LOOKING BEHIND THE CURTAIN IN TEXAS EDUCATION REFORM
By A. Patrick Huff, Ph.D.
May 30, 2015
Sweeping changes are coming in education reform. Those of us who follow what has been transpiring in Washington D.C. are following closely the number of bills currently up for debate in various committees in the House and the Senate. It’s all about reauthorization of ESEA. The last time the landmark education bill of 1965 was reauthorized was 2002 when No Child Left Behind left its imprint on education. Now the nation is going to get another bill of misguided semantics, The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015.
Of great importance, also, is what is happening in the states. Currently debated in the Texas Legislature are education reform bills that stand to reshape the educational landscape in The Lone Star State. Depending on which side of the debate you are on, these bills will provide new possibilities for parents of Texas to have choice in where their children attend school, or will send the schools in the state into further decline as stricter sanctions are placed on them through new school accountability laws. In the Texas publication Teach the Vote from April of 2015 we see the link between what is currently being debated in Washington on the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and what is debated in the Texas legislature. What is tying the two government bodies together is a sweeping change of legislation that promises to turn the public and private educational systems upside down.
In the Texas Senate a debate is being waged over the future of education related to school choice and accountability. Pushing the agenda is the newly elected Lt. Governor Dan Patrick (R-Houston). Lt. Governor Patrick was in charge of the Education Committee when he was in the Senate. His newly elected post has now thrust him into the most powerful position in Texas politics. Patrick has never made a secret of his intent to bring vouchers to the people of Texas. He pushed for vouchers strongly as a Texas Senator. The bill that is now out of committee and ready for full debate on the Senate floor is Senate Bill 4. The new chair of the Senate Education Committee is Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood, TX). He has his own education bill, SB 14 that will ride along side SB 4 and provide a nice one-two punch for the citizens of Texas. Teach the Vote had this to say about SB 4; "SB 4 is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s plan to create a complex private school system funded by taxpayer dollars" (Teach the Vote, 2015).
Riding along side SB-4 is SB-642 authored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston). This bill "sets up a tax credit for businesses that choose to help fund scholarships through a nonprofit organization so students can attend private schools" (Smith, 2015). This new creation for business contributions is called an Educational Assistance Organization or EAO. "An EAO would be a private charity with a twist. Any taxable entity making a donation to the EAO could get a full credit for their donation against their franchise tax liability, up to 50% of their total tax liability. All funding for private school vouchers would have to come from an EAO" (Ladd 2015). Another bill authored by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, titled SB-276 "would provide parents with a portion of the average state funding school districts get per child to pay for private school" (Smith, 2015). Writing for the Texas Tribune, Smith makes it clear that not all the lawmakers in the Texas House and Senate are behind these efforts to bring school choice to parents through the use of tax dollars flowing to private schools and the expansion of charter schools. "An amendment filed by state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, would ban the use of state dollars to fund private education for students in elementary through high schools, including through so-called tax credit scholarships" (Smith, 2015).
Dan Patrick was on the Senate floor to lend his support behind Campbell and Bettencourt’s bills as they were brought forward. The debate goes on with teacher organizations opposing SB-4, SB-14 and the bills of Campbell and Bettencourt on the grounds of taking what should be money going to the public schools and diverting it to private schools. Lost in the debate from the politicians pushing these bills is the true purpose behind the voucher program. It’s not to provide a better educational opportunity for parents who are living in tough neighborhoods that have dysfunctional schools in the inner city. The true purpose of vouchers is to create a path that would bring government control to private schools. Vouchers will destroy public education through the removal of needed funds to continue operations at the needed level, and it will destroy private education through the eradication of private school sovereignty over their own operations as tax dollars flow into the private school coffers. Charlotte Iserbyt has a pointed out for years the well-used axiom, that which the government funds, the government controls. Once private schools accept tax money through a voucher, the government owns them, and, as exemplified by tax-funded charter schools, there is no taxpayer oversight/control (taxation without representation).
