Policymakers, not schools, deserve the failing grade

Whenever Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick opens his mouth about education, it’s risky to take his words at face value, but here goes. At a Capitol news conference the other day, when Patrick and other Senate leaders were promoting a package of education “reforms” that would do next-to-nothing to improve learning opportunities, Patrick declared:

“148,000 students, approximately, today are trapped in 297 school campuses across our state that have been failing for more than two years.”

OK, assuming the man didn’t pull the figure out of thin air, let’s compare that to the total public school enrollment in Texas, which, according to the Texas Education Agency, was 5,151,925 during the 2013-14 school year. Simple math indicates that the “trapped” students, as Patrick calls them, account for only about 2.9 percent of the total enrollment, fewer than three out of 100 kids.

Under any valid performance measure, this means the state’s public schools and educators, overall, are doing a very good job, despite the lackluster support they have been receiving in recent years from state leaders such as Patrick.

No one wants any child to be deprived of access to an excellent education. But the parent trigger, achievement school district, private school vouchers and other unproven gimmicks that Patrick and his cohorts are promoting are exercises in futility that wouldn’t help the children they allegedly are trying to help.

Most of the failing schools are in low-income neighborhoods, where poverty – not the schools and not their teachers – is the biggest obstacle to success. Academic studies have consistently shown the negative influence of poverty on education, and Texas has one of the highest poverty rates and the highest percentage of adults without a high school diploma in the country.

Yet, Texas policymakers like Patrick continue to under-fund public education. Low-income children need adequately and fairly funded, neighborhood public schools and community support services, not privatization.

Patrick and several of the senators supporting the privatization package voted to cut $5.4 billion from public school budgets in 2011. And, Patrick, as a state senator, voted against all education funding and all other public services when he voted against the entire state budget in 2013.

One of the bills Patrick is backing would grade all Texas schools from A to F. This is nothing more than an effort to blame and embarrass local educators for the Fs that a bunch of state policymakers, beginning with Patrick, really deserve.



Ignoring the real obstacle to education


More proof has come our way that the root cause of poor performance in public schools has nothing to do with the schools and everything to do with something beyond the schools’ control – poverty. The problem is slapping us in the face, but it continues to be neglected by the legislative majority in Texas and other states as well as, to a large degree, the White House.

The Southern Education Foundation recently reported that more than half of the children attending public schools in the United States are from low-income families. That is, they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under the federal program. The national average during the 2012-13 school year, on which the study was based, was 51 percent, with Texas and 17 other states reaching that percentage or higher. In Texas, 60 percent of school children are considered low-income.

This problem has grown quickly since 1989, when about one-third of public school enrollment nationally was in poverty.

As NEA Today Express pointed out in the article linked below, growing up in poverty is “one of the greatest impediments” to a child’s cognitive development and ability to learn. The article cites data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, showing in 2011, for example, that fourth-graders eligible for free lunches scored 29 points lower on reading than students not eligible. Eighth-graders eligible for free lunches scored 25 points lower than their classmates from families with more income.

The problem shouldn’t be that difficult to understand. Children who are undernourished and chronically ill but can’t go to the doctor because their families can’t afford health insurance are not going to perform well in school and, in many cases, are not even going to go to school. Homework isn’t a priority for a child worrying about his or her next meal or bothered by a toothache that won’t go away.

And, low-income parents who have to juggle two or three jobs to provide that next meal – and try to pay the rent and the utility bill – aren’t going to have much time to help their children prepare for their next classes or even to know for sure if their kids are attending school. For that, matter, the kids also may be trying to earn income somewhere, and many get overwhelmed or discouraged and drop out.

Many of these low-income parents, of course, also are under-educated. Many never completed high school. Texas has the highest percentage of adults without a high school diploma in the United States.

Remember, Texas also has the highest percentage of residents without health care in the country and still refuses to accept the Medicaid expansion offered by the federal government on extremely favorable financial terms. And, Texas still spends less on education per student than all but a handful of states.

So what are our state leaders and the pseudo-education reformers (including some of the state’s alleged business leaders) doing about all this? They are wringing their hands over test scores, calling for tax cuts, proposing private school vouchers and professing to care about the best interests of Texas school children.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remains one of the nation’s biggest boosters of standardized testing, which wastes huge amounts of tax dollars and robs millions of school children of real learning opportunities.

President Obama should either rein in Duncan or replace him.

And then the president and every member of the Texas Legislature should read the new report on education and poverty – and start trying to do something about the problem it so clearly points out.