Thursday, June 30, 2016

"Meets the Minimum Requirements"

(Note: Barry Haenisch, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Schools, recently posted an article that I find very relevant to our discussion about the need to address our school finance system.  With Barry’s approval, I am posting this below.)
“Meets the minimum requirements.” Now that is a phrase that has become more important to Texas school superintendents in the last month since the Texas Supreme Court found in favor of the state in the school finance case that lingered in the courts for years! At least we have an answer about the constitutionality of the Texas school finance system, but, at best, it is an answer that leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. Josh Brodesky, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News had some thoughts on the Supreme Court’s decision that I found to be humorous, thoughtful, and on-target.

While Josh offered several examples of things that meet minimum standards, I particularly liked this example, “…the often-overlooked gas station hot dog, greasy as one of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s ‘work’ trips, that become a shining metaphor for our low threshold for public school funding. The two have a lot in common, upon reflection. They are cheap, and they might give you indigestion. While one might qualify as a ‘meal’ and the other as ‘equitable’ public funding, these are really just technicalities in the minimum sense.”

The decision left school leaders wondering, “So now how will the legislature approach school funding during the next session?” While that question remains unanswered, last week we began to get a glimpse of the possible answer. On June 2nd Speaker Straus issued two additional interim charges, and both relate to school finance. With the statement, “We can improve educational quality while making our school finance system more efficient. Ignoring some of the problems in our current system will only make them worse…”, the Speaker charged the House to (1.) review how the loss of ASATR funding would impact school districts and (2.) recommend ways to reverse the state’s increasing reliance on recapture to fund public education in the state.

Those two interim charges are in addition to two earlier requests the Speaker had made. At the completion of the 84th Legislative Session, Speaker Straus required the House to study the Cost of Education Index (CEI) and the debt and facility needs of fast growth school districts.

Of course, as he often does, Lt. Governor Patrick saw the Court’s decision in another way. In a response to the Speaker’s new interim charges, the Lt. Governor responded with, “…I have learned a great deal about school finance and how difficult it will be to solve the issue. I look forward to working with him (the Speaker) on this issue and I am sure he looks forward to working with me on my priorities. Everyone knows education policy reform and school finance reform must go hand in hand.”

Back to the question; so how will the legislature approach school funding during the next session? From my perspective the answer can be found in the old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Apparently, nothing will move in the Senate unless it is tied to vouchers and/or other school choice options!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

MEaP Makes a Strong Showing at SLI

For those who are locally elected school board trustees, you are very familiar with the requirement for ongoing training and opportunities to fulfill this requirement at TASB-sponsored conferences.  Most recently, trustees had an opportunity to attend one of two Summer Leadership Institutes, held in San Antonio and Ft.  Worth.  These conferences are a great opportunity for trustees to get together and discuss issues impacting public education across Texas.

As the President of Make Education a Priority, a 501(c) 3 launched in February of this year, I am especially proud of the efforts of our board members and members of our advisory committee for the work they put forth in presenting two key topics, one relating to school board governance (one of MEaP’s three primary strategies) and a separate session discussing the Framework for School Board Development. 

Presenters of each session included the following trustees:
  • Framework for School Board Development – Gary Inmon (Schertz-Cibolo), Robert Seward (Mesquite), Dr. Aaron Reich (Arlington), Raul Gonzales (Mansfiled)
  • Effective School Board Governance – Bobby J Rigues (Aledo), Rick Lambert (Garland); note that Bobby and Rick are both MEaP board members.
The collaborative efforts of these dedicated public servants were significant in that they provided a perspective on governance that has proven to be effective in districts across the state.  TASB training often focuses on the importance of governance but sessions led by trustees bring a first-hand exposure to the importance and impact of effective school board governance.

Make Education a Priority sincerely appreciates the continued dedication and commitments of each of the individuals noted above.  In a time of uncertainty and efforts by many to dismantle public education as we know it, this commitment is critical to the success of our collective efforts to promote the value of our public education system.  Thank you to each of these gentlemen for continuing to Make Education a Priority.  Well done!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Power of Engagement!