Let’s look deeper into these education bills that politicians are telling us are for parent choice and the good of the students of the State of Texas. Can we talk reality, please? If one would do just a modicum of research in their local city into the annual tuition at a private or parochial school the range of cost would be eye opening. There may be a fairly large range, but one thing you can be sure of, it is beyond the ability of a poor inner city student’s parents to pay the remainder of the bill after the voucher scholarship is used. Let me explain. Most voucher programs call for a percentage of the amount allocated per child by the state to go to a child to take to whatever private school they choose. In Texas the state allocation per pupil is $9559 per student (Stutz, 2015). The range of tuition for private and parochial schools in the Houston area (where I live) range from $12,180 to $23,930 per year. Now ask yourself the question: How many inner city youth, from generational poverty, are going to take advantage of a voucher and then pay the remainder of the cost out of pocket? Can we put this deceptive issue to rest once and for all? Vouchers will fail to help inner city students just as No Child Left Behind failed to help inner city students. The politicians who keep forcing this issue into the public debate are disingenuous, deceptive and flat out dishonest. The people who will benefit from vouchers are upper middle class and well to do parents who will have the voucher to shave off the cost tuition of the school their children are already attending. North Carolina State Superintendent, Dr. June Atkinson said just as much at a luncheon last month where she was speaking on the lack of transparency shown by those pushing school vouchers in her state. She spoke of the voucher, or "opportunity scholarship in her state as being worth $4200 annually, leaving many wondering if it will ultimately amount to no more than a tax break for families who would have already taken advantage of a private school education" (Wagner, 2013). Please keep this in mind the next time your local politician comes out in favor of school choice. They either don’t know what they are talking about, or they are deceptive and dishonest with you, the constituent.
Now let’s turn our attention to SB-14, put forward by education chairman Larry Taylor. This bill will speed up the timetable a school is allowed to stay non-performing or low-performing. The bill will allow for state intervention to restructure or take over a non-performing school in a shorter time period than is currently allowed. Listen to the language in this bill: "empowering the parents of students to petition for the reconstitution, repurposing, alternative management, or closure of low-performing public school campuses." An explanation is needed of what this entails. When a Title I school fails to meet standards for two years in a row in the same subgroup it enters the School Improvement Program. Currently when a school enters the "School Improvement Program" it takes five more years to move through the series of sanctions, which involve replacement of staff, allowing students to move to other schools in the district that are not failing, and brings in state agents to oversee the school operations. Finally, after five years of sanctions, and after most of the teachers have been fired and replaced, and the principal has been fired and replaced, the school finally fails completly and the state can take it over and turn it into a charter school. The five-year timetable exists to give the school the remote chance to turn their program around and get out of the School Improvement Program. To achieve the needed improvements in the subgroup deficiencies, make the next year’s higher percentage, and get out of the School Improvement Program, is very difficult to do.
Some who research school reform understand the Accountability System and what is meant by a failing school. For those of you who are new to investigating school failure, an explanation is needed to fully understand what is happening in the Texas Legislature. When a school fails to meet standards it is referring to how the school met the accountability standards put in place by No Child Left Behind back in 2002. Breaking it down further, failing to meet standards means that one of the school’s subgroups did not measure up to the percentage of passing selected for that year. Failing to meet standards could also mean that less than 95% of the student population did not take the test, or that the attendance rate for the school was less than 90%. It could also mean that the high school graduation rate for that year was less than 78%. Failing to meet standards has nothing to do with a curriculum issue. It does not mean that the teachers failed to teach his or her students the essential elements laid down in the school district curriculum. Plain and simple, failing to meet standards is related to one of four items: A subgroup was below the percentage required for that year, the percentage of students taking the test was below 95%, the attendance rate is below 90%, or the graduation rate for that year at the high school was below 78%.
What is a subgroup? Essentially, a subgroup is an ethnic breakdown, a special education designation, a socio-economic designation, or an English Language Learner designation. In Texas there are ten subgroups in which students are placed. If one subgroup fails to meet the percentage required, the entire school fails to meet standards for that year.
What do the percentages in the subgroup mean? These are the percentage of students in the subgroup that passed the state assessment. It does not mean the percentage required to pass the assessment. The number required for passing the assessment is set by the state and is different from state to state. The Accountability System is concerned with the percentage of students passing in the subgroup. In other words, how many Hispanic, White, African American, Asian, Native American, Pacific-Islander, Special Education Students, English Language Learners, Two or more races, Economically Disadvantaged, students passed the assessment. For the school year 2014-2015 the percentage required in Texas was 83% for both Reading/English Language Arts and Math. These are the only two subjects graded by the federal accountability system. If the total percentage of each subgroup was below 83% the school failed to meet standards. There are only two categories of grade in the federal accountability system: met standards, or failed to meet standards. In the 2015-2016 school year the percentage for each subgroup will go up to 87%. Each year following will see an increase in the percentage of passing until 2019-2020 when the percentage required will be 100%. That’s right, 2019-2020 is the new 2014.
