Thursday, December 22, 2016

What's Our Message?

In a recent meeting with House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, he kept pounding away at the need for consistent messaging.  So I go to thinking about what my messages will be and how those align with the organization for which I serve as president, Make Education a Priority.  The MEaP board has not met to approve a specific advocacy agenda so I speak strictly for myself when outlining what I see as the key areas of focus for me personally.

I suppose the obvious first choice would be for me to talk about school finance.  Candidly, however, I think that would be beating my head against a wall since there are so many already talking about finance.  That, combined with the fact that both the Lt. Governor and Speaker Straus included school finance in their interim charges, suggests I focus elsewhere. 

At the top of most of our lists is the ongoing discussion about vouchers (by any name).  While altering the proposed program every year in response to a lack of support, the Lt. Governor’s continued push for vouchers remains a centerpiece for both sides of the school choice argument.  This likely is once again an initiative that will pass in the Senate but not in the House.  However, the “threat” of a special education voucher bill, perhaps to be carried by Rep. Huberty, is something we all need to monitor.

A second focus for me is the issue of transparency.  Acknowledging that the Lt. Governor will continue to push for vouchers, I asked him about transparency for how dollars are spent and how we ensure that the quality of education at the destination school is any better.  Sadly, I did not get an answer to my questions although I have been in dialog with his office.  Their response?  A third party will likely oversee a review of how dollars are spent by recipients (and who pays for this?) and his office told me accountability for the school will rest with the parents.  Clearly, they see no issue with a lack of consistency across school options.

Third is an area that primarily impacts Chapter 41 districts, whose increase in property values means that more money goes to the state every year.  There is nothing in state law that requires that these additional recapture dollars remain in education; in fact, they can go to the general fund and help balance the state’s budget.  The net net of this, however, is a continued reduction in the state’s share of education funding.  At a minimum, we need to push to have dollars for education generated through property taxes remain a part of the education budget.

My final push relates to the planned implementation of the A-F grading system in the Fall of 2017.  Commissioner Morath has been talking at length about how districts will receive grades in the spring as if they were under an A-F program.  Maybe that release will be the impetus for a public awakening of the negative considerations of such a system.  It’s up to us to ensure that stakeholders understand the implications if we go to that system.

There it is.  Not really a Christmas present but I am able to wrap a bow around what, for me, are my key messaging points.  These clearly will evolve as legislation moves through both chambers but I needed to crystalize my thoughts in order to be consistent in my messaging.  I hope that each of you will also take the time to formulate a clearly defined message and then hammer away at it.  After all, our kids are counting on all of us to do so, to continue to make their education a priority.

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Season to Celebrate

Maybe, at least for a couple of weeks, we can all come together and celebrate the holidays.  From an advocacy standpoint, everyone is clearly taking sides but this is one season where we should all be on the same side!  Please celebrate and spend time with your family and loved ones.

Of course, once we get through the holidays, we find ourselves at odds with those who advocate to dismantle the public education system that has been so very good to so many of us.  I acknowledge that public education is not the best fit for everyone but we owe it to all children to provide access to a quality education that will allow them to fulfill their potential.  While not necessarily anticipating that it will happen (to the contrary, I think we can expect otherwise), it sure would be nice if the discussion about public education started and ended with an understanding of how best to meet the needs of all students.

But we all know that personal agendas will dominate the discussion much more than centering around a discussion about how best to serve the more than 5.3 million Texas public education students and the many more who attend other schools of choice.  Focusing on the 5% of students who are are on a campus that is being challenged to improve rather than the other 95% of students is a disservice to all students.

So at the top of my Christmas list is a wish that we shift from party ideologies and personal agendas to a student-centered focus.  We must start with a common baseline, and where better to start than in the classroom where students strive to succeed every day.  We have a constitutional responsibility to educate all children but what should drive our actions is the moral obligation we have to our students.  We must find a balance in making certain that we address the needs of all children.

My wish for each of you is that you find peace and happiness during this special time of the year.   Thank you for all that you do on behalf of students across the state and thank you for your commitment to ensuring that all children have a chance to succeed.  Best wishes for a joyous holiday season to all of you.  I am proud to be part of such an elite group, those who strive daily to ensure that students can and will succeed, those who make education a priority.

Merry Christmas! 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Challenges to DeVos' Nomination

Last week, the Dallas Morning News published an editorial under the headline of Senate Should Ask Some Tough Questions of Education Secretary Nominee Betsy DeVos.  Click here to read the editorial.  As I mentioned in a prior blog, there is a fairly widespread belief that there is no such thing as bad press.  With publications like the DMN tackling the issues relating to public education, there is greater visibility into some of the potential ramifications of decisions being made and possible outcomes of certain actions.

A quote from the editorial that caught my attentions is that “she has not been an advocate of public schools, which we believe are the connecting fabric of our society”.  The editorial goes on to note that neither she nor her children have attended public schools and points out that she has no direct educational experience.  Hers is simply a willingness to fund a privately-run charter school approach that has yielded results that fall short of what the majority of public schools accomplish in Michigan.

Like the DMN, I acknowledge the right of the president-elect to make nominees to his cabinet that he believes are the best fit.  However, I also acknowledge the right of all of us to have an impact on whether the Senate actually confirms her to serve as Education Secretary.  And that’s where we must voice our opinions.  Reach out to your U.S. Senator and express your concerns about this appointment.

Charter schools as they exist in many states today serve a key role in the education of many students.  Where this becomes a concern is when the charters are privately run by for-profit entities with little accountability for how dollars are spent or the performance of students in charter schools.  Charters and other school choice options can each fill a specific need but, like public education, school choice options receiving public funds should all be held to a consistent accountability standard. 

DeVos’ appointment, combined with the continued push for vouchers by the Lt. Governor, creates opportunities for public education advocates to come together to ensure that the focus is not on the “business of schools” but on the “business of students”.   This should not be an argument about special interests or personal agendas; this should be about how we best meet the needs of the more than 5.3 million Texas public education students and make education of these students a priority.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Momentum Continues to Build

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with members of a Dallas-area public education advocate organization, Stop the Takeover (STO), and to share mutual perspectives on some of the issues facing public education as we approach the start of the 85th legislative session on January 10.  STO had initially evolved when the home rule discussions surfaced in Dallas ISD and they remain committed to advocating for public education.  I am encouraged by the number of individuals who are motivated to take action in response to the continued attacks on public education at both the state and national level.  The Texas House is certainly more education “friendly” and while the Senate is largely along party lines today, I sense that some of the demarcation is beginning to dissolve.

The discussion with STO advocates centered around the 3 or 4 topics that are most often mentioned today when discussing public education, including recapture and where those dollars are ultimately allocated, transparency, special education, and the seemingly never ending discussions about vouchers (by any name).  As we discussed these and other topics, we found common ground that provides a great foundation for future discussions.

A couple of quick thoughts as I reflected on the discussion.  First, there is greater opposition to a voucher program than the Lt. Governor chooses to admit.  Related to that is the discussion about transparency and accountability for how dollars are allocated and how outcomes are driven.  In my conversations with parents whose children attend private schools or are home schooled, I have yet to find an individual who believes a voucher program is good for them. 

