Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

School days

There should be plenty of interest in the HISD Superintendent job

That’s what the Board is prepping for.

Richard Carranza

HISD trustees likely will have no shortage of potential candidates from the across the country willing to take over for Superintendent Richard Carranza, who announced last Monday that he will leave the district this month to become chancellor of New York City public schools. Board members also could consider several internal and regional candidates with long histories of service in Houston education or experience as a superintendent, albeit on a smaller scale.

“I truly believe that there are folks out there internally, in this state and this nation that are very capable and are committed for the long haul to ensure there’s progress,” HISD Trustee Sergio Lira said.

HISD’s superintendent will face myriad obstacles: an education finance system that is draining money from the district, the threat of a state takeover due to chronically failing schools, and a burgeoning class and racial divide over allocation of resources.

Those issues will be well-known to internal or regional candidates. Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said national candidates also would be prepared for the chaos that comes with a running large, urban school district.

“The folks that are applying understand it’s a challenge and know the difficulties, like the lack of resources and the politics,” Domenech said. “These are not easy districts to run.”

HISD trustees will have several selling points to offer potential candidates.

As the largest school district in the nation’s second-largest state, with a student population of about 215,000 children, the position of HISD superintendent offers immense prestige. Board members have signaled they want to become more cohesive after years of division. City leaders also have pledged to become more engaged in aiding the district, particularly with low-performing schools that are drawing scrutiny from state leaders.

“I think we, as a city, need to demonstrate that we’re on the same page in terms of focusing on the most vulnerable children and communities that need to be served,” said Juliet Stipeche, director of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Office of Education and a former HISD trustee. “It will require somebody that’s up and ready for a strong challenge in an area that’s filled with opportunity.”

See here and here for the background. There are a few names of current HISD people mentioned in the story as well as possible candidates, but none of them appeared to be obvious frontrunners. For all its challenges – indeed, because of all its challenges – the HISD job is going to be attractive to a lot of candidates. It’s a big and diverse district, with a lot of resources even in tight budgetary times, and the opportunity is there to leave a mark and establish oneself as a visionary leader. Carranza’s departure is ill-timed for HISD, but the fact that he got poached by the New York school district shows that he was held in high regard, which will be a plus for everyone who might consider following him. We should see some talented applicants come forward for this position. We just need to pick the right one.

No decision on Carranza replacement yet

Tabled for now, but likely not for long.

Houston ISD trustees on Thursday opted not to appoint an interim superintendent at a school board meeting, leaving it unclear who will run the district after Superintendent Richard Carranza’s anticipated departure later this month.

Board members did not discuss potential candidates or options for moving forward during closed or open session Thursday because one trustee was absent. They are expected to consider options for appointing a temporary district leader at a March 22 meeting.

Trustees faced a relatively subdued crowd given Carranza’s abrupt announcement Monday that he plans to leave the district after 18 months to become chancellor of New York City public schools. They never referred to Carranza by name during the meeting or commented at length about his decision to leave, making only glancing references to his departure.

“The sky is not falling around replacing our superintendent,” HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said. “We do have some heavy lifts, but we’ve had to do some heavy lifts before.”


Skillern-Jones said board members discussed some legal matters surrounding Carranza’s departure during closed session, including their ability to re-hire the search firm that helped them land Carranza, who formerly presided over San Francisco Unified School District. Trustees expect they will be able to use the search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, free of charge because Carranza remained in HISD for less than two years.

See here for the background. The main question, as outlined in this this earlier story, is whether to “name a short-term interim superintendent and immediately begin a search for a more permanent replacement; name a long-term interim superintendent and postpone a superintendent search for a couple months; or post the position and hire a new permanent superintendent immediately”. I assume the third choice is basically a promotion from within the existing HISD hierarchy, while the other two would be a national search. The indication that the board could re-use the search firm that recommended Carranza suggests the board may be leaning towards one of those options. There’s a case to be made for hiring someone local – as one person in the story suggests, a local person may be less likely to be wooed away. I don’t know that I buy that – there isn’t a long history of HISD superintendents being poached, and the non-local Terry Grier stayed through the end of his contract – but it’s a point to debate. All I really care about is that they find someone who is up to the job.

Carranza departs

This sure came as a surprise.

Richard Carranza

As Houston ISD officials wrestle with how to fill a $115 million budget shortfall, stave off a potential state takeover and work to recover after Hurricane Harvey, Superintendent Richard Carranza announced Monday he would leave the district after less than two years on the job, accepting an offer to lead New York City’s school system.

Carranza appeared Monday afternoon at a press conference with New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio. Carranza’s status with Houston ISD was not immediately available. De Blasio said those details are being worked out, but the outgoing chancellor is expected to remain on board until the end of March.

At a press conference announcing his appointment Monday afternoon, Carranza said the chance to take over the nation’s largest school district and alignment with De Blasio’s agenda were primary factors in accepting the job.

“There is no other New York City Public Schools,” Carranza said. “It was an opportunity that I could not say ‘no’ to.”

Houston ISD board members are expected to meet Thursday to discuss the district’s next steps.

