Month: <span>December 2012</span>

A tale of two charters


It may not exactly be the best of times and the worst of times for Austin ISD. But there is a right way and a wrong way for a school district to try to establish a charter school, and within the space of a year Austin ISD has demonstrated both.

Last year about this time, the Austin school board ignored overwhelming community opposition and rammed two charter schools down the throats of East Austin residents. The board approved a partnership with charter operator IDEA Public Schools to convert Allan Elementary and Eastside Memorial High School, both traditional public schools, into charters. Allan was converted into a charter this past fall, and Eastside was to become a charter later.

Voters responded last month by overhauling the school board. The issue was particularly critical in East Austin, where challenger Jayme Mathias unseated Sam Guzman, who had voted for the IDEA contract against the wishes of most of his constituents. Mathias campaigned hard against the IDEA decision and for community involvement.

On Monday night, the board voted 5-4 to end the partnership with IDEA at the end of the 2012-13 school year. Three of the four new members, including Mathias, voted with the majority.

The new board, however, didn’t shut the door on the charter concept. It merely shut the door on arbitrary, top-down charter decisions. At the same meeting Monday night, the board voted unanimously to approve a charter partnership for Travis Heights Elementary, a diverse school with a mix of languages and family incomes on Austin’s near south side.

What was the difference?

In Travis Heights’ case, the board sought the support of teachers and the neighboring community. The charter will be managed by a board representing teachers, community members and Austin Interfaith. Education Austin, TSTA’s local affiliate, will be an active partner. The school’s leaders will have more power over its budget and curriculum, which will include, among other things, dual language instruction.

Travis Heights offers a lesson in how to design a charter from the bottom-up, not the top-down. That can make all the difference in the world.




Should our schools be free-fire zones?


Gov. Rick Perry’s initial idea for preventing more school shootings would be as ineffective as it was predictable. Let teachers and school administrators with concealed handgun licenses bring their pistols to school, he told a tea party meeting in North Texas yesterday.

Do we really want more guns – even legally carried ones – on our school campuses, folks? Do we want our schools to become free-fire zones?

Even if some people do, how many teachers or principals armed with a pistol would be able to stop a suicidal shooter with a rapid-fire, semi-automatic assault weapon? Sure, you can argue that the biblical David, armed with a mere slingshot, felled the more heavily armed giant, Goliath. But David had much better odds than the average teacher would have against a weapon of war.

Some teachers and principals understandably may feel more secure with a loaded pistol within easy reach, but we don’t want our children caught in a cross-fire. As a society, we have to do better than that. Unfortunately, though, the lead is not going to come from Austin.

Not only is Texas a state with a strong gun culture and politics to match, but the governor personally is a strong gun enthusiast who likely will continue to pander to the gun lobby and dance around the issue of school safety instead of dramatically changing his viewpoint. And, the Legislature is loaded with like-minded individuals.

On Dec. 12, only two days before the gunman walked into the Shady Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Perry told the Washington Times that his favorite gun was a military-style, rapid-fire rifle that he likes to take to a target practice range. “For me, it’s really relaxing,” he said.

Click on The Dallas Morning News link below for a photo of the weapon and imagine how much carnage it could inflict if it ever fell into the wrong hands. The governor may use it for target practice, but that is not what it was designed for, and weapons just like it are far too easy to obtain. Guns in the wrong hands DO kill people, and assault rifles in the wrong hands can kill a lot of people, even children, very quickly, as the recent headlines and video clips have reminded us.

Another gun enthusiast, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who is running for lieutenant governor in 2014, has called for arming more campus police and security officers. But Patterson, who sponsored the right-to-carry law as a state senator several years ago, hasn’t proposed how to pay for the additional security. Remember, the governor and the legislative majority slashed $5.4 billion from school district budgets last year.

In his speech to the tea party group, the governor raised a valid issue by suggesting the state take a closer look at how it is addressing mental health issues, which obviously was a factor in the Connecticut shootings.

But, as Austin’s KXAN-TV pointed out in a report last night, Texas ranks dead last among the states (as of June 2011) in per capita funding for mental health services. Texas spends $36 per capita, way below the national average of $109. And, the governor and the legislative majority cut mental health funding last session, mainly to please the tea partiers.

Even as we continue to mourn the 20 young children and the adults who died in the senseless Sandy Hook tragedy, it is natural to start looking for ways to prevent similar tragedies in the future. But, so far, Texas’ leadership has been slow to propose meaningful solutions.



Missing the point on graduation rates


Whether you greeted it with applause or skepticism, the recent report crediting Texas with one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country will have a very short shelf life if the powers that be in Austin don’t stop undermining the public schools.

After the U.S. Department of Education released a study crediting Texas with a graduation rate of 86 percent, Gov. Rick Perry’s appointee, Education Commissioner Michael Williams, declared in an op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman: “Our public schools are delivering a high-quality education. Thanks to hard work from teachers, administrators, students and parents, more Texas students are earning a high school diploma than ever before.”

