Thursday, October 5, 2017

Thank You, Bobby J Rigues!

In 2011, Aledo ISD trustee Bobby J Rigues turned public education advocacy on end when he launched Make Education a Priority, a grassroots public education advocacy effort that sought to bring attention and focus to the importance of public education.  Within a very short period of time, Bobby’s efforts were rewarded by adoption of a resolution in support of Make Education a Priority by more than 600 school districts across the State of Texas.

When Bobby undertook this effort and began talking with districts, it was clear that he had founded a new approach to public education advocacy whose purpose was to promote engagement on the part of the more than 7000 school district trustees in the state.  At the time, I was serving as a trustee in Carroll ISD and was proud that we were one of those districts that quickly and unanimously adopted and endorsed a resolution in support of students across the state.

I was honored when Bobby asked me to join MEaP in 2014 as its president and was privileged to work with him as we moved toward non-profit status.  As a board, we continued to build on the momentum created by Bobby and continued to be a visible force in public education advocacy.  Among our accomplishments was the launch of School Priority Month last October, an effort designed to create a platform for advocacy not only with legislators but all elected officials serving a local school district.  I’m especially proud of that effort and very appreciative of the support afforded MEaP by participating districts.

Over the past several months, the board of MEaP has had a number of discussions about how we could best serve the more than 5.3 million students as well as educators and administrators across the state.  We have been very successful in building relationships and alliances with a number of advocacy groups and felt that we could have the greatest impact by consolidating our efforts and passion with Friends of Texas Public Schools.  We are honored that they see value in what we can bring to this joint effort.

With this change, I want to personally thank Bobby J Rigues for crafting the vision that laid the groundwork for a successful advocacy effort.  He is not only a close friend but is a close friend of all who impact, and are impacted by, public education.  All of us who have had the privilege of working with him are stronger advocates for our students.  He truly exemplifies a focus on making education a priority and I know that he will continue to be a strong friend of public education.

Thank you, Bobby J Rigues.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Must Be Present to Win


I have made a number of references in my blogs to articles written by Ross Ramsey of the Texas Tribune.  His article touched on the need for businesses to stay engaged with the legislature, specifically relating to the lobbying by businesses late in the session who were opposed to the LG’s bathroom bill. He continues to be a voice of reason and this headline really landed with me as also addressing issues relating to public education. 

For me, this headline can be a rallying cry for engagement by those whose lives touch and are touched by our public education system.  I’ve written more than one blog discussing the need for educators to actively engage in the voting process, to exercise their power in numbers to affect an outcome in elections that will be more favorable to public education initiatives and, more importantly, the future of the nearly 5.4 million Texas public education students.  Never has it been more important that the effort to create voting cultures in districts and communities succeeds. 

But you must be present to win, i.e., you have to engage and then participate by voting.  I’ve heard several people say to me, “but I don’t know who to vote for”.  There are and will be numerous resources that provide information on candidates.  Some will be partisan but many more will be non-partisan.  Among the latter, I will continue to include Texas Parent PAC, Texans for Public Education and Texas Educators Vote.  Visit any of their web sites to get a sense of what they are doing to promote engagement and to share information regarding candidate platforms.

With the legislative and special sessions now in the past and discussions largely dominated by testing, Hurricane Harvey and other considerations, it’s important to engage now.  We have 18 months until the March, 2019 primaries (16 until early voting).  If we wait until close to the primaries, we will have lost the opportunity to be a part of the discussion and, in many cases, the opportunity to influence the outcome of the next election cycle.  Kids across the state are counting on us to act; let’s be certain that we make education a priority by becoming more engaged and by helping to lead the charge to bring attention to the issues that will impact our students’ ability to succeed.

No, you can’t call it in by just talking about the issues.  You must be present to win in the form of meetings with incumbents and challengers, as well casting a vote for those individuals favorable to, and supportive of, public education.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Policy over Party, part 2

In June, I wrote a blog about my personal shift in perspective from voting for a candidate because of a particular party affiliation with limited regard for where that candidate stood on the issues to one focused on the platform of that candidate; click here to read my blog.  The actions (perhaps inactions is a better word!) of the Senate in the 85th and special sessions certainly reinforced the need to adopt “policy over party” as a go-forward mindset.

Last week, Ross Ramsey, co-founder and executive editor of the Texas Tribune, published an article titled “Early omens of a very conservative GOP primary”.  If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so by either clicking on the title above or by clicking here.  The bottom line from his standpoint is that, since all statewide office holders (all Republican) have announced plans to seek reelection, the cascade impact of this makes it easier for what he termed as “full throated” conservatives to win election in down-ballot races.  He further states that one of the reasons that this is the case is that these individuals are elected by a “reliable” group of conservative voters, individuals who cast a ballot in most elections.

That’s where the opportunity now opens up for educators and others concerned about the future of public education in the State of Texas.  It’s well documented that many in this pro-public education group have not voted on a consistent basis.  But with very low voter turnout in Texas, initiatives that will get public education supporters to the ballot box may very well sway the outcome of races across the state.  And that is good news for the more than 5.3 million public education students who rely on their elected officials to support them.

While certainly not limited to only two such initiatives, the Texas Educators Vote initiative and a renewed push by superintendents to register eligible high school students can have a dramatic impact on primary day and on Election Day.  Once registered, it’s critical that the push to actually vote becomes a focal point and there are numerous groups focusing on that effort as well.  And that’s where “policy over party” comes into play.

Eligible voters, and especially the public education advocates and educators in the upcoming primary and general elections, need to invest time in understanding the platforms of candidates, regardless of the candidate’s party affiliation.  If we fail to do so or even if we have a preferred candidate but don’t exercise our right to vote, those most impacted are the kids in the classroom.  That’s not fair to them or to the future of our state.  All of us must understand the criticality of upcoming elections and come together as a group to elect those who will make education a priority.  Our students are watching and counting on us.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Time to Vote!

Between the regular session and the special session, it was easy for public education advocates to hit the wall!  I know that I did.  When you hear nothing but criticism (from much of Austin), it’s easy to throw your hands up in the air and resign yourself to the actions of the legislature.  And that’s exactly what many want us to do, led by the Lt. Governor and the chair of the Senate Education Committee.

But that’s the last thing that we all should be doing!  Much has been written and several groups have initiatives underway to address the constant barrage of public education criticism.  In this blog, I’d like to highlight two specific initiatives.

Texans for Public Education, a group founded by Troy Reynolds, (Facebook – texans4publiced; texansforpubliceducation.com; Twitter - @texans4e) has done a very nice job of putting together a scorecard of where each legislator stands on public education.  His is an evolving process and with the support and input of all of us, he is constantly updating the “grades” of each legislator.  He also offers specific commentary about reasons and actions that support the “grade”.

