Month: <span>February 2015</span>

Ignoring the real obstacle to education


More proof has come our way that the root cause of poor performance in public schools has nothing to do with the schools and everything to do with something beyond the schools’ control – poverty. The problem is slapping us in the face, but it continues to be neglected by the legislative majority in Texas and other states as well as, to a large degree, the White House.

The Southern Education Foundation recently reported that more than half of the children attending public schools in the United States are from low-income families. That is, they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under the federal program. The national average during the 2012-13 school year, on which the study was based, was 51 percent, with Texas and 17 other states reaching that percentage or higher. In Texas, 60 percent of school children are considered low-income.

This problem has grown quickly since 1989, when about one-third of public school enrollment nationally was in poverty.

As NEA Today Express pointed out in the article linked below, growing up in poverty is “one of the greatest impediments” to a child’s cognitive development and ability to learn. The article cites data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, showing in 2011, for example, that fourth-graders eligible for free lunches scored 29 points lower on reading than students not eligible. Eighth-graders eligible for free lunches scored 25 points lower than their classmates from families with more income.

The problem shouldn’t be that difficult to understand. Children who are undernourished and chronically ill but can’t go to the doctor because their families can’t afford health insurance are not going to perform well in school and, in many cases, are not even going to go to school. Homework isn’t a priority for a child worrying about his or her next meal or bothered by a toothache that won’t go away.

And, low-income parents who have to juggle two or three jobs to provide that next meal – and try to pay the rent and the utility bill – aren’t going to have much time to help their children prepare for their next classes or even to know for sure if their kids are attending school. For that, matter, the kids also may be trying to earn income somewhere, and many get overwhelmed or discouraged and drop out.

Many of these low-income parents, of course, also are under-educated. Many never completed high school. Texas has the highest percentage of adults without a high school diploma in the United States.

Remember, Texas also has the highest percentage of residents without health care in the country and still refuses to accept the Medicaid expansion offered by the federal government on extremely favorable financial terms. And, Texas still spends less on education per student than all but a handful of states.

So what are our state leaders and the pseudo-education reformers (including some of the state’s alleged business leaders) doing about all this? They are wringing their hands over test scores, calling for tax cuts, proposing private school vouchers and professing to care about the best interests of Texas school children.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remains one of the nation’s biggest boosters of standardized testing, which wastes huge amounts of tax dollars and robs millions of school children of real learning opportunities.

President Obama should either rein in Duncan or replace him.

And then the president and every member of the Texas Legislature should read the new report on education and poverty – and start trying to do something about the problem it so clearly points out.



When legislators are bullied, students can suffer


This legislative session, at least in the early going, is threatening to become the year of the bully. The bullies certainly hope so. And, if members of the majority party at the Capitol don’t start standing up to them – and soon – it is going to become increasingly difficult to have serious debate and discussion over issues, such as public education, that are of critical importance to the 99 percent or so of Texans who aren’t bullies.

Legislative budget writers have held preliminary hearings on education funding, following two strong rulings from a state judge that our school finance system is inadequate, unfair and unconstitutional. But much of the early attention at the Capitol has been focused on guns.

Scheduled for a public hearing later this week is legislation that would allow Texans to strut their stuff wearing holstered pistols on their hips, ala Hollywood cowboys, and carry their firearms into college classrooms. These measures don’t address any emergency, except a pseudo-emergency created by the bullying tactics of a small group of gun rights activists who apparently enjoy trying to frighten people, including lawmakers.

Now, it has been called to my attention, the North Texas Tea Party is flexing its bullying muscles by proposing a “citizen’s trial” of the Legislature at the conclusion of the current regular session and/or special sessions. Legislators found falling short of tea party standards would be assessed a so-called “death penalty,” presumably the opposition of tea party members in the next election cycle. Even though the idea almost conjures up images of the Salem witch trials, the proposal is pretty ludicrous and likely to be ignored by most legislators.

