Thursday, February 23, 2017

Get Loud, Be Proud!

Yesterday (February 22), I sent an email message to members of the House Public Education committee, as well as to Speaker Straus, Sen. Burton and Rep. Capriglione, the latter two who represent my district.  In that email, I outlined my position on seven key topics and asked for consideration by the committee members as they discuss public education.  Click here for the full text of the letter.

As I shared the letter with a number of people, I received feedback from one person that was very alarming to me.  One of our superintendents received a call from Rep. Todd Hunter from Rockport advising her that the email messages and phone calls in support of vouchers (by any name) were running about 10:1 in favor of vouchers.  Some of this is no doubt due to the deep pockets that are supporting this initiative but it also perhaps reflects a feeling on the part of many that the battle will not be fought in the House this term, leaving us with the status quo.

That false sense of security is one against which we must guard as the discussions about public education ensue.  And while one perhaps could argue that calls and email messages have little impact based on the results of the confirmation hearings for Betsy DeVos, the reality is that many legislators are swayed by the voices of their constituents.  Remember that two Republican members of the US Senate abandoned partisan politics to vote against DeVos and one acknowledged that the high volumes of calls had an impact on her decision.  Sadly, the same cannot be said for our two Texas Senators!

So it's time to Get Loud and Be Proud.  We must all do our part to get the word out to parents and within our communities about the devastating impact that a voucher (by any name) program will have on the public schools that are the foundation of vibrant communities across the state.  We must also focus the discussion on the needs of those students who are currently underserved; ripping resources from at-risk and low performing campuses will only make the situation worse for the students in those communities and on those campuses.

The battle over vouchers (by any name) will be a protracted battle but it is clearly a battle that can be won.  We read daily that the Lt. Governor is struggling to get support from members of his own party in the Senate, especially those in rural communities who perhaps would realize the greatest adverse impact.  Only when we have defeated (again) the notion that vouchers (by any name) are the solution to the challenges we face will we be able to rest.  Even then, it is only a brief respite as we gear up for yet another effort to pass this bad legislation.

It will take all of us aggressively communicating the message, reaching out to our networks and, most importantly, to those elected to serve us in Austin.   Get Loud, Get Proud and make education a priority.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

It Makes Me Wonder

The attack on the institution of public education is one thing but when it moves to the personal level that we have witnessed over recent weeks, I really have to wonder about the future of public education.  Our teachers spend countless hours and significant dollars out of their own pocket to ensure that their students have the greatest opportunity they can to learn and to develop their knowledge and skills.  Yet there are many both in Austin and in Washington, DC who not only fail to acknowledge the tremendous work of our teachers but have decided to blast them collectively as a group.

What really makes me wonder is how we ever got to this point.  When I reflect on my education in public schools, I can quickly recall individual teachers who had a profound impact on my life.  I think of a second grade teacher who went to great lengths to make certain that when I got off of the school bus, I actually crossed the street to the school.  (I didn’t for a couple of days but she found a way to get me in without threatening me or asking my parents to be the “heavies”.)

I think about a sixth grade teacher who taught me the importance of history and civics.  The first election that I can truly recall was the presidential election in 1960, an election that witnessed the first series of presidential debates.  And my sixth grade teacher was there to not only make us aware of this but to provide motivation for us to care about who was running.

I think about a math teacher in my sophomore year of high school who also served as a coach.  The lessons he taught both in the classroom and on the field, including humility and commitment, are lessons I try to make a part of my everyday life.  And I think about another math teacher in my senior year who, as our class sponsor, challenged us to do our very best.  We may not have agreed with her approach but the message landed with most of us.

And I got to wondering if these professionals were the exception or the norm and how the efforts of teachers translates to today’s classrooms.  I am blessed to have two grown children and two young grandchildren.  I watched as my children developed and am privileged to witness how my grandchildren are growing up in a quality education system.  It would be easy for teachers to ignore the individual needs of students (and some do but how is that any different than any profession, including politics?) but the vast majority are focused on the needs of every child in their classroom.

