charter schools

Preachy on education – and wrong


Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick is preachy, as TSTA President Rita Haecker pointed out in an Associated Press story this morning. He also is demagogic, as one of his Senate colleagues suggested in the same story. And, he is an expert at grandstanding.

But when it comes to improving educational opportunities for low-income children, he is wrong, flat wrong.

“You do become a little bit of an education evangelist because you know this works and you know we must do all we can to make sure every student has an opportunity,” Patrick is quoted in the same story, promoting his proposals to expand charter schools and create tax credits for private school vouchers.

Every student? What Patrick is proposing would be limited to a small number of children, while taking tax dollars from the vast majority of students. Moreover, private school vouchers and charters DON’T WORK any better than traditional public schools in boosting educational opportunities for that vast majority. Research has borne that out. And, that includes Florida, which former Gov. Jeb Bush was still touting as something of an education miracle in an invited appearance last week before Patrick’s committee.

State-commissioned studies have found no evidence that low-income students who receive vouchers to attend private schools do any better at reading or math than kids in Florida’s public schools. Bush also expanded charter schools in Florida while he was governor. But the state’s high school graduation rate remains mediocre, and large numbers of graduates still need remedial help in math and reading.

Tax resources have been drained from traditional public schools in Florida, and now Patrick wants to continue doing the same thing to Texas schools. Instead, he should be leading an effort – which he is not – to restore the $5.4 billion he voted to cut from public schools two years ago.

Those cuts – an average $1,062 per student over the past two years – have done a lot of damage to educational opportunities for the low-income children for whom Patrick claims to advocate. They have been forced to study in overcrowded classrooms. They have lost teachers, teaching assistants and pre-kindergarten and other dropout prevention programs. Now, he wants to take even more of their public support away to enrich education profiteers.

Education evangelist? Texas school kids need a statesman who really knows what works for them.


Jeb Bush: peddling school privatization


Leading off the dog and pony show before the Senate Education Committee this morning, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suggested that poverty was just an “excuse” for failures in the public schools. Bush, of course, doesn’t exactly have a clear comprehension of poverty, but it is not an excuse for tens of thousands of Texas schoolchildren. It is a reality, and it does interfere with a child’s education. When families are struggling to survive, the first priority usually isn’t a kid’s homework or, for many families, even keeping a kid in school.

More than half of the children in Texas public schools are “economically disadvantaged.” That means they are poor. And many of them are still struggling to learn English. Yet, Bush’s answer to their educational needs is to keep cramming standardized tests down their throats, take tax dollars away from their neighborhood public schools and give the public money to private school owners in the form of student vouchers or scholarships.

That was Bush’s approach in Florida while he was governor, and now he is traveling around the country claiming it worked. In reality, it may have produced some immediate improvements, but over the long haul it hasn’t turned around Florida’s educational system. The state’s high school graduation rate is nothing to brag about, large numbers of graduates still need remedial help in math and reading, and state- commissioned studies have found no evidence that low-income students who receive vouchers to attend private school do any better at reading or math than Florida kids in public schools.

And, there are other problems. If you want to read more, click on the link at the end of this post for a good news article about the illusion-versus-reality of Bush’s education legacy.

Bush, indeed, may want to improve public education. But he is not the successful education “reformer” he claims to be. Instead, he is a promoter of school privatization. His misnamed Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) and its affiliate, Chiefs for Change, are conduits for letting their corporate donors – a who’s who of education profiteers – connect with and privately influence state policymakers on expanded testing, expanded online learning, private school vouchers and other privatization raids on public tax dollars.

The foundation has had some success – tapping into untold millions of education tax dollars — in several other states, and now it is trying to promote privatization efforts in Texas.

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick was all too willing to feature Bush as a star witness to promote Patrick’s voucher and charter expansion goals. Instead of wasting time on such unproven schemes, though, Patrick and his colleagues in the legislative majority should be restoring the $5.4 billion they cut from public school funding two years ago. Because of those cuts, per-student spending in Texas has plunged by $1,062 since the 2010-11 school year, according to National Education Association rankings.

