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.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Not one word!

Is it a fear of the LG and his bullying tactics that prompts Incumbents not to include public education in their platform?  I recently received a letter from Senator Hancock asking for financial support of his campaign.  As I read the flyer, I looked for any reference to public education.  Sadly, not one word from this former school board trustee!  Although not really a surprise, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed.

If this was a math (or logic) problem, there is one glaring omission in the conclusion he draws.  Here’s what he said:
- New businesses mean jobs.
- New jobs mean stronger communities.
- Stronger communities mean a stronger Texas.

What’s missing here is an acknowledgment of the impact that our public education system has on our economy.  I have no issue with his statements, but they ignore the one piece that enables us to achieve his goals … a strong public education system.  If we continue to fail to adequately fund public education, don’t we run the risk of not having the educated work force so critical to filling the jobs that will make Texas stronger?

Not one word in his platform about public education at any level.  But you can be assured when the discussion about vouchers (by any name) comes up, Sen. Hancock will be right there with the rest of the LG’s minions.  Nowhere will there be any discussion about accountability or a comparison of outcomes in public schools versus the many other options, including charters, private schools and home schooling.

He continues by defining what he does support, including gun rights, oil and small business.  But where is there any mention of public education?  Not one word!  Whatever your position on those items that he supports, I still have to wonder how we get to a goal of a stronger Texas without support of our public education system.  As a senator from northeast Tarrant County and former school board trustee, Sen. Hancock knows all too well the challenges districts face with funding and growing student populations yet he, like many others in the Senate, ignore this when they talk about the key issues facing their districts.

This election cycle is a critical one on many fronts but perhaps most important is that it can serve as a referendum on public education.  Incumbents and challengers alike need to understand and, more importantly, acknowledge that the key to the continued economic success in Texas is a vibrant public education system.  We can continue to recruit companies like Toyota and Kubota, among many others, but at some point, there must be an acknowledgment by those elected to serve that public education and a skilled work force are critical to the success of those companies. 

Instead of ignoring the importance of public education or continuing to push vouchers (by any name) and other ideas that tilt the playing field away from public education, we need to make certain that we understand every candidate’s position on public education and to insist that they make education a priority.  “Not one word” is not acceptable!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Undercard and the Impact of Voting!

Ross Ramsey of the Texas Tribune continues to write headlines and articles that resonate with me; he’s done it again in an article titled “In 2018, watch the political undercard”.  Click here for a link to his article.  Noting that the Democrats do not (yet) have candidates for many of the statewide offices, he also commented on how circumstances might promote increased voter turnout … and that’s where public education advocates become so critical to outcomes and the future of public education.

Much like the positive vibes that we have for the schools in our local communities, we now have an opportunity to impact elections on who represents us at the local level.  Clearly, the 85th Legislature painted a picture of who represents their constituents and who represents either special interests or the Lt. Governor.  We all know that favoring the LG’s bullying tactics was generally the norm among Republicans in the Senate but there are also some in the House who, for whatever reason, fall under the influence of the LG and the Governor.  It’s time for that to change.

Grassroots movements have long been the key to change and this election cycle is no different.  Whether through initiatives such as Texas Educators Vote or similar (and complimentary) efforts by a number of other organizations, it starts by engaging voters one person at a time.  Creating a voting culture where individuals realize the power of one vote is just a first step but it is an important one.  The fact that there are some who would try to throw a damper on these efforts speaks to the potential influence that engaged educators and those supporting public education can have in the next primary election. 

Ramsey notes that mid-term elections generally have a lower voter turnout (can we really get much lower turnout than what we have had in past elections?) but also noted that the sitting president’s party also faces challenges.  With the volatility of our current political climate nationally, the negativity on multiple fronts surrounding efforts by the LG to push vouchers and an unnecessary bathroom bill in the 85th and special sessions, as well as what seems to be an increasingly divided Republican party, there clearly is an opportunity (and motivation) for those who have not often exercised their right to vote to now engage and have a real impact. to ensure that public education becomes a greater priority.

As a final comment, in my last blog, I referred to Dave Lieber as the “self-proclaimed” watchdog, a comment to which he took exception.  He indicated that he was given that moniker by the Ft. Worth Star Telegram while writing for them and subsequently by the Dallas Morning News.  So noted, Dave; thanks for the comment and thanks for reading my blog!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Don’t Break the Rules?

In my last blog, I referenced the importance of voting by educators across the state and focused on the importance of voters educating themselves on the issues and ramifications of decisions being made in Austin, including vouchers (by and name) and accountability.  Those involved in public education have an opportunity to be a powerful voice in the outcome of the primary elections in March and that has many people scared, thus their efforts to question and quash these initiatives.