Second, special education will be a key topic; of note, the possibility that Rep. Huberty may introduce a bill allowing for special education vouchers suggests that there is a need for dialog in this area.  Instead of focusing on vouchers as a proposed solution, we must first understand the issues.

Third, budget discussions among legislators will be tense and tightly contested.  With the continued pressure on oil and gas prices and the constitutional requirement that the legislature approve a balanced budget, the discussion about property tax relief will be a hotly debated.  Fourth, the discussion about state funding of public education will continue.  With the state’s share declining and likely continuing to do so, Rep. Donna Howard has filed HJR 27 requiring that the state maintain 50% of the cost of public education.

I once heard that there is no such thing as bad press and I guess that is true to a certain extent.  While public education is a target for some, the reality is that public education is a topic about which many people are talking.  There seems to be much more passion and advocacy for public education than there was as we approached prior sessions and I believe that is positive.  However, the momentum being created must be sustained; we all must continue to focus on the needs of the more than 5.3 million Texas public education children and continue to make education a priority.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

An Evening with the Lt. Governor

On November 30, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting sponsored by the 912 Project in Ft. Worth with Lt. Governor Patrick as the guest.  From that meeting, I have a few observations.

In his opening comments, he referenced the fact that one of his accomplishments from the 84th session was to address concerns about transfer of gas tax receipts to the general fund instead of being used for roads and transportation.  Legislation was passed that ended the transfer to the general fund.  An interesting comment since that same issue now faces the education sector with the increase in recapture payments being transferred to the general fund.  It looks like we need to push for legislation similar to that for the gas tax in the last session.

Second, he mentioned that almost 50% of the state’s budget is allocated to education.  Later, during the Q&A, an individual correctly noted that this amount includes higher education as well and that the portion for public education is about 35%.  To quote the Lt. Governor, “we have to be efficient with our money”.  Sounds to me like this suggests a reduction in funding.

He spent time outlining his top priorities, including property tax relief (cap at 4% increase tied to population growth), school choice, and the bathroom bill.  While he offered commentary on property tax relief and the proposed bathroom bill, he did not expound on school choice, simply stating the priority and then moving on. 

School choice was a topic that generated several questions.  I posed a question to him about how his voucher (by any name) proposal would ensure accountability for dollars transferred to a parent and ensure that the entity potentially receiving funds is held to the same standards as public education.  After about a 5-minute response and suggestion that the cost of education goes down with school choice, it was clear there was no intent to respond to the accountability question.  As an aside, when I had an opportunity for a photo op, he offered to me that he had not addressed my question but that it was too complex for this setting.  He added that he was “happy to have input on school choice and issues relating to accountability”.

Reflecting on the meeting, it was obvious that he had no intentions of addressing school choice at anything below about 30,000 feet.  Prior to the meeting, I had the opportunity to talk with a number of home school parents and it’s clear that they and the NE Tarrant Tea Party do not support vouchers (by any name) given the likelihood of government oversight of their efforts.  Each acknowledged that the idea sounds like a good one until you understand the implications of a voucher (by any name) program.

Meetings such as this are a great opportunity for us to share our concerns about some of the legislative priorities.  Most importantly, it gave me an opportunity to talk with those impacted by current proposals and to redouble our efforts to make education a priority.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Chairman Aycock ... A Different Kind of Leadership

I had the opportunity during the week of November 28 to sit in on two separate meetings with state leaders, a Tuesday meeting with Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, Chairman of the House Public Committee, and a Wednesday session with Lt. Governor Dan Patrick.  What a difference in tone between the two meetings as relates to the needs and future of public education.  My summary of the meeting with the Lt. Governor will post on December 8; the following reflects comments and guidance from the Chairman.

Public education is far better for having the leadership of the Chairman over the past two sessions.  His focus on education of all kids has been consistent and, under his leadership, significant legislation (e.g., HB 5) has been enacted.  With his retirement effective with the opening of the 85th session on January 10, however, there will be a void.  Only time will tell if the rumored names to replace him will have the same passion and commitment to serving the needs of nearly 5.5 million students.  Chairman Aycock, you will be missed; thank you for your service.

Chairman Aycock opened his comments by talking about accountability, specifically focusing on the lack of accountability under current voucher (by any name) proposals.  The reality is that parental engagement is a key part of the accountability equation but the schools must continue to be held accountable for the success of their students.  He encouraged those in attendance to use accountability (or the lack thereof) as one of the key messages when discussing school choice.

He also noted that one of the considerations that held up his legislation in the 84th session relating to additional funding for public schools was the division between various school groups, Chapter 41 v. 42, small v. big, rural v. urban.  Noting that the complexity of the funding formula drives division between school groups, he encouraged trustees and district leaders to find consensus and build on those areas of agreement.

The Chairman also talked about the projected revenue shortfall and how that potentially will impact school finance discussions, as well as other areas including health and human services and transportation.  One of the risks is that the state will continue to transfer increased recapture dollars to the general fund rather than being channeled back into education.  He strongly encouraged that one of the key message points for advocates should be a push to retain those dollars in education funding, suggesting that we ask our representatives where the recapture dollars go if not to public education.  This should also be a discussion topic with parents and business and community leaders.

What can we expect?  Funding discussions will focus on recapture, the ASATR cliff, and enrollment growth.  He foresees a “logjam” somewhere in the middle of the 140-day session, a period where each body holds bills as negotiation chits with the other.  He also anticipates that school choice may be a topic of a special session.  Characterizing the 85th session as a “brutal session”, he stressed the importance of public education advocates reaching out to legislators and their staffs now to begin positioning the messaging relating to public education.

Under the leadership of Chairman Aycock, the House has consistently made education a priority.  It’s up to us to build on the momentum created and to seize the opportunity to continue to position its importance as we approach opening of the 85th session.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Poke the Bear! - Follow Up

On November 22, I posted a blog titled Poke the Bear, a reference to an article in the November 20 edition of the Dallas Morning News.  My commentary about what I perceived as an unfair slight on the efforts and commitment of school board trustees stands.  Following the post of my blog and a subsequent post on Twitter, I took the opportunity to reach out directly to the author of the article to challenge certain of the statements and I welcome the opportunity to continue my discussion with him early next week.  And that is as it should be for both of us.

I have also received criticism from one of those who supported the testimony at the Senate Education Committee meeting referenced in the article.   In a tweet responding to me, she stated that "Denial proves @DaveLieber groupthink theory right".  So I guess I still have a ways to go in the discussion with those with whom I differ.  But that's fine; I remain committed and passionate in my belief that the vast majority of trustees are acting in the best interest of students, testimony and article to the contrary.

I have taken time to reflect on the training I received and how the board on which I served operated.  Training options available to trustees are many, including training at TASB-sponsored events, local association activities and on-line opportunities.  Was the training always what I was seeking and was the quality of the training always perfect?  Certainly not, but how does that differ from college courses we all have taken or training provided through our jobs? 

