Month: September 2020

State report of COVID cases in schools is misleadingly low

If you breathed a sigh of relief when you saw that students who tested positive for COVID-19 were less than one-half of 1 percent of the students who had returned to school for in-person instruction, it means a couple of things.

One, it means you aren’t one of those kids or a family member. And, two, state leaders’ efforts to downplay the threat that COVID still represents for students and school employees may have worked, at least in your case, because the figures are misleadingly low.

They are misleading because school districts don’t have to require COVID testing of students, and many Texas districts aren’t, as noted in the Texas Tribune article at the bottom of this post. Districts will be reporting only positive results from COVID tests that students or employees voluntarily report or someone else reports to the district. That means many school employees, students and parents won’t know for sure how many people at their schools are infected with the disease until their co-workers or classmates start showing symptoms.

By then, who knows how many other students, teachers, cafeteria workers or others will have been infected. COVID patients are contagious even before they start developing symptoms, which is why testing is so critical. But large-scale testing is still a problem that neither the state nor federal government has adequately addressed. And even if a school district routinely runs temperature checks of students and employees, someone who is infected with COVID but is asymptomatic will not register a fever.

The new reporting system, which will be updated every week by the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Department of State Health Services, is a step in the right direction of keeping the public informed about the COVID presence in public schools. But it leaves a lot to be desired.

The small percentage of students who were reported COVID positive in the first weekly report totaled 2,344 kids. They were among 1.1 million students who already had been back at school for in-person instruction or some other school activity. That is about one-fifth of Texas’ total public school enrollment. Some 2,175 school employees also tested positive.

As more school districts resume in-person instruction, the shortcomings in the reporting system will become more obvious. Also, many school districts are not enforcing health and safety guidelines and are otherwise ill-equipped to guarantee student and employee safety.

So far in an ongoing survey, more than 700 TSTA members have reported more than 4,000 violations of COVID safety guidelines in more than 130 districts around the state. The reopening of schools remains very much a health problem that could quickly get larger as more districts welcome students back to campus.

State releases numbers showing low Texas public school infection rates, but the data is limited https://www.texastribune.org/2020/09/17/texas-students-coronavirus-schools/

Clay Robison

IDEA charter chain receives more tax dollars than UT-Austin, wants more

The IDEA charter chain, which is seeking state approval to add 27 campuses in Texas and increase its enrollment cap by almost 35,000 students, already takes a huge chunk of tax dollars from the public education budget — $498 million for 2019-20 alone. By comparison, that is more tax money than the Legislature appropriated to the University of Texas at Austin that year.

IDEA’s proposed expansion, as reported by the Houston Chronicle, would be the largest in the history of charters in Texas and would take millions of additional tax dollars from under-funded public schools.

The charter chain calls itself IDEA Public Schools, but it doesn’t operate like public schools. As do other corporate charter chains, it has a non-elected board unanswerable to taxpayers. Real public schools have elected governing boards whose members, unlike IDEA’s, live where their schools are located.

IDEA can selectively pick students. If it can’t accommodate every student who applies for one of its campuses, it creates waiting lists. Real public schools have to accept every child who lives in the district. They don’t have waiting lists. Instead, they seek class size waivers or haul in more portable classrooms.

In reality, IDEA Public Schools operate like private schools. They are public only in the sense that they get tax dollars. IDEA recruits aggressively because every enrollee brings more tax dollars at the expense of the district the charter chain has invaded.

IDEA had about 49,500 students at 92 campuses in Texas last year. Its current enrollment cap is 63,200, and it wants to increase that to 97,985.

The decision is up to Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who in past years has given IDEA pretty much what it has wanted. But he has slowed down this request, apparently because of publicity highlighting how IDEA is different from real public schools in other ways as well.

Real public schools don’t lease private jets. But IDEA was all set last year to enter a $15 million, eight-year lease on a private jet for company executives until unwanted publicity killed the deal. Private donors reportedly were going to pay for the high-flying comfort, but private donations to charter schools should be spent to educate students, not pamper administrators.

Real public schools don’t lease luxury boxes for NBA games either. But IDEA used to have one, a box and tickets costing $400,000 a year for San Antonio Spurs games. Publicity killed that one too.

The chain’s then-CEO Tom Torkelson, who admitted those were some “really dumb” ideas, soon resigned from the charter company he had helped found, leaving with a $900,000 payout.

In a letter, TEA told IDEA that some people may consider the above spending “questionable” and cited other administrative issues that “might be indicative of inadequate financial oversight” – issues such as owing the Teacher Retirement System $130,000 and repeatedly failing to meet reporting deadlines for grant money.

IDEA has responded, claiming it has taken steps to clean up its act. But TSTA is urging Morath to reject the expansion request. With a pandemic and economic downturn slashing billions of dollars from state revenue and tightening under-funded school budgets, this is no time to be giving a corporate charter chain like IDEA more opportunities to snag tax dollars.

The total UT-Austin budget for 2019-20, by the way, was $3.3 billion, but only $374 million of that was state general tax revenue, compared to $498 million in tax money that the IDEA chain received. UT-Austin received much more revenue, $674 million, from tuition.

Clay Robison