It would be easy for parents, students, teachers and administrators to sit around and bemoan the issues students in the 5th and 8th grades recently experienced when taking the STAAR test.  It would be easy to blame the failures on a new test provider, ETS, rather than to look at the root cause of the issues that led to the problems.  And it would be easy for TEA to do nothing, to deny the existence of issues associated with testing. 

Instead, and to his credit, Mike Morath, TEA commissioner, acknowledged the issues faced by districts across the state when he announced that Fifth and eighth graders who failed STAAR exams this year won’t be held back a grade or be required to retest later this month.  For a summary of this issue and the implications, click here

The decision by Commissioner Morath represents a change in position since he had originally denied that the issue was widespread enough to impact overall accountability results.   It is a decision that was clearly impacted by a suit filed by a group of parents who challenged the use of STAAR exam results in making a decision about whether a student could be promoted to the next grade.  And that’s what engagement is all about.  The challenge to STAAR results is yet another example of how community engagement can impact decisions made by elected officials and those appointed to serve the needs of our students.

But it cannot stop with each single issue that comes up for discussion.  The recent Supreme Court ruling that the current school finance system meets the “minimum constitutional requirements” should serve as a rallying cry for all of those who support public education.  Our students deserver more than the “minimum” and it is up to all of us to make certain that this need is understood.  We can all sit by and hope that the legislature will take action in response to the Court’s ruling.  Or we can take the initiative to ensure that they do take action.

There are numerous examples where community engagement has had a dramatic impact on legislation that is introduced in Austin.  We need to look only as far as end-of-course exams and the reduction from 15 to 5 as a result of the efforts of TAMSA (Texans Advocating or Meaningful Student Assessment) and others to realize how significant engagement can be in providing a quality education system for the more than 5.2 million students in Texas.  

But we must remind ourselves that some of our elected officials are satisfied with a system that is so complex that it does not meet the needs of all stakeholders.  They are satisfied that they have the opportunity to advance a personal agenda rather than focus on the needs of those they were elected to serve.  Our political system is all about satisfying the needs of those in power … at least until they are “forced” to acknowledge and respond to the needs of their constituents, whether by the courts or voters in their districts.

Now is the time for public education advocates to come together, to engage and to unite in support of our students, in short to Make Education a Priority.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Why is School Funding a Political Issue?

Recently, a number of articles have been published about school finance funding, including one I read that can be found by clicking here.  What troubles me most about many of these articles is that the debate is not about the adequacy or equity of funding but how the funding issue aligns with a particular party platform.  Sure, I acknowledge the need for our political parties to have a platform and to adopt a stance on specific issues.  But is it fair to hold students as hostages in the debate over the adequacy of school funding?  The State of Texas has a constitutional obligation to support a public education system but many elected officials and business “leaders” continue to push to dismantle a system that has largely proven to be a tremendous success across the state. 

Whatever happened to the day when the issues that were debated actually looked at the impact on the stakeholders resulting from specific actions?  Much has been written and debated about public education but rarely is the focus on the students in the classroom or the teachers dedicated to delivering a quality education to the more than 5.2 million public education students in Texas.

Instead, political and personal agendas seem to drive much of the discussion.  Those who advocate for finding options to public schools quote statistics that are often an extremely small subset of the overall public education system.  While some, including those in Austin, focus on what they label as chronically underperforming campuses, they fail to note that those campuses or districts that are failing to meet standards represent a very small percentage of the overall campus population. 

I’ve written previously about the need to invest in public education and the fact that, unlike any business non-profit or other organization, the road to success is found in the level of investment and commitment made to that entity.  It’s time we acknowledge this and look at the bigger picture of public education rather than simply isolate the “hot spots” and label those as representative of the overall student population.  I also read a recent article by a Texas economist on the value of a dollar invested in public education (more on that in a separate blog).