“We the board wish Carranza the best in his endeavors and appreciate the leadership he brought to this district,” Houston ISD Board of Trustees President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said in a statement. “We are committed to continuing the work he began and moving the district forward.”

Carranza’s departure leaves Texas’ largest school district leaderless as it faces consequential challenges. The district faces a $115 million budget shortfall and potential state takeover due to poor academic performances at a handful of the district’s more than 280 campuses.

I think it’s fair to say nobody saw this coming. It’s a little hard to judge Carranza’s tenure in office because he wasn’t here for that long, and there’s a lot of unfinished business that will need to be taken up by his successor. You can’t blame him for taking the opportunity, but the timing isn’t great for HISD. We’re going to need to find a new Super quickly, and that person will have a full to-do list when he or she arrives. Will the Board look for someone who will be gung ho about implementing the proposals Carranza laid out, or will they seek a different direction? Or will they just try to hire the best person they can get and let that person figure it out? A challenging and tumultuous year at HISD just got more so. I wish the Board all the best with the task they now have before them. HISD’s news story is here, and the Press has more.

HISD’s budget deficit is a little smaller

A bit of good news.

Houston ISD administrators do not expect to cut magnet programs or re-open the magnet application process ahead of the 2018-19 school year, an announcement likely to ease fears among parents who send their children to choice schools.

Houston ISD leaders said Monday they are lowering the district’s projected budget deficit from about $209 million to $115 million, which would dramatically reduce the level of potential staff and program cuts.

The two announcements reflect the shifting nature of Houston ISD’s plans for major changes throughout the district, which have provoked anxiety among many parents and staff members. District leaders are proposing changes to the district’s magnet and funding systems — with the goal of providing more resources and programs to students in lower-income neighborhoods while facing a significant budget deficit largely brought on by the state’s school finance law.

Administrators are considering whether to phase out some magnet programs that have relatively little student interest or no consistent programming throughout a feeder pattern. District leaders want to better align magnets so students follow the same program from elementary through high school.

Administrators do not expect to cut many magnet programs, but any changes would not be made until 2019-20. Chief School Support Officer Mark Smith said the district did not want to rush any reductions that would force parents to immediately seek new options for their children.

See here for the background. What drove the sunnier budget estimate? Here’s the explanation.

When HISD first began budgeting for the 2018-2019 school year, it was in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Using a worst-case scenario, the district’s financial team projected a $208 million deficit based on four dynamic factors: the Local Optional Homestead Exemption (LOHE) lawsuit, a recapture payment to the state, a potential property tax value decreaseand an anticipated student enrollment decline. Taking direction from HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones, district administrators crafted a revised budget outlook for the 2018-19 school year.

The district’s legal team feels strongly that the state will prevail in the LOHE lawsuit. For HISD, this means a reduction in its recapture payment because the TEA will recognize half of the 20 percent local homestead exemption given to homeowners. A decision in the lawsuit could come after a hearing this spring. A win would reduce HISD’s recapture payment by $51 million.

Under the Texas Education Code, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has the authority to adjust property values. Based on the damage sustained from Hurricane Harvey and the lasting impact of the storm on our students and staff, we anticipate the commissioner will adjust property values, which in turn, would reduce our recapture payment. Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and other state leaders have publicly stated their support for this action. Click here to review a September 2017 press release from Lt. Governor Dan Patrick that confirms his support for schools districts in Region IV impacted by Hurricane Harvey, which includes HISD. In addition, Commissioner Morath surveyed school districts after the hurricane to gather projections on their property tax collections post-Harvey. HISD estimates a $42 million adjustment for property value loss associated with Hurricane Harvey.

It was prudent to budget under the worst-case assumption, and it makes sense to adjust on the reasonable expectation that he reality is better. HISD still has a big hole to fill, and changes to the magnet programs will be difficult and disruptive, though long overdue. I confess that I haven’t been following all this very closely – sorry, all the election stuff has taken over my brain – but I will get back into it as the process begins.

HISD working on a bond issue

It’s going to be quite the year for HISD.

Voters living in Houston ISD could be asked to approve a new school bond totaling at least $1.2 billion as early as November, according to a recently unveiled district financial plan.

The bond would finance major construction projects, technology upgrades, fine arts purchases and other capital costs. If the bond request totals $1.2 billion, it would likely come with a tax increase of 3 cents to 7 cents per $100 of taxable value, depending on Hurricane Harvey’s impact on property values, district administrators said.

For a homeowner with a property valued at about $275,000, roughly the average in HISD in recent years, the increase would amount to $80 to $190 per year.

District leaders unveiled the plans over the weekend during a wide-ranging preview of major changes to the district’s budget, magnet schools program and approach to long-failing schools. HISD’s last bond election came in 2012, when two-thirds of voters approved a $1.89 billion request.

District leaders did not present specific projects or amounts, but they’re expected in the coming months to finalize a proposal for school board members. Board trustees must approve sending a bond election to voters.

