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!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Why the rescheduling of the voucher bill discussion?

Discussion on SB 3, the voucher legislation (by any name) in the Senate, has been moved from March 15 to March 20.  While I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I am certain there is a good reason for moving the discussion, this certainly eliminates the opportunity for one of the groups impacted by voucher legislation, teachers across the State of Texas, to engage in the discussion and appear at the committee hearing.

With spring break the week of March 13 for many districts, the scheduling of a committee hearing on vouchers for this week represented an opportunity for teachers to voice their concerns about voucher legislation.  Now their voices (at least, “in person” voices) are silenced by a move of the discussion.  Whether that is a ploy on the part of voucher supporters remains to be seen.  To me, and with no basis of fact, only opinion, I wonder if that was the intent of the rescheduling.

Of course, this in and of itself doesn’t really silence anyone.  The reality is that teachers, administrators, board members and community members can all have a “voice” by communicating directly with those who represent them in Austin.  Several organizations have initiated campaigns to get stakeholders in the voucher discussion more engaged, including providing templates for letters that can be sent by each of us.  I hope that public education advocates have taken, or will take, the opportunity to express their concerns about this legislation.

Mary Ann Whiteker, superintendent of Hudson ISD, wrote an op/ed in the Lufkin Daily News in January that does a nice job of capturing the impact of voucher programs on schools across the state.  The link to her article, Farewell to Public education System, can be found by clicking here.  Her article touches on a number of consideration and highlights the supposed rationale behind school choice (and, implicitly, vouchers (by any name) programs).  I say “supposed” because those beating the drum for a dismantling of public education rely on the same argument that our schools are “failing” as justification for their continued pursuit of school choice.  What they fail to recognize or acknowledge is the “why” behind the failings in about 5% of our campuses.

There will no doubt be other ploys designed to silence public education advocates (“invited testimony” being principal among them) but we cannot afford to let these get in the way of advocating for the 5.4 million Texas public education students.  More than ever, we need to use these efforts by Senate leaders as motivation to engage, to speak on behalf of the students, and to make education a priority in the State of Texas, not just for the small percentage of students on “failing” campuses but for all students.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

"It's Not Fair"

I am blessed to have two young grandchildren, ages 6 and 8.  While they get along (at least for now) fabulously, the question of fairness is often a central theme in their household, specifically as it relates to what the youngest sees as “not fair” if her brother gets to do something that she does not.  Of course, the same could be said for the other way around but that is not yet a consideration in the eyes of my granddaughter.  So I got to thinking about how closely that scenario is to discussions about school finance in our great state.

I read an interesting article in the Texas Tribune on Tuesday morning written by Ross Ramsey; the link to the article, “The Texas Legislature giveth - and taketh away”, can be found by clicking here.  By the way, if you don’t read the Tribune or haven’t seen articles written by Ramsey, I encourage you to do so.  The Tribune is doing a nice job of tracking the discussions about public education in Austin and often provides a very good analysis of both sides of the debate.

A topic about which I have written and about which there is a great deal of conversation relates to how dollars ostensibly collected in support of our public schools find their way into other parts of the Texas budget.  I have heard Senate Education Committee chairman Larry Taylor and the Lieutenant Governor both say that this is not the case, that incremental dollars from increases in property values remain in the education budget.  Reality (or at least perception) suggests otherwise.

Ramsey’s article provides a perspective on the pending discussions and the sharp differences between the position of the Senate and that of the House.  There is no better example to support this than the differences in how school finance considerations are being approached in each chamber.  The Senate Education Committee and budget authors are talking about funding enrollment growth but have said very little beyond that.  The House Public Education Committee, on the other hand, under the leadership of Chairman Dan Huberty, has actually begun hearings on the Chairman’s proposal to allocate an additional $1.6 billion to public education.

Is it right that the dollars that businesses and community members believe they are paying for school taxes, an amount based on the levy approved by the locally elected school board, can be appropriated to cover shortfalls in the Texas budget?  This doesn’t seem to be a concern in the Senate but thankfully has become a focal point of discussions in the House.  As my 6 year old granddaughter would say, “that’s not fair” and, in this case, she would be absolutely right.  

It is now up to all of us as public education advocates to ensure that our communities understand what is and could be happening with their tax dollars.  It is up to us to ensure that the future of the more than 5.3 million students in Texas public schools is a focal point of funding and budget discussions, to make certain that we make education a priority.  It is simply not fair to do otherwise.  

