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.

School for the School Board

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What is the primary duty of local school boards?

I recently asked this question of a seven-year Texas school board trustee.  She answered:  1) to maximize student learning achievement, 2) to hire and supervise the superintendent, and 3) to set and manage the district budget.  She followed up by emphasizing, “In that order,” because, she noted, “ nothing is as important as student learning.”

While these may sound like obvious goals, many school boards spend an inordinate amount of time on everything but student achievement, and often during a confusing array of closed and open meetings that may last an excruciating eight hours or more. Former TEA official, Kara Belew, now senior education policy advisor at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, notes that she spent nearly a year observing one board that never once addressed student achievement issues.  School boards across the state may be touting spectacular sports stadiums and water parks, or worse, crafting “legislative agendas,” (for which the district often spends taxpayer dollars to lobby the state for more taxpayer dollars), but few boards are even talking about whether district students are learning reading and math.

One solution is to send school boards back to school.

Under current law, elected school board trustees must undergo training, but the state has permitted a number of outside groups to provide these trainings; the most prominent provider being the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB).  Now, under Commissioner Mike Morath, the Texas Education Agency is offering an optional board training and certification through “Lone Star Governance,” a program that directs focus on one primary objective:  Improving Student Outcomes.

Why is this important?

While there has been some good news for Texas students, such as the drop in the number of low-performing schools and increase in SAT/ACT pass rates, there’s still plenty of troubling news.  At a recent education policy summit in Austin, Commissioner Morath shared that while there has been improvement, only about 43% of third-graders are meeting grade level in reading and math,  around 50% of 8th graders are on target, and less than 20% of Texas students are attaining college-ready scores on the SAT/ACT.  Clearly, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

As always, there is the perennial call for more spending, but state education funding has increased from $43.1 billion in 2007 to $60.6 billion in 2017.  Also, at $11,349 in per-pupil spending, Texas hovers around the national average and still with better results than big spenders like New York and California.

In light of these hard numbers, many taxpayers and parents are calling for greater efficiency and purpose in education spending, including a focus on the issue that really matters: student learning.

Enter the TEA’s Lone Star Governance program.

During LSG’s two-day training, elected school board trustees and superintendents are taught to set an achievable number of publicly-stated goals and constraints that focus on improving student outcomes.  Attendees learn to track progress, properly empower and constrain the superintendent, and to conduct regular evaluations of both the superintendent and the board itself.  Boards are also encouraged to adopt policies that prevent conflicts of interest and promote transparency.   And, to the great rejoicing of ISD observers everywhere, boards are given time-tracking tools, taught to minimize “closed” session meetings, and limit regular and public meetings to three times a month and two hours each.

The Lone Star Governance program is not the silver bullet that will fix everything in public education, but I do see cause for cautious optimism. Under the previously mentioned TASB trainings, newly-elected trustees are taught that the superintendent is the “quarterback,” who directs the activities of the board.  This dynamic is alarmingly at odds with the original democratic structure in which school boards are answerable to both the voters and the state (since the state is the entity constitutionally responsible for a system of public education).  In a properly aligned district, the superintendent is an empowered employee of the elected board, but not the ultimate authority.  By equipping boards to find the happy medium between micromanaging and giving superintendent’s carte blanche, the LSG program restores an appropriately constitutional governing mindset.

Also, although TASB purports to share the same goals, trainers been known to convey a contemptuous attitude towards reformers, parents, and taxpayers, and to encourage boards to engage in lobbying the state legislature to protect the status quo and oppose reforms.  Lone Star Governance actually mentions “empowering parents,” and seeks to return board focus to the students, or as Commissioner Morath calls them, the “5.5 million souls” in the Texas education system, and whether or not they are learning.  Of the boards that have adopted student achievement as the primary goal, there seems to be an increased willingness to allow innovations such as in-district charters and parental choice programs that have been so successful in other parts of the country.

One cause for concern in the LSG materials is the heavy emphasis on board unity and teamwork. Not that unity and teamwork are bad things, but one problem with many school boards is that misguided notions of “unity” have sometimes stifled the kind of debate that leads to better outcomes. No trustee who questions the efficacy or cost of proposed policy should be labeled “rogue” or “maverick” as TASB has done.

School boards should focus on the real purpose of public education, which is not to maintain institutions or provide jobs, but to educate children.  Real children, or as Commissioner Morath describes them, “souls.”  That distinction makes all the difference in the world.