Collin County is a decent starting place for people interested in recent history of school funding in Texas. It has a booming real estate market, mounting corporate re-locations, and a population growth that never misses a news cycle. It’s also home to Missy Bender, a Plano education advocate whom many consider a local force in school finance reform.
A former president of the Plano ISD school board, Bender has seen first hand how taxpayers spent more on schools as state legislators budgeted and paid less. When property tax bills began increasing, she and her colleagues heard from people who assumed more of their money was going toward their local school districts. So, they began moving the state toward what lawmakers celebrated two years ago as historic school finance reform.
Passed and signed in 2019, House Bill 3 came with a price tag of $11.6 billion. It promised $6.5 billion to public education and about $5.1 billion toward property tax reform. Though the bill’s future is a little shakier thanks to the pandemic, most everybody can agree its passage was monumental.
To pass reform on something like school finance, Republican and Democrat was not the only pair to have to come together and overcome their conflict. Property tax payers, teachers and school districts, lobbyists and advocates, local officeholders and state lawmakers all worked on the bill. To get it done, Texas needed people like Bender.
“We had to make it personal to people,” she says.
Today, Bender works under a new title, though her role is not all that new to her. She represents Collin, Denton and Rockwall counties as a regional advocacy director for RAISE Your Hand Texas. This legislative session, the organization focused on pushing for schools to be funded at their pre-pandemic amounts, funding HB 3’s promise and moving federal pandemic money to schools. Her priority, she says, is to get parents and taxpayers on the same page as school boards so the school district can present a unified message to their lawmaker.
“I’m teaching people how to fit into the system in order to share their opinion about a topic that matters to them,” Bender says. “I help others learn how to use their voice to shape education policy.”
A Joplin, Missouri native, Bender spent her childhood in Plano. Her mother was a teen mom, but driven to give her daughter the best education possible. “If I had a dream, they supported me," she said of her parents in a July 18 Local Profile profile. "And at school, I had teachers helping me dream.”
This dream would lead Bender to an elected-position on the Plano ISD Board of Trustees in 2015. She became president of the board, and began educating citizens in Plano about school finance reform.
With the help of volunteers, she pulled tax records and analyzed legislative budget documents. They crunched it all and presented the data in infographics and explainer videos and show Plano taxpayers how their property tax bills had been increasing over the years while school budgets were shrinking.
“Two districts that sit next-door to one another can have very different dynamics that are impacting those communities,” Bender says.
Bender set up working groups of various stakeholders — in business, government, advocacy, as well as teachers parents and school district officials — for people to discuss and conflicts ahead of the 2019 session so by the time lawmakers convened in Austin to debate and vote on bills, people were ready to testify and lawmakers were informed about what people needed.
Christy Rome, the executive director of Texas School Coalition, has known Bender for several years and can attest to effectiveness of Bender's game-planning.
“Missy has a real knack for bringing lots of different people together,” Rome says. “She’s not shy about reaching out to other groups and trying to find common ground. Even through simple graphics, she was able to take complex concepts and present them in a way the average person could understand and form an opinion one way or the other.”
Funding in the pandemic
For all the momentum that came from and after HB 3, the pandemic threw almost all of it into question. Concepts like learning loss have emerged as a generation of even the youngest students were disrupted out of classrooms and thrown into web classes and at-home work.
The 2021 session was when Texas lawmakers were supposed to showcase their commitment to HB 3. The pandemic only intensified the debate around school finance and the follow-up to HB3, with agencies across the state government’s authority needing state budgetary aid due to shortfalls.
The legislature eventually flowed $11.2 billion in federal pandemic relief money to Texas school districts, but it took a fight. And for the thousands of people in offices, gathered at meetings and reading reports, the effort it took to convince lawmakers to do so is a sign of potential road bumps ahead.
“I’ve been pleased to see the expression from state leaders that have said we want to honor commitments to HB 3,” Rome says. “At least they have made the public expression. I think the test of how committed they are to House Bill 3 will come next session when there are no federal funds.”
Raise Your Hand Texas
Bender's work on HB3 led to her work the with the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation in 2019. The nonprofit works to support program initiatives "structured to identify, plot, and scale systemic improvements in public education," according to its website.
There are about a dozen other people working a similar role as Bender’s. And there are countless lobbyists and consultants striving toward their own objectives. But Bender has spent the last six legislative sessions spearheading legislative accountability and school finance efforts. She received the Outstanding Leadership Award from the Texas Association of School Boards and Leadership Plano's Distinguished Leadership Award. Plano Chamber of Commerce also named her Citizen of the Year.
Throw in the fact that she serves on the Chairman’s Council for Texas Health Resources Plano, the Southern Methodist University Simmons School of Education Counselor Preparation Advisory Council, and the board of directors for the Plano ISD Education Foundation.
Well, it's no surprise people call her a local force for school finance reform.
“I wish all school districts would have the kind of devoted advocate like Plano ISD has had in Missy,” Rome says. “We would all be in a much better place if they did.”