Month: <span>April 2015</span>

The gift of free public schools for all comers


I long have thought the pledge of allegiance to the Texas flag is technically wrong. I mean that part about our state being “indivisible.” The congressional resolution under which Texas was admitted to the Union in 1845 provides that Texas, if it chooses, can divide itself into as many as five states, although that never will happen.

Shanna Peeples – a high school English teacher and TSTA member from Amarillo who also is the new National Teacher of the Year – has a different take on what the word “indivisible” means in the pledge, at least what it means for our public schools. And, I like her interpretation.

In a speech to TSTA’s House of Delegates meeting a few weeks ago in Frisco, Shanna said, “We don’t separate people into groups that are more deserving than others.”

That means Texas’ public schools, as required by the state constitution, offer free educations to all children, regardless of income, ability, race, native language or citizenship. As we often say at TSTA, we don’t have standardized kids in our classrooms.

But we do have thousands of dedicated teachers and other school employees who are making a difference in children’s lives every day, despite under-funding, counterproductive privatization experiments and other obstacles erected by some policymakers in Washington and Austin who have long since forgotten what the inside of a classroom looks like and are sadly out of touch with students’ needs.

Shanna Peeples is one of those dedicated professionals and will be recognized by President Obama in a ceremony at the White House tomorrow.

Shanna teaches at Palo Duro High School, where the vast majority of students live in poverty and many are immigrants from such diverse countries as Iraq, Cuba, Burma, Somalia and Ethiopia. Many have suffered trauma from wars in their home countries.

While some legislators in Austin have been denying the reality of a more-diverse Texas future by trying to erect more barriers to these children, Shanna and thousands of other Texas educators have been working to enhance that future by making a positive difference in all of their students’ lives –from whatever background or ability level.

Our public school system is “our culture’s greatest gift to the world,” Shanna told her TSTA colleagues, all of whom are working to keep it that way.


Putting pre-K in the political cross-hairs


Allegations from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Flat Earth brigade that pre-kindergarten programs are “Godless” and “socialistic” have as much basis in fact as equally ludicrous claims from extremists who believe that any sensible form of gun control is “treason.”

In truth, according to various academic studies, pre-K and other early childhood education programs are extremely important in giving children, especially kids from low-income, under-privileged families – who are a majority of Texas school children — a solid start toward a quality education. Pre-K helps these kids learn how to learn with other children in a classroom setting.

So far, the quality of political debate during this year’s legislative session is probably the lowest I have encountered in many years of watching the Texas Legislature. But that’s what happens when public officeholders give ideology an equal footing with reason.

Patrick claims to have been caught without warning this week when his hand-picked tea party “advisory board” issued its statement denouncing Gov. Greg Abbott’s pre-kindergarten proposal, one of the governor’s legislative priorities.

You can believe Patrick if you want, but he should have expected nothing else when he appointed the group of right-wing, anti-government ideologues. In any event, Abbott challenged the lieutenant governor on the development during a testy meeting of state leaders yesterday, as initially reported by my friend, R.G. Ratcliffe, in Texas Monthly.

To be sure, TSTA and other public school advocates are disappointed in Abbott’s bill because we believe it doesn’t go far enough – it wouldn’t even completely restore the funds cut from pre-K grants in 2011 – and it would put too many restrictions on pre-K programs. We believe full-day pre-K should be made available to every eligible child in Texas, which probably makes us maniacal “communists” in the eyes of Patrick’s tea party “advisors.” But we don’t want to see pre-K become a victim of shortsighted right-wing politics.

It is no secret that Patrick already is eyeing a race for governor – that’s why he appointed his tea party advisory board to begin with — and Abbott doubtlessly realizes that Patrick wouldn’t hesitate to try to defeat him in the 2016 Republican primary, if given the opportunity.

It would be a shame if pre-K were to become a victim of right-wing politics. But remember, folks, elections have consequences, and we are being reminded of that fact every day this Legislature is in session.





Spinning fiction over vouchers


During Senate debate on the voucher bill, Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor was still spinning the fiction that his voucher bill, Senate Bill 4, would not spend public money on private schools because it would create scholarships funded with private contributions. In truth, the bill would divert millions of dollars in state funds to private schools because it would give tax credits for the scholarship contributions.

A business donating money to a private school scholarship fund would get a reduction in state taxes, thus reducing the pool of public money from which public schools are funded.

Walks like a duck, talks like a duck….

Senate Bill 4 is a voucher bill, folks.

The bill is a fiction in one other important way as well. Remember, how Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other voucher advocates have insisted that they are trying to help children from low-income families use vouchers to attend private schools?

Well, each scholarship, or voucher, under SB4 would be worth about $5,900 a year.  That would be about $1,000 less than the average tuition for a private elementary school in Texas and about $2,000 less than the average tuition for a private high school, amounts that many low-income families still would be unable to meet. Moreover, many of the best private schools charge more than $20,000 a year, making them totally unreachable for most Texans. And few, if any, of the best private schools are located in low-income neighborhoods. They don’t provide transportation for their students, and this bill wouldn’t require them to.

What this voucher bill would do, were it to become law, would be to encourage a bunch of fly-by-night operators to open up private “schools” in neighborhood storefronts, offering cut-rate tuition with little or no accountability, while ripping off taxpayers and harming children with substandard courses and instruction.

Let us hope the House is not as eager as the Senate majority to pass a very bad bill.



Making public education an after-thought


I am not sure how I got on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s mailing list. Maybe it’s someone’s idea of “blessing” my day with a guaranteed dose of annoyance, but nevertheless at least once a week I get a “Dear Clay” email from Dan, the man who would drive Texas anywhere but forward.

In his latest message, which plopped into my email account over the weekend, the lieutenant governor bragged about the Senate’s passage last week of a state budget bill that shortchanges education and other critical public services while leaving billions of taxpayer dollars sitting in the bank.

And here, in order, is what Patrick likes best about that bill:

# $4.5 billion in business and property tax cuts that most consumers will barely notice;

# what he calls an “historic level of border security funding” that, in reality, has almost nothing to do with security and everything to do Patrick’s ideological insistence on ignoring the reality of Texas’ changing demographics — and Texas’ future needs;

# $4.9 billion in additional transportation funding; and

# almost as an after-thought, an additional $1.5 billion in education funding, about half of what the Texas House proposes in its budget bill and far less than what our public schools actually need. Also, the Senate education appropriation is money generated by higher local property values, not raised by state taxes.

The lieutenant governor also bragged about the Senate’s approval of a so-called parent trigger bill, which would make it easier to hand neighborhood schools over to for-profit management organizations but, in reality, do nothing to increase parental involvement or improve neighborhood schools.

Patrick, who likes to close his emails with a Bible verse, chose Matthew 20:26 for this one: “For those who offer to lead they must first be servants.”

The only place Patrick is trying to lead Texas is over a cliff.