Month: <span>June 2013</span>

Confusing politics and educational needs


Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, a Republican African American, praised today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act because, he said, it eliminates a “major hurdle” to helping children in ineffective school districts, such as Harris County’s North Forest ISD.

Huh? How does gutting a law designed to protect minority voters help children in struggling, largely minority school districts? It doesn’t, except in Williams’ mind.

The commissioner’s argument, however, is that the high court decision clears a potential barrier – Justice Department approval – to the Texas Education Agency’s plan to abolish North Forest and its elected school board on July 1 and put North Forest’s students into Houston ISD.

Williams obviously considers the gutting of the Voting Rights Act a political victory, but he shouldn’t confuse that with improving educational opportunities for the mostly African American students in North Forest. The biggest barrier to a quality education for them has been – and remains — an inadequate and unfair system of education funding, which has a particularly harmful effect on many low-income students. Simply moving these students from one school district to another is not going to change the basic problem. The much larger Houston ISD has more resources, but many of its students also are struggling for the same basic reason.

As the state’s public education commissioner, Williams has championed private school vouchers, high-stakes standardized testing and, now, a reversal of minority voting rights. When is he going to advocate for the resources that students and their teachers really need?


Merit pay a bad idea


El Paso ISD’s caretaker board of managers recently approved a 2.5 percent pay raise for all district employees. Yes, that is a bit of good news, but you may want to hold your applause because the board also has asked district officials to consider merit-based raises for the 2014-15 school year.

Merit pay is a very bad idea, and no one should know better than administrators in El Paso ISD. But some memories can be very short.

As a reminder, the El Paso district is still recovering from a cheating scandal that resulted in the previous superintendent – who had a financial incentive to artificially raise test scores — being sentenced to prison. The district was taken over by the state, and teachers are trying to help hundreds of children recover lost educational opportunities.

In naming the district’s temporary board of managers, state Education Commissioner Michael Williams included former state Rep. Dee Margo as president, even though Margo had used his one term in the House in 2011 to strike a blow against public schools. He voted for $5.4 billion in school budget cuts.

The cuts crammed tens of thousands of school children into overcrowded classrooms, cost thousands of school employees their jobs and prompted many of our best, most experienced teachers to take incentives to retire early. Consequently, over the past two years, the average teacher pay in this state dropped by $528 a year. Texas now has the dubious distinction of paying its teachers more than $8,000 below the national average.

This year, the Legislature, with the help of Margo’s successor, state Rep. Joe Moody, restored part of the $5.4 billion, and El Paso ISD and a number of other school districts have been approving pay raises. The raises, however, will do little to cure Texas’ compensation deficiency.

With average teacher pay in Texas lagging so far behind the national average, a Texas school district has no business considering merit pay for a small group of teachers.

We need to continue to raise pay for all teachers, the vast majority of whom are good educators. Overpaying “bad” teachers in Texas is not a problem. The problem is underpaying good teachers and forcing many of them to leave the classroom in order to be able to support their families. That is the real threat to educational quality for school children.

Education is a collaborative effort that takes several years to develop. A teacher’s success in the middle and later grades is affected by how well his or her students were taught in earlier grades. So, it wouldn’t be fair to single out, say, an eighth grade teacher for a merit pay raise without taking into account all the other teachers who have taught the same students over the years.

Another problem with merit pay is that it usually is based heavily on students’ scores on standardized tests, a woefully incomplete measure of a teacher’s success. High-stakes testing has become such a flash point for parent and educator frustration that the Legislature this year significantly reduced the number of graduation tests for high school students.

El Paso ISD, in particular, should know better than to try to tie pay to test scores. The district’s managers need to pull their heads out of the Chihuahuan Desert sand and shelve the merit idea.




“Best” legislators were education supporters


You may or may not agree with all the choices on Texas Monthly’s just-released list of Ten Best and Ten Worst Legislators, but I think Paul Burka and his crew were dead-on accurate in drawing a huge distinction between the lead lawmakers on public education.

House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock made the “best” list, and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick was rated among the “worst.” Amen.

Although the magazine hasn’t published the reasons for its evaluations yet, the major differences between the two during the recent regular legislative session are easy to document.

Aycock, a Republican from Killeen, was the primary sponsor of House Bill 5, the new law overhauling high school graduation requirements and reducing the insanity of high-stakes standardized testing. It reduces end-of-course exams for high school students from 15 to five.

