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.