When I think about all of the positives in our public schools, now educating more than 5.3 million students in Texas alone, I have to wonder why “leadership” at the state and national level wants to demean the profession and those individuals who make education a priority for our students, our parents and our communities.  I can only wonder what it will take to change their perception but know that continued grassroots advocacy across all stakeholders in public education is essential to making education a priority that is praised, not criticized at every turn.  Thank you, teachers, for all that you do to make our public education system the best in the world.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Don't Give Up. Don't Ever Give Up.

Former NC State head basketball coach Jim Valvano, in a speech at the ESPY's in 1993, spoke the words of the headline to this blog.  Battling cancer, Jimmie V remained focused on the battle ahead and offered words of inspiration to so many who are faced with life's challenges.  While not a life or death situation, the battle over public education is one that lies in front of us.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past several weeks, as I am certain all of you have, pondering anticipated outcomes if Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the Education secretary, how her confirmation would affect public education, how legislation in the Texas legislature would impact vouchers, and on and on.  And while Ms. DeVos was confirmed, her nomination and the subsequent hearings certainly shed light on her potential impact.  While not ignoring what she does or what we think she will do, it’s now time to move on.  The education debate is still largely a local issue, suggesting a need to refocus and redouble our efforts in the State of Texas.

In my role as president of Make Education a Priority, I have been privileged to develop friendships and relationships with a number of organizations across the state, several of which I have highlighted in prior blogs.  Last week, I received an email from Dr. Charles Luke, executive director of the Coalition for Public Schools, highlighting key talking points relative to tax credit vouchers and education savings accounts or ESA’s.  Many who read this blog will have already seen Charles’ notes but I thought it would be helpful to share with others as well.

The talking points for both vouchers and ESA’s can be found on the Coalition’s web site, www.coalitionfor, or by clicking here for talking points on tax credit vouchers and here for talking points on ESA vouchers.   Both are well written and provide good reference points for discussions with our legislators.  With Speaker Straus now having appointed members of the House Public Education Committee, now is a good time to initiate dialog with each of the members.   Click here for information about members of the committee.

On a side note, I am pleased to see the discussion surrounding the use of taxpayer dollars for education potentially being transferred to fund activities other than public education.  While some, including the Chair of the Senate Education Committee and the Lt. Governor, have suggested that this is not the case, I believe that the reality is that this is occurring.  Rep. Donna Howard, among others, has done her part to ensure that this is a topic of discussion.

The discussions and focus on the appointment of Ms. DeVos certainly energized many who had not previously been engaged in supporting our public schools.  Every day, business and community leaders as well as parents, teachers and administrators engage more, knowing the potential impact of discussions now on the table.  But we have only skimmed the surface when it comes to the need for a broader base of education advocates to step forward and make certain that their voices are heard.  Are you one of those individuals who will continue to advocate to make education a priority?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Transparency and School Choice

In November, I had the opportunity to pose a question to the Lt. Governor during one of his visits to Ft. Worth.  My question focused on two angles, one being transparency and accountability for how dollars under a voucher (by any name) program would be tracked to ensure that funds were spent for intended purposes and the second dealing with how such a program would define accountability for non-ISD campuses.  As I noted in a prior blog, I did not get an answer to either question but have had discussions with the Lt. Governor’s office.  At least there is dialog but whether there is any interest in expanding requirements relating to either transparency or accountability remains to be seen.  For now, the dialog must continue.

I recently received a copy of the “Report on School Mandates: Cost Drivers in Public Education” (click here), a report prepared by the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB).  In the introduction, TASB defined the objective as one of identifying state mandates passed from 1995 through the 84th legislative session and how those impact the cost of education.  In the vast majority of cases, these are unfunded.  As a side note, HB798, introduced by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, would require that the legislature define costs of any mandates as passed by the legislature.

I found it particularly interesting as I scanned the report to not only review the summary and description of mandates but also to note the reporting requirements of each.  Another interesting element of this report was to look at how many of these are not directly related to student outcomes.  With all of the focus on outcomes, wouldn’t it make sense that mandates should also be focused on the classroom?

