Monday, February 26, 2018

Profiles in Courage – Public Education Advocates

I’ve written a few blogs recently acknowledging the heroes who are leading the fight for public education in Texas under the banner of Profiles in Courage.  But in light of the criticism that they continue to receive from Empower Texans (by any name), Michael Quinn Sullivan, Tim Dunn and others whose deep pockets are trying to change the face of education in Texas, I thought it would be relevant to laud the public education advocates for their efforts and the successes achieved every day in classrooms across Texas. 

If anything, the constant barrage of negativity from ET and others has served as motivation for public education advocates.  With efforts ranging from Texas Educators Vote to the #blowingthewhistle campaign as a response to an ET mailing to educators across the state, educators and those who support public education and the constitutional requirement for the state to provide an “efficient system of free public schools” are coming together to ensure that the public is aware of the tremendous impact of public education on more than 5.4 million students in Texas.

The easy road would be for educators to say, “oh, well”, and focus their efforts solely on what goes on in the classroom.  But they recognize the implications of efforts by ET, MQS and others and the absolutely demoralizing impact it can have on the future of public education.  Instead of worrying about how to use deep pockets to make their pockets deeper by funding and influencing legislators as some do (by any name), public education advocates are using their “teacher voice” as a powerful tool in telling their story.  Instead of falling prey to the attacks on public education in general, and teachers and board members in particular, they are exercising their civic responsibility to speak out publicly and at the polls.

The commitment of public education advocates is to the students in our Texas public schools and that is as it should be.  What is truly rewarding is to acknowledge their commitment and conviction to do what is right for students.  While it would be easy to focus on the negativity from groups like Empower Texans, that would only serve to reinforce their “race to the bottom”.  The real heroes in the discussion about the future of public education should be on those who dedicate their efforts to students every day to making public education a priority. 

The best way for all of us, as public education advocates, to ensure that it remains a priority is to go to the polls and to cast a vote for those who support public education.  Do your homework but, most importantly, please vote!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Observations on Day 1 of early voting

First of all, I have voted ... and I hope that you have either voted or have plans to do so over the next few days.  It was the first time that I ever took a “cheat sheet” into the voting booth.  I chose not to even cast a vote in some of the races but several of these were a no brainer starting with the Lt. Governor race where I was privileged to cast a vote for Scott Milder. 

Voting is getting a lot of attention in the press and we’re getting barraged with campaign ads, both print and TV/radio.  I have watched with interest (and disgust) the ads by the LG in which he tries to portray himself as a friend of teachers and public education.  Sadly, without understanding the hollow nature of his promises, most will see him as someone that they can support.  Having a big war chest doesn’t hurt as evidenced by the full page ad in today’s Dallas Morning News touting his support from the Texas business community. 

One other area that drew my attention related to the propositions on the Republican primary ballot, specifically Proposition 5 relating to vouchers (by any name).  If you haven’t seen it, it reads, “Texas families should be empowered to choose from public, private, charter, or homeschool options for their children’s education, using tax credits or exemptions without government constraints or intrusion.”  Kind of like motherhood and apple pie for many who will vote. 

What is truly striking is the reference to “without government constraints or intrusion” to which I would add “or accountability”. I wonder how many people who support this proposition understand that forms of school choice other than our public schools do not face the same rigor and accountability as our public schools.  Would they be happy with the Lt. Governor’s statement that accountability lies with the parents and not the state?  But, of course, that would never be part of any public statement he would make.

There are other races that will have a direct impact on how public education is viewed in the 86th Legislative session when it convenes early in 2019.  And while the outcomes of some of these will not favorable to “our side”, one positive that has come out of this is that public education is a key part of the conversation now.  With efforts like Texas Educators Vote and the efforts of Texans for Public Education to define where incumbents and candidates stand on public education, the grassroots public education advocacy movement has left the station.  And that can only be good news for the more than 5.4 million Texas public education students who are asking us to make education a priority.

Have you voted?