Administrators said the bond would help finance new campuses in pockets of the city’s west and south sides, where student enrollment has grown, along with upgrades to outdated elementary and middle schools. The 2012 bond largely focused on renovating and building new high schools, with 26 campuses getting about $1.3 billion worth of construction.

The district’s financial staff estimates that a $500 million bond request could be passed without raising taxes, but the amount “would not do much for a school district of this size,” HISD Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby said.

“It would be something that would possibly pass, depending on what you do, but it would not be as impactful as we need a bond to be, based on our strategic vision moving forward,” Busby said.

Add this to the other items already on the plate and once again you can see what a busy year the Board has for itself. The initial reaction I saw to this on Facebook was not positive, which may have been the result of this coming on the heels of the announcement about changes to the magnet school program – lots of people I know are already plenty anxious about that. It’s also a weird year for politics, people feel like there’s too many things for them to keep track of, and I’m sure some people are wondering why there’s another bond issue six years after the last one. HISD bond issues generally pass easily – the one in 2012 got 69% of the vote – but I suspect the Board and Superintendent Carranza are going to have to put together a solid plan and sell it to the voters, with a strong promise of engagement and accountability. I would not take anything for granted.

HISD’s plan to avoid state takeover

We’ll see how this works. As we know, the stakes are quite high.

Houston ISD administrators have proposed dramatic changes to 15 low-performing schools that, if approved, could temporarily prevent the state from taking over the district’s Board of Trustees or shuttering campuses.

In a bid to preempt state intervention and improve academic performance, the district is proposing two options for each of the 15 schools: either allow an outside organization to take control of hiring and curriculum, or close and immediately reopen the campus with entirely new staff and programming before the 2018-19 academic year.

Under the latter option, the campus would only serve limited grade levels in 2018-19 — pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in elementary schools, sixth grade in middle schools and ninth grade in high schools. As a result, the majority of students at any close-and-reopen school would be displaced in 2018-19. Each campus would add one grade level in subsequent years.

The sweeping proposal, which remains in the early stages, comes as Houston ISD faces significant sanctions for its failure to improve chronically low-performing schools following the 2015 passage of a law known as HB 1842.


District administrators haven’t recommended which schools would employ partnerships or close-and-reopen. They are expected to present recommendations at a Feb. 1 board meeting, with community meetings planned throughout the month. Administrators are aiming for a board vote on the changes by early March.

Add this to the other big changes in the works and you can see what an ambitious agenda the board has for itself. Again, there’s a lot there and I encourage you to read it all, and to get involved in the process. There ought to be plenty of opportunities to engage, so if you want HISD to hear what you think about, get out there and tell them.

HISD faces major changes

This is a very big story, but a key component to it is not discussed here.

Houston ISD officials said Saturday the district will need to cut about $200 million from its 2018-19 budget to bring spending in line with an increasingly gloomy financial outlook.

In an equally momentous move, Houston ISD officials also proposed far-reaching changes to how the district operates its magnet and school choice systems, some of the boldest moves to date by second-year Superintendent Richard Carranza.

Still reeling from Hurricane Harvey, Houston Independent School District officials revealed at a board meeting Saturday that the district is facing a double whammy: A multimillion-dollar, state-mandated “recapture” payment requiring districts with high property values to “share the wealth,” and an expected drop in enrollment and tax revenue because of the devastating storm, which severely damaged schools and delayed the start of classes by two weeks.

The proposed cuts come at an inopportune time, with the district battling to stave off a potential state takeover because of 10 chronically under-performing schools.

Although the measures outlined Saturday are preliminary and could change significantly before HISD’s board votes on them, officials acknowledged that the district is entering an uncertain time.

“It’s a sea change for HISD,” said Rene Barajas, the district’s chief financial officer. “But at the end of the day, from a budgetary perspective, we’re still going to get the job done. It’s just going to be harder.”

There’s a lot more and there’s too much to adequately summarize, so go read the rest. We know about the recapture payments, which even though they have been reduced due to Harvey are still significant. We know HISD has been talking about revamping its magnet programs for some time, and there’s a cost-savings component to that as well. We know that property values and enrollment have been affected by Harvey, and we know how daily attendance determines the amount of money the district gets from the state. So none of this is a surprise, though having to deal with all of it at once is a big shock.

What’s missing from this article is any mention of what the state could and should do to help ameliorate this blow. I think everyone agrees that if a school building is destroyed by a catastrophic weather event, it should be rebuilt via a combination of funding sources, mostly private insurance and emergency allocations from the state. Why shouldn’t that also apply to the secondary effects of that same catastrophe? It’s not HISD’s fault that its revenues, both from taxes and from state appropriations, will be down. There needs to be a mechanism to at least soften, if not remove, this burden. Bear in mind that one reason why the drop in property values is such a hit is because the state has shoved more and more of the responsibility for school finance on local districts. If Harvey had happened even a decade ago, the appraisal loss would still be felt, but not by as much. That’s not HISD’s doing, it’s the Legislature’s and the Governor’s and the Lieutenant Governor’s, all with the approval of the Supreme Court.

