Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Let’s Get It Started…..

Following the Texas Supreme Court ruling that the current school finance system meets the “minimum constitutional requirement”, both the Lt. Governor and Speaker of the House issued charges to their respective bodies to look at how to address some of the shortcomings that the court defined.  Yes, there has been some conversation but much of the discussion falls along party lines and is in line with personal agendas previously defined.

So when does the conversation actually start and how do the discussions become more fruitful than they are today?  House and Senate public education committees have both had discussions among their members but there has been little output of substance to this point.  However, I was encouraged recently when I read comments by Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, in which he suggested three possible ways to address the issue.  To read the article published in the Texas Tribune, click here.

Rep. Frank listed the following as considerations:
  •         statewide commercial property tax;
  •         consolidated funding districts; 
  •         statewide property tax.

And while none of the ideas proposed will likely be the ultimate solution, at least someone has come forward with ideas on what to do next. 

Each idea certainly has its pluses and minuses, and where you live, as well as current funding levels in your district, will certainly impact how you feel about each.  And that’s where the challenges lie.  Legislators are elected to represent their constituents and not necessarily to focus on the needs of citizens across the entire state.  So there will always be a debate on “what’s good for me and what’s good for my constituents”.

I am okay with that.  After all, that’s the way that our democracy was created and that’s why we have lively debate about how to approach opportunities and problems in our country.  But I do wish that legislators would step back at times and, while supporting their position, take the time to consider the thoughts of their peers and how these might impact the continued vitality of the State of Texas. This is not say that some don’t do this (for me, House Education Committee chair Jimmie Don Aycock is a master at this) but, in large part, the lines are drawn long before the discussion starts.

To Rep. Frank, I say “thank you” for at least starting the conversation.  As I look at the charges and positions of the two chambers, I am much more hopeful that the House, under Chairman Aycock’s committee leadership, will continue to look at how to address the challenges faced in public education today.  However, I also know that without strong advocacy by those who support public education, it will be very easy for legislators to stick with party lines and personal agendas.  It’s up to us to ensure that the discussion continues.

Even with the positives of conversation initiated by Rep. Frank, however, I fear that this will not result in substantive dialog and action.  In fact, during an interview with the Texas Tribune, he said, “Do I think we’re going to do something?  No. But I think we’re going to talk about it.”  It’s up to public education advocates to push for more than talk and to ensure that the discussion expands to how to Make Education a Priority.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Have We Asked the Kiddos?

I recently read two great quotes that really landed with me, one published by Make Education a Priority (MEaP) in a Facebook post and another I saw on Facebook by Rita Pierson.  For those who have not seen the quotes, here they are.

MEaP – “I care more about the people my students become than the scores on the tests they take.”

Rita Pierson, Educator – “Every child deserves a champion; an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possibly be.”

These two quotes, certainly augmented by many other social media posts that focus on the student, put the emphasis on where it should be in public education, on the students themselves.  While I saw (but then couldn’t find) another post that really reinforced this message, it was along the lines of asking students how they are doing rather than relying strictly on tests as a barometer of success.

But that’s just not the way that we do it.  We continue to think that a system of high stakes assessment is the best way to gauge how well our students are learning.  And while that is a helpful resource, it should not be the only way that we evaluate the success of public education.  There are just too many variables (socioeconomic status, single family households, ESL, etc.) that have an impact and there is no way to normalize results for these variables.  Yet we continue to focus on STAAR results with an eye now toward moving to an A-F rating system in school year 2017-2018.

If we step back for a minute and really care about how all of this impacts students and teachers, we might come to a different conclusion about what our students are learning and how we might better approach this.  Many parents are now using fears and concerns about high stakes testing to opt of these tests (subject of a future blog).  And there is a very recent report published by the National Conference of State Legislatures (ncsl.org) titled No Time to Lose: How to Build a World Class Education System State by State.  In many states, business-as-usual just isn’t achieving the goals and enabling students to achieve their potential.  We have to change that but also need to understand the gaps between business-a-usual and the desired state of education.  Asking students is a good starting point for that effort.

A great example of where student input is important can be found in the second tenet of the report, that there needs to be greater emphasis (and funding) on career and technical education than there is today.  In my household, my son is a great example of where a CTE program might have helped him find his way once he graduated from high school.  Six months after high school, he knew exactly what he wanted to do and he is approaching twenty years with the same company … but he had to find that on his own.  Asking him while he was a public education student would have been of great benefit to him.