Aycock also voted for the new state budget bills restoring almost $4 billion of the $5.4 billion cut from public school budgets two years ago, and he attempted to slow the greedy drive toward school privatization. He let it be known early on that there was little stomach in the House for private school vouchers, and he tried – although with limited success – to slow down the expansion of privately operated charter schools.

Aycock listened to the concerns of educators — the real education experts — not just to ambitious school profiteers disguised as self-styled “reformers.”

On the other side of the Capitol, though, Senate Education Chairman Patrick operated in a different world. The Republican from Houston called himself an “educational evangelist.” In truth, he was a privatization huckster.

His top priority was siphoning tax dollars from public schools – where most students get their educations — for vouchers, which would have benefited a handful of kids while enriching private school owners at taxpayer expense.

Unable to get any traction for that bad idea, Patrick focused his attention – with some success — on expanding charter schools. Charters, on average, don’t perform as well as traditional neighborhood schools in state ratings, but Patrick’s success in winning enactment of his Senate Bill 2 will allow more private operators of charters to dip into the state treasury.

And, adding insult to injury for public school students and employees, Patrick voted against the state budget that restored much of the education funding he voted to cut two years ago.

I find it interesting that other members of the “Ten Best” list include Speaker Joe Straus, who made education funding a priority at the beginning of the session, and Rep. Jim Pitts of Waxahachie and Sen. Tommy Williams of The Woodlands, the two budget-writing chairmen.

Receiving a special “Bull of the Brazos” award was Rep. Sylvester of Houston, a champion of public schools and education funding.

Eight on the “Ten Best” list were supported by TSTA during last year’s elections. They were Aycock, Pitts, Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Sen. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen, Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth and Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio.

To see both lists, click on this link:


School funding still comes up short


No doubt about it, $3.9 billion is a lot of money. But anyone who may think that it is going to take the state off the hook in the school finance lawsuit is engaging in wishful thinking. Either that, or they are betting the Texas Supreme Court eventually will undercut public schools with an ideological decision perpetrating the myth that money doesn’t make a difference in educational quality.

TSTA and other public school advocates are pleased that the Legislature restored $3.9 billion of the $5.4 billion cut from public education in 2011. And, we are grateful to the parents and school employees who contacted their legislators and helped ensure the partial recovery. But the appropriation is still $1.5 billion less than schools were receiving two years ago, while enrollment has grown by about 170,000 statewide since that time – and is still growing. And, the Legislature left $8 billion of taxpayer money unspent in the Rainy Day Fund.

Assuming Gov. Rick Perry doesn’t figure out a way to veto any of the $3.9 billion – and that may be a rash assumption – the next decision-maker to be heard from in the school funding drama will be state District Judge John Dietz of Austin, the presiding judge in the school finance lawsuit brought against the state by more than 600 districts.

Dietz ruled in February that the state wasn’t spending enough money for schools to do their jobs successfully and wasn’t appropriating money among districts in a fair and equitable way. But he delayed issuing a formal, written decision until after the Legislature had another chance to address funding and other educational issues.

During the regular session, which ended on Memorial Day, lawmakers also reduced the end-of-course (EOC) exams for high school students under the STAAR regime from 15 to five, partly in response to school district complaints in the lawsuit but also to parental outrage over too much testing.

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick predicted the extra money and testing reductions could affect Dietz’s final ruling. “I believe the judge needs to revisit the issue,” Patrick was quoted in The Dallas Morning News over the weekend.

But I doubt that the judge will be overly impressed by the Legislature’s work product. Remember, he estimated in February that it may take an extra $2,000 per child – or another $10 billion or $11 billion a year in state funding – to meet all state standards. And, the Legislature didn’t come close to meeting that figure. Moreover, more than 60 percent of public school students are low-income, with many requiring more funding for remedial programs.

As Dietz remarked back then,” There is no free lunch.”

Once Dietz issues his final ruling, the state will appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, many of whose members view the world – and state government’s responsibility – quite differently from the trial judge.

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A couple of weeks ago, I posted an item about SB346, which had been approved by both the House and the Senate, to require certain nonprofit groups that actively engage in political advocacy to publicly report their donors to the Texas Ethics Commission. It would have helped teachers, parents and others who value public schools to learn more about who is paying for political efforts to undermine public education.

I say “would have helped” because, in case you haven’t heard by now, Gov. Perry vetoed the bill. He said it would have had a “chilling effect” on the democratic political process.

In truth, it would have enhanced the democratic process. It would have forced the public disclosure of wealthy ideologues who finance bullying tactics against legislators, often to the detriment of most mainstream Texans. The veto wasn’t much of a surprise, but it was wrong, nevertheless.