But what can be done can be undone. With little to no pain on its part, the Lege could tap into the Rainy Day Fund to get HISD past the worst of this, or it could recognize that the nearly one billion it appropriated last session for “border security” is little more than macho posturing, an endless boondoggle for a handful of sheriffs, and an sharp increase in traffic citations, and redirect some of that money to HISD and any other district in similar straits. There are other things the Lege could do, but all of it starts with the basic principle that the Lege should do something to help out here. When are we going to talk about that?

Extra school days may be coming

Darn that crazy weather.

School districts across greater Houston are working to determine if they need to add extra days to their academic calendars or extra minutes to their school days to make up two days missed this week due to icy weather.

Area students have already missed two weeks or more of classes during the current school year as a result of Hurricane Harvey and the flooding it triggered.

Some of the area’s largest districts — including Houston and Cypress-Fairbanks — have already announced they will likely need to add at least one day to the school year after canceling classes Tuesday and Wednesday. The Cy-Fair and Humble school districts said students will no longer have a day off on Monday, Feb. 19, which will instead be used as a make-up day. That date had already been set aside as a make-up day in the event of unexpected school closures.

Houston ISD Superintendent Richard Carranza said Wednesday that his district, Texas’ largest, would likely need to add two instructional days to its academic year.

“We’re going to try to avoid adding days onto the end of the year. It wreaks havoc on graduation schedules, and lots of students and families have announced dates and have people flying in,” Carranza said. “We’ll do everything in our power to avoid tacking onto the end of the school year.”

As I recall, the last time HISD had to do this they added one day at the end of the year, and also opened schools on Memorial Day. I won’t be surprised if that’s on the table for this year, much to my girls’ dismay. It is what it is, and as noted at the end of the story, we all better hope for good weather from here on out. They’ll let us know when they know.

Who’s to blame for the special education limits

The Lege gets a finger pointed at it.

After a federal report blasted Texas for failing kids with disabilities, educators and public education advocates are pointing the finger directly at state legislators who, they argue, first suggested capping special education to keep costs low.

The U.S. Department of Education last week released a monitoring report, after a 15-month investigation, finding that the Texas Education Agency effectively capped the statewide percentage of students who could receive special education services and incentivized school districts to deny services to eligible students. Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement soon after that criticized local school districts for their “dereliction of duty” in failing to serve students — which touched a nerve for educators.

“We weren’t derelict: the state of Texas was derelict, the Texas Education Agency was derelict,” said HD Chambers, superintendent of Alief ISD and president of the Texas School Alliance, an advocacy group. “We were following what they put in place.”

In a statement sent to TEA and Abbott on Sunday, the Texas School Alliance and school administrator groups dated the creation of a special education cap back to a 2004 Texas House Public Education Committee interim report, which surveyed how other states fund special education and which made recommendations to the Legislature for how to discourage identifying too many students with disabilities.


The committee’s report recommended the Legislature “determine what aspects of our current funding mechanism for special education encourage overidentification; and then investigate alternative methods for funding special education that decrease any incentives to overidentify students as needing special education services.”

It also recommended reducing state and local administrative costs in overseeing special education in order to direct more money to students with disabilities.

That same year, TEA implemented a system to monitor and evaluate how school districts were serving kids with disabilities. The percentage of students with disabilities served plunged from 11.6 percent in 2004 to 8.6 percent in 2016. The U.S. Department of Education found last week that the agency was more likely to intervene in school districts that provided services for more students with disabilities, incentivizing administrators to cut back on services.

Chambers was a central office administrator at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in 2004 and recalls receiving direct and indirect instruction from the state to serve fewer students. “We were under the impression that we were out of compliance if we were identifying more than 8.5 percent of our population,” he said.

See here for past blogging on the topic, and here for the Trib story on the federal report. I will note that the Chair of the House Public Education Committee at the time of the 2004 interim report was none other then Kent Grusendorf, a man who was so anti-public education that he was basically the inspiration for (and first real victory won by) the Texas Parent PAC. So yeah, I have no trouble believing this. As to when it might get fixed, that’s a topic for November.

HISD to standardize start times

This had been talked about for some time.

HISD will implement standardized school start times for the 2018-19 school year to better deliver efficient, reliable, and affordable transportation to our students.

Currently, HISD manages 67 different school start times – the highest in the state – as it transports nearly 36,000 students on almost 1,200 different routes each day. Beginning next fall, the district will operate with two standardized start/dismissal times:

  • 7:30 a.m.-2:50 p.m. for elementary schools and K-8 campuses
  • 8:30 a.m.-3:50 p.m. for all secondary campuses (middle school, high school, and grade 6-12 campuses)


Standardizing school start times will bring efficiencies to the district’s bus routes and ensure that students arrive to campus and depart on time, resulting in fewer interruptions to teaching, learning, and family schedules. The new start times will also extend the life of the district’s bus fleet and reduce maintenance and fuel costs.

As it happens, my daughters will be entering middle and high school next fall, and I can tell you they approve of this change. There was a proposal like this a few years ago that ultimately went nowhere. This time around, HISD did a survey of parents, and they went with the option that was favored by both parents and principals. If you have kids in HISD, what do you think about this? The Chron and the Press have more.