As for how my local board operated, yes, we did have a majority of votes at the board table that were unanimous.  But is this a result of collusion or "groupthink"?  I don't think so.  Engaged trustees are in constant communication with the administration and there is a clear effort on trustees' part to understand the ramifications of decisions made and actions proposed by the administration. 

It's not like the administration presents an item to the board at a board meeting for the first time.  When presented, items are discussed by the board and administration, often at great length, before a vote is called.  Does the fact that the art of negotiation that results in a vote suggest groupthink?  I don't think so!

To suggest that TASB-sponsored training is a form of groupthink and indoctrination is just not right.  Trustees are elected by their communities and a view that community members are not engaged enough with their local schools to take action to address these concerns is an indictment of community members as well.  I don't get it!

We can respond to what I perceive as unfair accusations in any number of ways.  I have chosen to voice my concerns in a manner that has created an open dialog with those who have a different perspective than I do.  Through that process, I will have an opportunity to share my views while listening to those of others.  In reality, this discussion, like others relating to public education, will help us focus on the importance of public education in our communities and across the state, the importance of making education a priority.  This time, the discussion is about trustees and how their actions impact the more than 5.3 million students in the state.  Perhaps at some point, we might even see a different headline, one that reflects "Trustees: Working on behalf of all students".

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Trump's Education Secretary Nominee ... What Next?

In the interest of full transparency, while I did not necessarily support Donald Trump, I did vote for him.  I still consider him to be the lesser of the two "choices" that we had in this presidential election but some of his nominations to cabinet positions are very troubling to me.  By far, the biggest concern so far is the appointment of Betsy DeVoss as Education Secretary.

There is no real need to regurgitate information about DeVoss, her interests and her focus that are clearly anti-public education.  The impact that her wealth can have clearly is not focused on the needs of the majority of the children in this country but, like the Walton’s, the Gates, and many others, her interest in changing the public education that has served so many seems to have nothing to do with the public education system but is solely focused on personal agendas and profit motives.  

So what can we do about it?  First of all, we always have the opportunity to send messages to those who will approve (or not!) President-Elect Trump's cabinet appointments.  Take the time to write to your US Senator and express your opinion and concerns about the appointment of DeVoss. 

Second, the world of those who advocate for choice other than public schools is as much about using incomplete information as it is the profit motive.  When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado, the text book in my Statistics class was "How to Lie with Statistics"; those words ring very true in today's discussion about public education.  It has never been more important than now for those of us who advocate for the more than 5.3 million Texas public education students to make certain that facts are a part of the discussion, whether relating to graduation rates, so-called failing schools, or the tremendous successes of population sub groups.

Third, while we may be concerned about this appointment, the reality is that the bigger concern for us lies with the continued and (so far) never ending push by the Lt. Governor for his personal agenda in support of vouchers.  While the arguments of a free market system certainly warrant consideration, the reality is that in those states where voucher programs have been adopted (one need look no further than DeVoss' home state of Michigan), the results have generally not been a better school environment.  We must do our homework and must be able to articulate the often-failed impact of voucher programs.

Throughout history, grassroots organizations have sprung up to battle actions by those in power; while it would be unfair to call public education advocacy a grassroots effort, that is where it all began.  Advocacy groups and individuals across the state have had a significant impact on public education and there is an increasing groundswell of support.  As advocates, we need to continue our efforts to make education a priority.  Our students are counting on us to do so.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Poke the Bear!

You know, occasionally I read an article and am so angry at the headline and/or content that I find it difficult to even respond/react.  Sunday’s article in the Dallas Morning News, headlined as “Lawmaker: Trustee training puts kids second” is one such article (click here for a link to the article).  As a ten-year school board trustee, I was offended by the content and innuendo suggesting that trustees do not have the best interests of children in their districts in mind when serving.  The author of the article, Dave Lieber (calls himself the Watchdog but all he really writes is articles that are heavily slanted), clearly had no interest in actually reporting facts, but for many in the media, do facts matter anyway?

So what in the article really bothered me?  First is obviously the headline.  If the intent was to get the reader, in this case me, to read the article, he succeeded with that.  Second was the reference to a Senate education committee hearing in which, among other things, a San Antonio ISD trustee expressed his belief that training provided by the Texas Association of School Boards is “not even close to good enough”.  It would be interesting to me to know what training this individual has actually taken.  Did he attend sessions at TASB-sponsored conferences or did he take courses on line simply to fulfill the state mandated training requirement.  Why did the Watchdog not ask that question?

Third was the passing reference to comments made by Charles Stafford, a Denton ISD trustee currently serving as president of TASB.  The only quote from Charles?  “It’s just not right”.  Knowing Charles as I do, I find it highly unlikely that his comments to Lieber were that brief and that he alluded only to other TASB services.  Why did the Watchdog not probe further (actually, he probably did but the response likely was not in line with the slant Lieber wanted to take) to understand what Charles meant?

Quoting parents and others (somewhat at length, I might add), the Watchdog failed to include substantive thoughts on how those individuals thought the needs of students might be better served.  But that wouldn’t make good press, would it, even if they had offered comments?  Why didn’t the Watchdog ask for input from those he quoted to gather their thoughts on addressing what they see as an issue?
In fairness, Lieber did end his article with a couple of “Solutions”.  One is a suggestion to live stream board meetings so that parents can watch the meetings.  A second was to focus on financial transparency.  Third was a consideration of how to remove trustees who do not act in the best interests of the students.  Are these the solution to what is seen by some as a problem?  They certainly are considerations that should be discussed by trustees so maybe there is some positive to the article.
As a final thought, Lieber’s first word in the article is ‘Guts’, specifically referring to Sen. Kohlhort’s so-called guts in challenging the system that exists today.  What really takes guts, however, isn’t simply to criticize but to actually take action that ensures that the needs of students are the priority.  Let’s look at the big picture, not simply sound bites that sell newspapers, of making education a priority.  

Lieber’s article has, in fact, poked the bear but only if trustees (and former trustees) step forward and continue to demonstrate through their actions that the needs of the more than 5.3 million students drive all that they do.  Maybe that will be something about which the Watchdog might want to write.  Just imagine the headline ... "Trustees: Working on behalf of all students".

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Election is Over … What Next?

Now that the election is over, what do we do next and what should we anticipate?  As I spent time yesterday on Facebook, I came across a post from a friend of mine that speaks to what we must do over the coming weeks and months.  His post, written on election eve, follows:

Tomorrow is our last night as either Republicans or Democrats. We chose to vote for the candidate of our choice, better or worse. But after it is said and done we must support our President. We as Americans are able to voice our opinions thanks to our forefathers and those who have stood and fought for our freedoms! We may not agree all the time with each other but let us not forget how we got here. Some of you have or will have children who will be under the new commander-in-chief. So let's all pray for our new President that our Lord will guide them and our country as we move forward. But let us not disgrace our great nation by not standing beside them as they lead.

This is certainly the most divisive campaign I have seen in my lifetime and the healing from the campaign will take a long time.  The healing process is not solely up to those in Washington or the two combatants, however.  Instead, it must start at a grassroots level, where each of us put aside differences and have fruitful discussions about what we can do to positively impact the lives of our children and grandchildren.  