Texas Educators Vote (texaseducatorsvote.com), launched by the Texas Association of Community Schools (web – tacsnet.org; Twitter - @tacsnet) under the leadership of Barry Haenisch and Laura Yeager, was developed as a campaign prior to the last general election to drive increased voter participation by educators … and it worked! Now back and newly refined, Texas Educators Vote is focused not just on getting out the vote, but making sure that educators have access to information that helps them understand which candidates are supportive of public education. 

Texas educators can make a difference at the polls and certainly continue to do so on a daily basis in the classroom.  It’s sad that some in Austin fail to acknowledge educators’ efforts but the next round of primaries and the general election will serve as a great opportunity to change the mindset in Austin.

What all of this boils down to is the need for educators to engage in the election process. Although educators are often criticized and challenged for their efforts, these two outstanding groups have taken the initiative to change the culture in Austin.  They are not alone but they can only do so much.  It’s up to educators and others who support public education to engage and act … now.  It’s time for us to do our homework on who supports public education and do what we can to ensure that those individuals have a seat in Austin, a seat that will make education a priority for the more than 5.3 million Texas public education students.

Words alone will not make a difference … it’s Time to Vote!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What is More Important?

Starting with the phrase “20 in 20” and continuing through the Governor’s threats to note all who oppose “his” 20 items, this special session has been particularly galling.  When I say “his” agenda, I think we all know that this is not the Governor’s at all but that of the LG.  Pandering to the LG is a sad way to run the State but, after all, the election cycle has started along with the headline grab!

What I find most troubling is the effort by the LG to push through legislation with somewhat limited discussion.  His moves to quash parliamentary procedures in order to get “his way” do not serve the majority of the citizens in the State despite his statements that he is doing what citizens want to have done.  And, so far at least, that seems to be working for him … but there is still hope that sanity will prevail in the House.

The Speaker has been accused of plodding through the items on the Governor’s call but what is wrong with a thorough vetting and discussion of the issues impacting each area?  In fact, Ross Ramsey of the Texas Tribune wrote an article earlier this week in which he referenced the tortoise (House) and the hare (Senate).  Under the Speaker's leadership and the leadership of Public Education committee Chairman Huberty, I am hopeful that the discussions from the 85th will continue and that the House will continue to hold the line on an anti-voucher (by any name) position as well as focusing on how to adequately fund our public school system.

I doubt seriously that the LG’s goal of “20 in 20” will be achieved although there is certainly a possibility (and increasing probability) that the Senate will pass legislation addressing each of the items on the Governor’s call.  But is that what this is really all about?  Perhaps the only good news is that any shortening of the special session would result in some savings of the monies wasted in calling this session. 

I am not suggesting that the session go the full 30 days but what seems most important is a thorough vetting of ideas and legislation, not just a race to see how quickly the legislature can get to the finish line in addressing each item.  As sanity prevails in the House, regardless of the outcomes and whether decisions align with my personal interests, I hope that the topics will get the attention they deserve and that, rather than a headline grab, the legislature focuses on doing the right thing, not just the politics and bullying driving actions in the Senate.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What Makes a “Great State”?

Gov. Abbott announced his bid for reelection in 2018 at a press conference last week, saying that, “To keep Texas the greatest state in America, I’m running for re-election as Governor of Texas.”  In his term as governor, he has done little to make any of this “vision” (what’s a vision if no one knows about it or acts on it?) become a reality.  In fact, the drop to number 4 in business ranking should cause alarm among all of us and this may just be a precursor to a further drop if the Governor (or is it the LG speaking through the governor?) continues to push the unnecessary and damaging bathroom bill and other questionable legislation.  Perhaps that’s a blog for another day but I got to thinking about some of the factors that make a state a great state.

At the top of any list is the education system in the state and it is clearly under attack on multiple fronts, led by the governor as well as the Lt. Governor.  The LG is clearly an enemy of public education, despite the attempt at a headline grab on July 13, and there are those in the Senate who will follow him wherever he goes.  Whatever happened to the day when those elected to serve us actually listened to us and represented us?

How can our public education system, one whose role is clearly defined in Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution, be continually attacked and underfunded without serious repercussions over the long haul?  And is that fair to the students who have become pawns in the games being played in the Senate?   When is enough enough?

Governor, this “vision” rings very hollow with me.  How do your repeated challenges to public education, including the suggestion (without merit and evidence) that administrative expense is too high, help to support our public education system?  On what basis can you make the comments?  If you have evidence to support your claims, please share it with us; it’s time for the headline grab to stop.  If you are truly interested and focused on making Texas “the greatest state in America”, actions and not words are in order.  Can we count on you actually performing the office to which you were elected? 

Our students and teachers deserve better.  The continual challenges to the role of teachers, the ongoing underfunding of a school finance system that “meets minimum constitutional requirements” and the push for vouchers (by any name) are real threats to the long term opportunity to keep Texas a “great state”.  With the special session opening tomorrow, it’s time to make education a priority, not just a headline for political gain.

The Threat (and Opportunity) of a Special Session

As we anticipate the opening of the special session on July 18, I don’t know that any of us has an understanding of how it might progress over the next 30 days.  With the posturing by the governor, LG and Speaker, it’s difficult for me to believe that there will be any real resolution of the items on the Governor’s list … and that would be a good thing.

Sadly, this list reflects the list of the LG’s priorities, not necessarily those of citizens across the State.  Sure, there are groups that support each of the items but I have a hard time believing that these groups are anything other than a minority (but well-funded) voice.  And it’s the dollars that seem to be doing the talking.

Whether the issue relates to teacher raises (suggesting that this be funded by moving dollars within an existing budget is an insult to all educators), retention bonuses (again, moving dollars around without increasing funding), or vouchers (by any name), the governor and LG have made it very clear that they would like to orchestrate a dismantling of public education in Texas.  And that is one of the tenets that will make Texas a “great state”?

I really am very hopeful that the Speaker and Chairman Huberty will be able to hold the line on the work that they accomplished during the 85th session.  Under the leadership of both, the House has made it very clear that public education is a priority, whether in the form of true increased funding (not the charade of moving dollars around) or a continued rejection of vouchers (by any name).  All of us as public education advocates need to make our voices heard and to constantly reinforce and express support for the work in the House.

A great starting point is the Texans for Public Education rally in Austin this afternoon.  A rally by itself will not necessarily make a huge impact but it does start to send a signal that there is overwhelming support for our public education system.  The challenge will be to build on this and to keep building for at least the next 30 days or until the special session ends.  Those with the money who are backing the anti-public education sentiment can only achieve so much if those supporting public education continue to make education a priority.

Game on!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Headlines and Texas “Leadership”

The 85th regular session proved to be an opportunity lost for public education despite the best efforts of House leaders and some in the Senate.  What should have included a focus on addressing the “minimum constitutional requirements” of the school finance system turned into a bartering endeavor by “leadership” in the Senate.  To suggest that either the Lt. Governor or chair of the Senate Education Committee were even remotely interested in solving the school finance challenges would be a stretch; their interests lie much more in trying to garner headlines that tug at the emotions of people, especially parents of children with special needs.  What a sad day when headlines are more important than the well-being of more than 5.3 million students.