One small piece of relief for Harvey-affected school districts

It’s not much, but it’s something.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is not changing state standardized test dates for students affected by Hurricane Harvey, but he is waiving some requirements for certain students, his agency said Thursday.

Students across the state will be still required to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, as scheduled in March and May. But after pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott, Morath sent a letter to Harvey-affected school districts today saying students who fail required standardized state tests in fifth and eighth grade twice can graduate, as long as their local districts officials agree they are ready.

Normally, fifth- and eighth-grade students, who must pass the STAAR reading and math tests to graduate, must take the tests up to three times if they fail. If a student doesn’t pass on the third try, he or she cannot graduate unless a committee of his or her educators and parents unanimously agrees to promote the student.

With Morath’s announcement, Harvey-affected districts will have more leeway to decide whether to require students to take the test a third time and to decide locally whether students who fail the tests can graduate.

Rescheduling the STAAR tests was never really an option, as it would have been disruptive to many school districts. Indeed, a large majority of superintendents were opposed to rescheduling the STAAR. This at least gives some kids who have been traumatized in one way or another by Harvey a chance to stay on track, with their classmates. Morath may still make further adjustments to the accountability system later, which if it does happen will probably be after the tests are taken and we get some idea of how the scores were affected. At least the TEA is being open to suggestion.

HISD proposes to rebuild four schools damaged by Harvey

Seems reasonable.

Students at four storm-damaged Houston ISD elementary schools wouldn’t return to their home campuses until at least 2020 under a district proposal for replacing the structures announced Monday.

The $126-million plan calls for the four campuses — Braeburn, Kolter, Mitchell and Scarborough elementary schools — to be demolished and rebuilt at their current locations. The properties would be elevated to prevent the type of flooding that occurred after Hurricane Harvey, district officials said.

Houston ISD’s Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote on the plan Thursday.

“Based on the catastrophic flood damage and the elevation increase each campus would need to prevent future flooding, we’ve decided that the best use of HISD resources is to rebuild these four buildings,” the district’s chief operating officer, Brian Busby, said in a statement.

Students attending the four schools have been in temporary locations since September, traveling distances ranging from four to 11 miles away from their home campus. It’s not immediately known whether students would remain at the same temporary campuses until the new buildings are constructed.


District officials expect that virtually all storm-related costs will be covered through insurance, Federal Emergency Management Agency funds and state aid. As the district awaits reimbursement for costs, the $126 million for reconstruction would be paid out of the district’s “rainy day” reserves and Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone funds.

Trustee Mike Lunceford, whose district includes Braeburn and Kolter elementary schools, said decisions about rebuilding schools should be made now, rather than waiting for payments from FEMA and the state. He said he’s supportive of the district’s plan, though he has a few questions about the cost and a separate proposal to change the district’s policies for maintaining reserve funds.

“A lot of people are talking to me, asking if we’re going to rebuild the schools,” Lunceford said. “They definitely need to be rebuilt. Both schools (in my district) have more than adequate population.”

Not using these schools is not an option, and not doing something to mitigate against future flooding, however unlikely another Harvey may be, is irresponsible. The funding should be there, but if in the end HISD has to float some bonds for this, it’s worth it. The Press has more.

Ruby Polanco

This happened late last month, and kind of got lost in the Harvey fallout.

Ruby Polanco

A year after Ruby Polanco first noticed that the San Antonio Independent School District’s non-discrimination statement for students and employees didn’t mention gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation, the 17-year-old won her first policy victory.

Polanco submitted a petition and spoke to SAISD’s board of trustees, which voted unanimously last week to add those categories.

“It’s a matter of protection and equal education and safety for all, especially the district’s most vulnerable members,” Polanco told the board. “What makes discrimination based on other factors more significant than discrimination based on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation?”

Not counting Twitter, it was Polanco’s first foray into advocacy — but she isn’t done. The Young Women’s Leadership Academy senior is contacting other school districts around the state and urging them to make the same changes.

“I want to do more for those districts where students are still left out of those statements,” Polanco said.


SAISD’s non-discrimination statements already prohibited gender-based discrimination against students or employees, and its non-discrimination policy for students included an explanation that gender-based harassment included “conduct based on the student’s gender, the student’s expression of characteristics perceived as stereotypical for the student’s gender, or the student’s failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.” The policy gave examples of gender-based harassment “regardless of the student’s or the harasser’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Even with that definition, Polanco said, districts need to be more specific as times change.

“Without that language, it can be interpreted different ways,” she said. “If a transgender girl had applied to our school before, it would be a question, but now it’s a reassurance: You will not be discriminated against.”

SAISD’s official statement is here. The updated policy was adopted on August 21, but it wasn’t until last week at the subsequent board meeting that the conservative backlash began in earnest. There’s nothing new here under the sun – the same tiresome lies are being used against the policy by the usual assortment of liars and the rabble they are able to rouse with those lies – but if we’ve learned anything from the HERO fight, it’s that one cannot sleep on this cacophony. So please, my friends and fellow travelers in San Antonio, get organized and be prepared for whatever campaign activity these jokers have planned. And please make sure Ruby Polanco gets all the support she needs to keep doing what she’s doing. We need more like her.