Texas now is 49th – near the bottom of the barrel – in per-student spending among the states and the District of Columbia. Only Arizona and Nevada spend less. Thousands of Texas students have been forced into overcrowded classrooms, dimming their learning opportunities. And, many of those students are poverty-stricken.

Bush said “reforms,” such as accountability testing, need to be imposed on public schools to assure that students can become upwardly mobile, become financially more secure than their parents.

Public schools were making students upwardly mobile long before the privateers came along. But millions of Texans, and not just poor people, have seen their family incomes become frozen or recede in recent years, and that is not the fault of the public schools. That is the fault of federal regulatory and economic policies that have favored the wealthiest 1 percent of the country’s residents, while squeezing the middle class and everyone else. Jeb should have given the upwardly mobile lecture to his brother, George W., while W. was still in the White House.



Charter proposal avoids the real issue


If Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick thinks school districts have too many unused buildings – and apparently he does – he should look in the mirror. Some new buildings, particularly in fast-growth districts are empty because school districts couldn’t afford to staff and open them after Patrick and his colleagues in the legislative majority cut $5.4 billion from public school budgets two years ago.

In his new leadership position – and with $20 billion in surplus and Rainy Day money for lawmakers to work with – Patrick should be leading the charge to get the funding restored. But, no, he is talking about diverting even more money from public schools to a private school voucher program. And, with SB2, he would lift the cap on charter schools and require school districts to turn over unused buildings to private charter operators for an annual “rent” of $1.

Patrick would take public school buildings, constructed with local tax dollars approved by local voters, and give them to private companies operating charter schools with little or no local oversight.

Several charter school operators and other advocates, of course, testified for SB2 before the Senate Education Committee today. I watched part of the hearing and was struck by how one charter advocate missed the point when he suggested more charters could help Texas address the school dropout problem.

But dropouts aren’t lining up for charter schools. The relevant issue is preventing kids from dropping out in the first place. And, the best way to address that problem is for the state to focus its resources on traditional public schools, which is where the vast majority of children – both those who drop out and those who graduate — attend school. And, remember, the budget cuts for which Patrick voted included full-day, pre-kindergarten and other programs designed specifically to discourage kids from dropping out.

Various studies have shown that charters, on average, are no better or worse than traditional public schools. Some have been successful in Texas, but others have failed miserably – academically, financially or from poor management. This is not the time for the Legislature to give the charter industry a blank check on creating new charters while traditional public schools are still struggling from budget cuts.




A tale of two charters


It may not exactly be the best of times and the worst of times for Austin ISD. But there is a right way and a wrong way for a school district to try to establish a charter school, and within the space of a year Austin ISD has demonstrated both.

Last year about this time, the Austin school board ignored overwhelming community opposition and rammed two charter schools down the throats of East Austin residents. The board approved a partnership with charter operator IDEA Public Schools to convert Allan Elementary and Eastside Memorial High School, both traditional public schools, into charters. Allan was converted into a charter this past fall, and Eastside was to become a charter later.

Voters responded last month by overhauling the school board. The issue was particularly critical in East Austin, where challenger Jayme Mathias unseated Sam Guzman, who had voted for the IDEA contract against the wishes of most of his constituents. Mathias campaigned hard against the IDEA decision and for community involvement.

On Monday night, the board voted 5-4 to end the partnership with IDEA at the end of the 2012-13 school year. Three of the four new members, including Mathias, voted with the majority.

The new board, however, didn’t shut the door on the charter concept. It merely shut the door on arbitrary, top-down charter decisions. At the same meeting Monday night, the board voted unanimously to approve a charter partnership for Travis Heights Elementary, a diverse school with a mix of languages and family incomes on Austin’s near south side.

What was the difference?

In Travis Heights’ case, the board sought the support of teachers and the neighboring community. The charter will be managed by a board representing teachers, community members and Austin Interfaith. Education Austin, TSTA’s local affiliate, will be an active partner. The school’s leaders will have more power over its budget and curriculum, which will include, among other things, dual language instruction.

Travis Heights offers a lesson in how to design a charter from the bottom-up, not the top-down. That can make all the difference in the world.