El Paso ISD

Watch out! Another “education reform” group is hatched


They are calling themselves CREEED, another meaningless acronym for another ambiguous title in what I suspect is another entry into the misnamed “education reform” movement. This one, the Council for Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, has recently popped up in El Paso, and, as far as educators and school kids are concerned, it already seems headed in the wrong direction.

Is the primary goal of this group really to help educators and students or to add more lining to the pockets of profiteers who view public education as a cash cow?

I ask that question because organizers already are talking about school “choice” – usually a euphemism for private school vouchers — more private schools and more charters, alternatives promoted by a number of other groups seeking to transfer tax dollars from neighborhood schools to unproven privatization schemes.

So, there is ample reason for parents and educators in El Paso who truly value their public schools to be suspicious of the new group, which apparently plans to get involved in local school board races and may try to influence state education policy as well.

CREEED is chaired by Richard Castro, a McDonald’s franchise owner, who told the El Paso Times that the group has three broad goals: “closing gaps in educational achievement, providing a quality education for all children and creating a ‘cradle to grave’ strategy for future workers.”

Those are laudable goals. And, in addition to the privatization schemes mentioned above, the group says it is interested in promoting programs in the public schools such as early college high schools, dual language instruction and dual credit classes. Spokesmen also say they will work with teachers and administrators.

But no one among the group’s leaders discussed (at least with the El Paso Times) a very critical element in public school success — a state school funding plan that is adequate and fair. Many other so-called “reform” groups also neglect that basic factor as they contrive ways to divert thinly stretched public education dollars from neighborhood schools into their privatization experiments.

One of the first El Paso officials to endorse the new group was Dee Margo, the state-appointed president of El Paso ISD’s board of managers. As a state representative in 2011, he voted with the legislative majority in slashing $5.4 billion from public school budgets, a whammy that cost EPISD more than $500 per student and caused EPISD to ask for a class size waiver for every K-4 classroom.

And, one of the prominent CREEED board members is El Paso businessman Woody Hunt, a major political contributor to Margo and to Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor – the man who continues defending the 2011 funding cuts in court. Hunt also has given at least $100,000 to Texans for Education Reform, a statewide school privatization group.

CREEED’s leaders believe the quality of public education in El Paso schools is inadequate, but they have said nothing about inadequate state funding that has plagued El Paso schools for decades. And, remember, the cheating scandal that rocked El Paso ISD a few years ago and wiped out educational opportunities for who knows how many low-income children wasn’t driven by a lack of vouchers or a shortage of charter schools. It was driven by a high-stress testing culture and a former superintendent’s desire to profit financially from it.

Is CREEED the right acronym for this group? Or, would GREED be more fitting?

Time will tell.



Merit pay a bad idea


El Paso ISD’s caretaker board of managers recently approved a 2.5 percent pay raise for all district employees. Yes, that is a bit of good news, but you may want to hold your applause because the board also has asked district officials to consider merit-based raises for the 2014-15 school year.

Merit pay is a very bad idea, and no one should know better than administrators in El Paso ISD. But some memories can be very short.

As a reminder, the El Paso district is still recovering from a cheating scandal that resulted in the previous superintendent – who had a financial incentive to artificially raise test scores — being sentenced to prison. The district was taken over by the state, and teachers are trying to help hundreds of children recover lost educational opportunities.

In naming the district’s temporary board of managers, state Education Commissioner Michael Williams included former state Rep. Dee Margo as president, even though Margo had used his one term in the House in 2011 to strike a blow against public schools. He voted for $5.4 billion in school budget cuts.

The cuts crammed tens of thousands of school children into overcrowded classrooms, cost thousands of school employees their jobs and prompted many of our best, most experienced teachers to take incentives to retire early. Consequently, over the past two years, the average teacher pay in this state dropped by $528 a year. Texas now has the dubious distinction of paying its teachers more than $8,000 below the national average.

This year, the Legislature, with the help of Margo’s successor, state Rep. Joe Moody, restored part of the $5.4 billion, and El Paso ISD and a number of other school districts have been approving pay raises. The raises, however, will do little to cure Texas’ compensation deficiency.

With average teacher pay in Texas lagging so far behind the national average, a Texas school district has no business considering merit pay for a small group of teachers.

We need to continue to raise pay for all teachers, the vast majority of whom are good educators. Overpaying “bad” teachers in Texas is not a problem. The problem is underpaying good teachers and forcing many of them to leave the classroom in order to be able to support their families. That is the real threat to educational quality for school children.

Education is a collaborative effort that takes several years to develop. A teacher’s success in the middle and later grades is affected by how well his or her students were taught in earlier grades. So, it wouldn’t be fair to single out, say, an eighth grade teacher for a merit pay raise without taking into account all the other teachers who have taught the same students over the years.

Another problem with merit pay is that it usually is based heavily on students’ scores on standardized tests, a woefully incomplete measure of a teacher’s success. High-stakes testing has become such a flash point for parent and educator frustration that the Legislature this year significantly reduced the number of graduation tests for high school students.

El Paso ISD, in particular, should know better than to try to tie pay to test scores. The district’s managers need to pull their heads out of the Chihuahuan Desert sand and shelve the merit idea.