Some schools will have longer days

Seems like a reasonable approach, all things considered.

School days will grow longer for students at 11 Houston Independent School District campuses after the Board of Education voted Thursday night to extend school days to stay in compliance with state law.

The next step is for the Texas Education Agency to grant Houston ISD nine disaster waivers for classes missed from Aug. 28 to Sept. 8 due to Hurricane Harvey. If okayed by TEA, HISD students will likely not have to make up those days during the coming school year, but a handful of schools opening in the coming two weeks will need to make up time.

Superintendent Richard Carranza said the district had three options to comply with the state law: cut short already planned holidays, tack days on to the end of the school year or lengthen the school day.

“There is no perfect situation,” Carranza said. “But we are also very committed to make sure the additional time required for students won’t just be seat time. We’re going to have enrichment activities and teachers informed in trauma pedagogy.”

The lengthened school days will only be in effect for the fall semester. Students at all schools will be on regular schedules beginning in 2018.

HISD’s statement about this, which includes a link to the revised academic calendar, is here. Five early release days were also eliminated, which includes one this Thursday. Existing holidays were kept intact on the grounds that people have made travel plans based on them. Hopefully by the end of the fall semester, everyone will be sufficiently caught up that no further alterations will be needed.

Don’t expect any STAAR slack

Sorry, kids.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday morning that the state was not likely to let students displaced by Hurricane Harvey delay a required state test this school year — or to change the way school districts are graded at the end of the school year.

“I would say, given the information I have, it doesn’t look likely that we would be able to make too many changes on assessment, and for that matter, on accountability,” Morath told the State Board of Education. “We haven’t made any final decisions yet. But we still want to make sure students know how to read, write and do math.”

Educators and advocates for fewer state tests said they were dismayed by Morath’s statement and hope he will consider waiving requirements for southeast Texas districts that have had to postpone classes. State Rep. Dan Huberty, chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he has heard from constituents on the matter and will hold a public hearing in the next few weeks to consider how the Legislature can help schools impacted by August’s storm.

Huberty, a Houston Republican, said he plans to invite educators from all impacted schools to testify.


“We had a dramatic and traumatic event just occur that affected so many folks in the southeast Texas area,” said Bret Champion, superintendent of Klein ISD, located just north of Houston. “We absolutely are about teaching rigorous material around academics, but we also provide for an awful lot of social-emotional wellness” for traumatized students.

Champion suggested the state consider moving the test dates back. Klein ISD students missed seven days of classes, as administrators surveyed flooded buildings. Teachers and students are still cleaning out flooded homes, and some have lost everything. “A little more time to be able to assess that would be helpful,” he said.

Two advisory groups of educators, legislative representatives and businesspeople meet twice a year to discuss the accountability system for school districts and advise Morath on how to implement it. Laura Yeager, who has served as an adviser for the past two years, said she will bring up waiving accountability grades for school districts at the upcoming October meeting.

“I’m not sure how they can rate a district or student on growth when they have lost or gained so many students,” said Yeager, who is also a board member of Texans Advocating for Meaningful State Assessment, which has lobbied the Legislature for fewer state tests.

I hope Commissioner Morath will take his time making a final decision. Champion and Yeager have both raised valid concerns that should be taken seriously. It may be that displaced students will do just fine and the overall effect of Harvey will be minimal, but if it isn’t there shouldn’t be a penalty for that. Morath and the TEA need to keep an open mind about this.

What will this school year be like?

School has finally started for most of HISD and many surrounding districts, but with the devastation and disruption of Harvey, what can we expect from this academic year?

Many students in Houston ISD lost everything – their homes, their school supplies, their clothes, their toys.

Some are staying in the mega-shelters at the George R. Brown Convention Center and NRG Park. Others were flown by military helicopter to Dallas and San Antonio, where they have already started school. Still more are shaken after being plucked from their flooded homes by boats and Humvees.

With more than 600,000 Houston-area students set to return to the classroom Monday, teachers and school officials wonder how many will show up – and if they’ll be ready to learn.

And at some schools, business as usual will be a distant memory.

“It’s hard to focus on the lesson of the day when you’re worried about, ‘How is my home? How is my family?” said Ezemenari Obasi, associate dean for research in the University of Houston’s College of Education. “Those questions and worries become more salient than the lesson plan at school.”


While school can help provide some sense of normalcy, Obasi said paying attention to lessons and regurgitating a year’s worth of knowledge during hours-long standardized tests could prove much more difficult for flood-affected students.

He said the brain’s ability to focus can be severely hampered after experiencing significant anxiety, especially for children and teens’ whose brains are still developing.

“It’s really difficult to assess a person’s capacity when they’re not 100 percent available to focus and attempt the task,” Obasi said. “Many things we measure in schools involve students having to focus. They have to have good spatial processing or cognitive abilities, and if you can’t focus, it’s going to be extremely difficult to do anything, let alone ace an important standardized test.”