So back to my interaction with the Lt. Governor.  I wonder how many of the requirements imposed on our public schools will be part of the set of requirements for non-ISD campuses.  We’re already starting to get a sense of some of this and there clearly is not a level playing field.  The best example of that lies in the requirement for STAAR testing in public schools and the weighting used in the A-F grading system.  Under SB 3, the only requirement is for a non-ISD campus to adopt “annual administration of a nationally norm-referenced assessment instrument”.  That certainly leaves it wide open for the non-ISD campus. 

The Lt. Governor and his staff have repeatedly stated that accountability for campuses other than public schools lies with the parents; as he has said, they alone know better what is best for their children.  Yet this same belief in parents and their recognition of what is best for their children doesn’t seem to be of importance in public schools?  That makes no sense to me.

Transparency and accountability are two very critical elements of any educational system.  To suggest that the structure is imposed on our public schools but not on other forms of school choice is not fair to parents, students and the communities our schools serve.  The stated goal of the Lt. Governor and school choice proponents, as it is with public school advocates, is to serve the needs of students.  As we undertake this effort, however, transparency and accountability are essential for all forms of school choice as we make education of over 5.4 million Texas public education students a priority.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Teaching Over Testing Act

In case you missed it, Rep. Jason Isaac introduced House Bill 1333 last week, a bill that would reduce the impact of standardized testing in our schools and, more importantly, on our students.  A release about the “Teaching Over Testing Act” summarized four critical reforms:
  •         Instill competition among test providers
  •         Reduce the number of exams
  •         Remove STAAR from teacher evaluations
  •         Reduce weight of STAAR in school ratings
On their own, each of these reforms is a significant step toward renewing a focus on what is taught in the classroom.  As a whole, implementation would truly diminish what has become an overwhelming impact of a test given on a single day that causes so much stress in students and staff alike.  Whether the bill as filed will have an opportunity to be heard by the full House or whether the idea will be given any consideration by the Senate remains to be seen.

As a parent, I did not have the opportunity to experience the impact of the STAAR exam on my children; TAKS was the testing environment when they were in school.  But I have two grandchildren, including a third grader, so I am quickly beginning to realize the impact as a result of conversations with my daughter.  She and other parents in my grandson’s elementary school have already started to fret over the preparation required to get their children ready to take the exam.  Some have received the advance paperwork, some have not so there is a great deal of uncertainty among groups of parents.  They know it’s coming, but what they don’t know is how it will impact them if this is their first exposure to the impact of the STAAR exam.

I did see one symptom of trying to address concerns that teachers have been able to identify.  There are some in my grandson’s 3rd grade class who can read well but apparently are struggling with reading comprehension.  To her credit, his teacher launched a tutoring class for those interested in increasing their comprehension skills without really having to disclose to the children why she is doing so.  This is exactly the type of initiative that will benefit these students even as they go through the stress leading up to and during test day.  It’s also a great example of the work that teachers do in our classrooms every day, yet they continue to face criticism that our public schools are not meeting the needs of today’s students.

One quick comment on HB1333 and the first reform, instilling competition among test providers.  After the fiasco of ETS in their first year of managing the testing environment, all options should be on the table.  And if SB3 (the school choice/vouchers (by any name) bill) can target “any nationally norm-referenced assessment instrument” as acceptable for non-ISD schools, why should that not be the case in our public schools?

Rep. Isaac is to be applauded and thanked for taking the initiative with HB1333.  He certainly is one in Austin who is focused on those actions that will make education a priority.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Moving Beyond Personal

Okay, in the interest of full disclosure (but you probably already noted this), I have made frequent reference in my blogs and tweets to what I perceive as a personal agenda on the part of the Lt. Governor and others to dismantle public education as we know it today.  But I have concluded that that plays right into their hands and, for that reason alone, I will endeavor to focus on the issues and not the personalities.  So here we go.

My previous blog focused on my perspective relating to SB 3, the "school choice" bill.  There clearly are elements of that proposed legislation that will appeal to people of all demographics.  What was perhaps most appalling to me, however, was the blatant intent to NOT require private schools and other non-ISD forms of school choice to be held accountable by the very government that will provide funding under a voucher (by any name) program.  I just don't understand how dollars provided by the State don't, in turn, require some form of accountability other than a periodic audit of those receiving funds.