And now the governor, largely missing during the 85th, has decided to weigh in on what he sees as critical items to address during the upcoming special session.  To me, this is largely another headline grab largely fueled by being outflanked by Senate “leadership”; he had to do something and the easiest (and seemingly least risky) thing for him to do was to align with the LG and committee Chair.  But if things go as they should given the level of dissatisfaction and angst in the public education community, perhaps the governor’s plot to “steal” back the headlines will backfire; candidly, shame on all of us if it doesn’t!

While certainly disappointed but not surprised that the LG chose to hold school finance hostage for a voucher (by any name) program, what is even more galling right now is the inclusion of a $1000 teacher raise as one of the priorities of the special session.  But it sure does make a good headline!  After all, who wouldn’t agree that teachers are due more than the current salary structure in Texas public schools?  But to suggest that this raise must be funded not by the state but by district budgets is not only shortsighted but an insult to districts and teachers themselves. 

With the percent of funding by the state falling each year, where does the governor think districts can find the funds to provide these raises?  Does he have any concept of what goes on in a public school district and how districts are challenged to manage enrollment growth?  Speaking of enrollment growth, statements that the legislature is funding enrollment growth also make for a great headline.  But do we want to tread water and not provide enhanced programs and other offerings to all students?  Why do we focus on sub-groups such as kids with special needs or kids new to the system?  Oh, yeah, great headlines.

What the governor and LG are doing is to basically divert attention from the issues that they are unwilling to address.  And they are using headlines to move the ball down the field.  So now the hard part begins, not for them but for the kids and all of us who support public education.  Public education advocates have to speak out (and vote) by letting all stakeholders (and that’s all of us whether we have kids in schools or not) know that public education is at risk if nothing changes.  Imagine the headline when schools close or districts consolidate; the state will take no responsibility but the LG will use it to reinforce his support of vouchers (by any name).

It’s truly a sad day when headlines are more important than kids, when responsibility for funding public education continues to shift more and more to the districts themselves.  All of this while the argument is made that we need property tax reform, another great headline.  Let’s pull together as we are starting to do to make education a priority in the State of Texas.  Our kids deserve better.  Now that makes a great headline!


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Redefining “Compromise”

In early June, I wrote a blog entitled "The Lost Art of Compromise" (click here to read that post) in which I lamented the inability or unwillingness of many in the legislature to try to work toward solutions that, while not perfect for everyone, would at least provide some balance in addressing the needs of a broad base of constituents.  Of course, since I am writing about public education, my focus is on the failures of the legislature, despite the best efforts of Chairman Hubertry, most in the House and some in the Senate, to come to a consensus on how to address the school finance issue defined in the Texas Supreme Court ruling.

I had a couple of people comment to me that compromise had become a four letter word and that moving off of a hard line position could be viewed as a sign of weakness by those who concede.  So what we found in the end was that, as I defined in the post, absolute winners create absolute losers.  While there really were no winners other than the headline grab by the LG and others, it’s clear that Texas public education students are the losers in this debate.

So I got to thinking about a better word or phrase to define what should be a process to come to some consensus that benefits a broad cross section of the populace.   Still struggling with that, I posed the question to a House representative who suggested to me that a better way to look at this is “to find common ground”.  I agree that this does seem to have a much more positive connotation since it suggests that there are ways for each faction to gain something in the discussion.

Would that have made any impact on the 11th hour discussions about vouchers (by any name) and school finance?  Perhaps not since, after all, both sides had put a stake in the ground and seemed unwilling to move off of their position.  Is it an opportunity to effect some movement in the discussion (regardless of topic) in the upcoming special session?  Perhaps but I don’t know if there is a willingness on either side to move toward common ground.

I certainly like “finding common ground” a whole lot better than the word “compromise”.  The intent might be the same but the outcome seems to be a much more positive focus.  Without the effort to find common ground, there will be no outcome focused on making education a priority for more than 5.3 million public education students.  If that happens, we are all losers!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Policy Over Party

I met last week with a former TX legislator who has tremendous passion for our kids and for the well-being of all citizens in the State of Texas (unlike some of those in Austin).  We were discussing the mess that is Austin, primarily in the Senate, when it comes to discussions about our public schools and she mentioned the phrase, "policy over party"; what a great way to think about how we vote.

I grew up in a strong Republican household and my dad was involved in politics at both the state and federal level.  So it was pretty easy for me to conclude that voting for Republicans was the right (no pun intended) thing to do.  And to be honest, that is pretty much how I have voted my entire life.  If an individual had an "R" behind their name, that made them a candidate of choice for me, with very few exceptions.

But the movement of some of the Republican Party from a more moderate position to the extreme right embodied by the Tea Party certainly has shifted the way in which I cast my vote each election.  However, I have to admit that not wanting to vote for a Tea Party candidate didn't necessarily mean that I cast a vote for a Democrat.  In fact, in the last race for Lt. Governor, I voted for neither candidate.  I also didn't cast a vote for a gubernatorial candidate, largely because I thought that there was no good Republican candidate.  In both races, sadly, it looks like I was right.  Of course, not casting a vote for any candidate is no different than not voting although I did cast a ballot for all other positions. 

So back to "policy over party".  Over the past 3-4 years, and increasingly since the beginning of the 85th session in January, I have started to look at where candidates stand relative to public education before peeling back the onion to see where they stand on other issues facing all of us.  What I have found is that doing so by eliminating the D, R, I or other party affiliation causes me to really look at the candidate and their policy perspectives.

Not surprisingly, on social issues, I now find myself as somewhat of a centrist.  Whether it's the extreme politics of the LG or the tactics of the president, I no longer look at the party affiliation but where the individual stands relative to my personal beliefs and attitudes.  The House Republicans certainly are worthy of support but I am hard pressed to find more than 3 or 4 R's in the Senate whose beliefs align very well with mine.  The bottom line is that there are some who are willing to make education a priority and party affiliation is not necessarily the attribute that defines their beliefs (and votes).  For me, it is now a perspective of policy over party!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Perfect Storm

I don't get it!  I understand (I think) why the governor felt a need to call a special session but have to wonder why he chose to include 19 specific items (other than sunset legislation) in his call.  Legislators in the 85th proved incapable of coming to any sort of an agreement on many issues, thus the need according to the governor for a special session.  But 19 separate items?  How in the heck does he expect the legislature to be able to address these in the maximum 30 day time frame?  I guess we'll see.

