Education’s Misplaced Priorities

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What will your School District Lobbyist do in Austin this year?

In preparation for the biennial Texas legislative session opening on January 8, school districts and other local government entities have created “legislative priority” lists for their respective lobbyists to take to the state capitol. While legislative wish lists may not carry the entertainment value of say, analyzing various political Twitter accounts, citizens would do well to scrutinize the stated priorities of our local, but less visible politicians.

Unfortunately, these published priority lists can be misleading.  For example, Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District’s recently published list, (which like most districts largely mirrors that of the Texas Association of School Boards), includes a call for the state to “restore” its “share” of formula funding to at least 50%.  This wording gives many readers the impression that the state has cut education funding, when in fact education spending in Texas has increased by an inflation-adjusted 29.7%.  Under the current “Robin Hood” system, when local revenue goes up, the state’s proportion goes down for some districts, (even though Texas increased education spending by $5.2 billion last session).  As it stands, the funding structure is contributing to an increasing property tax burden for Texas families, and has not effectively incentivized either efficiency or improvements in student achievement.  While there is little doubt that the legislature will increase education spending in 2019, there is an urgent need to accompany increases with meaningful reforms.

While calling for more funding on one hand, several priority lists include an apparent demand to diminish accountability standards for public schools.  Although the new, more understandable A-F grading system has not yet been fully implemented, these districts are demanding a return to the previous vague and opaque ratings in which schools are rated as either having “Met Standard” or “Improvement Required.”    The new A-F system takes into account not only standardized test scores, but also yearly student growth and the progress of racial/ethnic and economically disadvantaged groups.  Unfortunately, some administrators do not want this more fine-tuned scrutiny, and in addition to opposing the A-F system, are also lobbying for a curtailing of the state’s standardized testing program known as STAAR.

The STAAR tests, created in collaboration with Texas teachers, have both ardent supporters and passionate opponents.  Some opponents claim the STAAR itself is problematic and should be replaced, but national measures (NAEP) reflect the same student achievement trends, and only about 16% of Texas students are earning college-ready scores on the ACT and SAT.  A small, but surprisingly vocal minority of Texans seem to believe we should stop testing altogether and “just trust teachers.”  In that public education in Texas constitutes a $60 billion program and is responsible for more than 5 million students, or “souls,” that solution is both unpalatable and highly unlikely.  And while a significant number of people do not actually enjoy taking tests, tests of many kinds are an ever-present factor of the adult life for which schools are purportedly preparing students.

As for the Texas STAAR, despite the horror stories about overly demanding and stressful tests, it turns out that students earn a passing score even if they are performing below grade level.  Which explains why a “highly rated” district like Cy-Fair ISD might be asking the State to throw out the new grading system and reduce student exposure to the STAAR tests.  Although CFISD boasts an 83% pass rate, of the 189,364 CFISD students tested in 2018, only 57% actually met or mastered grade level.  Therefore, approximately 43% of CFISD students are testing below grade level.  Broken down by demographics, 56% of African-American, 51% of Hispanic, and 55% of economically disadvantaged students in CFISD are actually testing below expected grade-levels.

And perhaps these sobering numbers also explain Cy-Fair ISD’s antipathy towards public charter schools.  Among the various successful charter operators in Texas, are models that have proven successful with minorities and economically disadvantaged students, as well as models that offer a more rigorous curriculum that brings “at grade level” students to mastery and beyond.

If the goal is to increase student achievement for every demographic, why would we not welcome charter models that seem to better serve some segments of the population?  Sadly, CFISD and other districts plan to lobby against the expansion of charter schools into “high performing” districts; a moniker they may not enjoy under the closer scrutiny provided by the new A-F school rating system.

There are no simple, easy solutions when it comes to education policy.  State lawmakers in Texas will have a limited window of opportunity in 2019 to craft remedies for Texas children and families.  But in light of the challenges of lagging student achievement, funding difficulties, and increasingly burdensome property taxes, the status quo is unacceptable, (as is merely increasing funding without reform).  Hopefully, our representatives will endeavor to represent not districts, but students, and create opportunities for greater student success at every level.

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