The Financial Allocation Study of Texas (FAST) was established in response to House Bill 3 from the 81st legislative session. The bill required the comptroller to “identify school districts and campuses that use resource allocation practices that contribute to high academic achievement and cost-effective operations. In identifying districts and campuses under this section, the comptroller shall:
(1) evaluate existing academic accountability and financial data by integrating the data;
(2) rank the results of the evaluation under Subdivision (1) to identify the relative performance of districts and campuses; and
(3) identify potential areas for district and campus improvement.
(b) In reviewing resources allocation practices of districts and campuses under this section, the comptroller shall ensure resources are being used for the instruction of students by evaluating:
(1) the operating cost for each student;
(2) the operating cost for each program; and
(3) the staffing cost for each student.”
The result of Senate Bill 3 was the Financial Allocation Study of Texas, or FAST. While the Texas legislature is still responsible for conducting this study, it has come to our attention that a group called Texans for Positive Economic Policy, under the direction of (and funded by) former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs will work with state-funded researchers at Texas A&M to restructure FAST. Below are two Quorum Report articles regarding the issue as well as a response from our organization.
Fast Growth School Coalition’s position on the future development of the FAST program:
“The members of the Fast Growth School Coalition (FGSC) wholeheartedly support a fair and meaningful tool that reflects the financial and academic performance of school districts. Unfortunately, the Financial Allocation Study of Texas (FAST) system as it currently exists is not a useful tool for policy makers or for school districts. This “black box” does not allow for self-evaluation or improvement.
Why would state-funded universities like UT Dallas and Texas A&M University partner with former Comptroller Susan Combs and Texans for Positive Economic Policy, a decidedly politically-motivated organization? While Combs’ intentions may be good, she has previously sought to discredit the very school districts that are taking on the vast majority of student enrollment growth in Texas.
Texas is adding 85,000 new students every year and 80% of those students enroll in less than 10% of districts. Meanwhile, the state’s support for facilities has decreased steadily over the past 20 years leaving local taxpayers to pick up the bill. This has resulted in overcrowded classrooms, use of portable buildings and significantly higher property taxes.
If Combs’ organization is to play a part in the re-development of the FAST system, it is imperative that school districts be allowed a voice in the conversation. Another “black box” accountability system will not improve public education but will simply create distrust and division. If we are to rate school districts, it must be with a fair and transparent process focused on improvement instead of punishment.”
The following article appeared in the Quorum Report on July 27, 2015:
Former Comptroller Susan Combs revives scuttled school accountability program
US Sen. Cornyn liked program enough to amend it to federal education legislation, but the reaction of ISDs to the program called FAST has been tepid, at best.
Former Comptroller Susan Combs has given new life to an often overlooked school finance accountability program that successor Glenn Hegar chose to scuttle at the Comptroller’s Office only months before U.S. Senator John Cornyn added the program to federal legislation.
The Financial Allocation Study of Texas, or FAST, was a program closely associated with former Comptroller Susan Combs. So the fact Hegar might choose to move on to other initiatives this year was not a surprise. What was surprising was to hear Sen. Cornyn had attached the concept of FAST to the Senate bipartisan Every Child Achieves Act as it was being debates on the Senate floor this month.
“I’m pleased with today’s strong support for employing this successful model from Texas on a national scale,” Cornyn said in a statement the day he attached the FAST amendment. “Enabling states to more efficiently use their education funds will allow teachers and local school officials across the country to put students’ needs first.”
FAST was a creation of former Speaker of the House Tom Craddick’s leadership and was sent specifically to Combs’ office. Behind the scenes, the idea was to move the concept of financial efficiency away from the Texas Education Agency, which was considered too close to superintendents, and into a neutral agency where a metric for financial efficiency could be created.
To say the concept was poorly received would be an understatement. Superintendents, who attended initial conversations on the creation of a formula to measure efficiency, were hardly on board by the time the first FAST Circle of Honor<http://fastexas.org/resources/case-studies/> was announced in 2010.
The goal was to encourage and share best practices. But FAST had no teeth, and the Texas Education Agency has continued to rely on a combination of financial audits and FIRST<http://tea.texas.gov/index4.aspx?id=3864>, a financial checklist almost every school district and many charter schools manage to pass each year.
But that doesn’t mean FAST is dead.
Former Comptroller Susan Combs made news early this month when she announced a new group, Texans for Positive Economic Policy, would pick up the torch on the topic of endangered species designation, a cause<http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20150701005990/en/Groups-File-Reclassify-Endangered-Species#.Va6iorfjLfE> near and dear to her heart during her terms as Texas comptroller.
What had yet to make news was the fact Combs also negotiated a deal to continue FAST. While the website continues to reside here<http://fastexas.org/>, it will actualy belongs to Combs’ Texans for Positive Economic Policy, with the data maintained at the UT Dallas education research center, one of three such centers in the state.
Combs remains optimistic that interest in the program and its data can be revived.
“Public education is one of the biggest items in the Texas budget and it’s important to know which schools are delivering the biggest bang for our buck,” Combs said. “The FAST numbers allow local communities and leaders in Austin to hold schools accountable and identify best practices that might benefit other schools.”
This is how the deal will be structured: The data will continue to reside at UT Dallas. Researchers at Texas A&M University will calculate the updated value-added measure of academic progress. And Texans for Positive Economic Policy, which has underwritten the university research, eventually will maintain the website.