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Profiles in Courage – Laura Yeager

How do you change a dismal record of voter participation and how does that impact public education?  For Laura Yeager, Director of the Texas Educators Vote program, the answer to the first question is “one voter at a time”; the answer to the second question is that more than 5.4 million Texas public schoolchildren are counting on us to step forward and focus on their needs, not the needs of donors who back many in Austin supposedly elected to serve us.

A little more than two years ago, Laura began an effort to create a culture of voting in the education community.  She had been shocked to learn that Texas was last (or near last) in voter turnout, and that primary election turnout was especially low.  It shocked her that the number of people voting (and determining the outcome of many key statewide elections) was smaller than the number of people working in Texas public schools!  Laura studied the reasons for low voter turnout and found that citizens don’t always know why their vote is important or understand which elected positions make decisions that directly affect them.

Teachers might be frustrated that their schools are underfunded, that their students are over-tested and more, but not make the logical connection that by voting, they choose the people who make these decisions.  Laura thought that by teaching educators the importance of (1) registering to vote, (2) researching candidates and the function of various elected officials, and (3) encouraging them to vote and model civic engagement for students, Texas Educators Vote could help improve voter participation among educators and students alike, thereby strengthening the Texas democracy.

What Laura recognized and acted upon is that the more than 700,000 educators in the State, including teachers, administrators and board members, have the power to dramatically impact the outcome of the next primary and general elections.  Because many races are decided in the March primary, she felt a sense of urgency to begin changing this trend … one voter at a time.

Over the past couple of years, many organizations have come together as partners in the Texas Educators Vote initiative; click here for more information on TEV.  Laura, being idealistic, thought everyone would support increased civic engagement, a stronger democracy, and the Texas constitutional obligation to provide and fund public education.  She did not anticipate the pushback and challenges from Sen. Bettencourt, Empower Texans, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and their allies.  

Texas Educators Vote is a grassroots movement and if we have learned anything over time, it is that those movements have the potential to have the greatest impact.  Through establishing the TEV web site to participating in meetings with various groups and individuals to periodic calls among TEV partners, Laura’s has consistently been a voice for our children.  As one of the partners in this grassroots movement (Make Education a Priority), I am proud to call Laura a friend and to acknowledge her tremendous contributions to public education advocacy. 

The pro-public education movement continues to gain ground and mind share among those impacted by our public education system.  But the ultimate need is for a strong turnout at the polls to elect those who support public education.  Laura clearly has seen the opportunity to promote a voting culture and her efforts  are certainly focused on making education a priority.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Profiles in Courage - Dr. Marsha Farney

During her term in the Texas Legislature, State Representative Dr. Marsha Farney was a strong advocate for public education and the more than 5.4 million students attending our public schools.  But her support was one of the reasons that she had a bullseye on her back in 2016.  After a campaign by her opponent that was full of untruths, she was defeated in her bid for reelection.

Rather than complain about her loss, she recommitted herself to advancing the cause of public education in the State of Texas.  In 2017, she created an organization and web site called Texas Public School Proud; click here to access the site.  Because so many amazing public school student success stories are seldom shared beyond the boundaries of the individual school community, she is creating a repository of those untold stories on this website.  During my conversations with her and a subsequent meeting in Georgetown, she spelled out what to her is a critical need to tell the success stories of our students.

Her web site spends considerable “real estate” focusing on topics from STEM to languages other than English to personal financial literacy and a discussion of the role that charter schools play in our public education system.  Texas Public School Proud is not just a headline although it certainly would surpass the impact of the headiness others are trying to create; it is about the students in districts across the state who are making a difference.  Perhaps more importantly, it is about the future and celebrating the successes that will help to sustain Texas as a strong economy with limitless opportunities.

More recently, she has been very active on social media supporting efforts by many organizations to get out the vote and to elect candidates who are friendly to public education.  As an elected official, she worked hard for students and is now supporting those who share her passion for public education.

Sadly, Dr. Farney chose not to run for reelection in 2018 but public education advocates across the state are better for her efforts to highlight the successes we see in our classrooms every day.  And through her web site and continued efforts to support students, she may well be doing a better job of advocating than she did during the 84th Legislative Session; that is going the extra mile!  I am proud to call Marsha a friend and she certainly is a friend to public education, continuing to focus on making education a priority in Texas.

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!