As part of that discussion, we must also focus on the needs of students in our public education system.  Without question, public education will continue to be under attack at all levels of government.  Now is not the time to throw our hands up; now is the time to strengthen our resolve to focus on the more than 5.3 million Texas public education students.

As I watched last night’s returns, I recalled the first election in which I had the opportunity to cast a ballot.  I viewed it as a privilege to be able to vote and was proud to do so as I stood in line in 1972.  Over time, there has been a disengagement by voters but this election seemed to rekindle interest in the election process.  Perhaps it’s because the candidates and their supporters were so polarized but I see hope in the fact that people were passionate enough to vote for their candidate of choice.

Closer to home, it’s now time to assess how the political landscape changed in Texas and to begin to focus our public education advocacy efforts on those elected on Tuesday, while continuing to interact with those whose seats were not up for election this cycle.  The elections of 2016 may not have brought out the best in all of us but we at least now know where we need to expend our energies.  As part of that effort, we must work tirelessly to ensure that our elected officials make education a priority.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016


The Houston Chronicle recently published yet another article challenging the Lt. Governor’s continued insistence on pushing his personal agenda at the expense of more than 5.3 million Texas public education students.  While I applaud the Chronicle (and recent articles published by a number of other media outlets), the fact that he continues to push vouchers (by any name) is a clear indication that he cares little about the needs of students across the state.

As House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock reminds us, the discussion about education in the state should center around the fact that there are a number of choices available to students and their families.  Whether charters, home schooling, private schools or public schools, parents do have a choice.  Admittedly, not all parents can make a choice of an option other than the local public school but the constitution guarantees the right to a free public education for all students.  And quality must be part of the equation here.

Under the Lt. Governor’s plan, as noted by recent news articles, students in underperforming districts or campuses would be able to select an option other than public education (remember, public schools are also part of school choice!) and have an opportunity to have the money follow them.  Of course, we now know that one of the pitfalls of this proposed plan is the lack of accountability on how and where parents choose to apply those funds.  What assurances do we have that selecting an option other than the local public school will afford the students a better educational opportunity?  Candidly, none!

So when the Lt. Governor’s continued push for vouchers (by any name) doesn’t necessarily suggest that students’ interests will be better served, why shouldn’t we be concerned?  It’s easy for the Lt. Governor to stand on the bully pulpit and to continue to push his agenda.  What is not so easy is for students needing the support and assistance that will improve the quality of education in underperforming campuses and districts to watch while proposals (and personal agendas) continue to be advanced to take money away from public education.  This is money that, invested wisely and responsibly, could improve opportunities for all students.

As I watch and read stories about public education, I am encouraged to see the “baby steps” being taken as those of us who support investing in our public schools continue to focus on the entire student population in the state.  Is our educational system perfect?  It certainly is not but it is critical that we continue to make education a priority.  Students, teachers and administrators across the state deserve this support.  This is not (or should not be) about starving or thriving.  It is about fulfilling the state’s obligation to provide a quality public education for all students, not shifting dollars from a public education system in need of support from our elected leaders.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Is The Classroom Exciting?

I saw an infographic last week that caught my attention.  When teachers were asked to respond to, “I make learning exciting for my students”, 84% responded affirmatively.  But when students were asked if their teachers make learning exciting, only 40% indicated that they felt this was the case.  The disparity between the two perspectives got me to thinking about why this is the case. 

As I look back on my K-12 days, I realize just how many differences there were between that environment and the environment in today’s classroom.  While there may have been a prescribed curriculum to ensure that students in a particular grade were being taught pretty much the same content, there was a great deal more autonomy on the part of the teacher to teach the content in a manner best suited to their individual personality and style.

The continued focus on high stakes testing has to be a part of this gap between student and teacher perspectives on what makes learning exciting.  This is certainly no fault of today’s teachers.  They are doing a phenomenal job of adapting to an environment where autonomy has somewhat been sucked out of the classroom.  With the focus on testing, they are left with no choice but to adapt their style to a structure that requires a bit more (or maybe it’s a lot more) of a structured approach.  But they persevere and are generally very successful; for that, they deserve our undying appreciation.

The question now becomes one of better understanding why students feel that learning is not exciting.  At the core, I have to believe that the “drill and kill” approach driven by high stakes testing is having a major impact on their perception of what makes learning exciting.  Much like an accountability system where the lowest performing campus dictates the overall rating for the district, the testing requirement has an overarching impact on student perception of the classroom environment.

Can I absolutely state that the elimination or at least the reduction in testing would jump the number significantly?  I certainly cannot but I firmly believe that the response percentages will be favorably impacted.  I have one other idea of how we might better understand student perspectives.  Let’s ask them!  After all, the real stakeholders in the discussion about public education are the students themselves. 

Increasingly, I see efforts on the part of leadership in districts across the state to engage students as part of an advisory council for them and those efforts are to be applauded.  When education is a collaborative effort between all stakeholders, “good things” happen in the classroom.  And the more that “good things” happen, the greater the likelihood that students will begin to feel that the classroom is more exciting.  

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Are We There Yet?

With the recent editorial by the Dallas Morning News suggesting that the Lt. Governor move beyond his agenda focused on vouchers, combined with the article previously published by Ross Ramsey of the Texas Tribune, it’s obvious that the importance of public education is recognized by increasing number of people across the state.  The challenge to this point in time has been to get the conversation started; that objective has now been achieved to the point that the difficult task of gaining traction is at least underway.

In my role as president of a public education advocacy group, I get more excited every day that not only has the advocacy train left the station, but it is about to become a bullet train!  And more passengers get on board at every station!

What is it that is helping us gain traction?  First and foremost, while we as public education advocates were disappointed when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that school finance meets the “minimum constitutional requirement”, the words that they used in their ruling clearly got the attention of everyone involved in public education.  But this is not just a finance discussion.

With apologies that I am only citing a couple of examples of leaders in the advocacy movement, look at the work done by Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA).  Through their efforts, the required number of end-of-course exams was reduced from 15 to 5.  And they continue to be outstanding advocates.  In fact, just today, I complete a TEA-sponsored survey about ESSA as a result of an email notification from TAMSA.

Or how about the outstanding work being done by Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children?  Rev. Johnson is working closely with the faith community to get them to embrace public schools in the communities they serve.  He is also doing phenomenal work with Dr. Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of Dallas ISD, in looking at the needs of specific campuses in DISD.  If there is any question about the impact he is having as a public education advocate, the recent House Public Education committee hearing in which he was challenged by Rep. Bohac was a great example of Rev. Johnson’s passion and commitment to public education.

Speaking of the House Public Education committee, that committee is doing a wonderful job of assessing the opportunities and needs of the more than 5.3 million (and growing) public education students.  While Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock is retiring, it was clear from the hearing that there is significant support for public education in the House. 

Our kids used to ask us, “Are we there yet”?  I previously worked with an individual whose response to his kids was, “We’re close but grandma has a long driveway”.  We are not really that close and we certainly have a long driveway in front of us, but there can be little question that the collaborative efforts of public education advocates are making an impact.  As a group, we must (and will) continue to make education a priority.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Who Is To Blame?

