Thursday, January 11, 2018

Profiles in Courage – John Kuhn

One of the goals of the Texas Educators Vote initiative is to engage educators at all levels in registering to vote and voting in support of the more than 5.4 million Texas public schoolchildren they serve every day.  Nowhere has an individual stepped forward toward that goal better than John Kuhn, superintendent of Mineral Wells ISD.  John has been an active and outspoken advocate for children and has delivered speeches at numerous events across Texas and across the country.  His efforts have been acknowledged by no less than Diane Ravitch, the founder of the Network for Public Education and one of the foremost advocates for public education, who has called him one of the “8 Powerful Voices in Defense of Public Education”.

While he may seek to downplay his personal impact, John’s messages are landing with educators and others across the country.  In fact, a recent 2-minute video in which he highlighted the stark differences in educational opportunities for two neighboring districts has now been viewed by almost 2 million people … 2 million!  If you have not seen his video titled “2 School Districts, 1 Ugly Truth”, click here

John is not alone in his leadership and efforts to engage those within his district and within his community.  In fact, there are numerous superintendents across the state who have had a similar impact on their districts and, ultimately, the students in their district.  But his contributions are noteworthy given the broad dissemination of his message.   He clearly has shown the courage to speak up and to be heard. 

In his powerful video, John speaks about the disparity in funding per student and how that leads to larger class sizes, fewer programs and fewer resources to support the needs of kids.  He talks about the impact of standardized tests and the “one size fits all” model.  Perhaps his most impactful quote is that, “The greatest education malpractice in the US happens in the statehouse, not the schoolhouse”, calling for all those who make decisions about public education to be held accountable for the choices they make. 

The reality is that none of those are held accountable except through the process of voting.  And that is what he and others are working feverishly to impact.  Educators have not generally turned out to vote but with the impact of messages like John’s, they are coming together and they, along with other public education advocates, have the opportunity to truly change actions and attitudes in the statehouse.

The grassroots movement to advocate for our public schools, both in Texas and nationwide, depends heavily on the passion and commitment of individuals like John Kuhn, people who have the courage to focus not on personal agendas as some in Austin seem to do, but on the needs of every child in every classroom.  John continues to deliver his message and it is his courage and conviction that should serve as motivation for all of us to make education a priority.  Are you listening, Austin?

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Profiles in Courage – Speaker Joe Straus

As those of us who are advocates for public education continue our efforts, I am inspired by many in our circle of friends.  I previously wrote a blog following a meeting with Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, one of the true champions of public education.  As a result of that conversation and follow up discussions with him, I am motivated to acknowledge the works of others through a series that I have chosen to call “Profiles in Courage”, courage to stand their ground and to advocate for teachers, educators and students across the State.

As I reflected on who to include in this blog series, the obvious next choice is House Speaker Joe Straus, recently named by the Dallas Morning News as “Texan of the Year".  In an editorial on December 31, they headlined their recognition with “Courage of Conviction” and noted that, “House Speaker Joe Straus protected state from its worst political influences”; click here for the editorial.  While he stood his ground on a number of issues, including the ill-conceived “bathroom bill”, he clearly understands the needs of the more than 5.4 Texas school children whose educational opportunities hinge on the ability and willingness of the legislature to address issues including funding and accountability.  Despite head-on challenges and criticism from the Lt. Governor, he certainly held to his convictions.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of what he did was to continue to resist efforts to create private school vouchers (by any name).  One can certainly argue that his opposition to the bathroom bill saved the state from losing countless dollars and that the speaker is more in tune with the needs of the business community than is the Lt. Governor.   While this is important to him, his conviction to stand behind the needs of public education students will likely have an even greater long term impact on the economy and vitality of the State of Texas.  Rather than simply “go along for the ride” with the Governor and Lt. Governor, Speaker Straus consistently demonstrated a willingness to lead, to articulate the rationale behind his actions and to build consensus irrespective of party lines.