But what are most troubling and confusing to me are the items that are focused on public education, including special education vouchers and a desired $1000 raise for each teacher in the state.  While a noble cause, who is going to pay for it?  During the just concluded session, there was an attempt to attach fiscal notes to legislation but that is apparently not even a consideration here, let alone a discussion topic.  And all of this is to be done on the backs of an already Supreme Court-defined underfunded school finance system.  Does "minimum constitutional requirements" not resonate with those supposedly elected to serve us?

I saw a quick analysis today that was a real eye opener for me.  Providing a $1000 raise per teacher (while certainly deserved) will cost districts upwards of $700M over the biennium and that's before adding the loadings that are incurred.  When you consider the additional costs to be incurred, that number likely goes north of $1B.  So I tried to figure the logic here, acknowledging that that may be my big mistake since there has been little logic in what has come out of the Senate as it relates to public education.  Many districts are losing their hold harmless funding and are now being asked to absorb the cost of these salary increases, and that's before even figuring the impact of what a special education voucher might mean financially to districts.

Talk about a perfect storm that plays right into the hands of the Lt. Governor.  He has not supported public education and now has a foundation as defined in the governor's call that validates his personal agenda.  It's truly sad that nowhere in all of this have the needs of more than 5 million public education students been considered.  When do we reach a point when legislators are focused on making education, the engine of a productive economy, a priority?  This should be a call to all of us to engage and start to think about how we change the makeup of the legislature in the next general election.  We need to make ourselves part of the solution to the perfect storm before it's too late.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Lost Art of Compromise

Watching the chaos and dissension that is the 85th Legislative Session reminds me of being a kid again; the difference is that we were able to resolve issues when we were kids because we had a “leader” (translated as parent or teacher) who really gave us no choice but to figure out how to work better together as a family or with a group of friends.  Imagine where we would all be today had we not learned how to compromise, how to negotiate and how to get along.  Who knows, we might well be legislators!

There have been glimmers of hope over the past month or so on a number of fronts but, as quickly as hope was renewed, someone (often the Lt. Governor) found a way to flip the switch back off.  It certainly is his right, I suppose, to take a hard line stance in supporting what he defined as his interim priorities.  So, too, is it the right of the Speaker to stand pat in supporting his own interim priorities.  But at what point does each give a little in an effort to find solutions acceptable to both chambers and to the political parties?

I applaud the Speaker and Chairman Huberty for standing fast in supporting the Chairman’s HB21, this despite the threats from the Lt. Governor that the Speaker is the cause of an anticipated special session.  But the Lt. Governor’s continued insistence on not addressing school finance was never going to move this off of center.  Looking at his actions to name conferees to “discuss” HB21 (wonder how much discussion there really was before again killing HB21) could very likely be a PR move to try and save a little bit of face with the public.

So back to the art of compromise.  As I read the outcome of the Senate and House conferees relating to HB21, there doesn’t appear to be much compromise on either side.  The Senate wanted $50M for charter facilities funding (camel’s nose in the tent much like vouchers (by any name)) and the House wanted $100M for ASATR.  Is there not a compromise that could have been worked out or did both sides maintain a hard line stance with no flexibility?

The losers in this session are not just the students in our public schools but they are certainly the focus of our collective efforts.  Funding enrollment growth was always pretty much a given but responding to the decision of the Texas Supreme Court (remember “minimum constitutional requirements”) was never the intent of Senate “leadership”.  Again thinking back to my childhood, I always wanted to have my own way if I could but with encouragement from a “leader” in my household or in the classroom, I often had to give something up to get something in return.  Sadly, this legislature seems to have forgotten that absolute winners creates absolute losers; individual agendas fueled discussions, not the needs of constituents.  We’ll have to compromise on some fronts going forward but it will take a collective effort to make education a priority.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sine Die or Seen Die?

As I reflected on the close of the 85th session, I couldn't help but think that maybe the Latin words Sine Die signaling the end of the regular session might more appropriately be spelled "Seen Die"; I never took Latin so maybe this is the easy way out anyway.  Watching the political wrangling and badgering of the past couple of weeks in particular sure gives credence to the revised term.  There seems to be little appetite in either party to work toward resolution of some of the issues that had been festering for most of the session.

What really is most galling to me is the blatant disregard in the Senate for addressing what the Texas Supreme Court defined as a need for the legislature, not the courts, to "fix" the school finance system.  By whatever term(s) you want to use, whether "Byzantine", "minimum constitutional requirement", or any of the others in the Court's opinion, they laid responsibility for resolving the fate of a failed school finance system squarely at the doorstep of the legislature.  But they were unable to come to a resolution acceptable to both chambers.

So where does that leave us now?  Chairman Huberty and Speaker Straus are to be applauded for their efforts to put a plan on the table that would begin to close the gap on issues raised by districts who sued the state.  The governor seems to care little that even "baby steps" to address school finance was not an outcome of this session.  And then there is the Lt. Governor.  All of the news stories talk about Chairman Taylor's unwillingness to address school finance without also approving a voucher (by any name) component.  But was this really his position or were the strings attached to his arms and voice controlled by the LG? 

I wondered in a tweet last week after the conference committee failed to resolve HB21 issues if this is maybe just setting the table for yet another round of lawsuits.  If the very body tasked by the Supreme Court is unable (or unwilling) to take any concrete action without strings attached to address school finance, do we really think that there is hope in a special session (not likely since it's not on the governor's or LG's radar) or in the 86th session when it commences in twenty months.  Without goading by the courts, what motivation is there for the legislature to address the issue?  Just saying it is the responsibility of the legislature was obviously not enough and maybe is a reflection of weakness at the highest court in Texas.

This brings me back to my own interpretation of the close of the 85th.  Many bills to address requirements (yes, I know that the only bill that they legislature had to pass was a balanced budget) were left unresolved.  What happens now to bills such as sunset provisions, the bathroom bill, capping property taxes, etc.?  I guess what we really see is not just an adjournment of the session but a lost opportunity to resolve the differences not just between parties but between chambers.  For my nickel, I prefer the term "seen die" as a reflection of the failures of the 85th legislative session.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Education: A Choice or a Right?

Dr. Diane Ravitch posted a blog on May 9 that included a link to an article by Dr. Frank Adamson, a senior Policy and Research Analyst at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), titled Education: A Choice or a Right?.  Click here for a link to this article.  The article addresses many of the considerations that relate to the so-called “market forces and competition” argument that we so often hear when discussing vouchers (by any name).

Dr. Adamson starts off his article by referencing the United Nations identification of a “free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education” by 2030 as a goal for sustainable development.  That got me to thinking a little bit about implications in Texas and the answer to the question: Education, a choice or a right?”.  And the very first thing that came to mind is Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution, a mantra we all know that, “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.

In many parts of the world, whether to educate a child is a parent's choice and it is likely that the lack of quality education systems creates many of the gaps that we have in moving underdeveloped countries forward.  In Texas, according to the Constitution (but apparently not acknowledged by the LG and others in the Senate), education is not a choice; it is a right to which all of our students are entitled.  But what is missing in Article 7, Section 1 is any reference to quality; “efficient” and “general diffusion of knowledge” are terms or phrases that leave a great deal to interpretation by the reader.