Ross Ramsey from the Texas Tribune has written two very good articles in the past week that discuss the impact of state actions on local school boards, districts and they communities they serve.  If you have not seen these articles, Rising local school property taxes ease state budget woes, and High property taxes start in Austin, not in school districts, please take the time to read them.  The content can be found by clicking on each of the story titles above.

While his summary hits the nail on the head, it appears that neither story is newsworthy enough to draw attention from other than those who read the Tribune, or at least they do not appear to have “landed” in the Dallas Morning News or Ft. Worth Star-Telegram.  So, as with advocacy in general, it is up to us to make certain that our community members and those representing us in Austin understand ”the rest of the story”.

The following are a couple of observations by Mr. Ramsey in the first article above
  • Recapture dollars in the 2018-2019 budget will increase by $1.44B (yes, with a B)
  • Total recapture dollars are projected at $5.13B during the next budget cycle
So what do these numbers mean?  As Ramsey notes, the recapture dollars must be spent on education.  But this does allow the state to reduce education spending and to allocate other general fund dollars to other causes.  In short, he said, “Local taxpayers, in this case, are saving state taxpayers some money.”  He continued, “Intentionally or not, it’s a great political deal for state lawmakers. They can squawk at local school districts for high property tax rates at the same time they’re using some of that money to lower the state’s expenses for public education. The state budget is easier to balance because of the local tax money marbled into school spending.”

And in a related story (the second article above) …
  • State aid for public education increased from $18.24B in 2008 to $19.59 for the current fiscal year, an increase of 7.4%.
  • Ten years ago, the state paid 44.8% of education costs; that figure is now down to 38.4% while the local’s share increased from 44.8% to 51.5%.
  • This translates to the state paying $339 less per student than it did 10 years ago, meaning that locals are paying almost $1000 more per student than in 2008.
Details on this breakdown can be found by clicking here.  Once again, the state is balancing the budget on the backs of the schoolchildren it is constitutionally required to educate.  But it’s easy to get lost in the numbers and sometimes difficult to hold the legislature accountable for the decisions they make.

Mr. Ramsey’s analysis should at least provide all of us with the data to meet with our representatives and to demand that the state fulfill its obligations.  By doing so, we will continue to make education a priority for the more than 5.3M Texas public education students.  The time to act and advocate is now!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

“Session after session after session”

Most have probably seen the continued attack on public education and push for vouchers (by any name) by our Lt. Governor.  Perhaps I should rephrase that since he is really not representing us on the issue of ESA’s but continues to push his personal agenda.  Do I think he is sincere about his commitment to vouchers?  If there was any doubt, those doubts were put to rest last week when he insisted that he will continue to push for vouchers “session after session after session”.

The good news is that public education advocates are equally as committed to advocating for the 5.3 million students in our public schools.  We, too, are committed to the cause “session after session after session” but the thrust of our efforts, unlike the LG, is not on individual agendas but on the needs of a growing and rapidly changing student population in Texas.  As I talk with other advocacy groups, elected school board trustees, and members of the communities our districts serve, I am constantly reminded not only of the value of our public school system but the increased advocacy at all levels.  But we must not stop!

There is a segment of those elected to serve as our representatives in Austin, primarily in the Senate, who will continue to push for privatization and a shift of dollars out of our public school system.  As evidenced by the comments by Rep. Bohac made to Rev. Charles Johnson of Pastors for Texas Children during the House public education committee hearing last week, there are those in the House who support vouchers (by any name) as well.  He is entitled to his position on this issue; so, too, are we entitled to ours and, more importantly, all students in our schools deserve our continued support.

The “good news” about the attacks on public education is that all of the cards are on the table.  We have a pretty good sense of what the LG sees as his priorities for the upcoming session and, as leader of that chamber, he can exert a great deal of influence on his members.  But that is still a small group of individuals and many of those have openly stated that they are not in alignment with his beliefs. 

The challenge now is for all of us to ensure that the message regarding the value and importance of public education resonates throughout the halls of the capitol.  This will be the case “session after session after session” as we continue to make education a priority.  We can have an impact and it’s imperative that we all do our part to ensure that the needs of students are the driver for action, not individual agendas and principles.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ongoing Vouchers (by any name) Discussion

I am greatly encouraged by the discussion about vouchers (by any name) that is picking up across the state from a very diverse group of individuals and groups.  Where once there seemed to be somewhat of a reticence to challenge the continued push by the Lt. Governor for what are now called Educations Savings Accounts (vouchers by any name), many are now challenging some of the assumptions and highlighting the shortcomings of any voucher proposal, specifically the one on the table now.

This is no longer simply a school choice or reform discussion.  It has now evolved to a discussion of how this conflicts with conservative principles, how it creates a potential for segregation and how the lack of accountability creates an unfair playing field when comparing public schools to other school choice options, among others. 

Last week, Dr. Mike Moses, former commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, responded to a Lubbock Avalanche-Journal editorial that outlined a number of concerns about a voucher program: Dr. Moses’ letter to the editor can be found by clicking here.  His comments struck a chord with me on a couple of fronts.  One is the reluctance on the part of private schools to want to participate in a program that would force more accountability on them.  A second is the fact that much of the discussion surrounding options other than public schools fails to even include a discussion about accountability.

When you get down to it, challenging the push from the Lt. Governor will require a cross section of individuals who are passionate about public education to engage and have discussions with legislators.  This effort is not one that will result in an immediate change in thinking and approach for some but it is one that is having an impact by raising the issues.  On the surface, the idea of school choice makes sense; after all, public schools are a part of the school choice discussion already.  But there needs to be a serious and far reaching discussion about the pitfalls and risks of proposals currently being discussed.

As I have written before, the legislature is divided on their approach to vouchers (by any name).  The Senate traditionally has been more receptive to the concept of vouchers, at least for those in power.  What this boils down to, again reflecting Dr. Moses’ comments, is whether the discussion centers around party and individual principles or the opportunity to serve those they represent.  The House, on the other hand, remains open to having a discussion about school choice and how to best serve the needs of students. 

This is not a cut and dry discussion.  There are no right answers.  But one thing is certain … the more open and objective the discussion, the stronger the likelihood that the needs of the nearly 5.3 million students will be served.  If the discussion shifts from principles to needs of the student, the entire state will be better served.  This will require a broad base of support and advocacy for public education as we continue to Make Education a Priority.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A "Death Spiral" for Public Education?

I recently had lunch with an individual who has a background in mechanical engineering and manufacturing.  He is a strong advocate for public education and wanted to discuss what he described as a “death spiral” mentality that seems to be pervasive among some in Austin, specifically relating to the Educations Savings Account proposals now being advanced by the Lt. Governor.  He drew parallels to a manufacturing environment where a company jettisons a product that is not meeting sales and margin targets, only to find that the overhead associated with the manufacturing facility remains, whether it is operating at capacity or not, thus impacting the profitability of the ongoing products.