In the business world, I am a strong believer in looking at market needs through the eyes of stakeholders (“outside in”) rather than the companies who sell products or provide services.  Companies succeed based on their ability to meet the needs of the stakeholders; public education in this context is much the same.  While there are certain basic requirements that have to be delivered by our public education system, looking at how best to deliver those as seen through the eyes of the stakeholder, i.e., the students, will certainly yield greater results for the “company” of public education.  By focusing on students, their needs and aspirations, we put forth a greater effort to Make Education a Priority.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

When Did Students Become Pawns?

A couple of weeks ago, the Senate Education Committee met to discuss a number of items relating to public education, somewhat driven by a charge from the Lt. Governor to assess funding considerations given the recent Texas Supreme Court ruling on school finance.  Recall the words “minimum constitutional requirements” as words that should have triggered more fruitful discussions than what have transpired so far.  Admittedly, there is time until the Legislature convenes but the groundwork for these discussions during the session is being laid now.  The tone of the discussions, especially in the Senate, suggests to me that political agendas will continue to be the focal point, not the needs of the more than 5.2 million Texas public education students.
As I read a recap of a Senate Education hearing in early August, but admittedly not having attended the hearing, I struggle with one of the basic premises of the discussion, specifically that funding for public schools should be tied to academic performance of a district and campus rather than providing dollars per student.  If you read the “headline” and consider a sports analogy, it probably makes sense to most people.  If an athlete performs well, he/she is rewarded with a bigger contract … so why doesn’t that make sense for public education as well?  That really speaks to a challenge that we, as public education advocates, face as we try to educate the public on the ramifications of an underfunded (okay, the courts said it met the minimum requirement) public education system.
Students, however, are not like the professional athletes.  They are not “working” on behalf of their districts to achieve so that the district receives more funding.  The problem with this argument is that the focus is not on the student but continues to be on factors that do not directly impact student performance in the classroom.  If the funding model meets the “minimum constitutional requirement”, how do we ever get to the point where we invest to achieve the ROI noted in a prior blog titled TheValue of Investing in our Public Schools (click here to read)?  With few exceptions, nowhere does the investment generate a greater than the ROI summarized in that blog.  Yet we continue to ignore the basic premise of investing in what will surely be this country’s most valuable assets over time, the students themselves.
And how would a funding model like this extend into charter schools where there is no similar accountability for performance?  Does this suggest (I think I know the answer already!) a completely separate model?  I have no issue with accountability (story for another day) but we need to be balanced in how we approach funding for those entities who are intended to provide a similar outcome, i.e., creating opportunities for students to succeed and to become prosperous contributors to a global economy.
On the one hand, I am at least encouraged that the discussion has begun.  While disappointed that the Texas Supreme Court did not provide more guidance (and motivation) for the legislature to act, the Lt. Governor and Speaker of the House have at least responded with charges to their respective members to consider the ruling and how to respond.  What troubles me, specifically in the Senate, is the approach. 
Students are not pawns in the game of school finance and their performance should not drive funding models.  Instead, we must find ways to address the challenges we face.  Those districts and campuses that require greater investment are typically not the higher performing districts.   While we must acknowledge their performance and continue to provide incentives for success, we cannot do so at the expense of those who need it most.  The focal point is the student; we all must work together to Make Education a Priority at all levels.  If we do so, academic performance will be the outcome.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Democratic Party Platform on Education

I previously published a blog titled PartyPlatforms and Public Education (click here to read) in which I noted the key elements of the Republic Party education platform.  In the interest of fair and balanced “reporting”, the following are the “highlights” of the Democratic Party platform.  (Source: https://www.democrats.org/issues/education).
-        We’re dedicated to ensuring the next generation has access to a quality education and the tools to drive our economy forward.
-        Our country is strongest when our workers are trained with the knowledge and ingenuity to perform at the highest levels. Every child should have the opportunity to reach that horizon and to fulfill the American Dream.
-        The Obama administration is working to overhaul the “No Child Left Behind” program and provide teachers with more professional support and resources — while also holding them accountable.
-        President Obama instituted “Race to the Top,” a revolutionary program designed to promote innovation and provide incentives for improvement in education. As a result, dozens of states have made changes to increase standards and implement reforms.
-        Democrats recognize education as the most pressing economic issue in America’s future, and we cannot allow our country to fall behind in a global economy. We must prepare the next generation for success in college and the workforce.
Candidly, both parties are missing the boat when it comes to having definitive plans on how to address the challenges and opportunities for public education in this country.  Both are long (well, that may be an exaggeration!) on ideas but very short on action plans to accomplish their respective goals.  And that has to be more disappointing than the platforms themselves.  How can we expect to provide opportunities for students if we don’t more specific goals and plans to achieve these goals?  Wouldn’t it be somewhat analogous to saying we want all students to achieve but then not look to our teachers to develop and deliver lesson plans that afford students the opportunity to do so?  It doesn’t just happen!