I certainly am not suggesting a rewrite of the constitution (although that would be convenient for some) but submit that a focus on defining exactly what these terms mean should be (and, in many cases, is) a part of any discussion about public education.  Just having access to knowledge and an efficient system is not enough.  Parents today do have a choice; they have the right to send their child to a public or private school.  But what is even more important is that the more than 5.4 million Texas public education children have a right to education in an adequately funded public education system.  Shifting resources toward privatization under the guise of school choice denies students that very right.  We must continue to push to make education a priority.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Politics or Dirty Politics?

As the end of the 85th legislative session approaches, I find it fascinating (and somewhat discouraging) to watch what is going on in Austin.  Whether it's the recent discussions about ride-hailing companies, continued debate on the bathroom bill or discussions about school finance, there clearly are (as there always are) personal agendas that remain front and center.

From my standpoint, I find the actions by the Senate in adding a special needs voucher program to the House approved HB 21 to be disappointing (although not surprising to me).  This remains an effort by Senate Education Committee chair Sen. Taylor, who has been reasonable and moderate in discussions about public education, to get the "seat at the table" mentioned in a prior blog, i.e., actions taken that appear to be largely in response to pressure from the Lt. Governor for the benefit of the individual.

I would have been surprised if there had not been a push (even from behind the scenes) by the LG to continue to promote one of his key legislative priorities defined prior the session.  He clearly shows a continued focus on his agenda and not the needs of those who elected him.  But that's been a pretty consistent theme for the entire session.  Headlines and agenda, the two things most important to him.

I would be ignorant if I thought for a minute that this "game" is not being played by more than just the LG.  It's a game that seems to be much more prevalent in the Senate than in the House, however, and that is largely due to "leadership" in the Senate.  Rather than working with members to move an agenda forward, he continues to use his position to coerce support of his priorities. 

What is truly sad to me is the failure to acknowledge (or care) about how a voucher (by any name) program for children with special needs actually may reduce many of the rights granted these students.  Raise Your Hand Texas has put together a very nice summary of the potential (and likely unintended) consequences of a voucher program; click here to view their analysis.

Much has been written over the past few days about disappointment and surprise that Chairman Taylor chose to add a voucher program to the house school finance bill.    Disappointment?  Certainly, but I am never surprised by the lengths that some will go to advance their personal agendas. 

Public education advocates have certainly made great progress in parrying some of the challenges introduced in this session.  Our work is not done; now, more than ever, it's up to us to ensure that we push to make education a priority.  Complaining about "dirty" politics will not get us to that goal.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Lesson in Standardized Tests

My kids graduated from high school in the late 90’s so I didn’t have the “pleasure” as a parent to go through a round of standardized testing.  However, I now have a 3rd grade grandchild who is going through this for the first time and it has given me a greater appreciation for the stress placed on parents, teachers and students.  Although I served as a school board trustee from 2005-2015, this is a new experience for me.

To the credit of his school district (Frisco ISD), his teacher has worked feverishly to remove the stress from her students.  More than once, he has talked about STAAR camp in his school and it is always in a positive light; he seems to be enjoying the “ride” (free pizza doesn’t hurt!).  Whether in the classroom or even on the ball field over the weekend, he has heard nothing but positives about this experience.  Kudos to those who are doing their very best to manage the stress for the kiddos.  It’s encouraging to know that there are those who focus on the students and not the test itself.

Last night, I was discussing the STAAR test and some of its ramifications with my wife. She mentioned that my grandson came home from school and proudly announced to his mother that he thought he only missed one question on the math portion.  This was important to him since he said that his teacher mentioned the desire (never saying “must”) to have every student score at least an 80 on the test.  As I discussed the STAAR test with my wife, the importance of it and why population groups are important, she had the same question that most of us have, “Why?”.

I did my best to explain the intent and unintended consequences to her but she became more frustrated the more we talked.  Could it be that I was the one that was creating the frustration?  Certainly possible (perhaps even probable!) but I got to wondering how many parents experience this same level of frustration.  I also wondered how well teachers and administrators are explaining this to parents and students.  By the way, in most districts with which I am familiar, they are doing a great job in this area.

My daughter and her children are blessed to live in a district that puts kids first.  Rather than “drill and kill” and focus on the outcome, my grandson’s teacher went to great lengths to ensure that she minimized the stress of the test as much as she could.  Frisco ISD should be proud of the efforts of their teachers and should be applauded for the focus on making education (not strictly outcomes) the priority for these students.  Outcomes will be an ultimate result of their efforts, not the focus on a system that shifts the emphasis from teaching to testing.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Seat at the Table

In last week’s update from the Texas Association of Community Schools (TACS), TACS Governmental Affairs director Laura Yeager shared some philosophical observations about the ongoing public school discussions in the 85th Legislature, drawing a sharp contrast between actions of the two bodies and noting the impact of the leader of each chamber.  There clearly has been a sharp contrast in styles and Laura noted the actions by many Senators that seem more focused on maintaining a “seat at the table” with the Lieutenant Governor than making an effort to listen to and serve their constituents.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time focusing on this area as well but I thought that the “seat at the table” reference was a very succinct way of getting the message across.  In sharp contrast to the House, where Speaker Straus continues to show leadership by encouraging House members to understand the needs of their constituents (“vote your district”, as he defined it), the Lt. Governor continues to hammer away at his list of priorities, not those of the people he and the Senate were elected to serve.

There is probably no better representation of the Lt. Governor’s lack of focus on constituents than a comment I saw in a tweet yesterday by a group that supports his actions.  In a post by that group that was largely focused on budget considerations and the differences between budgets adopted in the Senate and in the House, they commended the LG for actions that address the “state’s needs”.  But where in this discussion are the needs of the residents of Texas addressed?

I understand the LG’s position that the rainy day fund should not be used to fund ongoing operations of the State and somewhat agree with this … to a point.  As a former school board trustee in a Chapter 41 district, we were constantly faced with a budget challenge and, as a last resort, approved a budget that would cause us to tap our fund balance if needed.  However, working with administration, we sought ways to find savings in other areas that would offset any potential deficit requiring accessing the fund balance and were generally successful in doing so.

Given that, perhaps the “seat at the table” should be more focused on finding solutions to budget issues, transportation, school finance, child welfare, etc. instead of being worried about what committee a Senator might be appointed to.  However, the style of the LG is not one that is open to that as a consideration.  With the backing of certain groups and a predisposition to focus on his defined priorities, “seat at the table” with the LG remains more about serving individual needs than those of all of us.

