Graduation rates

More problems with education “reform”


Here’s another reason against being too eager to contract education “reform” fever – high school graduation rates.

In a new report released this week by a consortium of groups promoting the goal of graduating more high school students on time – that is, within four years – two darlings of the “reform” movement – charter and virtual schools – came up short.

Nationally, according to the “Building a Grad Nation” report, charter schools, which accounted for only 8 percent of all U.S. high schools, accounted for 30 percent of high schools that failed to graduate more than 67 percent of their students on time at the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Virtual schools were even worse. Virtual schools accounted for only 1 percent of high schools in the country but accounted for 87 percent of the high schools with failing graduation rates. We all should be grateful that a legislative proposal last year to dump millions of tax dollars into virtual charters failed, following intense lobbying against it by TSTA and other public education advocates.

Some virtual operators would have made off like bandits, while thousands of Texas kids would have been victimized. The same operators, however, will be back before the Legislature next session, holding their hands out again, so the fight will continue.

Charters, virtual and alternative high schools combined accounted for 52 percent of the high schools with graduation rates of 67 percent or less, although collectively they accounted for only 14 percent of the country’s high schools.

Alternative schools and some charters have high proportions of low-income, at-risk students. But so do traditional public schools. About 60 percent of Texas’ public school enrollment, for example, is low-income. But the legislative majority continues to under-fund them at a rate about $2,700 below the per-student national average.

Traditional public high schools accounted for 84 percent of all U.S. high schools and only 7 percent of high schools with graduation rates of 67 percent or less in 2013-14.

Missing the point on graduation rates


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.