The very notion that parents alone are those responsible for accountability resonates with me to a point but clearly the rules are different for our public schools.  Imagine if parents of our public school children were the focal point of our accountability system.  Might we be better off and wouldn't we likely address the needs of so-called "failing schools" more readily?  But therein lies our challenge.

Many of the districts and campuses about which I have first-hand knowledge or exposure are successful primarily because of the engagement of parents on those campuses and with their children.  For any number of reasons, this is not the case universally and perhaps this is an issue we should explore and discuss more openly.  As I watched the press conference announcing the filing of SB3, I couldn't help but agree with the suggestion that we need to define best practices and then share those across the state.  Parental and community engagement are no doubt at the top of the list of "best practices" (and part of the troubling A-F grading system).

So how do we increase engagement in our public schools?  Most districts already have parent organizations, whether PTA's, district committees or other opportunities.  But are these focused on volunteerism as the end game or on developing an understanding of how parent and other volunteer efforts impact student outcomes?  In business, having a sound strategy is generally the difference between failure (or mediocrity) and success; how we engage parents should be no different.  What specifically do districts hope to achieve through development of opportunities?  Let's make certain that is understood and, more importantly, communicated to those from whom we are seeking greater engagement.

The bottom line ... the discussions about personal agendas should not be the focus (although they can be "fun" to talk about!).  We must shift the discussion and focus to the issues that impact the quality of education in the classroom and how we achieve that.  Where it becomes personal isn't to focus on the combatants but on the students in the classroom and the teachers who serve our students every day.  The needs of these groups dictate that we work aggressively to make education a priority.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Filing of SB 3 … What Next?

Okay, now that the shroud is off of the “mystery” called vouchers (by any name), what does this all mean to us?  The first thing I noticed when I opened the text of the bill to read it for the first time is that there must be something really important for the text to be 33 pages long!  So I thought I would see if there is anything in the bill that we didn’t already know. 

At last week’s School Choice rally, the LG railed on the fact that the House didn’t even vote on a voucher (by any name) bill last session, imploring them to at least give the idea/agenda a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.  The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that he is probably right.  There is a strong enough sentiment in the House not to approve a voucher bill that I think it is probably a good idea to have the discussion, then vote out any bill regarding vouchers to send a message to the LG and the Senate on where the House stands. 

So here are a few thoughts and observations after reading the bill.
  • The stated purpose of the bill is to “improve public schools and overall academic performance”.  With the 2011 budget cuts not fully restored, wouldn’t it make sense to invest in a proven system, one the Governor openly acknowledged in comments this week, rather than continue to divert resources from it?
  • Another defined purpose is to “increase parental options”.  Parents already have a broad spectrum of options.  What happens to those options when non-public schools have no obligation to accept all students?
  • Sec. 29. 357 talks about approved education-related expenses but there is very little in this bill, other than a random audit, to suggest accountability and compliance with this section.
  • Amounts for which a student is eligible are tied to family income; that makes sense.  But the elephant in the room remains how the difference between those funds and actual tuition and other costs is bridged.
  • Several sections of the bill talk about what non-public schools are NOT REQUIRED to do; in fact, the bill outlines restrictions imposed on government agencies to attempt to dictate any terms under which these schools operate (other than a requirement that they be accredited).
  • Section 230. 057 talks about “net savings to public education”.  This certainly appears to be yet another push to reduce state funding of public schools without any relief for unfunded mandates, accountability, etc.  What will it take for those who support SB3 to understand the basic realities of investing instead of pulling resources?
That’s my two cents on what I see as a significantly flawed piece of legislation.  As I noted above, I hope the House does discuss this and sends a strong message to the Senate and the LG that they do not support this legislation.  While some in the House will favor vouchers (by any name), the reality is that the majority of House members and leadership agree with the need to make education a priority.  Let’s move past the headlines and do our part to continue to advocate for all students.