Ultimately, as Laura pointed out in her summary, it comes down to voting.  Under a campaign TACS launched called Texas Educators Vote (texaseducatorsvote.com), TACS is pushing for expanding participation by educators, a significant population that can bring about a greater focus on making education a priority.  Rather than focus on the posturing to be aligned with the LG for personal gain, we must make certain that we all have a “seat at the table” in serving the needs of 5.4 million Texas public education students.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Kicking the Can Down the Road

Every session, there are opportunities for legislators to look like heroes by taking action that is often very shortsighted and ties the hands of future legislatures.  This session is no different with discussions about property tax relief, reduction/elimination of the business franchise tax and the accounting “gimmick” proposed by the Senate as a way to balance the budget (as required by the Texas Constitution).

Like many of you, I follow the Texas Tribune very closely and especially appreciate the articles posted by Ross Ramsey.  One in particular, posted on April 26, really hit at the essence of some of these decisions and the long term ramifications.  Rather than me summarize his article, however, I believe that the entire article is worth reading (click here to read) by anyone focused on funding of public education and the “perfect storm” (my words, not his) that will await us when we see a reduction in our property values combined with depressed oil prices, falling sales tax revenues and no business franchise tax.   

Of significance to those of us who support public education and push for adequate funding is the fact that the state’s percentage of funding has dropped from 45% in 2007 to what is now projected to be 38% of the total.  All of this while total enrollment continues to grow at a rate of more than 80,000 students per year.  While the headline of “funding enrollment growth” looks good on paper, the reality is that funding overall remains inadequate.

It’s easy to suggest that Texans want property tax relief; we all would like to pay less each year but the cold reality is that actions in Austin continue to shift the burden from the state to the local taxpayer.  Are we all na├»ve enough to think that there is not a point at which programs and services will have to be cut if we continue to push for tax relief at whatever level?  Certainly the vast majority of us understand that but the push for tax relief makes for good headlines … and headlines seem to be what it is all about for some of our legislators and “leaders”.

So what happens when the 86th session convenes in two years and finds an even greater budget challenge if oil prices remain flat, the franchise tax is reduced (or eliminated) and property tax relief passes?  How will that group of legislators grapple with the challenge?  Will they again find a way to kick the can down the road and defer making the hard choices and decisions that are fiscally responsible?

Ross Ramsey hit the nail on the head with his closing comment, "... if some Texas legislature of the future needs money, they can work it out themselves.  That isn't the 85th Legislature's problem."  Sadly, that seems to be the position being taken by many in Austin, a position that fails to recognize the importance of funding programs and services that fuel a vibrant economy. I may be a bit biased but at the top of that list should be public education.  Unless we make education a priority, our public education system becomes another element of that perfect storm, leaving more than 5.4 million students without the  resources they need to succeed.  

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

What Does It Take To Say Yes?

Last week, the Texas House passed HB 21, a bill introduced by Chairman Huberty that is intended to start the process of fixing a broken school finance system, one that the Supreme Court said met "minimum constitutional requirements".  The bill passed on a vote of 134-16 and what amazes me in this is not that 16 representatives (predictably based on looking at the list) voted against it but that those who did seem clueless about the charge by the Court to address the problems of equity and adequacy of school funding.

But maybe we shouldn't be surprised.  After all, for many, politics in Austin has evolved from working to address the needs of those they were elected to serve to focusing on how to add to their own resume.  This probably applies to both those against and in favor of changes in school finance so some of the votes have to be looked at from that perspective.  There are some who represent North Texas who will pretty much vote NO on anything regardless of what their constituents want.  But we keep electing them.

Without question, there are leaders and followers in Austin.  Calling some of them "leaders" may not be an accurate characterization of what they are actually doing but that doesn't mean that they cannot exert influence.  One need only look at the Senate where the LG's top two priorities will likely not reach the governor this session ... but it doesn't mean he won't continue to try.  Nor does it mean that he won't continue to try to use his position and authority in his interactions with his peers and those in the House.

What does it take to say yes, however?  By the way, I am not saying that all legislation warrants a "Yes" vote; there certainly is bad legislation that should be opposed.  But in the case of the discussion about school finance, and statements by the Supreme Court that responsibility for addressing the "Byzantine" school finance system falls to the legislature, something has to give.  As near as I can tell, nay votes by at least three North Texas representatives are more "because I can" votes than votes that are grounded in a specific political philosophy.  The only way for them to justify their votes is to acknowledge an allegiance to a party ideology, not to those they were supposedly elected to serve.

As voters, we are owed an explanation for the votes that the 16 representatives cast against HB 21.  Perhaps there is rationale behind their votes that would benefit all of us.  To actually expect that we will receive one?  Not likely.  In the end, we need to celebrate and support those who support public education, those that make education a priority and those that know how to say "YES".


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Sapping the Energy

I don’t know about you but just watching the goings on in Austin from 200 miles away is enough to wear me out.  The flurry of activity surrounding public education, specifically under the leadership of Chairman Huberty, makes me wonder where those who are elected to serve find the time and energy to participate in the extended discussion and debates about issues impacting all of us.  I continue to be amazed by the differences in approach between the House and Senate regardless of the issue but specifically as it relates to public education.

We all know that the Lt. Governor has focused a considerable amount of attention on vouchers (by any name), the bathroom bill and taxpayer relief.  Thanks to the House, I am hopeful that the issue of vouchers can be put to bed at least until the next session.  Of course, we know that they will once again be an issue regardless of whether the LG is reelected or not.  The bathroom bill?  I continue to be amazed at the amount of energy in the Senate being put into trying to find a problem for the “solution” introduced by Sen. Kolkhorst.  And while I, like all of you, would like a lower property tax bill, I just don’t get the view that suggests that we can address (and fund) issues in Texas with this relief.

Off of my soapbox!  What really strikes me is that the two chambers, perhaps reflective of leadership attitudes, are focused either on themselves and making headlines (Senate) or on the needs of those they were elected to serve (House).  Admittedly, both are striving to create and approve a balanced budget as required by the Constitution but their approaches are starkly different.  With both chambers having now passed their budget bill, I am anxious to see how the compromise committee arrives at a budget that, among other things, tackles the issue of school finance that the Texas Supreme Court said fell to the legislature.

I have found myself over the past couple of weeks struggling to find the time between job and other activities to focus on education issues about which we are all so passionate.  And then I remember the reason we do this and it is not for our own personal agendas (unlike some!).  5.4 million students in our public education system are counting on us to represent their voices in Austin, and those who advocate for public education have done an outstanding job in promoting the dialogue.  Even something as simple as writing this blog is a reminder to me that I need to step up my engagement and advocacy.

Energy sapped?  Yes, it is a bit, but then I remember the kids and find my motivation in ensuring that they are given the opportunities that I was given many years ago.  My hat is off to all of you who continue to make education a priority.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

An Evening with Diane Ravitch (and friends!)