Our students deserve better!  Regardless of where we stand relative to issues of accountability, funding and funding sources, or “school choice”, we must do better.  Education in general, and public education in particular, has become one of those lightning rods where the focus is more on the political angle than it is on the students themselves.  At some point, we need to step back and make an effort to address the issues (including achievement gap, dropout rates, low performing schools, etc.) that seem to serve as fodder for discussion.  If education truly is “the most pressing economic issue in America’s future”, what are we doing to address the issue?   An issue without a plan to resolve remains simply an issue.  Our students have a right to expect that they will be given opportunities to succeed; it is incumbent upon all of us to make these a reality and to Make Education a Priority with both political parties.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A Voucher by Any Other Name…

Much of the discussion in prior legislative sessions and among those intent on shifting dollars away from public schools has used the word voucher … until fairly recently.  While the word has largely fallen out of vogue, the idea that dollars should be reallocated remains and it’s important to understand that changing a name does little to change the fact that this diversion of funds is inconsistent with the requirements to adequately fund public education as defined in the Texas Constitution.  And while the Texas Supreme Court, in their ruling, stated that current school finance laws meet the “minimum constitutional requirement”, what happens when funds are siphoned off and reallocated to a different form of school choice?

By the way, in this discussion of so-called school choice, remember that public education is a form of school choice!

Outgoing State Board of Education vice chairman Thomas Ratliff (@ratlifft) spelled this out very clearly in a recent Twitter post he wrote in which he expressed an opinion that Education Savings Accounts (is this the name de jour?) are the equivalent of what he called a “gigantic entitlement program”.  He expressed particular concern that recipients of funds generated through education savings accounts are actually using funds that exceed what they have paid in taxes.  He acknowledges that this would not be the case for some but certainly would apply to the majority.

What is particularly troubling, and is symptomatic of the issue relating to all choice other than public education, is that there is no accountability for how the money is spent.  At a projected cost (according to Vice Chairman Ratilff) of approximately $6.4 B over the biennium, the lack of accountability has to be troubling even for the most ardent proponent of choices other than public education.  How many of these individuals are willing to commit funds without any assurance that they are being spent in the intended manner and, perhaps more importantly, they are achieving the intended results?

The Lt. Governor has once again made it very clear that he intends to make vouchers (by whatever name!) a key focus of his agenda for the 85th Legislative Session.  Every child deserves and is entitled to a quality education but simply moving dollars around offers no assurance that doing so will accomplish the objectives of ensuring that occurs.  To the contrary, there is a very strong likelihood that any shift will have an adverse impact not just on those who “follow the money” but certainly on those who remain a part of the public education system.

Regardless of one’s position on vouchers (by whatever name!), it’s critical that we not fall prey to statements that the public education system is flawed and thus warrants a shift in focus and dollars.  It’s critical that those of us who are public education advocates continue to push for accountability regardless of the outcome and to ensure that the more than 5.2 million public education students receive the education to which they are constitutionally entitled, to continue our efforts to Make Education a Priority.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Importance of Voting

As I watched the chaos and mudslinging of the two political conventions just completed, I became more concerned that the American public will become even more disconnected from the voting process.  This is an election about two extremes in the candidates of each party.  My purpose here is not to take a position on one or the other but to focus instead on the critical need for engagement and involvement on the part of the American public.

Voting in elections in Texas, whether local, statewide or at the national level, is among the lowest in the nation.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that one party dominates statewide races and controls both the Senate and the House in Austin.  Knowing people whose political leanings range from the far right to the far left, I have heard many say that their votes don’t really count, that they cannot have an impact by casting a single vote.  And that may be right at a national level, but local and statewide races have been decided by low double digit vote count on more than one occasion.

What I do know is that, while one vote may or may not impact the outcome of an election, the compounding of one vote can have a dramatic impact.  Consider how one vote can evolve into multiple.  A student in high school who has turned 18 registers to vote and exercises their right to participate in the democratic process.  Their excitement is passed along to parents and friends with an encouragement for them to engage and to vote.  Those individuals in turn do the same with their family, friends and others.

Is this realistic?  I am proud to say that I have seen it happen.  Make Education a Priority, a 501(c)(3) advocating for public education, is proud to be affiliated with a number of organizations who developed a program called Texas Educators Vote (http://texaseducatorsvote.com/).   Operating under the leadership of Texas Association of Community Schools (http://www.tacsnet.org/), this grassroots movement has already had an impact on voter turnout among educators.  One need look no further than the recent State Board of Education runoff in east Texas that turned the results of the primary upside down. 