Remember, 2014 was the original date that President George W. Bush mandated that every student would be proficient on the assessment. President Obama put a halt to the accountability system in 2012 and gave all states the opportunity to come up with their own plan for accountability. This is what was known as The Waiver. The Waiver carried with it strong requirements that originally Texas rejected. In order to get the Waiver and be relieved of the 2014 mandate of 100% proficiency the states had to agree to three requirements: Adopt Common Core as the curriculum standards, tie teacher and principal evaluations to their student outcomes on the annual assessment, and present a timetable for reaching 100% proficiency. Texas came up with a satisfactory plan in 2013 and is now under the waiver umbrella. Apparently, the curriculum standards Texas adopted, called STAAR, or similar enough to Common Core to be acceptable to the US Department of Education. Very important to note, the 100% proficiency requirement is back and 2020 is the new 2014.
I will stop there in explaining the particulars of what defines a school failure. For the sake of this article, the point to take away from this discussion on subgroup percentages is that when a school is labeled "failure" it is not because the students aren’t learning and its not because the teachers are not trying as hard as they can to get them to pass an annual assessment. Failure is determined through the subgroups and the percentages required for that year. How many school failures do you think will occur across the country when the percentages rise to 87% next school year? How about 93% the following year? Now in language coming straight from the Office of the Lt. Governor (2015) we have a senator in Texas trying to lessen the time a school stays in the School Improvement Program from five years to two. Just two years to turn the program around. Can that really be expected when the percentage required in the subgroups goes up to unreasonable levels? It’s kind of like requiring 100% of students to be proficient on the assessment. It’s not going to happen. If this bill goes through, suffice it to conclude that every school that enters the School Improvement Program will end up being restructured or turned into a charter school. This, of course, will be great for the charter school movement in Texas. It will also be great for the businesses that operate charter schools and have very little oversight. It will also be great for all the infrastructure businesses that help operate a charter school.
Finally it will be great for the computer hardware and software businesses since all charter schools use laptops or tablets with the curriculum software imbedded into the device. It will not be great for the teachers and principals who are working extremely hard to raise the scores of their students on the assessment so that the student can make it to the next grade or graduate from high school. By the way, when a school "fails" for the final time, every professional in the school loses their job. The new charter school brings in their own staff. When an entire school district fails the consequences can be life changing. In Texas, when the North Forest ISD failed to meet standards for the final time and the Commissioner of the State of Texas shut it down, every professional lost their job in the entire school district. The schools were merged with the very large Houston ISD. Houston ISD did not hire one professional from North Forest ISD. They were essentially told, "you were the problem so don’t bother applying". Many still do not have teaching or administrative jobs. The affect on the people in the community, the parents, and the education professionals was devastating. This is the endgame of No Child Left Behind. This is where school accountability and the School Improvement Program end.
Will the education bills pass in this session of Congress in Texas? That remains to be seen, but they might. If they do it will radically change the face of education in the state and have major ramifications across the nation. Consider this quote from Lt. Gov. Patrick, "Passing all of these education reform bills out of the Texas Senate will be our most significant contribution to our children’s future" (Office of the Lt. Governor, 2015). Patrick goes on to say, "these bills will provide much deserved ‘parental choice’ so students are not forced to go to a failing school or trapped in an undesirable educational geographic area because of their zip code. It will create competition between schools, provide greater student flexibility like never before, and increase accountability for our overall education system" (2015).
Keeping in mind who really gets to take advantage of a voucher and what "failed school" really means, do we really think that passing the education reform bills will contribute greatly to our children’s future? Now that we have peered behind the curtain of Texas Education Reform, make a decision on where you stand on these bills and call your senator and representative and let them know how you feel. Who knows, maybe they will listen.
- Ladd, C. (2015). A
chance to end the public school era.
2 - Office of the Lt. Governor, (2015). Texas senate advances education reform legislation.
3 - Stutz, T. (2015). Texas moves up in spending per student, still ranks in bottom third. The Dallas Morning News.
4 - Teach The Vote, (2015), More details on U.S. Senate HELP committee’s ESEA reauthorization bill. Teach the Vote.
5 - Wagner, L. (2013). Education, school vouchers come to north carolina. NC Policy Watch.
© 2015 A. Patrick Huff, Ph.D. – All Rights Reserved
Patrick Huff, Ph.D., experienced (retired) public school teacher and principal, who explains how "ESEA accountability" was and is being used in the Lone Star State, to crash public education and impose a new tax-funded private school system using school choice with unelected boards.
Huff, 3D research team contributor and author of the new book The
Takeover of Public Education in America: The agenda to control information
and knowledge through the Accountability System