Imagine what could happen if we all came together and committed ourselves to the cause of public education.  Even those who promote options to public education would come to realize that the problem is not the system itself but the lack of a commitment to fully funding a system growing by more than 80,000 students annually.  All of us should band together to Make Education a Priority, regardless of our political affiliation our platform.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

School Priority Month Update

Now, more than ever, it is critical that our local, county and statewide elected officials are given the opportunity to visit campuses and to witness the tremendous successes achieved every day in the classroom.  While much of the focus has been on promoting engagement with our legislators in Austin, it is critical that those most directly impacted by the presence of local schools in a community are made aware of these efforts.

Make Education a Priority (MEaP) is proud to sponsor the inaugural School Priority Month (SPM’16) in October of this year and in every other October just prior to the opening of the next legislative session in January of even-numbered years.  MEaP is thrilled with the support we have received from districts around the state and sincerely appreciates the commitment from those who have chosen to participate. 

SPM’16 is a unique opportunity for many individuals who have not visited a campus in their local communities to now do so.  Community and stakeholder engagement is an essential part of having a sound public education system and, to the extent that stakeholders become more involved, they become stronger advocates for the nearly 5.3 million Texas public education students.

While still in the process of developing a tool kit to assist districts in their planning efforts for this important series of events, MEaP has released a resolution that can be adopted by participating districts, as well as a media release for local districts.  Much like the resolution adopted by more than 600 districts supporting the original Make Education a Priority grassroots movement, this resolution is an opportunity for trustees to acknowledge their support and to frame participation for their elected officials.  The initial information and tool kit can be found by clicking here.

Public education advocates have invested considerable time and effort working to engage legislators in discussions about public education.  SPM’16 is now an extension of that in that it provides an opportunity for legislators to visit campuses and also creates an additional group of public education advocates who can potentially engage and discuss public education issues with statewide officials.  After all, what goes on in the local district has a very strong impact and influence on what goes on in the community.  This is an opportunity to build yet another grassroots movement to raise awareness of the challenges faced by public education and the degree to which public education works to overcome these challenges every day in our classrooms.

If your district has not already joined the SPM’16 effort, we encourage you to consider doing so.  Advocacy for public education requires involvement from stakeholders at all levels and this is a great opportunity to reach out to what, for many, has been an untapped potential advocacy group.  We encourage you to come together with us to Make Education a Priority

To become a part of SPM’16, please contact Bobby J Rigues, MEaP CEO, at or me (  We appreciate your consideration, as do the nearly 5.3millionn public education students.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Leadership in the House

On June 2, House Speaker Joe Straus issued two additional interim charges, both relating to school finance reform, to the House Appropriations and Public Education Committees.  This action is a direct response to the May 13 Supreme Court ruling and offers a ray of hope that at least one chamber in Austin will take this up in the 85th Legislature and fulfill the responsibility they have as defined by the Court’ ruling.

Sadly, as we all know, there is little if any movement in the Senate to discuss the issue or consider how to address school finance reform.  In fact, the challenge in the Senate increased with recent primary wins by individuals who support the “school choice” discussions being orchestrated by the Lt. Governor. 

The contrast between the Speaker and the Lt. Governor has never been more clearly evident than it is now.  Even where the Court outlined that action on school finance reform to address a “Byzantine” system lies with the legislature, Senate leadership continues to channel the discussion away from the topic of school finance reform, choosing instead to focus on bathrooms and vouchers, not the kids in the classrooms. 

Does that mean that there is no chance for a discussion about school finance reform in the Senate?  That certainly could be the case if we, as public education advocates, don’t take the opportunity between now and the convening of the 85th Legislature in January to engage in conversations with senators, specifically those who advocate for shifting dollars out of our public schools.  Our messaging should be fairly straightforward but we have to take the time to at least try to have a discussion with those who will likely serve in the next session.

