Month: <span>August 2014</span>

Missing the point on school ratings


Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, was at it again the other day, wringing his hands over what he views as the lackluster performance of Texas public schools. This time, his forum was an oped article in the Lufkin News, in which he questioned the most recent school accountability standards announced by the Texas Education Agency.

Clearly, he didn’t believe TEA’s claim that about 85 percent of the state’s public schools are “meeting standards.”

“Schools are certainly not meeting the standards of employers,” he wrote, calling for a stronger accountability system for schools.

What Hammond refuses to acknowledge, though, is that a strong public education system is not built on tougher tests for students. It is built on good teachers (Texas has those) and adequate funding for schools, which is where state government fails, in large part because of groups like his.

For years, the Texas Association of Business and other like-minded business and trade associations in this state have had three main priorities – keeping state regulation of their businesses weak, making it next to impossible for unhappy customers to sue them and keeping state business taxes low. And, they have been very successful at realizing all three.

But what about public education? Don’t businesses need strong schools to keep supplying highly trained workers for the future? They surely do, and many businesspeople realize that. But business leadership in Austin – or at least most of it – has for years been propping up and perpetuating short-sighted state government policy that shortchanges our children’s schools.

Most of the business lobby, including Hammond’s group, stood mostly silent while the legislative majority slashed $5.4 billion from public school budgets three years ago. Hammond, for one, has seemed much more concerned about keeping the pressure on kids to pass standardized tests than he has been about the $500 per student that was lost in state funding because of those cuts.

And, now the Texas Association of Business has endorsed education budget-cutters for the state’s top two offices and many legislative seats. Dan Patrick, the group’s candidate for lieutenant governor, voted for the school budget cuts in 2011, and Attorney General Greg Abbott, whom TAB is supporting in the governor’s race, continues to defend the cuts in court.

Of course, Hammond’s complaints about school accountability ratings could be part of a broader campaign to convince Texans that their neighborhood schools – now that they have been starved of financial resources — are a failure. The purpose of that campaign would be to win more public support for transferring tax dollars from traditional neighborhood schools to corporate charters and private schools — supported by tax-paid vouchers — all for the benefit of educational profiteers and not necessarily school kids.

Those ideas are exactly what Dan Patrick has been openly promoting for a long time and Abbott has been more quietly suggesting.

Just last week, the Texas Tribune reported that Patrick was still applying “his low-spending mentality to education.”

And, yet all the CEO of the Texas Association of Business can seem to fret about is low test scores.








Watch out! Another “education reform” group is hatched


They are calling themselves CREEED, another meaningless acronym for another ambiguous title in what I suspect is another entry into the misnamed “education reform” movement. This one, the Council for Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, has recently popped up in El Paso, and, as far as educators and school kids are concerned, it already seems headed in the wrong direction.

Is the primary goal of this group really to help educators and students or to add more lining to the pockets of profiteers who view public education as a cash cow?

I ask that question because organizers already are talking about school “choice” – usually a euphemism for private school vouchers — more private schools and more charters, alternatives promoted by a number of other groups seeking to transfer tax dollars from neighborhood schools to unproven privatization schemes.

So, there is ample reason for parents and educators in El Paso who truly value their public schools to be suspicious of the new group, which apparently plans to get involved in local school board races and may try to influence state education policy as well.

CREEED is chaired by Richard Castro, a McDonald’s franchise owner, who told the El Paso Times that the group has three broad goals: “closing gaps in educational achievement, providing a quality education for all children and creating a ‘cradle to grave’ strategy for future workers.”

Those are laudable goals. And, in addition to the privatization schemes mentioned above, the group says it is interested in promoting programs in the public schools such as early college high schools, dual language instruction and dual credit classes. Spokesmen also say they will work with teachers and administrators.

But no one among the group’s leaders discussed (at least with the El Paso Times) a very critical element in public school success — a state school funding plan that is adequate and fair. Many other so-called “reform” groups also neglect that basic factor as they contrive ways to divert thinly stretched public education dollars from neighborhood schools into their privatization experiments.

One of the first El Paso officials to endorse the new group was Dee Margo, the state-appointed president of El Paso ISD’s board of managers. As a state representative in 2011, he voted with the legislative majority in slashing $5.4 billion from public school budgets, a whammy that cost EPISD more than $500 per student and caused EPISD to ask for a class size waiver for every K-4 classroom.

And, one of the prominent CREEED board members is El Paso businessman Woody Hunt, a major political contributor to Margo and to Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor – the man who continues defending the 2011 funding cuts in court. Hunt also has given at least $100,000 to Texans for Education Reform, a statewide school privatization group.

