Texas House District 121 candidates (from left) Republican State Rep. Steve Allison, and Democrats Becca DeFelice, Celina Montoya, and Jack Guerra answer questions at the "For the Future Candidates" forum held at Douglas MacArthur High School on Feb. 13. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

After Texas lawmakers passed an $11.6 billion school finance package last session, public education advocates declared victory, but some local superintendents worried the changes wouldn’t be sustainable.

Candidates for House seats representing two local districts – 119 and 121 – answered questions from audience members this week about how they would continue the conversation if they are elected. Republican and Democratic hopefuls gathered for public education focused forums hosted by education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

House District 119

House District 119 wraps around the South and East sides of San Antonio. Democrat Roland Gutierrez has held the seat for more than a decade, but is now running for Senate District 19. Three Democrats – Liz Campos, Jennifer Ramos, and Sean Villasana – and one Republican, George Garza, are hoping to win the seat. Campos did not attend the Raise Your Hand Texas forum.

The lone Republican seeking House District 119’s seat, Garza, is a Marine Corps veteran who graduated from East Central High School and the University of the Incarnate Word. At a Tuesday night candidate forum, he touted the merits of House Bill 3. Garza singled out as important more money to fund longer school days.

He later criticized the State’s school rating system and said parents don’t understand how it works. He also found fault with high-stakes tests and suggested assessments be administered year-round to lessen stress on students.

When Garza was asked how to make the teaching profession more attractive, he suggested offering an “educational advancement” for teachers to pursue a master’s degree if they promise to stay in their school district, he said.

Villasana is a laboratory coordinator who graduated from Judson High School, Alamo Colleges, and St. Mary’s University. At Tuesday’s forum, he said raising teacher pay was one of the biggest accomplishments of House Bill 3, but more is needed to shore up teacher retirement benefits.

He suggested decriminalizing marijuana and using revenue from taxing it to better fund public education. Later, he criticized standardized tests as being inaccurate and not a “form to measure students’ ability.” However, he conceded an A-F grading system for schools is needed to determine if a campus is in need of reform.

Ramos previously served as a trustee on the Alamo Colleges board and as a City Councilwoman. She graduated from Incarnate Word High School and the University of the Incarnate Word.

On Tuesday, Ramos said House Bill 3 succeeded in tying funding to innovative and strategic teaching initiatives. She specifically mentioned the teacher incentive allotment, which will reward high-quality teachers who work on high-needs campuses. She also said a key way to lift the prestige of the teaching profession is to raise salaries and increase benefits.

When asked about whether they would support the use of public funds for vouchers to attend private schools, Villasana and Ramos said no. Garza took a different stance, saying public schools should be held to the same performance standard as private schools. If vouchers are adopted, the average funding per student should follow the student to a private school, he said.

House District 121

House District 121 begins near Alamo Heights and stretches north of Loop 1604. In November 2018, Republican Steve Allison won the seat after longtime Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus retired. Democrats Becca DeFelice, Jack Guerra, and Celina Montoya are vying for the chance to challenge Allison, who has no primary opponent, in November. All four candidates attended a Thursday night forum.

Allison previously served on the Alamo Heights Independent School District board and last session sat on the House Public Education Committee.

He praised the work of the committee in crafting House Bill 3 and the investment of more than $11 billion in public education and property tax relief. Allison promised the audience Thursday that as long as he serves in the Texas House, he will work to put additional money into public education.

However, he blasted the accountability system that assigns letter grades to campuses and school districts based in large part on standardized exams. He recalled a meeting in which he told Commissioner of Education Mike Morath that STAAR tests put undue stress on children and the letter grades stigmatize campuses that earn poor grades. If Allison returns to the House, he hopes to work toward a new system, he said.

DeFelice recently served as a volunteer state leader with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and has a daughter attending school in Alamo Heights ISD. She said the greatest accomplishment of House Bill 3 was providing additional resources for individual students and addressing educational equity. However, she said the legislation was not sustainable and that she would like to explore other potential revenue streams, including the franchise tax. She also recommended looking at the way charter schools are funded.

Criticizing the A-F school grading system, DeFelice said she saw a clear tie between the letter grades and the rise and fall of property values. She said the system could instead be lifting students up.

Montoya hopes to face Allison again after losing to him in 2018. She currently serves as the vice president of community and government relations at Alamo Fireworks and started the nonprofit Literacy San Antonio.

Montoya said the bipartisan work to craft House Bill 3 was one of the new law’s greatest accomplishments, but more work will need to be done to maintain the level of funding established. She suggested a number of other funding streams could be looked at including internet sales tax, revenue from a “sin tax,” or money from the Rainy Day Fund.

Montoya also took issue with the A-F rating system and standardized tests, calling the letter grades “not only improper, but also misleading.” She did not recommend getting rid of them, but suggested turning to community members and teachers for input on how to reform the grading system.

Guerra’s background is in urban planning and management. He previously worked as an architect and currently serves as a committee member on the ConnectSA transportation plan. He pointed to the inclusion of more money for pre-K programs as House Bill 3’s big win, but expressed concern that Texas lawmakers are applying another stop-gap funding solution to a bigger problem.

He, too, suggested looking into additional funding streams and said that commercial property owners should have to pay their fair share of property taxes to the State’s education system.

Guerra called the A-F accountability system a bit misleading and overgeneralized. In its place, Guerra suggested “a more professional evaluation that is more complex that people can understand.”

None of the four candidates supported the use of public funds for vouchers that would send students to private schools.

Early voting for the March primary begins on Feb. 18 and ends Feb. 28. Election day is Tuesday, March 3.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.