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.