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!