So I got to thinking and this is exactly the situation with vouchers (by any name).  While schools are not manufacturers and students are not the product as discussed in a prior blog, under a scenario where the money follows the student, little changes immediately in the classroom being vacated by the student.  There is still a teacher, still bricks and mortar, still a principal and likely an assistant principal … and the list goes on.  And the remaining students?  They face the loss of programs and resources that ultimately will impact their quest for knowledge.  We all know that and it makes perfect sense that this is occurring but many of those who represent us don’t seem to understand the whole concept of overhead.  What do we do about it?

I recently read a post by Diane Ravitch and while I don’t always agree with her position, her articles are thought provoking.  In this one, she posted an article by a New York state superintendent seeking support from his peers to challenge recent actions relating to testing and teacher performance by the Secretary of Education, John King.  This mindset is exactly what is needed across the board, engagement at all levels to openly challenge decisions and actions being made by those who have little or no education experience.

Is the potential for a “death spiral” a reality?  It certainly is and the only way to stop that is for education advocates at all levels to engage those who are making such pronouncements and trying to dismantle public education.  The reformers are in it for only one thing, to make a profit.  Thankfully, those in public education, despite the failure of much of society to acknowledge their efforts, are in it for an entirely different reason, the welfare of the students in the classroom.  Let’s make certain that we make the effort to put students, not profit, first and to continue to Make Education a Priority.  

Are you doing your part to stop the “death spiral” mindset?  More than 5.2 million public education students are counting on all of us to do just that!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

A Shift in Attitude About School Choice?

Perhaps you have seen a discussion thread (that I believe has now been taken down) that initiated with a Facebook post by Tarrant County Tea Party chair Julie McCarty.  In her post, among other comments, she said:
-    "I am not for school choice."
-    "The ESA's being considered right now for Texas require that homeschoolers who participate will be subject to the state's chosen assessment test."
-    "When has the govt ever encroached "just a little bit" without eventually going in for the kill?"

It's critical that the quotes above are considered in the context of the entire thread.  If you cannot find the thread and would like for me to forward to you, please send an email to  

So what does all of this mean?  To me, this is a reflection of the advocacy efforts that are communicating the "rest of the story" about the fallacies of Education Savings Accounts.  It is a reflection that vouchers (by any name) don't have the appeal to a cross section of people, regardless of their political persuasion.  And it is also a reflection of the need for public education advocates to use this reaction in furthering the message, especially in conversations with members of the Senate.

After viewing the joint House Appropriations/Public Education committee hearing last week, there is certainly a nice base of support in the House, perhaps a reflection of leadership of these two committees.  But a strategy to let the Senate act on vouchers (by any name) and then look to the House to block this effort is one that potentially opens the door for voucher proponents.  Instead, I believe I see this as a great opportunity to communicate with the Senate, with a particular focus on members of the Senate Education committee.  It's an opportunity for us to Make Education a Priority in discussions in both chambers.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Public Education - The Importance of Discussion

I watched with great interest last week the joint House Appropriations/Public Education committee meeting on Wednesday and Thursday.  My first reaction is to applaud the leadership of Chairmen Otto and Aycock in facilitating a very thorough and informative discussion on a multitude of subjects ranging from recapture to ASATR to the cost of education index.  Perhaps what struck me more than anything was the level of detail offered by presenters, detail that would make for a great training curriculum for trustees.

If I had one "complaint", it would be that day one included only invited testimony and while day 2 did include opportunities for others to present, it was only at the end of a long second day.  I understand that the committees had specific fact finding agendas when inviting individuals so it is really difficult to actually criticize the intent and outcome.  And it was clear to me that those selected were well prepared.

So what do we take from this important discussion?  At the top of the list is the fact that this was a very open discussion.  Members of the two committees certainly had their individual constituents at heart (specifically referencing questioning by Rep. Walle and Rep. King).  But they also demonstrated a keen understanding of the need to focus on the greater whole, the more than 5.2 million students in Texas public schools.  I think Rep. Darby put it best when he commented on the need to focus on the needs of this population, not individual districts.

The fact that this was an objective discussion of issues impacting public education is in stark contrast to what I have seen in hearings in the Senate.  Without question, this is a function of leadership in each chamber, with one specifically tasked to validate the continued desire of the Lt. Governor to promote a voucher program (by any name).  On the other hand, the House seemed to me to be taking a much more objective approach to the issues included in the Speaker's interim charge to the Public Education committee.

I encourage anyone who is an advocate for public education to listen to and closely analyze the considerations raised by those providing testimony.  Whether a citizen or trustee, there are significant opportunities to better understand the challenges and ways to perhaps address these.  The leadership of Chairmen Otto and Aycock will; be missed in the 85th legislative session.  It is now up to all of us to pick up the baton to ensure that we continue to Make Education a Priority.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Need for a Balanced Public Education Discussion

How do we rationalize the differences in views about public education between the Senate and the House?  All of the individuals elected to represent us have an ability to understand the impact that public education has, not just on the 5.2 million students in the state but on the long term growth of the state’s economy.  But the desire to do so is often in question.  I find myself constantly challenged by how the views of the two bodies are so widely different.

As I sit today watching the joint Appropriations/Public Education committee meeting, and having viewed part of the recent Senate Education hearing, it all boils down to one word … agendas.  While the Lt. Governor and the Speaker of the House both issued interim charges in response to the Supreme Court decision regarding school finance, they certainly did so with different motivation. 

The Lt. Governor has for the past couple of sessions promoted a pro-voucher effort (by any name) and seems unwilling to listen to arguments that challenge the feasibility and impact of such programs.  There is little to no discussion about the lack of a level playing field relating to public school options, where the requirements relating to accountability and student selection/enrollment (and disenrollment) are not in line with those required of public education; that seems to matter little to the Lt. Governor.

Responding to an interim charge by the Speaker, the House, on the other hand, is demonstrating a far greater willingness to discuss these issues and to consider the impact of decisions made in Austin.  I challenged the witness list at a recent Senate hearing on vouchers as being terribly biased in favor of vouchers (by any name); that is certainly the prerogative of the committee chair.  Today’s House joint hearing seems to me to have a little more balance, if for no other reason than the participation of TEA and the Legislative Budget Board.  What comes of this two-day hearing remains to be seen but I am hopeful that the House will continue to focus on what I snecessary to Make Education a Priority.

My thanks to Chairman Otto and Chairman Aycock for their leadership and for making an effort to look at both sides of the public education debate.  While certainly not realistic to expect that the House will fully support the platforms of public education advocates, they are at least making an effort to have a balanced and engaged discussion.  For that, the students in Texas are grateful.  It is now up to all of us to ensure that the discussion remains a fair and balanced one. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Education Savings Accounts … the New Vouchers (By Any Name)

On September 12, I was privileged to attend a press conference sponsored by the Coalition for Public Schools during which six individuals discussed the pitfalls of vouchers and how these will adversely impact public education students in Texas.  One of the key messages was noting that the new word for vouchers is “education savings accounts”.  Does that change the intent or the potential outcome?  Not at all, but it is a way for those who persist in efforts to dismantle public education to run out new words and to hope that the new words land with those who generally are not well versed in intent or meaning.

