Whether you greeted it with applause or skepticism, the recent report crediting Texas with one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country will have a very short shelf life if the powers that be in Austin don’t stop undermining the public schools.
After the U.S. Department of Education released a study crediting Texas with a graduation rate of 86 percent, Gov. Rick Perry’s appointee, Education Commissioner Michael Williams, declared in an op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman: “Our public schools are delivering a high-quality education. Thanks to hard work from teachers, administrators, students and parents, more Texas students are earning a high school diploma than ever before.”
Williams failed to point out, however, that the graduation rate was based on the 2010-11 school year – before the governor and his legislative allies cut $5.4 billion from public school budgets, resulting in the loss of 11,000 teaching jobs. Consequently, thousands of children in overcrowded classrooms didn’t keep receiving as much individual attention as many need to stay on a successful track to graduation. Pre-kindergarten and other important dropout prevention programs also fell victim to the budget ax.
Yes, teachers, administrators and students are working hard, and they will continue to work hard. But the resources they need to keep succeeding at a high level – manageable class sizes, up-to-date textbooks and facilities – were cut back. The 2010-11 graduation rate cited in the federal report also was based on the old TAKS test, not the more difficult STAAR tests that legislators imposed on students and teachers even as they were slashing funding for classrooms. How long will Williams – or his successor – be able to keep bragging about graduation rates without a strong commitment to public education from the governor and the legislative majority?
Williams needs to use his position as state education commissioner to demand that commitment, beginning with a restoration of the funding cuts. But, so far, Williams has had little to say about funding public schools. Instead, he has joined the governor in advocating for private schools. Both are among state “leaders” who would drain even more tax dollars from public education to fund a private school voucher program. If Williams is as proud of the public schools as he says he is, why take more steps to weaken them with privatization?
Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, a Capitol insider who apparently thinks standardized tests are more important than adequate education funding, also wrote an op-ed about the graduation report. But he questioned the accuracy of it, coming as it did behind other estimates indicating a much lower graduation rate.
“In order to focus appropriate attention on this issue, a more honest reporting of the numbers would be helpful,” Hammond wrote in Texas Weekly. “Educators must not be allowed to take their eye off of the problem. A falsely optimistic report shouldn’t stop educators from working towards programs that graduate kids with diplomas that mean something.”
Business has much to gain from a strong public education system, and if Hammond and his group are trying to correct the biggest problems facing the public schools today, they need to start by looking in the mirror. The biggest problems facing the public schools today are an inadequate and inequitable funding system and the push for privatization. And, the Texas Association of Business has been a longtime political and financial supporter of Gov. Perry and the budget-cutters and education profiteers in the Legislature.
Perhaps Hammond should do more than bemoan poor test scores and worry about graduation rates in underfunded schools. Perhaps he should work to convince the governor and his other political allies to provide the resources necessary to educate a workforce that will benefit the Texas economy and the businesses he represents.