Backing words with action, he has focused the attention of his peers on the economic competitiveness of the state.  Instead of adopting a personal agenda that ignores the wishes of the public in general, his is an effort to see the big picture.  At the top of the list is a focus on education as a stimulus for the economy.  With Texas’ continued efforts to recruit companies to relocate to Texas, an educated and skilled workforce is paramount.

When Speaker Straus announced that he is not running for reelection to the House, he left a void that all of us have to continue to fight to fill.  His actions and courage during the last session and special session made him an easy target for many but, through it all, he was consistent in his belief and support of causes that will help our public education students to be the cornerstone of Texas’ vitality and success.  His courage should serve as inspiration for all of us to continue to make public education a priority. 

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your contributions and your service.  You certainly will be missed when the 86th legislative session convenes a year from now.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

What Are They Afraid Of?

Okay, I agree that ending a question with a preposition may not be grammatically correct but that’s not the issue here.  I have read (and reread) the press release issued by Sen. Bettencourt challenging the Texas Educators Vote initiative and I get more miffed about the false accusations and innuendos each time I read it.  I can only hope that educators across the state feel the same angst when reviewing his comments.  Here are a couple of specific concerns.

In his release, he states, “The underlying public policy issue here is whether taxpayer monies should be spent on issue or candidate specific electioneering that pushes one particular outcome over another”.  This clearly is a tactic to intimidate voters and to deny them the opportunity (maybe better stated, the right) to know what the issues are and how they impact each voter.  Since when do we deny voters the right to learn more about the issues and to discourage them from supporting candidates of their choice?  Isn’t an informed and engaged public key to the success of our democracy?

He continues, “… the Texas Constitution is clear on this point”.  This sure looks like referencing the Constitution only when it benefits his position directly.  I wonder if the Senator even knows the section of the Constitution, Article 7, Section 1, that states, “… it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools”.  And what has he done to ensure that this obligation is fulfilled?

And how about, “There is no fact … that it is legal to coerce public employees to sign an ‘oath’ to a particular political viewpoint …”.  When I read the oath that is encouraged by the Texas Educators Vote initiative, I see two main elements, one being a commitment to vote in the upcoming primary and general elections, a second to “vote in support of the more than 5.4 million Texas school children”.  I don’t see anything that even looks like coercion in this. 

What it does do, however, is encourage individuals to register to vote and to become informed voters, then cast their ballot on election day.  There clearly is no effort to endorse or support specific candidates.  But by becoming more educated about the issues, individuals are more motivated to vote (for the candidate of their choice!) and are better able to model the civic right we have to vote.

Virtually all of his release is a “stretch”, a stretch to discourage efforts by districts to engage educators in the voting process.  We teach civics and the importance of engagement in our schools at virtually every level so why should we now try to discourage efforts to engage and “get out the vote”?  There is a genuine concern on the part of many that efforts such as Texas Educators Vote are having an impact and that engagement by educators will bring the issues to light.  I guess that’s what they are afraid of, namely the efforts to make public education a priority.

Wishing you and your families a Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Lt. Governor and His Minions

Sen. Bettencourt made news last week when he asked the Attorney General for an opinion regarding the Texas Educators Vote initiative to engage educators as active voters.  What struck me is that this was likely not actually initiated by Bettencourt but that he is probably acting at the direction of the LG.  Sadly, this is very much in keeping with how he (the LG) has gotten Republican senators to follow along as if he were the pied piper, helping to promote his personal agenda.

This also reminds me of a conversation I had with Sen. Burton’s education person during the 84th session.  As a newly elected senator, I wanted to engage her in a discussion about the importance of public education in her district.  But because I was an elected trustee, she would not meet with me, instead having me meet with her education policy person.  When I pressed him for her position on issues impacting public education, I will never forget his response, going something like, “The Senator will vote the way the Lt. Governor tells her to”.  What a sad (but unfortunately true!) reaction.  And not much has changed over the time she has been in office.

