Month: <span>November 2013</span>

A dilemma for business: education or extremism?


To most educators and others who actually care about improving the future of Texas, Michael Quinn Sullivan is not a household name, and thank goodness for that. He is an agitator for a misnamed group called Empower Texans that basically wants the Legislature to stop spending tax dollars for public schools, health care, highways and just about any other public service critical to moving Texas ahead in the 21st century. He was one of the reasons the Legislature left several billion dollars of taxpayer money sitting unspent in the Rainy Day Fund while slashing $5.4 billion from public education two years ago.

Sullivan’s massive email campaigns and other intimidation tactics in Republican primary races in recent years have helped replace some Republican legislators who dared to be moderate with ideologues from the far right who share Sullivan’s cut-cut-cut litany.

In the blog post linked below, Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka notes that Sullivan finally may be getting some pushback from conservative members of the business community, donors who have a history of supporting Republican legislative candidates but now fear that the continued growth of extremism in the Texas Republican primary is, indeed, bad for business – particularly their businesses.

Contractors, after all, need tax dollars to build highways, and employers need a strong, educated workforce.

It is a war that is developing, not only in Texas, but also nationally.

The business community’s growing dilemma also makes me wonder what business contributors will do in the governor’s race. Traditionally, they have heaped millions on Attorney General Greg Abbott. But does Abbott continue to get their support in his race for governor? So far, Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign has ignored education, health care and every other legitimate Texas need in favor of looser gun laws and other hot-button, right-wing issues that won’t educate a single child or build a single mile of highway.

It’s something to think about.


Abbott strikes another blow against public education


Since he announced his candidacy for governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott has had very little, if anything, to say about the value of public schools and the educators who teach our children. Instead, he continues to pander to the dreams of ideologues who wax nostalgic for the days of horse-drawn buggies, armed face offs outside the saloon and one-room school houses.

The likely Republican nominee’s latest strike against public education is, according to the Associated Press, a proposal to ban school districts from hiring lobbyists to represent them before the Legislature. He said not a word, of course, about the army of lobbyists demanding that the Legislature take large amounts of tax dollars from public schools for private school vouchers or corporate-style charters.

The truth is that school districts are not wasting large amounts of tax dollars on lobbying. Abbott simply is pandering to those Texans who are convinced that public schools are awash in cash, when, in fact, most school districts are still struggling from the $5.4 billion the legislative majority cut from public education two years ago.

Meanwhile, teachers, school administrators and school board members are an invaluable source of information for legislators. Unlike many self-styled education “reformers” who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in years, teachers and other school officials are on the front lines of education every day. They know what the real needs of students are, and legislators and governors should make them their primary source of education information.

Abbott’s latest blow, though, is simply more of the same. He also continues to defend a school finance system that a judge already has declared unconstitutional because it is inadequate and treats students in property poor districts unfairly. And, a couple of weeks ago, Abbott unveiled a so-called “budget plan” that would make school funding even worse instead of making it a priority.

However, the attorney general is quick on the draw when it comes to other “priorities,” such as passing a law to make it legal to openly carry handguns in public. That priority may make him a perfect candidate for a role on a Gunsmoke remake or sheriff of Tombstone, Ariz., but it does not address the changing needs of 21st century Texas.

An eroding educational foundation


In another indication of how badly state government is preparing for the future, a new study shows that Texas ranks in the bottom third of the states in the percentage of needy children who attend preschool. Two-thirds of low-income children in our state did not attend a preschool program from 2009-11, according to the latest “Kids Count” report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

This finding, as reported in The Dallas Morning News, hardly comes as a surprise, given the prevailing, short-sighted political climate in Austin. But the study nevertheless is significant for a number of reasons:

# The basic problem is this. Thousands of children attending Texas public schools are poor, and many don’t speak English very well, but they are a reality. They represent Texas’ future, and preschool programs offer most of them the best opportunity to learn how to learn in a classroom. How well they do in preschool can go a long way toward determining how well they will do in later grades — and beyond. When preschool isn’t there for them, their climb from poverty becomes more difficult, and Texas’ prospects for an adequately trained workforce in the very near future diminish.

