Austin ISD

Is school finance study commission the real thing…or a charade?


We soon will learn whether the Texas Commission on Public School Finance will live up to its name or merely be another charade concocted by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Will it actually make recommendations to the Legislature for an improved system of funding our public schools? Or will it prove to be a waste of time and thousands of taxpayer dollars?

We may find out next Wednesday, Dec. 19, when the commission is scheduled to decide on a final report to lawmakers.

Texas’ lousy school finance system has been studied multiple times, and you may recall that this study was driven by Abbott and Patrick during a summer special session in 2017, maybe for political cover, as they were rejecting a proposal by the Texas House to add as much as $1.9 billion to public school funding. So the origins were suspicious.

Both the governor and the lieutenant governor had abysmal records on funding public education but were facing reelection campaigns. So they were eager to go through the motions of “addressing” an issue of critical importance to millions of voters.

Suspicions were rekindled several weeks ago when Abbott began floating a property tax reduction proposal that would squeeze school district budgets even more without saying how he would replace the lost revenue.

Then, things became even more suspect this week when Scott Brister, the governor’s choice to chair the study commission, said he was “uncomfortable…telling the Legislature they have to inject new money” into the school finance system.

“I don’t think that’s our job,” he said.

Well, then, Mr. Chairman, what is your job? Property tax relief? That may be part of the commission’s job, but cutting property taxes without adding significant amounts of additional education funding from the state would make a bad, underfunded school finance system worse.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, one of several legislators on the commission, made it clear that the Legislature must increase school funding.

“I would not be willing to sign a report that doesn’t say that we’re going to spend more money or new money on public education,” he said, comments that seem to have the support of other House members on the study commission.

Huberty was the House Public Education chairman who sponsored the $1.9 billion school funding bill that the governor and the lieutenant governor rejected the last time the Legislature was in session.

Another commission member, Nicole Conley Johnson, chief financial officer of Austin ISD, has proposed several options for raising revenue, options that may be added to an appendix of the commission’s report and all but ignored, if Brister has his way.

Brister may be “uncomfortable” asking the Legislature to increase education spending. But his discomfort pales in comparision to the discomfort felt by Conley Johnson and other Austin ISD administrators and board members. That district gives hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the state for redistribution to property poor districts, yet is dealing with high poverty among its own student body. And now it is so financially strapped it is trying to find $55 million in cuts and is considering closing 12 schools and charging students for magnet programs, among other options.

That’s what happens when the Legislature refuses to adequately fund public education and reform a woefully outdated funding structure, and Austin ISD isn’t alone.



Taking Confederate names off schools is not denying history


Austin ISD’s announcement that it will rename several more schools that have long carried names associated with the Confederacy has fanned more controversy over how we address that period of  our country’s history. Intentionally or not, some protesters to the name changes continue to misunderstand or misstate what the issue is all about.

One commenter on TSTA’s Facebook page accused AISD officials of trying to help children forget history, and a couple of other commenters seemed to agree.

“Changing the name of a school is like the Civil War never happened…and teaches kids that you can change history to fit your narrative,” she said, missing the point entirely. The reason that the schools were named for Confederate figures in the first place was to deny history, to deny or downplay the fact that the reason Texas and the other southern states fought the Civil War was to protect slavery, a particularly extreme form of racism.

AISD is not denying the Civil War or the roles that many Texans and other prominent Southerners played in it. AISD, instead, has decided that it will no longer honor the memories of those individuals.

If you don’t like that change in policy, that’s your prerogative, but don’t claim it’s a denial of history. The real deniers of history were the 20th century defenders of the Confederacy who tried to whitewash the real reason the Civil War was fought.  Many years after the war had ended, these individuals and groups  supported erecting statues and naming schools for Confederate figures in an effort to cover up history with their own self-serving fiction.

There is nothing heroic about defending slavery or racism, and AISD officials recognize that.



Educators need to make themselves understood – to everyone


For a moment, while listening to a news report on an Austin radio station, I thought members of the Austin ISD school board may have been discussing a skin disease or an outbreak of head lice in district classrooms. Or maybe there was a new medical test I hadn’t heard about – or a new standardized test.

I should have known though that these board members, like many other education insiders, were speaking in education gobbledygook. They were practicing still another piece of insider jargon.

The non-word they were tossing around was “eco-dis.” I am guessing it includes a hyphen. The reporter, to her credit, explained they were using the term to discuss economically disadvantaged students, children from low-income families who now account for more than half of Austin ISD’s enrollment and Texas’ total public school enrollment as well.

Maybe I am the last person in town to learn of the “eco-dis” shortcut, but I doubt it. Elected education policymakers, no less than language arts teachers, need to speak an understandable language. Instead, these AISD trustees were contributing to a long-time bad habit of many in the educational community to speak in insider code, in a language all their own, dominated by acronyms that mean little, if anything, to the parents and other community members with whom clear communication is essential.

My message to all educators: “Eschew obfuscation!” That means forget the alphabet soup of jargon and say clearly what you mean in plain, understandable words. One of these days in our political world, your jobs may depend on it.


AISD has legal and moral obligation to all students, especially during immigration crisis


While the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants continues to promote confusion and fear among many children of color – including many who are American citizens and lifelong Texas residents – school officials must remember all their legal and moral obligations to all their students.

A school district’s foremost legal obligation is to educate all the students who live within its boundaries, regardless of a student’s immigration status. This is the law of the land, regardless of who is tweeting from the White House, thanks to a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision. An equally important moral obligation of educators is to create safe school zones, assuring students as best they can that their schools are safe places for learning.

Members of Education Austin, TSTA’s local affiliate in Austin ISD, believe they also have a moral obligation to help inform their students of their legal rights in the event immigration officials show up at their homes or question them on the way to and from school. So, they have been providing that information to students at a number of campuses.

Now, as the Austin American-Statesman story linked below reports, some fearful AISD attorneys and principals are clamping down on the educators’ efforts to protect their students. Education Austin nevertheless vows to continue working in the best interests of students whose lives have suddenly been disrupted through no fault of their own.

As Education Austin President Ken Zarifis explained: “Students are in crisis. Where the students will turn to first outside of their household is their teacher and their school. If we don’t provide the information to them, we’re doing them a disservice.”

Sometimes, it takes courage to do the right thing.