So now back to Sen. Bettencourt as one of the minions.  It’s clear that the Lt. Governor (in this case, likely through the senator) senses a real resistance on the part of educators to the initiatives he continues to push, including vouchers (by any name).  But where in the Texas Educators Vote initiative or other similar and complimentary efforts are there specific recommendations on how to vote?  There simply is a reference to supporting those who support public education.  Quite honestly, the more that individuals like Sen. Bettencourt help to create the headlines, the more engaged the education community should be.

And where does all of this go from here?  Public education will become an increasingly frequent topic of conversation with discussions about vouchers (by any name), the lack of accountability under a voucher program (remember, the LG said that accountability here falls to the parents to define and oversee), and the startling difference in results between public schools and other forms of school choice.  When school choice is mentioned, remember that public education is also school choice.

I’ve written before about the grassroots impact on outcomes.  The initiatives now in play encouraging educators to engage and to vote is truly a grassroots effort, involving numerous organizations and a community of educators who will be adversely impacted by some of what Austin wants to do.  Sadly, this is not just about the educators, as we all know.  More than 5.4 million Texas public education children are counting on all of us to do what is best for them, and that is to continue to make public education a priority.  The minions must not win!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Wrong Way on Schools

The Dallas Morning News published an editorial on December 3 (click here to read) under the above headline.  While not surprising given some of their past editorial content, it was refreshing to continue to see public education in the headlines.  But for those who are critics of public education (and we all know who they are), they likely paid little attention to the headline or even bothered to read the article.

I have begun to beat a little bit of a different drum by starting to try to shift the dialog from funding issues, where Texas ranks nationally, etc., to something that I think is more important, specifically outcomes.  In fact, the DMN editorial referred to this when they stated, “Improving outcomes in cities like Dallas … requires serious investment.  Austin has to do more to help”.  But this is not just an Austin problem.

There are efforts underway mandated by the legislature for the State Board of Education to work with a committee of individuals appointed by the SBOE in crafting a Long Range Plan for public education in Texas.  As I noted in a prior blog, this effort is targeting four key initiatives.  Click here for additional information on that effort and the four key tenets of the committee’s work.  Nowhere in their list and definition of each do they suggest that funding is what keeps us from achieving goals and meeting the needs of students.  It is certainly implied but not overt.  I am not saying that funding is not an issue; I am saying that I believe that changing the conversation will drive a more open dialog.

I applaud the focus of the committee and am cautiously optimistic that yet another effort to set the future for public education might actually become reality.  In the same manner, I believe that public education advocates must focus on student outcomes and how those impact the future of the Texas (and global) economy.  If we can agree on the intended and desired outcomes (perhaps asking students would be a great start!), we can then work backward to identify resources required to achieve those outcomes.  Funding is but one part of that equation as the SBOE list of topics defines.

Equally important is the process of engaging parents, students, community members and business leaders.  Simply throwing money will not, as stated in the DMN editorial, provide us with any better way to assess the quality of our public schools.  But if we can all agree on outcomes and the role that all stakeholders play in meeting those outcomes, perhaps we will have a better chance of meeting the needs of students.

What we cannot do is continue to be distracted by those whose efforts would create division within the public education community.  We must have a consistency of purpose, focus and commitment to making public education a priority for the more than 5.4 million Texas public education students.   As the DMN editorial said in its closing sentence, “Our students – and our collective futures – are the biggest losers if we don’t”.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

SBOE LRP


What may look like alphabet soup is, in reality, a potentially very important initiative for Texas public education, students and teachers alike.  Members of the State Board of Education (SBOE), working with a committee appointed by the SBOE through an application process, have been tasked with creating a Long Term Plan (LRP) for our public education system. Much like public education, they were given a mandate by the legislature but no dollars to undertake this important effort!

The newly appointed committee of 18 members, including community members, business leaders and students, has met and is now traveling around the state to solicit input from constituents on what the future of public education should look like.  The committee extended an open invitation to administrators, teachers, parents and community members.  I attended the meeting on December 5 at the Region 11 service center and a second Metroplex meeting was held on December 6.