Obasi said stress can cause a host of physical and mental ailments, from sleeplessness and an inability to concentrate in the short-term to addiction and diabetes in the long-term.

Exhaustion is a real concern, Obasi said, as many have issues falling asleep and staying asleep during times of significant stress. On top of that, anxiety can hamper the brain’s ability each morning to release cortisol, a hormone that helps people get out of bed and going, making such tasks exponentially more tiresome for students.

Then there are the constant distractions – random triggers that will remind students of the worst days of their lives, questions about where their family will live, uncertainty about where their next meal will come from.

There are so many challenges facing HISD this year, from schools that aren’t ready to open and in some cases may never be to teachers who are still dealing with their own damaged houses and cars to students who have been displaced to points unknown. Indeed, quite a few of these students are now homeless, for who knows how long.

The Texas Homeless Education Office estimates that about 35,000 to 40,000 students have been affected by Hurricane Harvey. On top of that, more than 200 school districts and charter schools statewide canceled or delayed classes, some indefinitely.

Jeanne Stamp, the office’s director, said some families have relocated to Dallas and San Antonio but Houston is sure to see their already large number of homeless children balloon.

Federal protections require schools to immediately enroll children who have lost their regular homes, including those affected by a natural disaster.

That federal law allows homeless children to either stay in the school they were attending or enroll in the school in the neighborhood where they are currently staying, with transportation costs divided equally between the two districts if there’s a funding dispute.

The Texas “Third Choice” law goes even further, allowing homeless students the choice to enroll in any school district in the state, regardless of their school of origin or the location of the place where they are staying.

But the state law doesn’t require transportation to be provided, something Michael Santos, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, urged schools to offer in order to comply with the over-arching federal law.

“That falls under the obligation to remove barriers for the student attending school,” Santos said. “Transportation is controversial and it’s expensive.”

For Houston, the transportation issue could be even more heightened as many displaced families are likely to have to commute across the sprawling metro area, between where they want to go to school and where they’re stuck sleeping at night.

“Sometimes public bus passes help get kids to school. Sometimes parents have a vehicle but don’t have funds for gas,” Stamp said. “It is a very costly piece of the service but it’s a necessarily piece of the service.”

Hey, you know what one of the ancillary effects of HISD going into recapture was? They lost state funding for transportation. Hell of a time for that to happen, with all these students needing to travel farther to go to school, right? Layered on top of all that is the takeover threat from the TEA if certain campuses don’t show sufficient improvement on the STAAR test. I don’t know how the state can enforce that threat in good conscience this year given the extreme exogenous circumstances HISD must deal with, but as yet there’s been no discussion, let alone decisions, to that effect.

The point is that this was going to be a tough year for HISD no matter what, but before Harvey hit you could see a path to holding off the TEA from doing anything undesirable. It’s a lot harder to see such a path now. And as bad as HISD has it, some others have it worse. This is why some folks are petitioning for a halt to STAAR testing for the ISDs affected by Harvey. I don’t think that will get anywhere, and to be honest I’m not sure that it should. But I do know that the TEA and the Lege need to take a far more measured approach to accountability this year. No one – no student, no school, no district – should be penalized for having to go through all this.

Most but not all HISD schools will open Monday

Here’s the latest.

Nine storm-damaged Houston ISD campuses will remain temporarily closed when many district students return to classes for the fall following a two-week delay caused by Hurricane Harvey, Superintendent Richard Carranza said Thursday. Meanwhile, students at nearly 80 schools won’t return to classes until either Sept. 18 or Sept. 25.

District officials released specific campus information about the nine schools that won’t immediately re-open. They are Scarborough, Hilliard, Robinson, Mitchell, Kolter, Braeburn and Askew elementary schools; Burbank Middle School; and Liberty High School

Those campuses were home to about 6,500 students in the 2016-17 school year, with all serving between 450 students and 950 students.

“Some of those schools will probably not open for the rest of the school year,” Carranza said. “Some schools will have co-location for a matter of weeks, sometimes months, and in some cases, longer than that.”

Information about where students from the storm-damaged schools will start classes, as well as information about which schools will open on Sept. 18 or Sept. 25, was to be released Thursday evening. Of the district’s 284 schools, 202 will be ready to open on Monday, Carranza said.

See here for the full announcement, and here for the database where you can look up your school’s opening date. Both of the schools my girls attend are among the 202 opening on the 11th, which had been the previous goal for all schools. Circumstances change, and you can’t send kids to a school that isn’t safe for them. It’s gonna be a hell of a year. The Press has more.

Many schools were damaged by Harvey

This will add so much more disruption to the Harvey recovery efforts.

More than 10,000 Houston Independent School District students are expected to start classes in temporary quarters as officials work to repair hundreds of campuses damaged by Hurricane Harvey, Superintendent Richard Carranza said Saturday.

Carranza said the district still plans to start school on Sept. 11, though officials have not yet decided which campuses will be temporarily closed or where displaced students will be sent. Those calls will be made no earlier than Tuesday, he said.

