Thursday, January 26, 2017

Vouchers (by any name) and School Choice

Earlier this week, I was privileged to serve on a panel sponsored by the Coalition for Public Schools to discuss the merits and shortcomings of vouchers (by any name).  I also had an opportunity to attend the School Choice rally at the Capitol during which the Governor and Lt. Governor passionately expressed their support for vouchers.  But that's a story for a different time.

The event to discuss vouchers consisted of two panels, one of which was national in scope and largely focused on research about the impact (or lack of) of voucher programs in the country.  They also touched on the impact on special needs and ELL students since non-ISD campuses do not face the same oversight and requirements as a public school.  The bottom line of what I heard - where it can be measured, there has been little positive impact and, in some locales, an adverse impact as a result of voucher programs.

The panel on which I served included representatives of the faith community, a parent with a special needs child and an attorney.  My charge was to share a community member and business person perspective.  To that end, I addressed five specific topics as outlined below.

-    Funding - voucher (by any name) programs siphon money from districts without a commensurate drop in the costs of educating students on public school campuses.  How do we reconcile that with the Supreme Court finding that the current school system only meets "minimum constitutional requirements"?  Is another lawsuit waiting in the wings?
-    Is there “choice” in school choice?  Choice already exists but may go away - parents today can choose among charters, private schools, magnet schools, etc.  But none of those are required to accept all who desire to attend their campuses.  Thus, parents could be losing choice without understanding that they have no recourse.
-    Accountability - public schools are held to a rigid accountability system but non-ISD schools will not be subject to similar requirements.  In fact, the Lt. Governor (and a staff member with whom I met this week) continue to insist that accountability lies with the parent.
-    Transparency - voucher (by any name) dollars will be added to a debit card for use for "educational purposes".  A third party will manage this through the comptroller's office (what will that cost?) but uses are certainly subject to interpretation.  Can a new Ford F-150 be justified as a transportation expenses since the non-ISD campus likely will not provide transportation?
-    The need to invest - the focus should be on how to invest in and improve our public education system, not continue to try to gut the system to address issues impacting a small percentage of students.

Candidly, as I listened to the impassioned pleas from the Governor and Lt. Governor at the School Choice rally, their agendas clearly differ from those we support for all Texas schoolchildren.  It is up to all of us to make certain that our representatives in the Senate and the House understand the impact that a voucher (by any name) program will have on our students, our schools and our communities.  We must aggressively push to make public education a priority.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Fire ... Part 2

I was first elected to serve as a school board trustee in 2005 and, to be honest with you, that represented the first time that I had other than passing interest in what went on in my local schools.  My motivation to run was grounded more in things not directly related to students than what went on in the classroom.  And I found over my ten years of service and working with trustees across the state that this was the case more often than we probably want to admit.

But how times have changed!  Starting with discussions about the impact that testing was having in our classrooms, to discussions about creating additional opportunities for students under House Bill 5, and now to discussions about the potential impact of vouchers (by any name) and an A-F grading system for campuses and districts, students are very much at the center of the discussion (for most, the Lt. Governor and his personal agendas notwithstanding).  In 12 years, I have not seen the galvanization of public support that I am now witnessing across all stakeholders.

As of this writing, there are now more than 220 districts across the state who have adopted resolutions in opposition to the A-F grading system.  And paraphrasing John Paul Jones in 1779, "we have just begun to fight".  Every day, I see social media posts from public education advocates highlighting challenges in the new system, many of which are focused on the lack of transparency in how preliminary results were defined.  But I have yet to see much out of Austin other than the bill filed by Rep. Mary Gonzales that would repeal the A-F grading system.

So our work is not done ... we truly have only begun.  The Lt. Governor is clearly focused on advancing his personal agendas on a number of topics, including vouchers (by any name) and his avowed intent to reduce dollars allocated to public schools, this despite the findings by the Texas Supreme Court that the current system meets "minimum constitutional requirements".  Since when do we (other than the LG and his followers) accept "minimum" as an acceptable standard for anything?  And how is "minimum" impacted by a potential reduction in funding?  I just don't see how a reduction is anything other than maybe an initial chit in yet another school finance law suit.

I offer two suggestions.  One is to encourage increased advocacy by all stakeholders.   There are two groups in particular that I would like to see step up a bit more.  The first is teachers, the second students.  In all of the discussions, we don't hear much from either although there is certainly an uptick in effort by teachers.  Kudos to them for stepping up.

The second suggestion, and one that I am pursuing with my representatives, is to try to find a sponsor for legislation that would require the legislature to allocate funds collected as taxes for education back to education and not the general fund.  The LG brags on the fact that legislation in the 84th session required that dollars collected for transportation be allocated to transportation.  Why would he not support the exact approach for education tax dollars?  So far, no takers in Austin but that doesn't mean I will give up trying.

