Thursday, December 22, 2016

What's Our Message?

In a recent meeting with House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, he kept pounding away at the need for consistent messaging.  So I go to thinking about what my messages will be and how those align with the organization for which I serve as president, Make Education a Priority.  The MEaP board has not met to approve a specific advocacy agenda so I speak strictly for myself when outlining what I see as the key areas of focus for me personally.

I suppose the obvious first choice would be for me to talk about school finance.  Candidly, however, I think that would be beating my head against a wall since there are so many already talking about finance.  That, combined with the fact that both the Lt. Governor and Speaker Straus included school finance in their interim charges, suggests I focus elsewhere. 

At the top of most of our lists is the ongoing discussion about vouchers (by any name).  While altering the proposed program every year in response to a lack of support, the Lt. Governor’s continued push for vouchers remains a centerpiece for both sides of the school choice argument.  This likely is once again an initiative that will pass in the Senate but not in the House.  However, the “threat” of a special education voucher bill, perhaps to be carried by Rep. Huberty, is something we all need to monitor.

A second focus for me is the issue of transparency.  Acknowledging that the Lt. Governor will continue to push for vouchers, I asked him about transparency for how dollars are spent and how we ensure that the quality of education at the destination school is any better.  Sadly, I did not get an answer to my questions although I have been in dialog with his office.  Their response?  A third party will likely oversee a review of how dollars are spent by recipients (and who pays for this?) and his office told me accountability for the school will rest with the parents.  Clearly, they see no issue with a lack of consistency across school options.

Third is an area that primarily impacts Chapter 41 districts, whose increase in property values means that more money goes to the state every year.  There is nothing in state law that requires that these additional recapture dollars remain in education; in fact, they can go to the general fund and help balance the state’s budget.  The net net of this, however, is a continued reduction in the state’s share of education funding.  At a minimum, we need to push to have dollars for education generated through property taxes remain a part of the education budget.

My final push relates to the planned implementation of the A-F grading system in the Fall of 2017.  Commissioner Morath has been talking at length about how districts will receive grades in the spring as if they were under an A-F program.  Maybe that release will be the impetus for a public awakening of the negative considerations of such a system.  It’s up to us to ensure that stakeholders understand the implications if we go to that system.

There it is.  Not really a Christmas present but I am able to wrap a bow around what, for me, are my key messaging points.  These clearly will evolve as legislation moves through both chambers but I needed to crystalize my thoughts in order to be consistent in my messaging.  I hope that each of you will also take the time to formulate a clearly defined message and then hammer away at it.  After all, our kids are counting on all of us to do so, to continue to make their education a priority.

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Season to Celebrate

Maybe, at least for a couple of weeks, we can all come together and celebrate the holidays.  From an advocacy standpoint, everyone is clearly taking sides but this is one season where we should all be on the same side!  Please celebrate and spend time with your family and loved ones.

Of course, once we get through the holidays, we find ourselves at odds with those who advocate to dismantle the public education system that has been so very good to so many of us.  I acknowledge that public education is not the best fit for everyone but we owe it to all children to provide access to a quality education that will allow them to fulfill their potential.  While not necessarily anticipating that it will happen (to the contrary, I think we can expect otherwise), it sure would be nice if the discussion about public education started and ended with an understanding of how best to meet the needs of all students.

But we all know that personal agendas will dominate the discussion much more than centering around a discussion about how best to serve the more than 5.3 million Texas public education students and the many more who attend other schools of choice.  Focusing on the 5% of students who are are on a campus that is being challenged to improve rather than the other 95% of students is a disservice to all students.

So at the top of my Christmas list is a wish that we shift from party ideologies and personal agendas to a student-centered focus.  We must start with a common baseline, and where better to start than in the classroom where students strive to succeed every day.  We have a constitutional responsibility to educate all children but what should drive our actions is the moral obligation we have to our students.  We must find a balance in making certain that we address the needs of all children.