It’s easy to sit back and be apathetic about the election process or the challenges that our elected officials face every day.  As public education advocates, however, we cannot take the easy way out.  With a strong push at the federal and state level to shift dollars and focus away from public education, it has never been more important to participate in the democratic process of voting than it is now.  Take the time to understand the issues and perspectives on public education and understand the impact of some of these perspectives.  At the end of the day, exercise your right to vote and, through your vote, demonstrate the requirement to Make Education a Priority.  

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Number 100 … and counting!

I started my blog almost 2 ½ years ago and today’s blog is the 100th one I have posted!  Initially focused on the implications of House Bill 5 and the importance in expanding opportunities for students across the state, my hope was that my blog would serve as a stimulus for discussion about public education.  Since that initial blog, I have shifted and expanded my focus to address a wide range of topics relating to education, some pretty mainstream and some on the fringes.  But through it all, I remain committed to fulfilling a passion of public education advocacy.

Part of what drives this passion is my involvement as president of Make Education a Priority (MEaP), a 501(c)3 advocacy organization focused on three strategies: Foster Engagement with Public Schools; Promote Effective School Board Governance; and Enhance Relationships with Policymakers.  In the six month period since MEaP announced formation as a non-profit, building on a five year grassroots legacy, we have made significant strides in building relationships with other advocacy groups as well as trustees and business partners across the state. 

The challenges that lie ahead of us will be great but I believe that there is a groundswell of support for public education that is starting to build across the state.  I am excited to serve an organization that is committed to being a part of the “new wave” of advocacy and proud of the work we have done to date.

Our bellwether program will be this fall’s School Priority Month program, an opportunity for districts across the state to invite elected officials onto their campuses to show the great return on the investment being made in public education.  Many of the districts who will be participating are already working diligently to build relationships with those elected officials that represent them.  On behalf of Make Education a Priority, we are grateful for their leadership and for sharing with us the ways in which they reach out to achieve individual district goals.

As I look ahead, I see the promise of a better opportunity for the more than 5.2 million Texas public education students, an opportunity grounded in the efforts of many advocacy groups, parents, community members and businesses.  I look forward to continuing to be a part of the growing movement to Make Education a Priority.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

It’s About More Than the Classroom

Sadly, it now appears that our country has decided that it is best to segregate groups of people rather than focus on society as a whole.  The recent problems in Dallas, Kansas City, Baton Rouge and other cities are symptomatic of a society focused on the individual instead of society as a whole.  Please understand that I do not intend to minimize the tragedies relating to young black men across the country.  I do believe, however, that we need to focus on solutions, not solely on the problems themselves.

I was encouraged over the past couple of weeks to read articles and posts by a number of well-known athletes, including Michael Jordan, Carmelo Anthony and Tamika Catchings.  These are individuals who care deeply about how to address the race-related issues and prevent a recurrence of violence, individuals who are becoming spokespeople to whom society can look for opinions and guidance.  We’ve certainly had our share of individuals of all races who believe that the way to address the issues is through actions, an approach that has proven to be unproductive and unhealthy for all involved.

So what does all of this have to do with public education?  Students of all ages are deeply impressionable and look to their teachers and others for an alignment of words and actions.  It’s one thing for a parent or teacher to say something; in many cases, it is yet another to actually do something.  In fact, it kind of reminds me of the “do as I say, not as I do” approach that many of us heard as youngsters.  That adage no longer works in a society that must align words and actions.

But now, more than ever, it is incumbent upon parents, teachers, administrators, elected officials and others to demonstrate a commitment to our future, and that future starts with developing the students in our schools.  Whether attending public schools, home schooled, attending private schools or attending charter and magnet schools, out students want to learn.  What is required of us is to give them the opportunity to do so. 

This is not just about the curriculum being taught in our schools.  This is about balancing what is taught with what can be shared by those of us in positions of authority.  It’s about communications and giving each child the opportunity not just to learn but to be a part of the dialog for the future.  Today’s students do not want to just be “book smart”; they want the opportunity to determine, on their own, how they can best become contributing members to a society that sorely needs, and is expecting, their leadership.

Michael Jordan, Carmelo Anthony and Tamika Catchings are all role models for today’s youth.  What is needed now is for those of who are not public figures to become role models themselves, individuals whose values and actions students want to emulate.  There are many who want to tear down a traditional public education system.  Let’s use this time of discourse as an opportunity to build the system back up to what most of us experienced when we were younger.  Today’s students are watching and waiting.  Now is the time for us to Make Education a Priority.