew up with. We had teachers who were allowed to teach. We need to get back to what helps us the most.”
The current A to F system undermines the efforts of teachers and schools and does nothing for the communities those schools serve, Vick said.
Burns said he voted for the A to F system because he thought it would give a better picture of how schools were doing than the system it replaced did. Instead, the system simply points out the schools where economically disadvantaged students and those who have trouble speaking English go, neither of which is helpful.
Burns said he would advocate for letting local districts determine how to rate their systems.
All three opposed vouchers as well.
“I’m against anything that will take money from public education and give it to private entities,” Vick said.
“From day one I’ve opposed vouchers and I maintain that regardless whether it’s popular among my colleagues and my party.”
Public funds, Rocha said, should remain in public schools.
“We can’t watch our districts be destroyed because we sat on the sidelines and watched our funds go someplace else,” Rocha said.
Jackson touched upon the teacher shortage and asked how best to attract new teachers.
“Some may assume it’s the money,” Burns said. “But when I talk to members of my family and teachers around the district, it’s not the money, it’s the red tape. It’s teaching to the test, reporting to the state and federal government and all the things that take time away from actually educating the kids.
“It’s what drives teachers crazy and drives them away from the profession and keeps young folks from coming in.”
Rocha touched upon teacher pay.
“The salary a teacher makes is often the only salary in a home, the primary salary now,” Rocha said. “They need to feel secure that they can put food on the table.”
Vick called out pay and retirement benefits.
“Money is a big issue when you consider many students are graduating from college with huge debt now,” Vick said. “We pay $6,500 less than the national average and in retirement benefits rank 50th out of 50 states.”
All expressed support for full-day funding of pre-kindergarten programs.
Such programs should not be dependent on family income, all said.
“The earlier we start our children on the learning process the better it is for everyone,” Rocha said.
Vick agreed but said it raises the issue of how to fund it.
Burns voiced support for children learning to read at an earlier age and suggested that districts, no in “a voucher way,” could consider partnering with private pre-kindergarten programs in some way.
“My commitment has always been start with the child and work back form there,” Burns said. “Whatever’s best for the kiddo, let’s work from there. That may not always be popular but that’s where we’ve got to start and our responsibility.”
HB 3 expanded the bilingual education allotment for dual language immersion programs. Jackson asked the candidates what additional support, if any, the state should consider.
Vick called the move a great step adding that his only suggestion would be to make it more readily available.
Learning English is key to success in school and later life, Burns said.
“We have to continue the commitment we made through HB 3 and work to ensure [students] start at an early age and continue through,” Burns said.
Rocha suggested that students should learn both English and another language.
“European kids speak three or five languages,” Rocha said. “We need to accept that our state is changing and speak both languages.”
All three weighed in on school safety.
“It’s our number one job to keep the kids safe,” Burns said. “But that varies from district to district, campus to campus and county to county. I support initiatives locally driven. The state has a responsibility to back with funding for technology, security, officers etc. But the state should also step back and allow local folk to tailor their program to fit their needs. Those close to local government govern best. We can’t come up with a cookie cutter approach at the state level that’s going to apply to everybody. What’s best in Houston isn’t going to be best in Cranfills Gap.”
Rocha also said cookie cutter is not the answer and called for a “multi-pronged” approach which, among other things, calls for more counselors.
Vick agreed that additional counseling and early intervention programs would help.
“I also think armed teachers is a terrible idea,” Vick said. “We didn’t hire them for that. I think we need armed, professional law enforcement security on every single campus.”
All three called career and technical education program vital to public education’s future.
Vick said he was very impressed by Granbury ISD’s CTE programs.
“They play a vital role and I’d like to see them expanded to reflect the realities of this century,” Vick said.
Burns said he worked with his former Cleburne High School Ag teacher Barney McClure to draft an amendment to HB 3 guaranteeing CTE funding at least at current levels.
While what goes on in the regular classroom can’t be undervalued, CTE programs certainly enhance the overall educational experience, Burns said.
Rocha agreed pointing out that, “not every kid wants to go to college,” adding that CTE programs can help such students obtain the skills necessary for good jobs and success in life.
Rocha called the forum a success.
“We need to get more people involved and have more things like this,” Rocha said. “We have to start listening to each other, listening to other opinions.”
Vick urged voters to consider education issues across the board and warned against the partisan politics of state education board races.
Public education, Burns said, has to be a priority.
“It’s the cornerstone of growth for the state,” Burns said. “It is the foundation of the future of our state. It’s the way 94 percent of our kids get educated. We have to defend, fight for and adequately fund it.”