When District 45 State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, sees Blanco State Park, it immediately transforms him back to when he was first elected.
"I always think about that river because it holds some of my fondest memories," Isaac recalled, mulling a morning cup of tea. "In 2011, in the first week after I was sworn in, Blanco residents like Connie Barron were coming to me and saying, 'hey, Blanco State Park is on this closure list.'"
To hear Isaac tell the story, it is as if he was initially staggered by news, but quickly teamed up with local residents to save the park and help put it on more stable financial footing.
While victories of the past prompt fond reverie, it is the challenges of the immediate future that have garnered Isaac's attention. Sworn into office for his third term on Tuesday, Jan. 13, the City of Blanco's representative in the Texas House has his gaze affixed on the impact falling oil prices will have on state coffers. The biannual budget is the primary task set before the Legislature by the state constitution and oil prices fell to below $45 a barrel this week.
"It's going to impact sales and tax revenues, but we don't know to what degree yet," Isaac said. "I imagine the [Texas] comptroller will be telling us some news very soon on what impact that is going to have on the State of Texas. Honestly, I think this is a great opportunity for us [lawmakers] to come in and be good stewards of our tax monies. We have to be wise with what is coming down the road. Our revenue estimates may drop significantly and we don't want to overspend."
For those old enough, the situation may seem a bit familiar. In the 1980s, oil prices fell off the proverbial cliff, sacking some Texas counties of up to two-thirds of their tax revenues. But that was then and this is now, said Isaac.
"The Texas economy is significantly more diversified now than it was back in those days," Isaac said. "I heard Gov. [Rick] Perry talk about this last week because of the concern about it. He spoke of how much more diversified we are because of the state's technology, medical and manufacturing base today. A lot of manufacturing firms do well when oil is low."
While tighter state revenues may dampen new Gov. Greg Abbott's desire to invest in the state's infrastructure, they should not impact many of the goals Isaac has for the upcoming session, Isaac is vested in streamlining federal testing mandates for Texas school students.
"I think education is going to continue to dominate many discussions in the Legislature," Isaac said. "While I may have a 180 colleagues that disagree with me, I really think we are going to get some things done in education during this session. One if the bills I will file, and I think another colleague has already filed a similar one, has to do with testing time."
Isaac is one of a growing group lawmakers at both the state and federal level who believe that federal testing requirements have over-proliferated, are too cumbersome, but moreover, are too long for students.
"We are requiring these students to take tests that are six to seven and even eight hours long," Isaac said. "These students can be taking these kinds of tests over multiple days."
In the last legislative session two years ago, Isaac said a similar bill was passed but subsequently vetoed by the governor. Among the provisions that bill called for was a standard that would require 80 percent of testing to be completed in two-three hours. For students in sixth through eighth grade, the bill would have said that 80 percent of students could complete testing in no more than four hours.
Isaac said current testing required by federal programs like No Child Left Behind would be unnecessarily rigorous on an adult, "much less a child."
"A nine-year-old can't really concentrate for more than about 45 minutes," Isaac said. "I also believe testing should be managed at the district level."
Isaac said it is time for politicians to get out of the way of professional educators.
"Austin and [Washington] D.C. should not be deciding how to educate children at the local level," Isaac said. "Moreover, the way we are doing it now is the primary thing driving the costs upward."
Isaac said he believes Texas school districts are overburdened at the state and federal level, especially when it comes to unfunded mandates.
"Every time the state or federal government gets involved, costs increase, and this is my primary problem with the current situation," Isaac said. "It hurts everybody."
While testing reform is a priority for Isaac, lawmakers could be facing more court-ordered reform in funding formulas. Again, Isaac believes the current standard is too complex.
"There are only a couple of people in the state who seem to understand how funding works," Isaac mused. "I honestly don't know if it will ever get fixed."
His pessimism is rooted in reality. Texas school funding was first declared unconstitutional in the late 1980s. In spite of repeated attempts by the Texas Legislature to fix the problem in a manner that would satisfy state courts as well as detractors on all sides of the complex issue.

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