I recently had the opportunity to attend a luncheon hosted by Pastors for Texas Children and the Coalition of Public Schools at which Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, was the invited speaker. I was encouraged by the number of people who attended and pleased by the cross section of stakeholders in public education that this audience represented.
Rep. Aycock shared his perspectives on public education and I thought that this was an appropriate medium to pass along some of his observations. With an ever expanding student population, growing at a rate of more than 80,000 students each year, we now have more than 5.3M school age children in our schools, 93% of whom are enrolled in public education. 60% of the student population is below the poverty level and almost 20% of this population has a language other than English as their primary language. The diversity of this population represents one of the biggest challenges we face, namely how to achieve a common goal of post-secondary readiness with different starting points and different paths toward that goal.
His message centered not on an argument of public vs private schools or charter schools but on the need to achieve a level of quality that provides every student with the opportunity to grow and develop into a contributing member of our society. This does not suggest a continued “test and punish” strategy but one that recognizes the value of assessments as a resource in helping students along the road to success. He also reinforced the need for the State, in his words, to provide a “publicly operated, publicly funded public school.” But he acknowledged, as do those of us who are advocates for public education, that this is not solely a responsibility of the State of Texas.
It is up to all of us as community members to engage with our schools; at the same time, it is up to the schools to engage with the communities they serve. This bilateral engagement model is absolutely critical to student success. As examples to support this, he discussed what has been called a “step up”, namely an effort to involve higher education with public school campuses, a key tenet of House Bill 5 that he championed in the 83rd legislature. He also referenced the tremendous success achieved at Reagan High School in Austin, where the combined efforts of all stakeholders turned around a chronically underperforming campus.
Rep. Aycock acknowledged the number of advocacy groups who speak in support of public education but he challenged those of us who are advocates to come together as a single voice when talking about public education with community members, business partners and policymakers alike. We are fortunate that public education is a discussion topic, regardless of your position on issues such as privatization and vouchers. The bottom line is that we must do what is best for the students, to raise the level of awareness at all levels of what is required to achieve student success. And, for our part, that is what Make Education a Priority is all about.