DeVos’ confirmation spurs anti-voucher fight in Texas


Some of the more avid Texas supporters of Betsy DeVos, the most unqualified person ever to become U.S. Secretary of Education, include Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – who consistently put ideology over what’s best for public school children – and Randan Steinhauser.

Steinhauser heads the latest pro-voucher, pro-education savings accounts, pro-school privatization interest group in Texas. She used to work for DeVos in Washington at the American Federation for Children , a national pro-privatization organization. Now she is working hand-in-hand with Patrick and Abbott in Texas to weaken our public schools and turn our centers of learning and opportunity for all children into profit centers for a handful of education profiteers.

In a comment quoted in the Rivard Report, Steinhauser blamed “outrage” from “teacher’s unions” for the difficult battle DeVos faced in winning Senate confirmation. She was wrong.

Yes, millions of teachers, superintendents and other educators are outraged over DeVos’ blatant lack of qualifications and outright hostility toward public education. But so are millions of parents and other Americans who truly value public schools and the critical role they play in their children’s futures.

Although they certainly helped – and proudly so — teachers alone didn’t overload telephones and clog email in-boxes in U.S. Senate offices. And teachers alone didn’t fight the privatization forces to a 50-50 deadlock in the Senate, where the vice president cast a first-ever vote to break a tie on a Cabinet confirmation.

Texas educators, parents and others who value our public schools too much to allow would-be profiteers to destroy them should be energized by DeVos’ confirmation fight.

Keep contacting your state legislators and demand they vote against vouchers and other school privatization schemes. If you need to, click on the link below and fill in your home address to find out who your state representative and state senator are. Then call or email them and ask your friends and colleagues to do the same. The fight for Texas public schools is far from over.

The three-step attack on public education


The A-F grading system and the STAAR testing regime on which the new grading system is heavily based are part of an anti-public school attack that privatization proponents, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick with an assist from Gov. Greg Abbott, are trying to advance during this legislative session. Yesterday’s pro-voucher rally at the Capitol also was part of the effort.

The plan, which has been building for a number of years, is designed to sell school privatization to a largely unsuspecting public. It has three major steps – under-fund public schools, declare them failures and then privatize them. Here is how it has been carried out so far:

# Under-fund public schools: This part began years ago and picked up steam in 2011, when the legislative majority slashed $5.4 billion from the public education budget. Many school districts still haven’t completely recovered.

That means thousands of school children still are being taught in overcrowded, under-equipped classrooms, a condition of particular, critical concern for children who need extra individual attention from their teachers. These include many children from low-income families who now make up a majority (about 60 percent) of Texas’ public school enrollment.

Closely related to the under-funding of public schools is Texas’ under-funding of health care and nutritional services for low-income children. Sick, ill-fed children have higher rates of absenteeism and do not do well in school when they are there. Educators deal heroically with these issues every day, but they and the schools in which they work are held “accountable” by political leaders for the problems these children bring with them to the classroom.

# Declare public schools failures: This is where STAAR testing and the A-F grading system come in. STAAR is a punitive testing regime that was enacted by politicians to transfer blame for their own failed responsibility over public education to the educators and school children, beginning with third-graders, they have been failing.

STAAR tests and all the preparation for them steal valuable instruction time from teachers and school kids, while doing little, if anything, to teach children the critical thinking and learning skills so crucial to their future success.

Similarly, if it isn’t repealed, the A-F grading system will do nothing to help students. Beginning with the 2017-18 school year, a campus will be assigned a letter grade based on STAAR test scores and other factors, including graduation and dropout rates. All these factors are heavily affected by poverty, which is why schools in low-income communities got more Ds and Fs in the Texas Education Agency’s recent dry run of the testing system.

Slapping a D or an F on a school in a low-income community won’t help the students, but it will stigmatize them. And it will make it easier for Patrick and other privateers to promote vouchers or target that school for takeover by a privately run, corporate charter eager to rake in its tax dollars. Patrick already is practicing his pitch. “No parent should be forced to send their child to a school that’s a D or an F or a C,” he said in a recent speech to other privatization advocates.

# Privatize public schools: Vouchers, education savings accounts, tax credit scholarships or whatever else privateers want to call them are the next step. They would take money from already under-funded public schools to benefit private schools or homeschoolers – with no guarantee of educational success – while further eroding support for traditional public schools.

Expansion of corporate charters and private online learning also are part of this step. Academic research has shown that private and corporate charter schools, on average, don’t perform any better than traditional, or neighborhood, public schools, and they lack the accountability to taxpayers that public schools have.

Don’t be misled by pleas for school or parental “choice.” Low-income and lower-middle-income families wouldn’t have a choice because, even with a voucher or education savings account, they couldn’t afford tuition at the best private schools.

Most kids would remain in public schools, which would continue to be unfairly and inaccurately attacked as “failures” by the same politicians who persist in trying to turn public education into a profit center, a profit center for anyone but school children.



Watch out when education “reformers” join forces


When two self-styled “education reform” groups announce they are joining forces to improve public schools, educators and parents need to be skeptical. Most of these groups are more interested in taking tax dollars to privatize education, not improve it.

The latest privatization effort is a new group called Texas Aspires, which represents a merger of Texans for Education Reform and the Texas Institute for Education Reform. “Reform” may be the most over-used and misused word in the political vocabulary, right up there with “unprecedented.” Bad ideas are not “reform,” and neither are they “unprecedented,” but unfortunately they won’t go away.

The most encouraging thing I can say about Texas Aspires at this point is that the group claims not to be interested in promoting vouchers, a direct theft of state tax dollars to pay for tuition in private and religious schools. Other alleged “reformers” will be pursuing that goal when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Texas Aspires, however, will push for other things that – if the privatization motive is not curtailed — could under-cut public schools, including expanded online learning and more charter schools.

Online courses have their place, but an online learning bill proposed during the 2015 legislative session was all about profit for vendors, not improved educational opportunities for children. It was so potentially expensive that even senators in lock-step with most of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s bad education ideas gagged at it. It was about the only bad idea of Patrick’s that the Senate majority didn’t pass.

Expansion of charter schools also can be another expansion of privatization, since corporate run charters – which take tax dollars but are operated by for-profit management companies – are increasingly trying to make inroads into public school districts and the education budget in Texas.

According to the Associated Press, Texas Aspires claims to be focused on strengthening public schools. If so, the best way to do that is to put aside the costly, unproven gimmicks and join real educators and parents in demanding that the legislative majority draft an adequate and fair funding plan for all of Texas’ schoolchildren. That is the first and most important step toward strengthening public education in Texas.



School privateers tried to topple House speaker


They didn’t get a lot of media coverage, but two wealthy advocates of school privatization were involved in the unsuccessful effort to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus in the recent Republican primary in San Antonio.

One was Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress who, along with other members of her family, is a major supporter of the charter movement. She gave $180,000 to Jeff Judson, one of Straus’ right-wing opponents. Walton lives in Bentonville, Ark., a long way from Straus’ home district, but she was trying to promote a cause – the cut-rate Wal-Mart school model — not local representation.

The other notable privatization contributor was San Antonio businessman James Leininger, a founder of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which wants to privatize just about all of state government. Leininger’s special interest is diverting tax dollars from public schools to create a voucher program for private school tuition. He gave $50,000 to Judson.

After losing millions in unsuccessful efforts to promote vouchers several years ago, Leininger kind of dropped from sight as a political donor. But with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick putting vouchers at the top of his education priority list, Leininger must see another opportunity.

Fortunately, Straus won. Unfortunately, both Walton and Leininger have a lot more money to waste (we hope) on bad causes.