Texas House District 10 candidates squared off in a public forum at Waxahachie High School to make their case before school officials, teachers, parents and students, on the most pressing issues affecting public education, Thursday.
Republican candidates Jake Ellzey, 50, a retired Navy commander and combat pilot who was unsuccessful when he first ran to represent the district in 2014, and Ryan Pitts, 33, son of former District 10 representative Jim Pitts, fielded questions about school funding, high-stakes testing, charter schools, vouchers and more.
On the controversial subject of government-funded school vouchers, both candidates made it clear they did not support the program, which allows parents to use public funds to pay their children’s private school tuition.
“No vouchers,” said Ellzey, declining to use the entire two minutes allotted to answer the question.
“There is no place in the state for vouchers,” Pitts said. “We need to focus on putting our tax money into public education where it belongs and make sure that our local traditional schools are getting the money that they deserve…”
School vouchers do not exist in Texas where at least 25 pro-voucher bills have been filed in the Texas Legislature since 1999 without success of passing.
House Bill 3
House Bill 3 - the school finance bill passed by the 86th Texas Legislature in 2019 to fund public schools - was on the agenda. The legislation provides more money for Texas classrooms and increased teacher compensation, among other provisions.
The candidates were asked about the bill’s sustainability to fund public schools and how they would ensure there is adequate funding, but neither one explained exactly what measures they would put in place.
“If the legislature makes it a priority, of course it's sustainable,” Ellzey responded. “Someone says, ‘Where is this money going to come from?’ It’s there. You just have to prioritize… All we have to do is make a priority to fund our public education and make that priority number one. We’ll get this accomplished. We got the money and we will continue to have the money to make that the priority and lower your burden so that we can help, from the state level, to fund public education.”
“The state legislature, that is something I do not take lightly,” Pitts argued. “We need to not only make sure that HB3 is sustainable, but we need to make sure that HB3 legislation can continue in the future.”
Pitts also lauded the provisions of the bill that prioritize resources for special-needs students.
“There are a couple of great pieces in HB3, teacher pay raises, early literacy provisions, but one personal thing that strikes home that I personally care about is the resources that were put towards special education,” the Waxahachie resident explained. “As a kid who suffered with a learning difference, I know that not all kids learn alike and that we cannot teach our kids like they do learn alike…”
“We need to make sure that they each have resources where they can get the help that they need so that they can be successful in and outside of the classroom,” Pitts added. “We need to make sure that special education is on the top of the list but we need to continue to make HB3 sustainable…”
Another controversial subject that entered the discussion was standardized tests and their effectiveness in measuring student performance. Both candidates readily spoke out against the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, a series of standardized tests used in public schools to assess a student's achievements and knowledge learned in the grade level.
Their unified argument maintained that performance tests should be tailored to each student’s abilities.
“STAAR test has to go,” Pitts affirmed. “We cannot measure students with a one-size-fits-all test. There’s too much tied to it. Funding is tied to it. A single day with a student taking the test to determine their future is tied to it. That’s not fair to us. That’s not fair to students and that’s definitely not fair to teachers. We need to make sure that we are able to assess them with adaptive testing…”
“I could have a show of hands and I know it would be pretty unanimous that the STAAR test is not appropriate for what we’re doing in these schools,” Ellzey complained. “I believe that independent school districts, folks in The Valley, folks in El Paso, folks in the Panhandle and folks in Dallas and folks in Houston, they are all different…"
“That’s why when the government gets involved in anything it’s a blunt force object,” the Midlothian resident added. “It’s not tactical and it’s not precise. So, using the STAAR test and the way that we do that in the state of Texas isn’t fair to anybody…”
The Navy veteran took his disgruntlement a step further by referencing his 10-year-old daughter whom he said was currently preparing for STAAR.
“Its frustrating as a parent to watch this happen and she has different learning capabilities than her brother does, than people in her class do and so does everybody else in the state,” the father of two pointed out. “So, there ought to be some options for independent school districts to be able to test their students based on their needs and the makeup of those schools so that they adequately address the needs going forward of how best they can educate those kids and the best way that happens is at the independent district school level.
The candidates spoke in favor of charter schools but failed to answer the question about ensuring there is funding equity so that these schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, don’t get more state funds than the district’s public schools.
“I believe that there is a small place for open and transparent charter schools but they need to be held accountable just like a traditional public school is…,” Pitts summarized. “We need to focus on our traditional public schools to make sure that they get the funding that they need to be successful so that they can continue to educate the Texans of tomorrow.”
“They should be equally accountable,” Ellzey agreed. “They should be equally transparent. They both teach our children well. I’m not sure I understand the entire competitive part. They each have a role in our state…”
Message to voters
In their final elevator pitches to win over voters, Ellzey and Pitts positioned themselves as the better candidate to represent the district in the Texas House of Representatives in Austin.
“These are complex issues that face you every day as teachers, as administrators, as school districts…. Nobody has all the answers,” the 50-year-old acknowledged. “There are folks from different spectrums of belief systems, of who they are going to vote for or what is important to them. All I can tell you is that I am a Christian, constitutional conservative. If I am a constitutional conservative then I also have to follow the Constitution, which says we will fund a free public education in the state of Texas.”
Ellzey, a small business owner, spent 20 years in the Navy. He most recently ran in the 2018 Republican Primary for the District 6 congressional seat, currently held by Congressman Ron Wright.
Pitts, an executive vice president of the family-owned Ellis County Title Company, relied on his Waxahachie roots and community service to win over voters. He boasted serving as vice president of the Waxahachie Foundation and holding seats on the WISD Community Education Advisory Board, the Waxahachie Family YMCA Board of Management and the Texas Land Title Association legislative committee.
“I’m involved in this community. I give back to this community. This community is home…, and I want to continue to give back to the community by going to Austin, to serve you to get effective things done so that we can keep Ellis County a special place,” the 33-year-old said.
The candidates are vying to replace Rep. John Wray who announced last summer he would not be seeking reelection when his term expires on Jan. 1 next year.
The forum was part of a series of more than 40 nonpartisan “For the Future” candidate forums and town halls across the state coordinated by the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation in the weeks leading up to the March 3 primary election, according to the foundation.
For more information on the candidates, visit their websites at pittsfortexas.com and ellzeyfortexas.com. You can also find their campaign pages on Facebook.