My wish for each of you is that you find peace and happiness during this special time of the year.   Thank you for all that you do on behalf of students across the state and thank you for your commitment to ensuring that all children have a chance to succeed.  Best wishes for a joyous holiday season to all of you.  I am proud to be part of such an elite group, those who strive daily to ensure that students can and will succeed, those who make education a priority.

Merry Christmas! 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Challenges to DeVos' Nomination

Last week, the Dallas Morning News published an editorial under the headline of Senate Should Ask Some Tough Questions of Education Secretary Nominee Betsy DeVos.  Click here to read the editorial.  As I mentioned in a prior blog, there is a fairly widespread belief that there is no such thing as bad press.  With publications like the DMN tackling the issues relating to public education, there is greater visibility into some of the potential ramifications of decisions being made and possible outcomes of certain actions.

A quote from the editorial that caught my attentions is that “she has not been an advocate of public schools, which we believe are the connecting fabric of our society”.  The editorial goes on to note that neither she nor her children have attended public schools and points out that she has no direct educational experience.  Hers is simply a willingness to fund a privately-run charter school approach that has yielded results that fall short of what the majority of public schools accomplish in Michigan.

Like the DMN, I acknowledge the right of the president-elect to make nominees to his cabinet that he believes are the best fit.  However, I also acknowledge the right of all of us to have an impact on whether the Senate actually confirms her to serve as Education Secretary.  And that’s where we must voice our opinions.  Reach out to your U.S. Senator and express your concerns about this appointment.

Charter schools as they exist in many states today serve a key role in the education of many students.  Where this becomes a concern is when the charters are privately run by for-profit entities with little accountability for how dollars are spent or the performance of students in charter schools.  Charters and other school choice options can each fill a specific need but, like public education, school choice options receiving public funds should all be held to a consistent accountability standard. 

DeVos’ appointment, combined with the continued push for vouchers by the Lt. Governor, creates opportunities for public education advocates to come together to ensure that the focus is not on the “business of schools” but on the “business of students”.   This should not be an argument about special interests or personal agendas; this should be about how we best meet the needs of the more than 5.3 million Texas public education students and make education of these students a priority.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Momentum Continues to Build

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with members of a Dallas-area public education advocate organization, Stop the Takeover (STO), and to share mutual perspectives on some of the issues facing public education as we approach the start of the 85th legislative session on January 10.  STO had initially evolved when the home rule discussions surfaced in Dallas ISD and they remain committed to advocating for public education.  I am encouraged by the number of individuals who are motivated to take action in response to the continued attacks on public education at both the state and national level.  The Texas House is certainly more education “friendly” and while the Senate is largely along party lines today, I sense that some of the demarcation is beginning to dissolve.

The discussion with STO advocates centered around the 3 or 4 topics that are most often mentioned today when discussing public education, including recapture and where those dollars are ultimately allocated, transparency, special education, and the seemingly never ending discussions about vouchers (by any name).  As we discussed these and other topics, we found common ground that provides a great foundation for future discussions.

A couple of quick thoughts as I reflected on the discussion.  First, there is greater opposition to a voucher program than the Lt. Governor chooses to admit.  Related to that is the discussion about transparency and accountability for how dollars are allocated and how outcomes are driven.  In my conversations with parents whose children attend private schools or are home schooled, I have yet to find an individual who believes a voucher program is good for them. 

Second, special education will be a key topic; of note, the possibility that Rep. Huberty may introduce a bill allowing for special education vouchers suggests that there is a need for dialog in this area.  Instead of focusing on vouchers as a proposed solution, we must first understand the issues.

Third, budget discussions among legislators will be tense and tightly contested.  With the continued pressure on oil and gas prices and the constitutional requirement that the legislature approve a balanced budget, the discussion about property tax relief will be a hotly debated.  Fourth, the discussion about state funding of public education will continue.  With the state’s share declining and likely continuing to do so, Rep. Donna Howard has filed HJR 27 requiring that the state maintain 50% of the cost of public education.

