(From left)Republican Steve Allison and Democrat Celina Montoya are vying to win the open District 121 seat held by state Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), who is retiring.
(From left) Republican Steve Allison and Democrat Celina Montoya are vying to win the open District 121 seat held by State Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), who is retiring. Credit: Composite / Scott Ball and Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Close to half the constituents in Texas House District 121 have children under the age of 18, so education is always an important issue to voters living in the North Side district. When the state legislature gathers in Austin come January, education will be front and center, with issues like charter school expansion, school safety, public school finance, and accountability on lawmakers’ minds.

The two candidates vying to replace retiring state Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) are touting their experience in education and in serving parents and students in HD 121.

Republican candidate Steve Allison is a former Alamo Heights Independent School District board president and Texas Association of School Boards board member. Celina Montoya, his Democratic opponent, started Literacy San Antonio, an education nonprofit focused on improving the city’s literacy rates.

Both share common viewpoints on needed reforms to the state’s school finance system and school accountability system. However, their views on how to achieve those reforms differ.

House District 121 includes parts of four school districts, with large portions of Alamo Heights and North East ISDs, both of which are considered “property rich” districts where property owners face rising property taxes. Alamo Heights ISD has long been a district that sends property tax revenue to the state to be re-distributed to poorer districts, also known as a “recapture” district. North East ISD is projected to become a recapture district in the coming years.

Allison first learned about the school finance system when Alamo Heights began sending payments to the state, and he spent time in Austin on a legislative committee advocating for AHISD’s interests.

He sees the issue of reforming the public school finance system as closely linked with the problem of rising property taxes.

“Historically, the state used to fund 100 percent of education and that has quickly went down,” Allison said. “That burden just has to shift back. If we can shift it back to the state where it belongs, we can get property tax relief immediately.”

The funding formula, which dedicates certain dollars for such constituencies as dyslexic students or students receiving special education services, is dated, Allison said, and needs to be updated with current costs. The updates could devote more resources to new priorities such as English-language learners or special education students. Allison opposes the addition or raising of any taxes and instead suggests the state foot the bill for a larger share of public education through budget adjustments or reallocations.

“If we can find a new independent revenue source that is not a tax, yeah, great,” Allison said. “But I don’t think we are finding one. And the last thing we need, and I think the last thing the citizens of our district and the state want, is more taxes.”

Montoya, who attended Alamo Heights ISD schools and has a student currently enrolled in the district, feels the problems with the current school finance scheme are significant. She describes it as a “defunding of public schools” and sees the state as shirking its responsibility to fund a public education for all students.

She said lawmakers should look to several billion dollars in discretionary funding that exists each budget year.

“This small percentage of a large [overall budget] is available to be used for whatever priorities our representatives have,” Montoya said. “Education is not the priority and [discretionary funds are] not being used for it.”

Some district superintendents have proposed introducing new revenue rather than using general fund money. Montoya said she’s willing to look at any viable solution, so it could be worth looking into how to use revenue from the franchise tax and oil and gas tax to fund education.

Celina Montoya is running for State Representative (D-121).
Celina Montoya works in her campaign headquarters. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

While Allison feels optimistic about the timing being right for meaningful change to school finance when the Legislature convenes next year, Montoya believes any improvements passed depends largely on who is elected.

“If our voters choose to have individuals who put their priorities ahead of the constituents, we will be lucky to see small movements,” Montoya said. “We will be lucky if we see anything beyond the distractions of things like another bathroom bill.”

Lawmakers likely will broach the topic of funding in conjunction with discussions about school safety. In the wake of school shootings in Texas and nationwide, state leaders such as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have focused on changes to facilities to improve security.

Allison is supportive of putting more money toward physical protections, including allocating greater funds to programs like the school marshal program that allows campus staff to be armed, or actual building improvements at entrances and exits. He also believes that schools should look to what he calls “character education” to create a “wellness atmosphere.”

“If we look at every single one of the school shootings, if we look at the conduct of the shooters, or the Sutherland Springs shooting, there was either a definite mental health problem or a discipline problem that could have been identified way back,” Allison said.

He added that it is important to add in greater support for counseling so schools don’t have to rely solely on existing counselors that are burdened with academic and college preparation responsibilities.

Montoya would use additional state funding to shore up non-physical resources.

“There are mechanisms in place that could absolutely prevent [school shootings] and I’m not talking about arming teachers or giving every child a metal plate in their backpack,” Montoya said.

She also suggested that improving the school finance mechanism and boosting overall funding could improve the general climate of schools. The state should allocate funds to have a counselor, nurse, and librarian on each campus, she said.

Both candidates oppose the use of vouchers to provide school choice outside the public school system.

And both Montoya and Allison agree on the state’s letter grade accountability system, saying school quality is complex. The Texas Education Agency released initial scores in August, assigning a letter grade of A-F to school districts based on a number grade of 0-100. Campuses received a number grade that will eventually correlate to a letter.

Montoya described the grading system as “oversimplified” and heavily reliant on standardized testing. While quantitative aspects are already well incorporated, Montoya would like to see more qualitative aspects of individual schools and districts integrated into the rating system.

Allison, too, expressed concerns about letter grades, and said he thinks a numerical grading system could be more productive.

On the topic of charters, both candidates say they see the tension that has accompanied the spread of charter schools in San Antonio.

Allison called himself a “big champion” of the charter school concept. While on the Alamo Heights school board, he helped to develop the concept of Robbins Academy, which operates as a non-traditional high school of choice within the district.

Texas House District 121 candidate Steve Allison visits with supporters on the night of his March GOP primary victory. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

However, he said, the way schools are funded can create heightened tension between charters and traditional school districts.

“I’m afraid that we are on a path of destruction for both the so-called traditional schools and charter schools because there isn’t enough money,” Allison said. “I don’t see any reason why the charter school concept can’t be applied within the traditional school setting.”

Allison believes some magnet school programs incorporate the innovation being shown in charters on a traditional public school campus, mentioning San Antonio ISD’s Advanced Learning Academy and NEISD’s North East School of the Arts as examples.

“I don’t see it as a competition issue, I see it as an unnecessary duplication,” Allison said of charters. “I really see it on the facilities, and duplicating facilities unnecessarily.”

Montoya believes the rapid growth of charter schools may be the result of families’ uncertainty about the resources devoted to traditional public school campuses and districts.

“They see or they read about some of the struggles or the threats that public schools face based on these rating systems or the funding of public schools,” she said, “and that level of uncertainty is uncomfortable for families to have to contend with for their child’s education.”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.