Williams failed to point out, however, that the graduation rate was based on the 2010-11 school year – before the governor and his legislative allies cut $5.4 billion from public school budgets, resulting in the loss of 11,000 teaching jobs. Consequently, thousands of children in overcrowded classrooms didn’t keep receiving as much individual attention as many need to stay on a successful track to graduation. Pre-kindergarten and other important dropout prevention programs also fell victim to the budget ax.

Yes, teachers, administrators and students are working hard, and they will continue to work hard. But the resources they need to keep succeeding at a high level – manageable class sizes, up-to-date textbooks and facilities – were cut back. The 2010-11 graduation rate cited in the federal report also was based on the old TAKS test, not the more difficult STAAR tests that legislators imposed on students and teachers even as they were slashing funding for classrooms. How long will Williams – or his successor – be able to keep bragging about graduation rates without a strong commitment to public education from the governor and the legislative majority?

Williams needs to use his position as state education commissioner to demand that commitment, beginning with a restoration of the funding cuts. But, so far, Williams has had little to say about funding public schools. Instead, he has joined the governor in advocating for private schools. Both are among state “leaders” who would drain even more tax dollars from public education to fund a private school voucher program. If Williams is as proud of the public schools as he says he is, why take more steps to weaken them with privatization?

Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, a Capitol insider who apparently thinks standardized tests are more important than adequate education funding, also wrote an op-ed about the graduation report. But he questioned the accuracy of it, coming as it did behind other estimates indicating a much lower graduation rate.

“In order to focus appropriate attention on this issue, a more honest reporting of the numbers would be helpful,” Hammond wrote in Texas Weekly. “Educators must not be allowed to take their eye off of the problem. A falsely optimistic report shouldn’t stop educators from working towards programs that graduate kids with diplomas that mean something.”

Business has much to gain from a strong public education system, and if Hammond and his group are trying to correct the biggest problems facing the public schools today, they need to start by looking in the mirror. The biggest problems facing the public schools today are an inadequate and inequitable funding system and the push for privatization. And, the Texas Association of Business has been a longtime political and financial supporter of Gov. Perry and the budget-cutters and education profiteers in the Legislature.

Perhaps Hammond should do more than bemoan poor test scores and worry about graduation rates in underfunded schools. Perhaps he should work to convince the governor and his other political allies to provide the resources necessary to educate a workforce that will benefit the Texas economy and the businesses he represents.



Are teacher aides luxuries?


Remember when Gov. Rick Perry said last year that he wasn’t going to fire any school teachers? He was just going to slash the smithereens out of school district budgets – which he and his legislative allies did – and if local school administrators couldn’t make do, well, that wouldn’t be his fault.

Everybody but blind partisans knows that the subsequent loss of 25,000 school jobs was largely Perry’s fault, of course. But now the state attorney general’s office has adopted the governor’s hand-washing, pass-the-buck attitude in its defense of the school finance lawsuits brought against the state by several hundred school districts.

“They (districts) make big, big budget decisions within their discretion,” Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlberg told state District Judge John Dietz, who is presiding over the trial.

Then, according to the Austin American-Statesman, she questioned whether it was “efficient” for school districts to spend money on “extras,” such as iPads, teacher aides and sports.


Teacher aides are not luxuries, folks, although there aren’t as many of them now as there were before the budget-cutting began. Teacher aides are particularly important in helping teachers educate an increasing number of low-income students, special education children and children with limited English-speaking skills. They also help spread the teaching load – at least for those teachers fortunate to have them – in the crowded classrooms that have become more commonplace.

I don’t know for sure but am willing to bet that most students in Texas’ public schools don’t have iPads. Many don’t even have basic classroom supplies, unless their teachers have dug into their own pockets to pay for them. But for those districts that have been able to purchase iPads, great. It is a modern learning tool that is far superior to the quill pen and parchment, which perhaps the attorney general is suggesting as alternatives. State government may want to operate in the 18th Century, but our public schools shouldn’t have to.

Sports? They definitely have their place in children’s development. Besides, does Dahlberg’s boss, Attorney General Greg Abbott, want to be the first statewide elected official to suggest that high school football be struck as a legitimate school expense? I think Abbott knows the fate that would befall him at the hands of thousands of angry, taxpaying parents, and it wouldn’t be pretty. Sure, you can argue that some school districts get carried away with extravagant football stadiums, but those are built with bonds approved by local taxpayers. They aren’t part of the school funding formulas, which the legislative majority cut by more than $500 per student last year.

Addressing the unhappiness over poor STAAR testing results, which school districts blame, at least in party, on inadequate funding, Dahlberg told the judge that it’s impossible to predict “with any certainty” how students will fare on the STAAR tests in another couple of years. There is no crisis yet, she suggested.

I disagree. I think we can predict with a large amount of certainty what will happen to STAAR test results if schools continue to be underfunded and children continue to be crammed into overcrowded classes with teachers who are stretched too thin. Test results will continue to decline, and the crisis that we are facing now will have deepened.