I also mentioned an article by the self-proclaimed “Watchdog” of the Dallas Morning News, Dave Lieber.  For some time, Lieber has taken every opportunity he can to bash public education and those who serve the more than 5.4 million Texas public education students, from teachers to school boards to TASB, TASA and other organizations.  Following his November 19 article in the DMN questioning the “get out the vote” efforts, I saw a couple of tweets referencing his article and a couple of responses from Lieber.

One in particular resonated with me.  Former State Representative  Bennett Ratliff, a former school board member, commented on Lieber’s accusations, to which Lieber responded that perhaps his article would play a part in increased voter turnout but also suggesting that those involved in these efforts not “break the rules”.  As one who has been involved somewhat in a couple of the initiatives, I am quite comfortable that no one is breaking the rules.  To the contrary, those who would continue to state that these efforts are illegal are really the ones breaking the rules.

Texas is at or near the bottom in voter turnout across the country.  Why should efforts to increase engagement and participation be considered illegal?  Could it be that those such as Empower Texans are concerned that an informed electorate might actually see through the smoke screen to the reality of proposals that go against public education?  Could it be that they are hoping that voter apathy among educators continues so that no one steps forward to challenge their assertions?  If this were a multiple choice question, the answer certainly has to be “D. All of the above”.

To Mr. Lieber, Tim Dunn, Empower Texans and others, I simply say that I am confident that no rules are being broken.  A democratic system promoting voting and creating a culture of voting in districts and among educators is not about breaking the rules.  It is about fulfilling the commitment the state constitution makes to meeting the needs of the more than 5.4 million Texas public education students.  And if fulfilling that commitment is considered to be breaking the rules simply by engaging and informing, I say “break on” (although I remain confident that no rules are being broken!).

To those advocating for public education, “we have only begun to fight”.  Our history is largely a function of those who stood their ground on an issue.  Those who oppose public education certainly have a right to do so but they need to acknowledge and accept the fact that public education advocates are becoming an increasingly vocal group of potential voters, voters who will place a greater emphasis on making public education a priority … without breaking the rules.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Civics 101

In his weekly “Watchdog” article in the Dallas Morning News on November 19, Dave Lieber decided to join Empower Texas and others who have recently criticized initiatives across the state encouraging educators and students to vote.  I find the basic premise of their arguments, namely that tax dollars are being used to promote a voting platform, to be lacking in any real fact based analysis.  Instead, the intent of some is to do all that they can to question an effort that will increase the number of voters casting ballots in the March primary.

Lieber, who is certainly no friend of public education and has a great deal of disdain for elected school boards, at least does make an effort to understand what is being said in forums such as the recent TASB/TASA Convention.  As an attendee, he likes to cherry pick content and to use it for his specific purposes, namely to continue to bash those involved in public education.  I respect his right to do so (although I have to question his motives in most of his Watchdog articles) but he clearly is in the business of selling headlines, not wanting to let facts get in the way of a good story.

I got to thinking a bit more about initiatives such as Texas Educators Vote and the efforts of Texans for Public Education.  I quickly came to the conclusion that these efforts are perhaps the greatest evidence of Civics 101 that we have seen in quite a while.  In my opinion, there are a couple of reasons that voter turnout is as low as it is with Texas being among the lowest in the country. One is the age old argument by some that their vote doesn’t really count so why bother?  The second is that they really don’t know anything about the candidates or the issues so cannot cast an informed vote.

The “get out the vote” efforts are precisely focused on those two issues.  With public education under attack and with a base of perhaps 700,000 public educators who may or may not be engaged in the voting process, this is no longer an issue of an individual’s vote not counting.  When combined with those of the other voters, the numbers can have a significant impact on the outcome of an election and that’s where the LG, the Governor, Empower Texans and so many others get concerned … and they should be!

On the second argument, people suggesting that they don’t vote because they don’t understand the issues or know anything about candidates, the “get out the vote” effort is also an effort to ensure that those eligible to vote know what the issues are, how they will impact public education, and how those elected to serve are positioning themselves relative to public education.  Again, those opposed to these initiatives don’t want to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

For my “vote”, I see goodness in the continued challenge of these initiatives.  The more the efforts remain in the headlines, the better those impacted by actions in Austin will understand the ramifications.  It’s my hope that this will add to the motivation of educators to get (and remain) engaged and to vote to ensure that the state fulfills its obligation in making education a priority.