But the tea party is influential in the Republican primary, and it has helped elect a number of lawmakers who might march through the Capitol rotunda every day at noon in their underwear if tea partiers demanded it. These same lawmakers also are ready to slash spending and taxes at the tea party’s behest and at the expense of public schools, educators and students.

So far, the strong-arm antics are mostly a sideshow, but, as the debate over firearms has shown, they can get out of hand. To its credit, the Legislature in years past has taken steps to address bullying in public school classrooms. Now, it’s time for lawmakers to fight back at the bullying on their own turf and focus on what really matters for the vast majority of Texans.



Guns versus schools


I will give gun rights advocate Kory Watkins credit for one thing. He knows how to get attention in the legislative arena, a not-so-easy accomplishment in a circus-like environment where, believe me, there is plenty of competition, especially this year. But his videotaped diatribe accusing lawmakers of committing “treason” by denying every Tom, Dick and Jane the right to openly carry a handgun reinforces the importance of a strong public education system.

“Going against the Constitution is treason,” Watkins said in his video, before setting off a media frenzy by adding that such an act is “punishable by death.” I suspect the death penalty reference was strictly theatrical, although it may have produced some heart palpitations among legislators, including those who are constantly pandering to the gun crowd.

I am not going to debate the Second Amendment. But even if legislators are violating the Constitution by regulating gun rights – and I am not conceding that they are – they are not committing treason. Any social studies teacher could have told Kory that.

Treason is not simply the act of violating the U.S. Constitution. Treason is the crime of betraying our country, attempting to overthrow the government or aiding and abetting our country’s enemies. You could argue that openly discussing secession – sound familiar? — comes closer to a treasonous act than regulating firearms.

If simply violating the Constitution were treason, many legislators already would be in deep trouble, including, in my opinion, those who voted a few years ago for the voter photo ID law, which has no purpose other than to discourage minority citizens from exercising their constitutional right to vote.

Violating the Texas Constitution isn’t treasonous either, but it certainly can be wrong. As a state district judge has ruled twice in the past two years, this legislative majority is violating the Texas Constitution by inadequately and unfairly funding public education.

Are most legislators attempting to do anything about it? No.

They are spending some time talking about private school vouchers, which also would violate the state constitution and make the funding system worse. And, they are spending a preposterous amount of time worrying about guns and their political standing with gun rights advocates.

If this legislative majority spent half the time trying to draft a real solution to school funding as it does on guns, it might actually accomplish something to benefit – rather than simply enrage or amuse — thousands of Texas families.



Vouchers: A tuition break at your expense


Here’s more proof that the main push behind private school vouchers is not low-income children, despite advocates’ public declarations, but middle-class and upper-middle-class families who are seeking tuition help from fellow taxpayers.

Asked about his position on vouchers this week, one pro-voucher legislator (not low-income and not inner-city) said he sent his child to private school and wished that he had had some help with tuition. Now, he said, he is ready to help other middle-class families like his send their children to private school – with your tax dollars. And this pro-voucher lawmaker is not alone.

The chief voucher advocate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, repeatedly has said his goal for vouchers is to help low-income children escape failing public schools. In his inaugural address, he grieved over that “poor working mom” in the inner city who didn’t have a “choice” about where to send her children to school.

Hooey. With vouchers, she still wouldn’t have a choice.

With vouchers at the level being proposed – about $5,400 per child – that inner-city mom and thousands of other low-income families still couldn’t afford most private schools. The average tuition for a private elementary school in Texas is $6,800 and for a high school, $8,900. Some of the better private schools charge $26,000 or more a year.

Low-income families couldn’t afford to pay the tuition difference for most private schools, and many wouldn’t be able to get their children to school anyway, because most private schools aren’t located in low-income neighborhoods and don’t provide transportation.

In truth, middle-income and upper-middle-income families, many of whom already send their children to private schools, would gobble up the vouchers. Meanwhile, low-income kids would remain in neighborhood public schools that would continue to suffer budget cuts.

The voucher scheme has nothing to do with helping inner-city kids. It simply is a way to transfer your tax dollars from public schools to privatization schemes that would hurt the vast majority of low-income school children.