I posted a tweet last week suggesting that we use the "incessant drivel" of the LG about vouchers and the A-F system as motivation to engage and act.  The more we talk about these considerations, the more I see increased engagement by those who are committed to make education a priority.  The fire continues to burn!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Why is it ...?

For some reason, those who have concerns or disagree with something are painted as whiners and complainers by many people.  There is no better example of this than the current debate about the A-F grading system scheduled to be implemented in 2017-2018.  For some time now, many have been expressing concerns about the system and whether it serves the needs of a cross section of stakeholders.  So it should not be surprising that school administrators, trustees and public education advocates across the state are now voicing their concerns about the "preliminary" grades released on January 6.

What is surprising is that those who support the system are quick to label districts as not being willing to take an objective look at their district's performance.  Why is it that they feel qualified to speak for the districts?  Perhaps because we have not been vocal enough about the successes and accomplishments of our schools and our students?  Contrary to what some have said, my interactions with trustees across the state suggest that there is support for accountability.  But what trustees and administrators choose not to do is to focus on the grades as much as they do on how grades will impact all stakeholders, including the students they serve.  So why is it that a concern for students is viewed in a negative light?

I guess the most logical explanation is that opponents of the public education system are trying to change the discussion from a focus on students and accomplishments to focusing on the negatives relating to a small minority of campuses and districts.  Their goal is to shift the debate about public education away from the students and their needs.  It has evolved to a point where those who seek to undo the educational system in place for more than 200 years are now driven by a profit motive.  And these individuals see an opportunity to use the campus and district grades as evidence that all is not right with our public education system.

What truly galls me is their failure to acknowledge evidence documenting the failures of privatization and non-public school choice in cities and states across the country; that just doesn’t seem to matter to proponents of privatization since it’s not in their best interests to do so.  In fairness, advocates for public education could have probably done more to parry the threat of privatization before now.  But that doesn’t mean all is lost.  The increased attention and focus on public education may yet play to the benefit of our students.  But we must act fast and with strong conviction in support of the needs of the more than 5.4 million public education students in Texas.

The commencement of the 85th legislative session on January 10 should serve as the impetus for all of us to engage our elected officials in a discussion about the needs and value of a quality public education system.  We can no longer sit back and try to play defense.  Defense may win Super Bowls but the reality is that a strong offense will go a long way toward ensuring that we make education a priority.  

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

We Didn't Start the Fire!

Throughout our history, events have been triggered by the passion of a small group of individuals who generate interest and enlist the masses to oppose actions by others.  In fact, Make Education a Priority was founded by one individual who felt a need to respond to the budget cuts of 2011; support of MEaP has now expanded statewide.

The reaction to last week's release of what TEA commissioner Morath called "preliminary" and "work in process" grades for districts is likely one such event.  What is surprising to me is that it really seemed to take publishing of the results to energize trustees, district administrators and others.  What appears to be missing, however, is engagement by the communities who will be so impacted by the effort to assign grades to campuses and districts.

I have been encouraged by the number of districts whose boards and/or superintendents have expressed their concerns about these preliminary results.  And the flames of education passion continue to ignite across the state. While still a relatively small spark, it clearly is on the verge of becoming an inferno.  

Those who support the A-F grading system are very quick to criticize those opposed to it, saying that districts simply don't want to be held accountable for results in their districts.  While there may be a small number of districts who take that position, the vast majority of districts across the state are fully supportive of accountability programs.  The rub with them is not the concept of accountability itself; it's how the state mandates testing and then publishes "preliminary" results without full disclosure of how the grades were derived.

So as we go forward from the preliminary results, what can we do?  First of all, the results do offer insights into how the state intends to move forward.  But it is critical that we not simply complain about the results but flip the accountability responsibility and seek the support of our legislators in creating a greater level of transparency about derivation of grades; simply publishing a grade benefits no one other than the commissioner.

Second, we have to get our communities involved.  Studies consistently reflect a higher level of satisfaction with local schools than public education in general, so parents should be energized if their local campus receives a grade they perceive as unjustified.  Now is the time for districts and public education advocates to communicate everything they know about the grading system and the grades themselves.

Third, some in the legislature seem to be having second thoughts about the grading system; now is the time for trustees, administrators, teachers and other advocates to reach out to their representatives in Austin and to express their concerns.  We must keep the needs of the more than 5.4 million Texas public education students top of mind, especially as we counter the personal agendas of some of our elected officials.

If public education advocates at all levels, ranging from trustees to administrators to teachers and community and business members, do nothing about working to ensure that everyone understands the system and its implications, we send a message that education is not critical, that the welfare of students is sacrificed to bureaucracy.  We must all step up, "fan the flames" and ensure that we make education a priority.