To recap, the committee has prioritized four long range planning topics:
  •           Student Engagement and Empowerment;
  •           Educator Preparation, Recruitment and Retention;
  •           Equity and Access;
  •           Family Engagement and Empowerment.
Each participant was asked to select two of the four topics of greatest importance to them and we then had an opportunity to meet in breakout groups to discuss the topics.  I joined the Student Engagement and Family Engagement discussions.  During these sessions, we were asked to focus on challenges and barriers for that topic, successes relative to the topic and opportunities for improvement. 

There was certainly a great deal of passion on the part of some, although, as might be expected, some of the conversation delved into issues the participant sees at their local school.  I saw this in both of the breakout sessions in which I participated and, while important not to minimize or to fail to listen their concerns, this really is a bigger picture challenge for the committee. 

What I heard from some is a concern about a lack of empowerment in our public schools and whether the voices of parents and students really matter sometimes.  There seemed to be somewhat of a feeling that the system was going to act regardless of inputs from both of these constituent groups but there also was a clear consensus that one of the key factors impacting this is the testing and accountability requirements imposed on our teachers.  Empowerment (or lack thereof) and the ability to impact the education off their children is a key factor in engagement.

Where does the committee go from here?  They certainly have an aggressive plan to gather input across the state and will then have an opportunity to synthesize their findings.  What is critical but is sometimes lacking is how this information is then used.  This cannot be a “check list” effort where the committee gathers the information but largely falls back on the beliefs and attitudes of those appointed to the committee.  There needs to be a demonstrated proof that community input plays a real part in developing a longer term vision and plan for Texas public education, one that focuses on how best to make public education a priority in the State of Texas.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Few Moments with Rev. Charles Foster Johnson

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rev. Johnson (Pastors for Texas Children) and to discuss his efforts to bring greater attention and focus to the challenges our public education system faces.  I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working with him over the last few years and am always inspired to do more when I meet with him.

To his credit, Charles does not sit idly by and bemoan the lack of funding or the overemphasis on testing in our schools.  Instead, he devotes his message to several key tenets, items that we discussed at length.  While not really an interview, I walked away with what I think are four that are the key to any messaging about public education.

The first is moral obligation, the obligation that the State of Texas, parents, community members and businesses have to the more than 5.4 million Texas public education students.  The Texas Constitution defines the requirements for the state but the continued failure of the legislature to address this requirement absolutely violates the moral obligation of the state and our elected officials.

Second is community development; I might expand this to also reference community engagement.  Even with limited resources and declining state funding, our public education system continues to be at the center of the successes in our communities.  But this cannot last forever if the state continues to shrink their share of education funding and places an increased burden on our communities.  Engagement by our communities is key to community development.

Charles and I discussed the need for social justice.  Under many of the plans that have been introduced over the years that would shift resources away from public education, a large segment of the population is placed at even greater risk.  This should not be about addressing the needs of a for-profit business structure or imposing lesser standards on non-public education options.  This should be about ensuring that ALL Texas public education children have the opportunity to gain a quality education; they deserve it!

And finally is the need for teacher appreciation.  Acknowledging and thanking those we traditionally call first responders, our teachers are first responders in every way.  But they are under attack on multiple fronts, whether related to TRS funding or the current discussion that would eliminate the tax break that teachers receive for dollars they spend from their own pockets to fill the needs in their classroom.  As Charles said, “We show solidarity with them through school improvement ministry and assistance”.

I walk away from every discussion with Rev. Johnson inspired to do more, to bring a greater focus to public education, to ensure that those in Austin, or those who aspire to serve in Austin, understand the importance of fully supporting our public education system, to ensure that those who serve make education a priority for all students.

In closing, thanks and congratulations to Rev. Johnson on his recognition by Friends of Texas Public Schools as their Friend of the Year.  I am honored to call him a friend.  This honor is well deserved and should inspire all of us to work together toward the common goal of meeting the needs of our more than 5.4 million Texas public education students.