Rights and Responsibilities: Parents, Children, and Government

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You’re not the Boss of Me!

Most parents have heard some version of the above childish response to authority.  At age five our own strong-willed child announced, “When I grow up I’m going to declare myself Supreme Emperor so that no one can boss me!”  Although highly amused by the expressed ambition, as his parents we endeavored to teach him that as a “grown up,” he would certainly enjoy greater autonomy but also greater responsibility.  In addition, we advised him that throughout his life some person or entity would exercise a measure of jurisdiction over him, and much of the time we should respect appropriate authority.

Even as adults we have a complicated relationship with authority.  Like our children, we often balk at attempts to restrict our freedoms, but at other times we would rather someone else take responsibility for tough decisions or difficult challenges.  Judeo-Christians know well the story of the ancient Israelites who demanded that God provide them with a king, despite prophetic warnings that this would lead to more suffering than peace.  Likewise, Socrates (via Plato) proposed that a powerful but enlightened and benevolent “Philosopher King” would offer the best form of government. Now, although the framers of the U.S. system prized individual liberty and less autonomous forms of government, we seem once again to be moving towards more authoritarian structures.

Nowhere is this more troubling than in the arena of parental and familial rights.  In some cases parents seem to assume that certain “professionals,” such as teachers or health providers, have the authority to dictate on a variety of issues.  Lately I’ve heard from mothers who believe they’re required to send children to a sexual-preferences-based story-time because the teacher said it was “mandatory,” or who thought they had to submit to a dentist who prohibited parents from the exam room.   In these cases parents are often unsure of their rights and afraid to assert authority and responsibility for their own children.

Parents vs. Government

Of course parental rights have become controversial as lawmakers attempt to determine the line between the rights and responsibilities of parents v. those of government.  For example, while all fifty of the United States recognize parents’ rights to educate children at home, the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that German law superseded a family’s right to home school.  U.S. Lawmakers also struggle to balance parents’ rights to refuse immunizations with the need to promote public health and safety.  And high divorce/single parenting rates, combined with societal confusion on sex and gender, are adding to the legal dilemma over who has jurisdiction over children.

Government Replacing Families

As more Americans look to government to solve societal problems, the number of jurisdictional conflicts will inevitably increase.  The late Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer wrote,

“Every piece of social policy substitutes for some traditional arrangement… a new arrangement in which public authorities take over, at least in part, the role of the family, of the ethnic and neighborhood group, or of the voluntary association.  In doing so, social policy weakens the positions of these traditional agents.”

Glazer’s warning is relevant to multiple areas of policy debate.  The proposed expansion of government-funded education to include pre-kindergarten students at age 4 or even 3 years, will continue to erode family rights and reduce familial responsibility to children.  (Leftists make no secret of this goal in calling for “cradle to career” government institutions.)  Already many educators lament the lack of parental involvement in K-12 public schooling, without recognizing the psychological impact of our quasi-imposed system.  Parents are relieved of the role of making any choices about their child’s education, and therefore distanced from the educational process.  This dynamic will only worsen under expanding programs.

Adults Dependent on Government

In addition to weakening family structures and reducing parental investment, increasing the role of government often turns adults into child-like dependents.  Although lawmakers in the past have often crafted welfare initiatives to serve as temporary “safety nets,” some recent leaders seem unconcerned about long-term dependency.  President Obama sought to reduce accountability and work requirements for certain welfare recipients, and there are a surprisingly high number of able-bodied adults without dependents utilizing programs like SNAP.  More recently, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez appeared to call for economic support of those “unable or unwilling to work.”

And yet, Leftists like Anand Giridharadas justify government solutions that include willingly stifling private philanthropy by invoking an interesting and disturbing semantic sleight of hand; instead of “private charity,” they reframe such efforts as “private redistribution.” Girinharadas and others such as Chiara Cordelli, un-ironically claim that such private redistribution treats adults “like children.”   Girinharadas and company are unwilling to acknowledge the destructive dynamic of government programs, which often reduce adults to long-term wards of the state.

The best welfare programs, whether public or private, are like good parenting: they create pathways to independence.  Rather than “redistribution,” such programs engage, teach, and assist. Also, private efforts arguably allow for greater innovation and less bureaucracy.  One Texas-based example is S & B Engineers and Constructors ‘earn while you learn’ program, in which unemployed and underemployed women are paid $17/hour while learning welding and pipe-fitting, after which the women obtain jobs starting at around $60,000 per year.  Such private sector programs not only create a skilled and needed workforce, but assist voluntary participants in gaining financial independence.

Render Unto Caesar Only That Which Is Caesar’s

Unfortunately, an increasing number of adults are calling for government solutions to all societal problems.  In their utopian visions, a benevolent government will serve as parent to people of all ages and will meet all needs.  They seem unable to grasp the idea that said government will not be composed of angelic and benevolent creatures, but…of flawed human beings; some of whom will be ethical and competent, some who will be ethical but incompetent, and worst of all, some who will be unethical but deadly competent.  While we should not be afraid to “render unto Caesar,” we should also guard that which is not the rightful jurisdiction of “Caesar,” by defending and reinforcing parental rights and responsibilities, and encouraging able adults to enjoy the dignity of self-sufficiency.

As for our aspiring “Supreme Emperor,” I am happy to report that he is a working college student who pays for his own car, gas, and auto insurance, and who participates in elections.  He still gets “bossed” by his bosses and professors, but he understands his rights and responsibilities, and we celebrate his continued progress towards full adult independence. Hopefully he will be able to pass these values to his own children.

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.