Florence Shapiro

Education “reform” group trying to unseat education champion


State Rep. Mary Gonzalez of El Paso is one of the biggest friends and advocates that public schools, educators and students have in the Texas Legislature. She has voted to increase school funding and reduce standardized testing and, as a member of the House Public Education Committee, represents the best interests of neighborhood schools.

So, why would a group calling itself “Texans for Education Reform” (or TER) try to defeat Gonzalez’s re-election bid? According to the El Paso Times, TER so far has contributed $100,500 to Chente Quintanilla, a former legislator who is Gonzalez’s opponent in the March 1 Democratic primary for the House District 75 seat.

As a House member a few years ago, Quintanilla voted for a school finance plan that created a permanent education funding shortage, and he voted to increase high-stakes testing. He also voted for the tuition deregulation law under which college tuition has soared, puncturing the higher education dreams of many young people from middle- and low-income families. And he voted against strong regulations for charter schools, which would have protected against tax dollars being diverted to charter operators more interested in profit than education.

The reason Texans for Education Reform is supporting Quintanilla so heavily against Gonzalez is actually pretty simply. Texans for Education Reform is not about improving public education and never has been. It’s goal, instead, is to take tax dollars from neighborhood public schools in favor of expanding corporate charters and promoting other unproven privatization schemes, the types of things that Rep. Gonzalez recognizes for the scams that they are. So, in TER’s view, she has to go.

TER also supported the new law requiring school campuses to be graded A-F on the state’s accountability system. This law that will do absolutely nothing to improve public education, but it will add stigma to the low-income children whose under-funded campuses will get most of the Ds and Fs.

The president and chair of Texans for Education Reform is Florence Shapiro, a former chair of the state Senate Education Committee, under whom testing flourished while school funding dwindled. One board member is Rod Paige, the former U.S. Education Secretary under President Bush who ushered in No Child Left Behind and the high-stakes testing era.

Another board member is Houston businessman Dick Weekley, founder, chairman and CEO of Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR), a similar, misnamed business group that has succeeded in its campaign to make it very difficult for everyday Texans with legitimate complaints against negligent or abusive business practices to seek justice in the courthouse.

TER is similar to TLR. Both are misnamed because neither has much to do with true reform and both are supported by some of the same business people. In TER’s case, the goal is to divert tax dollars to corporations and entrepreneurs by declaring public schools a failure, under-funding them and then privatizing education services. Rep. Gonzalez stands in their way.

Another potential problem with Quintanilla, which doesn’t seem to bother TER, is a report that he is under investigation by the state attorney general’s office for alleged voter fraud. According to a recent report on KVIA-TV in El Paso, the investigation stems from a civil lawsuit filed against him alleging that he unlawfully delivered ballots for homebound seniors in a justice of the peace election.

TER’s most recent contribution to Quintanilla was in the form of $55,500 worth of in-kind services, routed through the Forma Group, for advertising, direct mail, political consulting and other campaign assistance. Forma recently hired state Rep. Marisa Marquez, who is retiring at the end of this term from House District 77. Interestingly enough, Marquez received large contributions in previous elections from TER’s cousin, Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

Now, apparently, Marquez, who is still in office, is helping out TER and Quintanilla against Gonzalez.





Education “reformers” love a bad idea

Self-styled education “reformers” don’t have all the answers, but you can be sure they will continue promoting bad ideas. And, one bad idea in particular that just won’t go away is tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Research repeatedly has shown that making test scores count heavily toward teacher evaluations is both inaccurate and unfair. But it has been a major sticking point in the Chicago teachers’ strike, and it continues to be a major issue in Texas.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted student test scores to count heavily in determining whether teachers get bonuses or lose their jobs, when, in truth, classroom instruction is only one factor in student performance. Poverty, parental involvement and a host of other factors outside the teacher’s control also affect classroom performance, and in a city as large as Chicago those factors are markedly different among neighborhoods and schools, as they also are in Texas.

And, don’t forget, education is a cumulative experience. By the time a student starts taking standardized tests, several teachers have contributed to his or her classroom development, yet only the current teacher would be judged by a test score.

In The Dallas Morning News blog linked below, writer Bill McKenzie expresses admiration for Emanuel’s effort and praises state Sen. Florence Shapiro for making a similar effort during last year’s legislative session in Texas. Shapiro’s SB4, which would have required at least 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be linked to classroom scores, didn’t pass.

Shapiro, the longtime Senate Education chairwoman, is retiring this year without leaving much of a legacy for school children, except for the new, tougher STAAR testing program, which has done little so far except to anger parents, who rightfully resent it as an unnecessary intrusion into real classroom learning time. Shapiro and others in the legislative majority compounded the misdeed by slashing $5.4 billion from the public education budget even as they required more of students and teachers.

There is no evidence that using test scores is an effective way to evaluate teachers. But there is evidence that smaller class sizes improve student performance. The budget cuts enacted by Shapiro and other would-be education “reformers” in the Legislature resulted in thousands of overcrowded classrooms in Texas, including more than 8,000 in the elementary grades alone last year.

It is time for the “reformers” to get their priorities in order by putting first things first. Restore the school budget cuts, pass an adequate and equitable public education budget for the next fiscal cycle and then consult with educators – the real education experts – to design an accountability system that is fair and that actually works.