# Yet, the most outspoken elements of the state’s business community remained largely silent while Gov. Rick Perry and the legislative majority slashed $5.4 billion from public school budgets two years ago. The cuts included a $210 million grant that would have helped school districts expand pre-kindergarten to full day programs. The Legislature restored about 80 percent of the cut education funding this year but, except for $30 million, didn’t restore the pre-K money.

# The legislative majority also ignored a state district judge’s ruling that the entire school funding system is unconstitutional because it is inadequate and unfair to poor districts. Meanwhile, public school enrollment in Texas continues to grow by 80,000 to 85,000 children a year, including thousands – perhaps a majority – of low-income kids who have never had an opportunity to be in a preschool program.

# Now, along comes Greg Abbott, the Republican heir-apparent to Gov. Perry, making his first alleged policy address. How would he prepare Texas for the future? By cutting, cutting — and cutting some more.

Abbott and legislators who are fascinated with and/or terrified of the right wing ideology that dominates Republican primaries – and ransacks public schools — need to quit gulping tea long enough to listen to people who actually do care about children, education and their roles in the Texas of tomorrow.

“It is imperative that our kids get a strong early start that helps counteract the effects of poverty and our failure to sufficiently invest in our kids,” Frances Deviney of the Center for Public Policy Priorities told The Dallas Morning News.

She is correct, but Abbott and the statehouse majority aren’t listening.


“Performance pay” idea far from dead


Texas is one of a vanishing species of states – 10 – that don’t require tests scores or another form of student achievement measurement to be a “significant” or the “most significant” factor in teacher evaluations. But don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet because the species is vanishing quickly, and you can be sure another effort will be made to impose those requirements on Texas teachers the next time the Legislature meets.

Education is a cumulative, collaborative process that involves many teachers for every student. Singling out one teacher for praise and higher pay and another for possible dismissal simply on the basis of the latest set of test scores is wrong, and no amount of political posturing will make it right. But that won’t necessarily stop Texas’ next governor and some legislators – depending on who is elected — from trying to force unfair requirements on teachers instead of giving teachers and their students the adequate resources necessary for widespread success.

According to a new report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, 35 states and the District of Columbia now require student achievement to be a “significant” or the “most significant” factor in teacher evaluations. Two years ago, Education Week reported, only 30 states had those requirements.

The National Council on Teacher Quality supports so-called “performance pay.” The report denies that “high stakes decisions about teachers are being made in haste based on single standardized test scores.” But it adds, “States need to require and implement (teacher evaluation) measures that demonstrate a relationship with student achievement.”

When self-styled education “reformers” in Texas talk about tying performance or merit pay to student achievement, the measures they usually propose are student test scores, even if the tests aren’t designed to evaluate teachers.

Policymakers need to put first things first. Teachers in Texas are paid more than $8,000 below the national average. The governor and the Legislature need to raise the pay level for all Texas teachers before they start trying to single anyone out. Then, if lawmakers are still going to insist on a new teacher evaluation system, they need to listen to teachers when they design it.

The 2014 elections are rapidly approaching. Does anyone think Greg Abbott, were he to be elected governor, would move a finger to raise teacher pay? Of course not. Instead, he is busy promising cuts to education and just about everything else to curry the support of right-wing ideologues in the Republican primary. That’s what his so-called “budget plan” was all about last week.

And, there will be many legislative candidates, like the conservative Republican who announced for an open House seat in North Texas last week, who will vow to “improve” public education “through innovative solutions and accountability.”

Yeah. “Innovative solutions” like private school vouchers, more corporate-style charters and other forms of privatization. And the kind of “accountability” that requires teachers to jump through more hoops to keep their jobs.

Watch out who you vote for, folks.