I once heard that there is no such thing as bad press and I guess that is true to a certain extent.  While public education is a target for some, the reality is that public education is a topic about which many people are talking.  There seems to be much more passion and advocacy for public education than there was as we approached prior sessions and I believe that is positive.  However, the momentum being created must be sustained; we all must continue to focus on the needs of the more than 5.3 million Texas public education children and continue to make education a priority.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

An Evening with the Lt. Governor

On November 30, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting sponsored by the 912 Project in Ft. Worth with Lt. Governor Patrick as the guest.  From that meeting, I have a few observations.

In his opening comments, he referenced the fact that one of his accomplishments from the 84th session was to address concerns about transfer of gas tax receipts to the general fund instead of being used for roads and transportation.  Legislation was passed that ended the transfer to the general fund.  An interesting comment since that same issue now faces the education sector with the increase in recapture payments being transferred to the general fund.  It looks like we need to push for legislation similar to that for the gas tax in the last session.

Second, he mentioned that almost 50% of the state’s budget is allocated to education.  Later, during the Q&A, an individual correctly noted that this amount includes higher education as well and that the portion for public education is about 35%.  To quote the Lt. Governor, “we have to be efficient with our money”.  Sounds to me like this suggests a reduction in funding.

He spent time outlining his top priorities, including property tax relief (cap at 4% increase tied to population growth), school choice, and the bathroom bill.  While he offered commentary on property tax relief and the proposed bathroom bill, he did not expound on school choice, simply stating the priority and then moving on. 

School choice was a topic that generated several questions.  I posed a question to him about how his voucher (by any name) proposal would ensure accountability for dollars transferred to a parent and ensure that the entity potentially receiving funds is held to the same standards as public education.  After about a 5-minute response and suggestion that the cost of education goes down with school choice, it was clear there was no intent to respond to the accountability question.  As an aside, when I had an opportunity for a photo op, he offered to me that he had not addressed my question but that it was too complex for this setting.  He added that he was “happy to have input on school choice and issues relating to accountability”.

Reflecting on the meeting, it was obvious that he had no intentions of addressing school choice at anything below about 30,000 feet.  Prior to the meeting, I had the opportunity to talk with a number of home school parents and it’s clear that they and the NE Tarrant Tea Party do not support vouchers (by any name) given the likelihood of government oversight of their efforts.  Each acknowledged that the idea sounds like a good one until you understand the implications of a voucher (by any name) program.

Meetings such as this are a great opportunity for us to share our concerns about some of the legislative priorities.  Most importantly, it gave me an opportunity to talk with those impacted by current proposals and to redouble our efforts to make education a priority.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Chairman Aycock ... A Different Kind of Leadership

I had the opportunity during the week of November 28 to sit in on two separate meetings with state leaders, a Tuesday meeting with Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, Chairman of the House Public Committee, and a Wednesday session with Lt. Governor Dan Patrick.  What a difference in tone between the two meetings as relates to the needs and future of public education.  My summary of the meeting with the Lt. Governor will post on December 8; the following reflects comments and guidance from the Chairman.

Public education is far better for having the leadership of the Chairman over the past two sessions.  His focus on education of all kids has been consistent and, under his leadership, significant legislation (e.g., HB 5) has been enacted.  With his retirement effective with the opening of the 85th session on January 10, however, there will be a void.  Only time will tell if the rumored names to replace him will have the same passion and commitment to serving the needs of nearly 5.5 million students.  Chairman Aycock, you will be missed; thank you for your service.

Chairman Aycock opened his comments by talking about accountability, specifically focusing on the lack of accountability under current voucher (by any name) proposals.  The reality is that parental engagement is a key part of the accountability equation but the schools must continue to be held accountable for the success of their students.  He encouraged those in attendance to use accountability (or the lack thereof) as one of the key messages when discussing school choice.

