The Texas Legislature’s inadequate and upsidedown approach to school “accountability” was aired out again yesterday afternoon over at the scene of the crime, the state Capitol. During a House Public Education Committee hearing, parents, educators and wouldbe “experts” spent almost five hours reciting their concerns about the STAAR test, the state’s new “accountability” measurement for schools and students, which will make its debut this spring.
Some of the concerns are legitimate, particularly about how wellequipped schools are to prepare students for new, tougher tests following the misguided decision by Gov. Rick Perry and the legislative majority to slash $5.4 billion from the public education budget last spring. The best “accountability” lesson of the entire afternoon was the 15 minutes or so that Vice Chairman Scott Hochberg spent at the beginning of the meeting, reminding everyone that the least accountable figures in the state’s educational process are the governor and the legislative majority, who continue to demand that everyone else – students, teachers, parents, principals, superintendents – be accountable but themselves. (Hochberg, unfortunately, is in the minority and isn’t seeking reelection.)
Even before the budgetcutting last spring, Texas’ school finance system already was underfunded and inequitable. But the budget slashers insisted on keeping STAAR on schedule, even as questions continued to be raised not only about inadequate resources for student preparation, but also about grading practices and inconsistent policies among school districts.
Hochberg got to the root of the problem by citing the plight of the tiny Premont ISD in South Texas, a district whose persistent accountability failures, including poor test scores and high truancy, have prompted the Texas Education Agency to threaten it with closure, the ultimate sanction. Were that to happen, the district would be annexed by another district 35 miles away and the small town would lose its largest employer and about 90 jobs. Given one final chance by TEA, the district is making a concerted effort to reduce truancy and has eliminated all athletic programs for the rest of the year to strengthen its focus on academics.
Hochberg didn’t claim to know all the issues impacting Premont ISD, but, on questioning a TEA lawyer, he noted the district is one of the poorest in the state, spending about $500 a year less per student than the state average. That isn’t the fault of local taxpayers. They approved a tax ratification election raising their property tax rate to $1.17 per $100 valuation, the maximum allowed by state law. The funding fault lies with the governor and the legislative majority, who have allowed an inadequate and inequitable school finance system to worsen. Meanwhile, as Hochberg also pointed out, most of the highestperforming school districts, those getting exemplary ratings for their campuses, are wealthier, spend hundreds of dollars more per year on each student than Premont does and have lower property tax rates.
Instead of addressing these problems last session, the governor and most legislators approved a budget that worsened the school funding dilemma and then dared school districts to sue them, which a majority of the state’s 1,044 districts have done – for the fifth or sixth time in the past 20 years.
Meanwhile, the same state officials are demanding that school children, in order to be promoted or graduate from high school, pass a new, tougher set of highstakes tests, even though – because of the Legislature’s neglect – classrooms in many schools are more crowded, textbooks more outdated and the learning environment compromised.
TSTA believes that standardized tests, such as STAAR, have a constructive purpose as diagnostic tools. But the Legislature is misusing these tests as a rewardorpunish “accountability” system that is becoming increasingly hypocritical.