A couple of days later, the Senate education committee held a hearing on vouchers (by any name) but what should be disappointing to all of us is that the invited testimony was all focused on supporting the desire of the Lt. Governor to promote vouchers as his number one legislative priority in the 85th session.  

Where is the balance in these hearings?  Where is there an opportunity for those who have a perspective on the importance of public education and the harm to the public education system resulting from a voucher program (by any name)?  Those who are elected to serve can certainly make decisions rooted in their personal perspectives and that is as it should be.  However, decisions are generally made on the basis of having as much information about a subject as we can and our elected officials should be open to and encourage opposing views.  The fact that we have the opportunity to speak and to share opposing views is critical to our success as a society.

So how do we counter the bias that seems to exist in some circles if we are not given the floor to speak?  It begins with a commitment to advocacy at all levels, starting with our local elected officials and then extending to county officials and ultimately to those elected at the state level.  In fact, in many cases, the discussion extends to the national level.  It is a discussion, however, that requires a broader base of commitment to advocacy and a consistency of message.

Therein lies part of our challenge.  The needs of districts are unique depending upon any number of factors.  That does not mean, however, that we shouldn’t try to understand the needs of others and then be able to assimilate differing opinions into our decision process.  It has to start at a grassroots level, beginning with individual trustees and administrators and extending to the many public education advocacy groups across the state. 

If we are to succeed in combating notions that are counter to the needs of our public education students, it starts with each of us as individuals.  We must commit to advocacy and we must follow through on those commitments.  It is only through a concerted effort that we can keep the messaging to Make Education a Priority top of mind and can continue to focus on the pitfalls of education savings accounts or vouchers (by any name).

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Climb Every Mountain!

Over the past couple of weeks, public education committees in the Senate and in the House have held committee hearings on a number of subjects.  One need only watch parts of these hearings to get a sense of the challenges we face as public education advocates.  In some cases, there is a clear bias against public education, somewhat driven by leadership in the Senate and the interim charges released by the Lt. Governor.  While more focused on supporting public education in the House, we can anticipate that there will be issues where this is a divergence of positions and perspectives.

What is becoming increasingly critical is for public education advocates to engage even more so than they have to this point in time.  There is a small nucleus of engaged individuals who are consistently in front of the education committees or who consistently communicate with the legislators serving them.  However, that group cannot do it alone.

I recently had the opportunity to serve on a panel at the North Texas Area Association of School Boards where the topic was that of advocacy.  Clearly, the message from that forum was the critical requirement that the numbers of those advocating for public education has to increase dramatically and quickly.  We can expect to see discussions in the Senate focused on school choice and reform, including vouchers (by any name), while the House will focus much of their discussion on funding issues.  Again, the focus in each chamber is driven by the interim charges of the leader of each.

Public education is but one of the major issues to be discussed (and cussed) during the 85th legislative session.  It’s human nature that actions of those elected to serve us will somewhat be driven by the messages they hear from their constituents and others.  And while there is a vocal minority among public education advocates, we have to increase our numbers and be even more vocal.  The reality is that many in both chambers have a limited perspective on education, just as I do on topics such as transportation.  We must help them understand the impact of their actions and decision.

It is up to each of us to increase the volume and frequency of messaging and to ensure that the needs of the nearly 5.3 million Texas public education students become, and remain, front and center during discussions about public education.  This heightened awareness on the part of legislators will be critical to ensuring that they Make Education a Priority.  The students in the State of Texas are counting on all of us to do so.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Is the Republican Party Anti-Public Education?

Much of the discussion surrounding public education seems to center around party ideologies, and one might conclude that the Republican Party is, in fact, in favor of a unilateral dismantling of public education.  Without question, there are some who fall under that umbrella but I still hold out hope that we can get to a point where decisions made by those elected to serve us focus on the needs of those impacted by their decisions irrespective of the personal impact and criticism they might receive.

That perspective is maybe too optimistic.  After all, legislators begin campaigning for reelection almost immediately upon being sworn it.  This is certainly more the case in the House than the Senate given the length of their terms.  One only need watch the discussion in our state, however, to realize that what is important to many legislators isn't the impact on students but the personal impact.  Whether tied to a party platform or to those who might impact their desire to receive specific committee appointments, it's clear that decisions are often made with regard for the collateral damage on those they are supposed to serve.

As we listen to the discussions in Austin now, there is a faction that is proposing what they call school reform or school choice.  Remember, however, that public education is a form of school choice; as public education advocates, we have to keep that consideration front and center.  This faction uses what they consider to be the very small number of failing schools as a reason to change the entire system that has served our country so well.  But at the heart of this, in my opinion, is a desire to effect change for change sake rather than truly trying to address the challenges of those schools.

While not unique, here is a thought.  Let's assume that campuses serving 5% of our student population are not meeting the education standards we all desire.  That means that about 500,000 students are in school environments that fall short of state requirements.  Some would suggest that the need is to focus on the small number at the expense of the other 95% of the student population.  If, for a moment, we were to consider education savings grants, aka vouchers, as a way to address the issues, do we take the time to consider how that impacts 95% of our student population?  By pulling dollars from public education, this surely will impact the entire student population.  And that may well be the intent of the school reform movement.

Since the school reform discussion is largely being led by Republicans, one could conclude that the party is opposed to public education.  Other than a select few who bang the drum of school reform, there is not a widespread effort to dismantle public education.  While concerned that the trend toward school reform is stronger now, and gaining momentum each session, I believe that there is sufficient support for public education in both parties and that, with continued advocacy, public education will remain a priority.  It's up to us, as public education advocates, to tell the story and to help the majority of the members in the Republican Party understand the need to Make Education a Priority.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Do We Care About the Kids or is Being "Right" More Important?

Much has been written over the past several months about the state and future of public education in Texas.  The Supreme Court ruling acknowledging that our school finance system meets the "minimum constitutional requirements" did at least get the conversation started ... at least for awhile.  In fact, both the Lt. Governor and the Speaker issued interim charges to their respective bodies to look at ways to address what the Supreme Court would not.

The decision by the Supreme Court makes some sense and they opined on the importance of the Legislature addressing the issue rather than having it decided by the state's highest court.  But will legislators act and will they take the responsibility laid at their feet?  Or will they act in a manner that is more self serving than supportive of the more than 5.2 million Texas public education students?  The short answer it that it depends.

I had a conversation recently with a Republican legislator who believes that this will come down to what might be described as a game of chicken, a game that potentially leaves the students as the unwitting victims of a focus on personal agendas.  In the Senate, we can expect to continue to see an emphasis on education savings grants (or vouchers) while the House will continue to try to address the school finance issues that prompted the original suit against the State.  On the one hand, school reform and so-called school choice; on the other, a focus on how to address funding gaps and inequities (including Robin Hood potentially).

But what happens if discussions stall on both fronts because neither chamber is willing to concede or compromise?  How does that help the students?  And, more importantly, how does that address those campuses who are not fully meeting the needs of their students.  Some would consider these to be failing schools.  For my part, I view them as opportunities to invest, to find ways to improve the quality of education so that all students have the opportunity to learn and to succeed.

