Month: <span>September 2015</span>

An unhealthy climate for students and teachers


If there is one thing that social media does very well, it is to rush to judgment. Within a few hours after high school freshman Ahmed Mohamed was handcuffed and hauled to police headquarters in Irving for bringing a “suspicious” homemade clock to school, cyber-pontificators everywhere were heaping scorn on school officials and the Irving Police Department for thinking it may have been a bomb.

Even President Obama chimed in onTwitter, inviting Ahmed to bring his “cool clock” to the White House. “We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great,” he tweeted.

Chiming in from a distance and surrounded by 24-hour, armed security, the president could afford to be jocular. But teachers and their students don’t share the president’s 24-hour bodyguards, and teachers aren’t trained to recognize bombs.

Did teachers and administrators at MacArthur High School overreact to Ahmed’s clock? Probably, especially since he tried to explain to them what it was. But school officials are charged with keeping their students safe — to the point, sometimes, of erring on the side of caution and risking ridicule.

Did the Irving police officers overreact? Most likely, particularly since they apparently didn’t even try to evacuate the school or call in a bomb expert before they hauled Ahmed off.

The school district and the Irving Police Department owe Ahmed and his family a public apology, and they need to address one more question.

Was Ahmed, a dark-skinned Muslim, a victim of racial and/or religious profiling? I don’t know, but that issue needs to be thoroughly examined.

For sure, Ahmed was a victim of an uneasy, post-Sept. 11 environment punctuated by deadly episodes of school shootings and other acts of violence and inflamed by anti-immigrant, racist-tinged political rhetoric that now has become a staple of debate for the nation’s highest office.

His teachers, administrators and fellow students at MacArthur High School and at schools across the United States are affected by the same unhealthy environment.



Homelessness a major problem for public schools


Our policymakers don’t talk about it very much, but thousands of children in Texas public schools are homeless, presenting their own special problems for educators. According to new federal data, there were more than 111,000 of them during the 2013-14 school year.

Nationally, as reported by the Washington Post, the number of homeless children in public schools totaled 1.36 million that year. Texas came in third behind California and New York. The national amount has doubled since before the recent recession.

“Teachers often find themselves working not only to help children learn but also to clothe them, keem them clean and counsel them through problems – including stress and trauma – that interfere with classroom progress,” the Post reported.

Sound familiar?

The newspaper also noted that homeless children are “more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, are more likely to miss school and change schools, are more likely to drop out of school than other children and score lower on standardized tests.”

Homelessness isn’t limited to urban school districts. Suburban and rural districts also struggle with the problem, partly because the gentrification of cities has forced many low-income families to abandon central city neighborhoods in hopes of finding affordable housing elsewhere. And, often, they don’t find it.

I may have missed it, but I don’t recall any singificant debate in the Legislature when it was in session earlier this year about the plight of homeless students. To their credit, some lawmakers tried to convince the powers-that-be in Austin to expand Medicaid, at least, so millions of low-income Texans, including the homeless, could get health care.

But the powers-that-be shut the door on that idea, keeping Texas’ social safety net extremely thin – and letting educators continue to deal with the consequences.



Respected education reporter retires


I learned long ago that writers need to be careful about using superlatives, a lesson often ignored in this breathless age of digital, instant communications, where opinions and assessments can change about as often as Apple upgrades its “must have” devices.

But I don’t hesitate in saying that the Texas Capitol press corps lost one of its best and most respected education reporters when Terry Stutz retired last week from The Dallas Morning News. For most of his 30-plus years on the statehouse beat, I was a competitor who didn’t relish chasing some of his stories but nevertheless appreciated his skills and insight.

More recently, as a would-be communicator for the Texas State Teachers Association, I also came to appreciate his even-handedness and institutional memory in covering a crucial, complex subject at a time when public schools were coming under constant attack from budget-cutters and self-styled education “reformers” promoting a privatization agenda at the expense of educators and school children.

Terry covered the privateers – that was his job – and he balanced out their unproven schemes with well-written, factual accounts of the damge those budget cuts were inflicting on our neighborhood classrooms.

One of the last stories Terry wrote for The News was the recent Texas Supreme Court hearing over the latest school finance lawsuit, an issue that Terry covered during his entire Austin career. After a series of lawsuits – Terry could tell you exactly how many – our elected officials still haven’t gotten school funding right.

As Terry wrote in his final blog for the Dallas newspaper, “In most cases, our teachers and schools are doing the best they can, but they need more support from their legislators and the state.”

Terry always got his stories right, and he deserves a great retirement. But I will miss his work.

I also learned as a writer to be careful about singling out people.

Many very capable, dedicated journalists, including personal friends and former colleagues, have left the Capitol press corps in recent years, and the transformation continues. Christy Hoppe, The Dallas Morning News’ Austin bureau chief, also retired last week. I will miss her work, as I miss the work of Wayne Slater, R.G. Ratcliffe and Gary Scharrer, other former statehouse reporters who have moved on in recent years.

They also got their stories right. I wish I could say the same thing about how well some of the politicians they covered at the Capitol have performed their jobs.



Needing real commitments for education


After I posted an article on the TSTA website about the huge expansion of free, full-day pre-kindergarten in New York City, a reader asked, “Why can this not happen here?” The answer is simple. Texas doesn’t have enough state leaders who are truly committed to pre-K or even to public education, for that matter.

New York City has a new, ambitious pre-K program because Mayor Bill de Blasio not only recognized the value of the program but also had the political will to see that it happened for an estimated 65,000 four-year-olds. He stands in stark contrast to the policymakers in the majority at the Texas statehouse, who love to give lip service to education but are more committed to ideological fanatics than they are to school children.

Gov. Greg Abbott made pre-K a so-called “priority” during the legislative session earlier this year. But he signed a very limited pre-K bill that doesn’t come close to meeting the state’s needs. It doesn’t even fully restore the $200 million that the legislative majority cut from pre-kindergarten programs in 2011 when it was slashing $5.4 billion from public schools.

And, even Abbott’s modest proposal had some rough sailing with many legislators after tea party ideologues attacked it as “socialistic” and “godless.” These know-nothing critics, you may recall, were members of an “advisory board” appointed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a self-proclaimed “education evangelist.”

In truth, according to several studies, low-income children (the majority of public school enrollees in Texas) are more likely to graduate from high school if they have been enrolled in pre-school programs.

For every low-income child who gets to enroll in a pre-K program under Texas’ new law, many others will be out of luck, and it doesn’t have to be that way. The Legislature had enough money last session to pay for a broader expansion of pre-K as well as improve overall public education funding. But the governor and the legislative majority chose to leave billions of your tax dollars sitting in the bank because right-wing ideologues demanded it.

Why can’t we increase educational opportunities in Texas?

We can, as soon as we start electing more legislators from both parties who truly want to improve education – beginning with a fair and adequate funding system — and have the political will to do so. That won’t be easy in Texas’ dominant political climate, but the next opportunity begins with the party primaries in March.