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Hero and the Villain

It’s easy as we move through the initial 140 day period of the 85th legislative session to identify those in favor of public education and those seeking to privatize it.  While these lines are predominantly along party lines, there certainly are exceptions based on urban v. rural, for example, or the House v. the Senate. 

Last week witnessed a sharp divergence of opinion and actions by two individuals elected as Republicans.  On the one hand was Senator Don Huffines, who needlessly chose to attack a group of Richardson ISD students who sought to engage in a discussion about public education and the impact of a voucher (by any name) program.   That exchange was certainly inappropriate and has gone viral, with Sen. Huffines now initiating a written apology to the students who were involved. No such apology was delivered to the parents who were involved or as he called them, the “liberal PTA activists”. 

Sadly, we may be living in a time where politics at the state and federal level has evolved to a point where there cannot be a civil discussion of the issues impacting all of us.  And this lack of civility is coming from members of both political parties.  More than anything, this is representative of the leadership (or lack thereof) among our elected officials.

In sharp contrast to the personal affront to a group of students stands the stance taken by the newly appointed chairman of the House Public Education Committee, Rep. Dan Huberty.  Some had anticipated that Chairman Huberty might advance a bill to provide vouchers to those with special needs (Rep. Ron Simmons did introduce such legislation last week) but the chairman has been steadfast in his opposition to vouchers (by any name) and clearly stated that there would be no voucher legislation coming out of the House during the regular session.

It will be interesting to now see how the Senate “leadership” attempts to use the fact that no House-sponsored legislation is forthcoming as a bargaining chit when discussing school finance and how best to address the Supreme Court’s ruling that the school finance system meets the “minimum constitutional requirements”.  Instead of doing what he can to try to address the gaps identified, the Lt. Governor is likely poised to hold dollars for ransom pending voucher discussions.

As we move through the session, I anticipate that we will see a greater division between heroes and villains, those who work to serve the needs of their constituents or those who look to serve the needs of special interests and personal agendas.  Of one thing I am certain … public education advocacy is on the rise and will continue to make these discussions more uncomfortable for the “villains”.  How they respond remains to be seen but it is absolutely up to all of us to make certain that the State of Texas makes public education a priority.  

Thursday, March 2, 2017

And then there was one….

I read with interest the pronouncement by Senate Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty that the prospect of a voucher bill reaching the floor of the House this session is unlikely.  While good news for public education, this is a battle that is far from being won over the long term.

Of course, Senate Bill 3, the voucher (by any name) bill, will continue to get press as the Lt. Governor continues his efforts to pass this legislation, a battle he has now waged unsuccessfully for almost 10 years.  It would be easy to suggest that failure of a voucher bill to pass both chambers is a sign that there will not be yet another push for vouchers; nothing could be further from the truth.  While prospects are dimming, I think we count on the Lt. Governor using this as a chit in the discussions about adequately funding public education.

The successful (it appears) effort to challenge the introduction of voucher legislation should serve as motivation for a cross section of public education advocates and those opposed to the accountability that vouchers would bring to homeschoolers and private schools to continue to emphasize the importance of defeating voucher legislation.  This bill and others have never really been about the needs of students; they have always been more about the special interest groups who stand to benefit financially from a dismantling of public education.

Our work is not done.  Senate Bill 3 will certainly get out of committee but the prospects of it passing the full Senate seem to be diminishing with each day.  Some of the Senators on whom the Lt. Governor had counted are wavering because of the limited impact that a voucher program would have in a district that, in some cases, is largely rural.  In addition, there seems to be a stronger push for accountability beyond that proposed by the Lt. Governor and Chairman Taylor, both of whom have stated that accountability for non-public schools should fall to the parent, not the State.

More than ever, now is the time to continue efforts to convince Senators that vouchers (by any name) are a bad idea.  I anticipate that Chairman Huberty’s comments will provide fodder for the Lt. Governor and Governor to again criticize House leadership for not allowing voucher legislation to come to a vote in the House.  Faced with that and the ongoing prospect for comments and criticism such as that offered up by Sen. Huffines in an exchange with Richardson ISD students earlier this week, public education advocates must remain committed to serving the needs of students and continuing to make education a priority.