So what are some of the key discussion topics?  I could certainly use and welcome your input but here are a few that are top of mind:
  •          Programs that meet the needs of at-risk students;
  •           Full-day prekindergarten;
  •           Career and technical education programs;
  •           The Instructional Materials Allotment;
  •           School Facilities, including:
    •  the Instructional Facilities Allotment, 
    • Existing Debt Allotment, and 
    • New Instructional Facilities Allotment;
  •           Transportation;
  •           Teacher salaries;
  •           TRS ActiveCare
 As I wrote in a prior blog, now is the time for us to come together as advocates and build a coherent and consistent message.  We have a great opportunity in front of us.  While admittedly a challenge, the fervor and reactions to the Supreme Court’s ruling have created a groundswell of advocacy on which we all must build.

We extend a sincere thank you to Speaker Straus for his leadership but it is now up to us to engage directly with our legislators and among ourselves.  Now is the time to come together as we strive to Make Education a Priority.  It is up to all of us.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

School Finance … The Need to Unite

I recently had a conversation with the Chairman of the House Public Education Committee, state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, about the state of public education in Texas.  This conversation took place shortly after the May 13 Supreme Court ruling that the “imperfect, Byzantine” school finance system met the “minimum constitutional requirement”.  I could write a whole blog on some of the words found in the ruling and how the Courts ruled but that is not my purpose here.

Instead, the conversation with the Chairman took a bit different tact than many of the discussions surrounding this ruling.  Instead of focusing on the need for public education advocacy groups to come together and to create a “brand” for public education, a reference point for all of us who advocate, the Chairman focused on the needs of school districts to come together and find a commonality of purpose.  I am still trying to wrap my arms around exactly what that means but am beginning to understand what he means.

As a ten year school board trustee, I know that much of our discussion as a board centered on what was good and right for us, and that’s as it should be … to a point.  We talked about the fairness of per student funding and how we compared to neighboring districts.  We even talked about how actions taken by our boards ten years prior set the tone for that level of per student funding.  Again, we talked about the fairness and strategized on how to address what we perceived as inequities.  Despite our concerns and differences, more than 600 school districts came together as plaintiffs in the school finance law suit.   

But is/was that enough?  Clearly, the Court didn’t align its ruling with concerns expressed by the majority of districts in the state relative to adequacy and equity of funding so I guess we can assume that it was not.  So what do we do now?  Do we sit and continue to talk about what we perceive as an unjust system and an unfair ruling or do we use the ruling as motivation to come together with a common focus and purpose?

Chairman Aycock strongly believes that districts themselves need to find a common ground and shared interests.  Whether a district is Chapter 41 or Chapter 42, whether they are large or small, whether they have a high or low percentage of at risk students, the ultimate goal is the same, namely to educate the nearly 5.3 million Texas public education students.  In a Facebook post shortly after the ruling, Chairman Aycock, when discussing HB 1759, legislation he sponsored and then pulled down, noted that “Even the proposed $3 Billion funding increase left districts divided about how to distribute the money. All wanted the dollars. None wanted the pain of the needed corrections. When added to those who wanted to wait for the court, and those who don't support school funding in general, there was simply no way to get the bill passed. I was probably foolish to try.”

To Chairman Aycock, all of us say “thank you” as he focused on how to address school finance challenges, an effort he made without waiting on the courts.  It’s now up to us, as advocates and as districts, to come together and define those areas that most directly impact our students.  We must then use that as the basis for communication with our elected officials as we continue to strive to Make Education a Priority.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Supreme Court has Ruled … What’s Next?

Now that the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that it is the responsibility of the Legislature to address the shortcomings of an “imperfect, Byzantine” school finance system, what does that mean for the nearly 5.3 million Texas public education students?  And what can we expect from the Legislature in the way of a response and subsequent action?  More importantly, how can we heighten the discussion so that public education becomes a focal point of funding discussions?