CREEED’s leaders believe the quality of public education in El Paso schools is inadequate, but they have said nothing about inadequate state funding that has plagued El Paso schools for decades. And, remember, the cheating scandal that rocked El Paso ISD a few years ago and wiped out educational opportunities for who knows how many low-income children wasn’t driven by a lack of vouchers or a shortage of charter schools. It was driven by a high-stress testing culture and a former superintendent’s desire to profit financially from it.

Is CREEED the right acronym for this group? Or, would GREED be more fitting?

Time will tell.


Fighting the testing plague


Sen. Leticia Van de Putte renewed the war on the testing plague yesterday. She vowed to significantly cut back on standardized testing in the public schools and give students more time to actually experience the joy of learning, rather than the dread of bubbling the wrong bubble.

That goal alone (plus the fact that she is fighting to save Texas from Dan Patrick) is enough of a reason, although there are many more, to vote for Van de Putte for lieutenant governor this November.  So, you teachers who are sick of teaching to the test and you parents who are sick of your children being sick of testing, applaud Leticia – and then vote – because testing advocates don’t want to release their stranglehold on Texas classrooms.

Even as Van de Putte and gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis are fighting against excessive testing, the Texas Education Agency is getting ready to launch in about 70 school districts this fall a teacher evaluation system that will be partly based on test scores. State Education Commissioner Michael Williams agreed to the program as a condition for getting a U.S. Department of Education waiver from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

School districts had to agree to participate because the education commissioner has no authority under state law to force districts to base teacher evaluations on test scores. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, one of the state’s largest school districts, declined the commissioner’s offer to take part.

The election of Van de Putte and Davis could go a long way toward heading off legislative approval of such an evaluation scheme because Williams is likely to try to get the Legislature to endorse a similar plan.

Much research in recent years has discredited using standardized test scores – or so-called value-added measures (VAM) – to evaluate teachers. The process gives an incomplete and unfair picture of a teacher’s performance, researchers have concluded, although so-called education “reformers,” including the Obama administration, persist in trying to ram it down our throats.

If these misnamed “reformers” get their way, testing will become even more stressful – for both teachers and students – and further erode the time that children need for real learning. That threat makes Van de Putte’s stand even more welcome.



Elected officials need to govern – for everyone


I will give Republican Rep. Jason Villalba credit for this much.  He recognizes and openly admits that, sooner or later, the Texas Republican Party is going to follow the Whigs and other political dinosaurs into extinction if it doesn’t start addressing the needs and concerns of Hispanics, the emerging plurality of the state’s population.

In a speech to young Republicans in Austin Thursday night, the legislator from Dallas went so far as to say the “ultimate survivability” of the GOP is at stake, according to The Texas Tribune.

Oh, yeah, you may say, news reporters have been writing for years about the growing Hispanic population that one day is going to wipe the Texas Republican Party off the map. And, yes, Hispanics who actually vote cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Democrats, but many Hispanics still don’t vote, and Republicans remain firmly in control of Texas government.

But at some point, Villalba recognizes, that will change as more Hispanic citizens reach voting age.

I think the Ted Cruzes, Dan Patricks, Greg Abbotts and other Tea Partiers recognize that too and, in a very real political sense, are scared, fearful that their days as a political force are numbered. That’s why they are trying to stop the clock. That’s why they spend so much time bashing immigrants, trying to seal the border, and erecting barriers (namely the voter ID law) to make it extremely difficult for many Hispanics to vote.

Villalba is urging the rabid Republicans to tone down the rhetoric and address immigrants from the south as the humans they are. That would be the decent thing to do, but decency apparently is going to require change at the ballot box.

Now seeking a second term, Villalba is one of only three Hispanic Republicans in the Texas Legislature, and it is going to take a lot more than softening the rhetoric on immigration for that number to get much larger.

Republicans also are going to have to get serious about governing. This means doing more than waving the flag, hawking guns and fighting abortion. It means taking concrete, workable steps to develop the infrastructure and the programs to ensure that Texas remains a functional, livable state for everyone, Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike.

That means adequate funding for a public school system, which is particularly crucial for Hispanic families wanting to realize their dreams of economic opportunity for their children. It means strengthening the health care system so low-income children aren’t coming to school sick and their parents are able to work.

It means finding a way to maintain and improve highways, so kids can get to school safely, parents can get to work and Texas products can be delivered to customers. And, it means keeping our water and air clean enough to drink and breathe.

For now, the prevailing, Tea Party wing of the Republican Party isn’t the least bit interested in doing any of the above – for Hispanics or anyone else. Its goal, instead, is to shrink government and gut public services. Villalba can make all the speeches he wants, but you can’t drive forward if you are stuck in reverse.