local control

Putting school vouchers in backpacks


Unbelievable as it may seem, some readers of this blog occasionally take exception to my reasoned rhetoric – and to my view that we should give our public schools the resources they need to do their job instead of siphoning away our tax dollars for unproven school privatization schemes.

Many of these people call themselves education “reformers,” when, in fact, they are not trying to reform – or improve — public schools but, instead, are trying to capitalize on them. Folks, profit-making for a select few is not the purpose of our public education system.

A spokesman for Texas Families First (TFF), one of these education privatization groups, has taken exception to my previous blog posting, in which I outlined the many problems with HB300 by Rep. Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs. I also noted the absurdity of Isaac claiming to be a champion of education after voting to slash $5.4 billion from public school budgets two years ago and now trying to continue the demolition.

Isaac filed HB300, the so-called “Independent School District Bill,” on behalf of TFF, which wants to give parents more control over school choices for their children, even to the point of allowing school districts to ignore important, statewide education standards – including class size limits and teacher qualifications — and allowing parents to turn their schools – and tax dollars — over to for-profit, outside operators.

I doubt there was anything TFF liked about the previous blog posting, but the group’s spokesman objected specifically to my writing that HB300 includes a voucher of “last resort” provision. He said the bill doesn’t include such a provision and asked for a correction.

I have subsequently reviewed the 62-page bill and haven’t found any specific reference to the word, “voucher.”

But the bill would allow for “backpack funding.” That means state funds for school districts participating in the program would go with the students.  It parents were to turn over the management of their local school to a for-profit operator – and nothing I could find in the bill would prohibit that – the “backpack” money would amount to a taxpayer-paid voucher. And, that would be a transfer of public money to private hands.

Call it what you wish. It is not education reform. It is school privatization.


Trying to ram public education into reverse


“Unfunded mandate” is a trite expression that sometimes is used by local school officials to complain about having to do something that would actually be in the best interests of their students and teachers, such as limited class sizes for K-4 and due process rights for employees. The complaint is that the Legislature – which can be a champion at buck-passing — ordered them to do something without paying for it.

Some mandates, of course, do not have a positive educational effect. Putting the standardized testing regime on steroids with the STAAR program has proved to be a very bad idea, and legislative leaders already are taking steps to curtail it. But now along comes State Rep. Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs, who wants to set public education back a half century or more by scrapping just about every state education requirement, the good as well as the bad.

You could say that Isaac is trying to finish what he helped to start two years ago when he voted for the $5.4 billion in school funding cuts. During his 2012 reelection campaign, he denied his anti-education vote, although his local school officials – and anyone else with a passing knowledge of arithmetic — knew better. But he’s back in Austin, nevertheless. So, watch out!

Isaac has filed HB300, which would allow school districts to ignore almost all state regulations and set their own policies for curriculum, class size, student testing, teacher compensation, hiring and firing and the academic calendar. Districts also could set their own accountability standards, and, if they fail to meet them, parents could turn their schools over to private, for-profit operators. The bill also includes a voucher “of last resort.”

In other words, the bill would create the potential for a mess. Some districts could enact high educational standards, while others, particularly in property poor areas, would drastically cut back on standards, raise class sizes, lower teacher pay and eliminate fairness from employment standards. Some state regulations – most notably the STAAR test – need to be changed, but most are there to guarantee sound educational practices for all Texas students and fairness in employment and pay for teachers.

According to a story, linked below, in the Texas Tribune, Isaac’s bill is backed by Texas Families First, a pro-voucher and privatization group that would put the vast majority of Texas students last.

“Educators consistently tell me that unfunded mandates are one of the biggest hindrances to delivering effective education to our children,” Isaacs said.

Except for STAAR, most of the mandates are fine. A far better solution is for Isaacs and his education-cutting colleagues in the Legislature to pay for them. And, they can begin by restoring the $5.4 billion – some $1,062 per child – they cut from schools two years ago, instead of toying around with unproven privatization experiments that would undermine public education.


The bottom line for schools is funding


If you try hard enough, you can design a poll to get just about whatever response you want. But even then, there usually is more than one way to read the results.

Texas Families First, a group that wants to siphon tax dollars for private school vouchers, apparently believes that a new survey it commissioned will help promote its pro-voucher cause with legislators. Its questions were written with that goal in mind. Sure enough, the survey cites some support for vouchers, a finding that the group touted in a press release. The group also happily announced that 80 percent of Texas voters favor local control, a typical response for almost any question about local control, a mythical concept easily adapted to fit just about any agenda, depending on who’s in “control.”

However, in the same poll, a 74 percent to 23 percent margin of respondents said they wanted to increase funding for public schools. Texas Families First didn’t include that fact in its press release because it didn’t fit with the group’s privatization scheme. But better funding is the bottom line for improving public schools, folks, and most Texans realize that.

What the poll really reflects is a growing unhappiness among all Texans over the lousy job that the governor and the legislative majority are doing with the public education system. In the public’s view, almost anybody else could do better.

Last year’s budget cuts saw thousands of students crammed into crowded classrooms.  Electives were cut back, some neighborhood schools were closed and some parents even had to pay for their children to ride school buses. And, ignoring the concerns of parents and educators, the legislative majority raised the stakes on standardized testing while refusing to give students and teachers the resources they needed to adequately prepare for them.

Meanwhile, more and more Texans are watching their local property taxes being shipped off to distant school districts because the legislative majority refuses to overhaul an inadequate and inequitable system of school funding.

You bet people want to take responsibility for the public schools away from the crowd now running the statehouse. And, the unhappiness with the legislative majority feeds easily into the “local control” tradition that has been fostered in Texas for years by the existence of 1,000-plus local school districts.

The best way that Texans can restore the confidence in their local schools is to regain control of the Legislature, and that will not happen overnight. But people can start by contacting their state representatives and state senators now and demanding that education spending be restored, high stakes testing be slowed down and school vouchers and other privatization schemes be rejected.

Through its poll, Texas Families First is promoting private school vouchers as a “last resort” for low-income children trapped in failing schools. For every child that received a voucher, however, several hundred more poor children would continue to go to traditional public schools. That is where our tax dollars and focus need to stay trained.