Diane Ravitch is certainly one of the most outspoken and visible advocates for public education.  I recently had an opportunity to meet her and to hear her speak at a dinner hosted by the Friends of Texas Public Schools.  Much of what she discussed is a part of her daily blogs but I wanted to summarize what I thought were the key points of her presentation.
  •           Diane reminded us that the role of charter schools  was originally to complement the public school system but that it has become, in her words, a “juggernaut for privatization”.
  •           She discussed the overwhelming failures of the Milwaukee and Detroit public school systems and the role that introduction of vouchers played in that trend, also reminding us of the considerable influence exerted on Michigan public schools by Betsy DeVos.
  •           The lack of accountability and transparency continues to be a source of concern as it relates to school choice other than our public schools.  It is well documented that our Lt. Governor believes that the only accountability requirement for these parents is through the parents of children attending other than public schools.
  •           Diane expressed concern that the current push for vouchers will create a lot of  “pop up” schools, schools that seize upon a profit motivate as the driver, not the education of children.  Nothing new here but it’s always helpful to be reminded of the potential ramifications of voucher programs.
  •           In today’s school choice discussion, she stated that, “Schools have the choice, not the parents”.  We are well aware of this but I liked the simplified summary of the stark differences between public schools and other school choice options.
  •           Another of her quotes that resonated with me was, “Who gets the money is not about education reform; it’s about who gets the money.  True education reform would strive to make our public schools as strong as they can be”.
  •           She also noted that, in most communities, our public schools are the vehicle that brings communities together as parents and community members work on shared goals for their children.
Most of you have likely had the opportunity to read Diane’s blogs, to hear her speak, or to read one or more of her books.  Her blog can be found at https://dianeravitch.net/.

I found the interaction with Diane and the subsequent panel discussion with Diane, House Public Education Committee Chairman Huberty, Rep. Bernal and Rep. Van Deaver to be very enlightening and motivational to those who support public education.  Thanks to FoTPS for hosting this dynamic event.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Vision with Results (part two)

In my last blog (click here to read), I shared the background on a program in the Dallas Independent School District, the School Time Capsule Project.  Founded by Bill Betzen, a retired middle school teacher in DISD, this program focuses on helping 8th grade students define a vision for their futures and, more importantly, sets the stage for a reunion ten years later at which time these students share the positive outcomes tied to their involvement in the program.

Bill shared with me some of the outstanding successes of the program and discussed how the DISD School Effectiveness Index (SEI) has documented these successes.  For additional information on the impact by campus, click here  to access a blog written by Bill that provides details on progress of campuses across the district.

I wanted to gain a better understanding of the impact of the Project and what Bill sees as the outlook to expand the program.  Following are excerpts from my discussion with him.

CRAIG:  How did you select the schools that participate?  
BILL:  I started with the school where I was teaching (Quintanilla Middle School), moved to the high school it fed into, and was contacted by a teacher in the other middle school that fed into that high school.  He was a TAG (talented and gifted) teacher who read about the project in the paper and wanted to start it at Greiner.
CRAIG:  What criteria were used in expanding to other campuses?
BILL:  The other schools were added because I approached the principals, had the money for the vaults due to a $15,000 donation, and was able to install them and get started.  While not intentional, most of the schools were high poverty and mostly 99% minority.

CRAIG:  Who is the Project champion of the campuses?
BILL:  Typically it is the principal.

CRAIG:  What are the plans to expand the program onto other campuses?
BILL:  A DISD administrator has been tasked with defining how to expand the program, including an effort to expand into 3rd through 12th grades.
CRAIG:  What are the biggest challenges to making this program an ongoing success?
BILL:  Keeping a focus on simplicity and simply getting the steps done that are now known as making a difference.  We need to fund a full time bi-lingual director position.
At the conclusion of our meeting, I asked Bill why he thought the results had been so impressive.  He replied that, "Having students write down their plans for the future is common in education.  It works to improve achievement and focus. An article about nuns having students write such letters to themselves which were then mailed years later to those students gave the initial idea that grew into the School Time Capsule Project in DISD.  School climate changes with a documented focus on the future.  Achievement and graduation rates go up, behavior problems and pregnancy rates go down."

All of this makes me wonder where we would be with public education in this state (and in the country) if any of our “leaders” had the foresight to create a vision that included public education as a cornerstone for future success.   But that’s a story for another day and another blog.

Through his program, Bill clearly has focused his energies on making education a priority for these and other public education students.  For that, we all owe Bill a special thank you.  For further information, contact Bill at bbetzen@aol.com or visit the Project's web site, www.studentmotivation.org.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Vision with Results (part one)

I recently had the opportunity to reconnect and visit with Bill Betzen, a retired middle school teacher in Dallas ISD and the founder of the School Time Capsule Project.  The purpose of the meeting was to get an updated status on the Project, an effort that is making a significant impact on students on 11 campuses in Dallas ISD.  The following is a background on the project and the motivation behind Bill’s efforts in founding it.  I will share the outcomes and outlook in a separate blog on April 6.

The School Time Capsule Project was founded in 2005.  The initial program focus was on helping 8th grade students craft their vision for the future with an eye toward revisiting that vision in10 years. This has evolved into an annual process with the previous year’s letters always returned to be re-written each year until the last year in a school: 5th, 8th or 12th grade.  That last year the letter is written planning 10-years into the future, the letter that stays in the vault for a decade until the class reunion.  The students were told that, at their 10-year reunion, they would be asked to speak with current 8th grade students about their recommendations for success and how the program has positively impacted their lives. This is currently happening with the third 10-year reunion for the 8th grade class of 2007 planned for May 2, 2017. 

While initially focused on one middle school campus, the Project has now spread to 11 schools.  Graduation rates for students who participate in the program have doubled and DISD's School Effectiveness Index (SEI) (click here for information about SEI) indicates that the two oldest Time Capsule Project schools now enjoy the highest average SEI scores of any of the 35 DISD middle schools. The other 5 middle schools with 3 or more years in the Project have enjoyed an average gain of 6.7 points on the SEI scale over the past 3 years.  The remaining 24 non-magnet schools with no Time Capsule Projects have lost 0.7 points during the same three years.

As the program evolved, and in response to a lack of parental engagement on some of the campuses, sponsors on each campus, typically campus leadership, sent letters to parents inviting them to participate in helping their children map their future.  The initial results of that effort were somewhat lackluster until a suggestion was made that the letters to the parents come from the students; parental engagement skyrocketed and families became much more involved with helping their child lay out a vision that would impact not only the child but likely the entire family as well.

For the students and parents in DISD who have been fortunate to participate in the School Time Capsule Project, there will be a long lasting impact on the lives of these students and their families.  Bill’s hope is that, within 5 years, this will be a normal set of annual writing projects in every one of the 227 DISD schools.