He also noted that one of the considerations that held up his legislation in the 84th session relating to additional funding for public schools was the division between various school groups, Chapter 41 v. 42, small v. big, rural v. urban.  Noting that the complexity of the funding formula drives division between school groups, he encouraged trustees and district leaders to find consensus and build on those areas of agreement.

The Chairman also talked about the projected revenue shortfall and how that potentially will impact school finance discussions, as well as other areas including health and human services and transportation.  One of the risks is that the state will continue to transfer increased recapture dollars to the general fund rather than being channeled back into education.  He strongly encouraged that one of the key message points for advocates should be a push to retain those dollars in education funding, suggesting that we ask our representatives where the recapture dollars go if not to public education.  This should also be a discussion topic with parents and business and community leaders.

What can we expect?  Funding discussions will focus on recapture, the ASATR cliff, and enrollment growth.  He foresees a “logjam” somewhere in the middle of the 140-day session, a period where each body holds bills as negotiation chits with the other.  He also anticipates that school choice may be a topic of a special session.  Characterizing the 85th session as a “brutal session”, he stressed the importance of public education advocates reaching out to legislators and their staffs now to begin positioning the messaging relating to public education.

Under the leadership of Chairman Aycock, the House has consistently made education a priority.  It’s up to us to build on the momentum created and to seize the opportunity to continue to position its importance as we approach opening of the 85th session.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Poke the Bear! - Follow Up

On November 22, I posted a blog titled Poke the Bear, a reference to an article in the November 20 edition of the Dallas Morning News.  My commentary about what I perceived as an unfair slight on the efforts and commitment of school board trustees stands.  Following the post of my blog and a subsequent post on Twitter, I took the opportunity to reach out directly to the author of the article to challenge certain of the statements and I welcome the opportunity to continue my discussion with him early next week.  And that is as it should be for both of us.

I have also received criticism from one of those who supported the testimony at the Senate Education Committee meeting referenced in the article.   In a tweet responding to me, she stated that "Denial proves @DaveLieber groupthink theory right".  So I guess I still have a ways to go in the discussion with those with whom I differ.  But that's fine; I remain committed and passionate in my belief that the vast majority of trustees are acting in the best interest of students, testimony and article to the contrary.

I have taken time to reflect on the training I received and how the board on which I served operated.  Training options available to trustees are many, including training at TASB-sponsored events, local association activities and on-line opportunities.  Was the training always what I was seeking and was the quality of the training always perfect?  Certainly not, but how does that differ from college courses we all have taken or training provided through our jobs? 

As for how my local board operated, yes, we did have a majority of votes at the board table that were unanimous.  But is this a result of collusion or "groupthink"?  I don't think so.  Engaged trustees are in constant communication with the administration and there is a clear effort on trustees' part to understand the ramifications of decisions made and actions proposed by the administration. 

It's not like the administration presents an item to the board at a board meeting for the first time.  When presented, items are discussed by the board and administration, often at great length, before a vote is called.  Does the fact that the art of negotiation that results in a vote suggest groupthink?  I don't think so!

To suggest that TASB-sponsored training is a form of groupthink and indoctrination is just not right.  Trustees are elected by their communities and a view that community members are not engaged enough with their local schools to take action to address these concerns is an indictment of community members as well.  I don't get it!

We can respond to what I perceive as unfair accusations in any number of ways.  I have chosen to voice my concerns in a manner that has created an open dialog with those who have a different perspective than I do.  Through that process, I will have an opportunity to share my views while listening to those of others.  In reality, this discussion, like others relating to public education, will help us focus on the importance of public education in our communities and across the state, the importance of making education a priority.  This time, the discussion is about trustees and how their actions impact the more than 5.3 million students in the state.  Perhaps at some point, we might even see a different headline, one that reflects "Trustees: Working on behalf of all students".