“FAST was intentionally designed to be an information source and a tool for school districts to benchmark themselves,” said economics professor Lori Taylor at Texas A&M University. “It was not designed to create carrots or sticks for school districts.”
Texas has been prone to gimmicks to encourage financial efficiency in school district spending.
The so-called “65 percent rule”<http://www.hro.house.state.tx.us/interim/int79-3.pdf> back in 2006 was the highest profile of these efforts during Gov. Rick Perry’s administration, a rule to strongly encourage school districts to direct 65 percent of their funds in the classroom.
By the time rulemaking was done, however, the Texas version of the 65 percent rule was watered down with so many exemptions that it was basically meaningless.
Taylor agreed that the “65 percent rule” had little impact on efficiency in Texas schools and was based on an arbitrary number chosen by conservative groups. The idea eventually was discarded in most states that chose to introduce the rule.
Combs said she hoped the data could continue in a way useful to Texas school districts. She expressed surprise – but good surprise – at the Cornyn amendment. Combs’ group, Texans for Positive Economic Policy, is focused on using data and facts to guide improvement in policy decisions.
Taylor said FAST can, and should, be used by school districts to improve performance. The formula behind FAST is value added, which means it measures how well a school districts is doing against similar peers, all factors being equal. It also points to those school districts that are doing far better than expected, given their particular student populations and resources.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, formerly known as the No Child Left Behind Act, is currently in conference committee on Capitol Hill.
By Kimberly Reeves
A follow-up article was issued on July 30, 2015:
Superintendents express skepticism over rebirth of financial accountability system
The conservative strategy of using data as a weapon or a label, rather than as a tool, has stunted efforts to utilize data to make schools better in Texas.
School districts, and especially the Fast-Growth School Coalition, are far from eager to see new life for a data-driven financial accountability system once housed at the Comptroller’s Office and now turned over to a conservative-leaning group.
Texas continues to remain a state with one of the longest, and most comprehensive, histories of data collection. But as other states have begun to leverage data collection as a tool for school improvement, Texas has lagged behind, refusing to link teacher and student data and only sporadically considering data in policy decisions.
That’s due, in part, to the conservative strategy of using data as a weapon or a label, rather than as a tool. It gets personal in fast-growth school districts, which saw a lot of finger pointing about bond debt but little in the way of support or funding for growth.
Randy Reid has led both the Keller and Tyler school districts. He’s made similar financial decisions in both school districts, but Keller consistently scores at the top of the Comptroller’s former Financial Allocation Study of Texas, while Texas, and even districts surrounding Keller, have scored far lower on the FAST system.
“Let me say for clarity’s sake, I’m not complaining about the marks for my district. We’ve gotten 5 stars ever year, 4.5 stars,” Reid said. “I think we handle money very well, and we get excellent results, but I’m effectively the same superintendent I was in Tyler, making the same kinds of financial decisions, but with different results.”
In June, the Education Research Center Joint Advisory Board agreed to extend the calculations of FAST measure for an additional year. The data will be housed at UT-Dallas. The researchers will crunch the numbers at Texas A&M University. And former Comptroller Susan Combs’ Texas for Positive Economic Policy will take over the FAST website and future of the data crunching going forward.
Superintendents consider the value-added formulas around FAST to be a “black box,” something its creators deny. Few lines of dialogue were created. In short, superintendents who scored well touted it, but few used it for its intended purpose.
“FAST is intended to enhance transparency by letter non-educators monitor what their school districts are doing,” said economics professor Lori Taylor, who led the team at Texas A&M that developed the financial metric of efficient spending. “It is all about improvement and identifying best practitioners. There are no carrots or sticks associated with FAST. It is purely a resource for making school districts better.”
Taylor is considered an honest broker by school districts. The same cannot be said for Combs and her TPEP allies the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Heritage Foundation. TPPF has rarely fostered constructive discussion with the public education community. Instead, it has focused much of its energy on the support of vouchers.
In the age of report cards and scorecards, the public education community is not looking for another label to hang around the neck of public school districts.
“We all believe in data. All of us want to be accountable for our data, but I don’t believe you can just crunch it out in a formula and get the full picture,” Reid said. “It’s not necessarily personal with the FAST tool, but what it’s being used for is to apply a label. The purpose of it shouldn’t be to sort our public schools or to sort our kids.”
The unspoken concern is that conservatives have an opinion about public schools, and the data in FAST will be used to reach that conclusion. For her part, Combs has pledged her goal is data, unfiltered. Spending money to continue a study that won’t be used by school districts serves no real purpose.
Taylor agrees that data, and how it is used, can be discussed among stakeholders. But she adds that some subset of superintendents – the ones with the lowest scores – is never going to be on board with the FAST system.
Whether all sides will be able to reach common ground will be decided this fall. Reid said data, and data used in the right way, could be useful to his group. Fast-growth school districts are constantly dealing with decisions that come with population growth: the pattern of new campuses; how large those campuses need to be; what path needs to be taken to sustain and underwrite growth, long term.
“A lot of those factors are not considered in the ratings, even though they can have a tremendous impact on how these ratings come out,” Reid said. “We got some additional support on initial operations last sessions, and we’re very thankful for that. We want to be held accountable, but we want it to be done in a way that makes sense and is not simply trying to sort schools and kids out with a label.”
By Kimberly Reeves