This is a program about a district and volunteers in the district who care enough to take the time to focus on helping students set a vision and then track individual progress toward achievement of that vision.  It is much more than simply an exercise for these students and parents ... it is a blueprint for success, one that Bill and others hope to see expand into other districts and communities.  

In my next blog (April 6), I will share the discussion I had with Bill about outcomes and successes of the program.  This truly is an exciting effort that has been embraced by the district as well as students, teachers and administrators on middle school campuses, an effort focused on making education a priority in our public schools.  

For further information about the School Time Capsule Project, please contact Bill at bbetzen@aol.com or visit the Project's web site, www.studentmotivation.org.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What defines a “distraction”?

I read an article on March 27 in which former Governor Jeb Bush labelled the president as “a distraction in and of himself”.   While I thought I knew the meaning of the word, I thought I would look it up to see how it fits the current situation.  Webster’s Dictionary defines distraction as “an object that directs one's attention away from something else “.  For one of the few times when listening to Bush, I found myself agreeing with him in his comments about President Trump but also quickly came to a realization that this definition certainly applies to Bush as well.

When you consider the damage his failed “school choice” policies have done in Florida and continue to do across the country as the push for privatization continues, the former governor certainly has become a distraction as he continues to make public comments that are highly critical of our public education system.  Too many people drink the kool-aid that promotes privatization without asking why it makes sense to move away from what has been, and remains, a highly successful institution in our country.

Again thinking back to the definition, the “something else” that is ignored in the conversation about school choice and our public education system are the millions of kids, including 5.4 million Texas public education students, who are generally served very well by our system.  That’s not to say that we don’t have gaps; we do and must continue to address those.  The “something else” is the failure to acknowledge the impact of excessive testing and the lack of adequate funding of the system.  In Texas, there is limited discussion of the declining share of the cost of education borne by the state.  All of these distractions from the challenges we face are (in and of themselves, using Bush’s perspective) an effort to refocus the attention on the “feel good” story of the opportunities that school choice is purported to offer.

So how do we shift the focus back to the issues that are critical to the continued (yes, continued) success of our public education system?  First and foremost, we must be vigilant and willing to respond to the distractions by telling the story on behalf of the students in our public schools.  We must continue to advocate not just with our legislators but within our communities.  Parents and community members generally have a very good feeling about the performance of their local district and campuses.  That feeling “in and of itself” becomes a distraction from the real threat to our public schools.

There certainly are distractions from the issues and challenges facing public education and those who seek to privatize the system will use those to their advantage and will use them as a distraction … if we allow them to do so.  Public education is in the spotlight in Texas and across the country.  We must not be distracted from our purpose and must ensure that the discussion includes a focus on students and student outcomes by emphasizing the critical need to make public education a priority.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

The old adage suggesting that it is up to the observer to decide on what is “beautiful” or not certainly seems to have some merit and consideration when discussing the proposed A-F grading system scheduled to go into effect in Texas public schools beginning with the 2017-2018 school year.  Even those most strongly opposed to a letter grading system agree that it is important that we evaluate student outcomes and progress toward meeting goals that are increasing in difficulty.  How we get there is a key discussion topic.

While I don’t personally believe that moving to an A-F grading system where there are winners and losers makes sense (I don’t subscribe to the theory that grades will not be assigned on a traditional bell curve), I do believe that the public education system should be held accountable for performance and results.  But who decides what is acceptable or not?  I guess this is where the beauty consideration comes into play.

Those who support privatization or a dismantling of our public education system are generally those most in favor of an A-F grading system.  They also are the ones who stand to gain the most given recent efforts by some states and what appears to be a strong effort by the Trump administration to increase funding for so-called school choice, while reducing funding for certain programs in public education.  Their interest, as well as those of legislators who favor school choice without accountability, is focused solely on what they stand to gain.  Lost in all of this are the children, some in struggling schools, whose needs should be a driver for decisions being made by legislators.

And this is where “beauty” again comes to the forefront.  If you ask children in our schools about their attitudes toward school choice, most likely don’t have an opinion; they simply want an education that enables them to succeed and achieve their personal goals.  Yet they have somewhat become pawns in the discussion about public education.  To them, beauty is not about public v private but it is about the quality of the education they receive.

And what about community members and other stakeholders in communities served by our local schools?  They certainly have a perspective on the quality of education, the “beauty” of the experience for their children.  Studies have consistently shown that the closer one gets to the local campus (as opposed to a state or nationwide perspective), the better the stakeholders feel about what goes on on that campus.  Parents and community members do not need an arbitrary letter grade, one that today would be largely tied to STAAR test results, to feel good about the beauty of our public education system. 

In the end, regardless of the perspective we have on public education and how we perceive the beauty of a system that has fueled economic and personal growth, what should be important is not how we view beauty but how our students are served.  We can only achieve this success if we continue to make education a priority in the classroom.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Power of Advocacy

If we ever wondered about the power of advocacy, legislation introduced by the chairmen of both the Senate and the House should reinforce the need to continue to push for sound legislative policy relating to public education.  Last week, Senate Education Committee chairman Larry Taylor and House Public Education Committee chairman Dan Huberty introduced bills targeting the A-F grading system scheduled to be put in place in the 2018-2019 school year.  And while it is obviously too early to know what impact either will have, the fact that this topic is on the table speaks volumes for advocacy efforts.

At the heart of both bills seems to be an effort to reduce the number of categories for which schools and districts are to be graded.  While simplification itself is not a single most important criteria, the fact that legislators are gaining a better understanding of the complexity of the legislation as originally proposed when adopted in the 84th session is encouraging.  For me personally, I had an opportunity last month to sit in on a session hosted by TEA Commissioner Morath in which he presented implementation plans.  I walked away a bit confused by what eh presented.  He, too, seemed to be struggling with certain elements of the proposed grading system and noted that his staff is working to address some of the issues,

In the case of Senate Bill 2051 and House Bill 22, the number of categories would be reduced from five to three, specifically student achievement, school progress and school climate.  It appears that the significant reliance on the STAAR test, while still important, would now expand to include a number of other factors, including recognition of the number of students enrolled in AP courses.  Those who have criticized the significant reliance on STAAR results have consistently stressed that classroom learning and student outcomes should be the focal point.  Legislators in both parties seem to be grasping the importance of this perspective.

As currently defined, too much responsibility falls to the commissioner.  While uncertain how he will implement a grading system, the greater the clarity in defining what is to be included, the better off we all are.  Focusing on a clear definition will be an important part of the discussion.  The bills of each chairman differ in this area but offer hope that there will be a compromise that is palatable to most.

Will the system be perfect?  Certainly not but the ongoing discussion about a way of evaluating school and district performance seems to reflect a willingness of those in Austin to listen to the concerns of educators and other public education advocates.  Our work is not done.  We have an opportunity to continue to influence legislation on multiple fronts and must continue our efforts to ensure that those elected to serve us understand the imperative to make education a priority.  Advocacy does work!