Will those in the legislature have the will to ensure educational opportunities for all students?  More than ever, now is the time for public education advocates to make certain that their voices are heard.  After all, we are speaking for the 5.2 million plus students across the state.  We must speak up to Make Education a Priority.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Rep. Diego Bernal – A Legislator Goes Back to School

In May, I published a blog outlining the plans for Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) to visit all of the schools in his district so that he could develop a better understanding of the needs of students and staff in his district.  I was pleased to see an article recently in which he summarized his views of the issues he found when visiting the 55 campuses in three ISD’s in his district.  To read his article, What They Said: What I Learned from Conversations with Texas Educators, please click here.

Several things struck me as I read his summary of findings but what really resonated with me is his commitment to maintaining an open mind as he traveled his district and a willingness to listen to different points of view.  His efforts are fairly unique in that he personally took the opportunity to learn firsthand what he could, actions that no doubt will have a positive impact on decisions he will make when it comes to public education.  Will he always agree with my position?  It’s not likely but I applaud and thank him for his efforts.

Rep. Bernal touched on many topics; the following are but a few:
  •         Importance of quality instructional time
  •         Incentives to hire (and retain) experienced teachers
  •         Dual language programs
  •         Testing practices
  •         The stigma of an A-F rating system
  •         Importance of pre-K
  •         Need for technology to support curriculum

His efforts to understand the challenges and complexities of the public education environment should be lauded by all public education advocates.  All too often, legislators are faced with a vote on a topic and have to rely on others (peers or staff) to help them understand the issues.  Reaching out to campus and district leaders directly will enable Rep. Bernal to be one of the influencers when it comes to a discussion and debate about public education.

Without a doubt, party lines will be drawn in the discussion about public education but if his peers take the time to read his report and to listen to his input, not only will they be better able to understand the issues but the students will benefit directly.  It’s my hope that others in the legislature will take the time to understand the issues and opportunities found in public education and that the combined effort will build a platform to Make Education a Priority.  Thank you, Rep. Bernal, for your service and your leadership.  On behalf of all public education advocates, we look forward to working with you in the 85th legislative session.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Voucher Debate and You

Rev. Charles Johnson, Director of Pastors for Texas Children and a great friend of Make Education a Priority, recently tweeted what I believe is one of the best quotes I have seen relating to the ongoing voucher debate.  Rev. Johnson said,

If the voucher debate was really about kids, we’d target those 75 or 80 struggling schools out of 8,500 public schools and we would give them the resources they need to succeed.  The Legislature consistently refuses to do that.”

Those who know Rev. Johnson (or know of him) are aware that he is one of the most passionate individuals advocating for the more than 5.2 million Texas public education students.  He has traveled the state to deliver his messages and has worked tirelessly to build support from the faith community, support that is gaining traction and having an impact on those elected to serve us.

The Supreme Court ruling that school finance in Texas meets the “minimum constitutional requirement” (acceptance of “minimum” in anything we do still galls the heck out of me!) let the Legislature off the hook in having to do anything specifically.  And while the Lt. Governor and Speaker of the House both issued charges to their members to look at public education and school finance, how many in Austin are really serious about how their decisions impact students across the state?

There certainly is stronger support for public education in the House than there is in the Senate but Rev. Johnson and others are doing what they can to focus on the challenges faced by districts across the state.  It’s relatively easy to focus on tax cuts and cost containment while blaming districts for shortcomings on some of our campuses.  Strong leadership, however, will (or should) look at the factors that impact these deficiencies and work with their constituents to address them.  The needs of the students should be the drivers of decisions, not simply a push to reduce the state’s share of funding for public education.  But that is the challenge districts face in Austin.

As children, we were taught to embrace challenges and to do what we could to overcome these challenges.  Students on struggling campuses have that same desire and perspective but where is the commitment from others to help them achieve their goals?   Given what economist Ray Perryman documented as the significant return on dollars invested in public education, why do we ignore those with the greatest need?  If we don’t invest in these campuses and these students, what opportunity do they have to succeed?  How do we ensure that the Legislature fulfills its constitutional requirement to adequately fund public education?

With discussions led by Rev. Johnson and others across the state, public education must remain at the forefront of discussions with our legislators.  It’s easy to sit back and say “no” to the needs of children; it takes a great deal more leadership and courage to embrace these needs and to initiate actions to Make Education a Priority.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Challenge of a Tax Ratification Election (TRE)

I was reviewing emails and came across an analysis of recent tax ratification elections and outcomes.  The good news is that 28 of the 31 districts who recently held elections received voter approval.  Many of these are smaller rural districts, and the boards and administration now have a bit more flexibility in how they set the direction of the district.

The bad news is that the three that did not pass (Frisco, Marlin and Yantis) will face challenges in addressing the needs of the students in their districts.  As a former trustee, I believe strongly that boards of trustees across the state are working diligently and with responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars to do what they can to address student needs, while balancing this with consideration of the financial impact on taxpayers in the district.  Clearly, not all taxpayers felt the same way.

What are the factors that impact a district’s ability to secure voter approval of a TRE?  I’ve thought about this and there seem to be a couple of reasons.  At the top of the list is voter apathy.  In the case of Frisco ISD, voter turnout was less than 17% but that number is still well above what voter turnout has typically been.  I don’t have a breakdown of voter turnout but it is certainly likely that many who supported the TRE thought that it would pass and failed to exercise their right to vote.  I know that this was the case when my district tried to pass a TRE but it was defeated, largely to a greater “’get out the vote” effort on the part of those opposed to the TRE.

A second challenge is how to get information to people so that they can make an informed decision and cast their votes accordingly.  I have grandchildren in Frisco ISD and followed the communication via social media very closely.  I also drove through neighborhoods and saw significant number of signs supporting the TRE.  Yet, on voting day, it was defeated by a 58-42% margin.  Perhaps those opposed to the request conducted a more grassroots effort than did those in support; I don’t know that for certain since I don’t live in Frisco ISD but it’s clear that the opposition’s message landed better with the majority of voters.

A third factor is that the success of a district may mask the overall need for additional funding and investment (reference a prior blog relating to investments in public education).  Everything that I see relating to Frisco ISD suggests that they have done a tremendous job of responding to unparalleled growth in their district.  So for many people, until programs are cut, until class size increases, until “pay to play” and similar fees are implemented, many don’t have a sense of the challenges faced by the board in making financial decisions.

Where do we go from here?  I believe that we will continue to see a majority of TRE’s pass but that there will be pockets (Frisco as the fastest growing district in the state is an easy target) where groups galvanize to oppose a ballot initiative.  My challenge to those people is to transform their opposition into something more than simply saying “no”, to get engaged in the district and to provide constructive feedback on how to address the student’s needs.  That, after all, is what this should be about, not simply voting “no” without understanding the need, the options and the ramifications of decisions.  It’s up to all of us to continue to tell the public education story and to ensure that we Make Education a Priority.  Our kids are watching!