It seems to me that there are essentially three separate, yet intertwined, issues here.  One is the overall level of funding and how the State’s share of public school funding has declined over the years.  I recently read an article in TribTalk by Tracy Ginsburg, Executive Director of TASBO, in which she highlighted and discussed public education funding.  The link to her article can be found here.
A second issue is trying to anticipate how the 85th Legislature will respond to what the Courts have said is the legislators’ responsibility.  This response will be interesting to follow given the conversations today about school choice and school reform.  There has been little indication to this point (with the notable exception of HB 1759 that was introduced and then pulled down by Chairman Aycock) that both chambers are willing or even ready to tackle this challenge.  They certainly have been given the latitude to respond as they see fit but there is a great deal of uncertainty about what that will mean.

The third and perhaps most important issue is how we, as public education advocates, respond to the Court’s ruling.  Are we going to discuss how unfair the ruling is in our opinion or are we going to use the ruling as motivation to come together and create an even stronger public education “lobby”?  My hope is that the myriad of groups, many with a single purpose, will come together to create an education “brand” that forms the cornerstone of discussions with all elected officials.  My hunch is that the legislators would prefer that we not do so, that is easier on their part to parry the thrusts and platforms of individual advocacy groups.  I believe that we cannot let that happen.  Now is the time for us to come together and define the 5-7 issues on which all of us who advocate can agree, then tie our individual platforms to that common message. 

Voter turnout during the recent runoffs and primaries suggests that the voting populace is not engaged or interested in the outcomes of this discussion.  It is up to each of us and to all of us to start to change the discussion, to focus on engagement and messaging that begins to alter the discussion among those charged by the Supreme Court with addressing the failings of our school finance system, failings that impact our students every day in the classroom.  We must all come together to Make Education a Priority.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

School Finance – What’s Next?

In a New York Times article on May 15 (Few Solutions in Texas School Finance Ruling; click here to read the entire article), they correctly pointed out that the ruling offered little in the way of solutions to address the needs of those districts that had sued the State of Texas.  After reading the ruling a couple of times, what it really boils down to is that the Court chose not to mandate how the Legislature should address the ills of what even the Court called a “Byzantine” school finance system, deferring instead to what they defined as the constitutional obligation of the Legislature to act.

There are a couple of other phrases in the ruling that trouble me.  One is the notion that the current school finance system meets the “minimum constitutional requirements”, a concern that I have addressed on multiple occasions since the ruling.  It is particularly alarming to me that the State’s highest court is willing to acknowledge a dated system, one that meets minimum requirements, yet provides no real direction to the Legislature.  Doesn’t this lack of direction, and a consensus among the majority of districts that the Legislature is unwilling to act in a manner consistent with what they perceive as requirements, kind of set the stage for yet another lawsuit at some point in the future?  As even the Lt. Governor acknowledged, the issue “for now, has been resolved”. 

The Court’s ruling also noted that, “Texas’s more than five million school children deserve better than serial litigation over an increasingly Dacdalean “system”.  But who defines better?  The Court’s ruling went to great lengths to analyze the challenge of defining certain words in the Texas Education Code, including understanding what the phrase “quality education” means.  The ruling also commented on Article VII, section 1 of the Education code, noting that, “… the “imprecise” language of Article VII, section 1 necessarily grants the Legislature great discretion to determine what constitutes “suitable provision” for an “efficient system” to provide a “general diffusion of knowledge”.

Hearkening back to the Lt. Governor’s statement that the issue “for now, has been resolved”, the next legislative session should serve as an opportunity to eliminate the words “for now” from the discussion and to focus on how that might occur.  Admittedly, there are major fiscal challenges to be faced by the 85th Legislature but that does not absolve our elected officials of the responsibility to take steps to address the challenges in our current school finance funding model as outlined in the Court’s ruling. 

While I certainly do not agree with everything in the ruling, my real concern is the lack of direction provided to the Legislature and, more importantly, how it will choose to interpret and (hopefully) act upon the limited guidance outlined.  Absent that direction, it is up to all of us as public education advocates to Make Education a Priority to ensure that the needs of our students are not only met at the “minimum” but to provide the greatest opportunity we can for them to succeed.