“There is that slight chance there will be a delay past Sept. 11, but we’re working with all due haste to make sure we’re going to meet that deadline,” Carranza said. “There has always been the caveat that we will not put students and staff in harm’s way.”

The damage estimates come as school districts across the Houston area struggled to open their doors after widespread flooding. Cy-Fair ISD on Saturday pushed its start date back to Sept. 11, citing sewage issues at several schools.

Humble ISD set a Sept. 7 return date, but alerted parents Saturday that Kingwood High School could be closed all year.

“Flood waters devastated KHS,” according to a notice posted on the district’s website. “The building is unsafe and unhealthy.”


In Houston ISD, at least 200 of the 245 schools inspected were found to have sustained damage, officials said. Of those, 53 sustained “major” damage and 22 had “extensive” damage, the most severe label given by district officials.

Another 30 or so schools were still being inspected, including 15 that had been inaccessible because of severe flooding around the buildings, HISD Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby said early Saturday. The district operates 280 schools.

“There may be a situation where a school is so badly damaged that we may not be able to re-open that school,” Carranza said, after a tour of waterlogged Hilliard Elementary in northeast Houston on Saturday. “It’s too early right now to make that call.”

There’s too much to try to capture in excerpts, so go read the rest. Pretty much everything is on the table – sharing school buildings with different shifts for classes, busing kids to other schools, who knows what else. How will this affect things like STAAR testing and the TEA takeover threat that the district faces? No one knows right now. It’s going to be a crazy, disjointed, bizarre year, here and in other districts. Honestly, given that some districts that were directly in the path of Harvey when it was still a hurricane are unable to function at all and will have to send their students to another district altogether, it could be worse. It’s still pretty bad, and it will be bad all year. We will get through it, but it’s going to take a lot of effort and in the end a huge amount of money.

HISD gets some improvements, needs some more

Mostly good news.

State school ratings released Tuesday showed academic gains across Houston ISD this year, but enthusiasm over the results was tempered by 10 struggling campuses again falling short of state standards, leaving the district under threat of state intervention and even takeover next year without more progress.

District administrators heralded the results, released publicly by the Texas Education Agency, while also pledging to buckle down at the 10 schools that have now received at least four straight “improvement required” marks.

HISD officials were warned last week that a 2015 state law requires either the closure of schools that receive five straight “improvement required” ratings as of August 2018 or the state takeover of local boards in districts with chronically failing schools.

In the Houston area, three other districts had faced possible state intervention if long-failing schools didn’t show improvement. Those districts — Aldine, Alief and Spring Branch — all made the grade Tuesday, removing the threat for those systems.

That left only Houston ISD, which faces a monumental task in the coming months: Turn around 10 schools in high-minority, high-poverty areas that have repeatedly not met state standards. They are Blackshear, Dogan, Highland Heights, Mading and Wesley elementary schools; Henry Middle School; Woodson PK-8 School; and Kashmere, Wheatley and Worthing high schools.

District officials have said they plan to devote additional resources to those campuses, fill all vacant positions in them, and work with local leaders — including Mayor Sylvester Turner — to secure other aid for those students.

“It’s what we wake up thinking about. It’s what we go to sleep thinking about, if we even go to sleep,” Superintendent Richard Carranza said Tuesday.

Still, Carranza saw positives in the results. Of 259 Houston ISD campuses graded by the state, 27 were labeled “improvement required,” the lowest number in the five-year history of the ratings. And after multiple years of failing grades, four campuses — Cook, Kashmere Gardens and Lewis elementary schools and Victory Prep South, a charter high school — met state standards in 2017.

“I’m incredibly excited, incredibly buoyed by the results,” said Carranza, who was brought to Houston a year ago from San Francisco, where he was schools superintendent. “For 90 percent to be performing so well is a great achievement.”

See here for the background, and click over to the story to see the ratings. Clearly, progress has been made, but the question is how much that will count for if some or all of those still-underperforming schools are on the list again next year. The Press has more.

HISD board fills Manuel Rodriguez’s seat

The HISD Board of Trustees is back to full strength.

Jose Leal

The Houston ISD Board of Education voted to appoint José Leal to fill the seat left vacant after the death of longtime District III Trustee Manuel Rodríguez Jr last month. Board members chose Leal unanimously during a special meeting Monday afternoon.

Leal has more than 20 years of classroom experience. His career with HISD started in 1981, when he worked in operations and maintenance. He has worked as a bilingual teacher at Pugh Elementary School, a counselor and dean of students at Hamilton Middle School, and an assistant principal at Wheatley High School. He has also been a dean of students at Meyerland Middle School, assistant principal at North Forest High School, and a counselor at YES Prep Northbrook. He is currently a special education teacher at Houston Can Academies.

“Jose Leal was the only candidate who met the caretaker qualifications the board was looking for in this temporary appointment,” Board President Wanda Adams said. “The board would like to thank the other candidates who wanted to volunteer their time.”

Leal will be sworn in on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, and will serve at the Board of Education’s next monthly meeting on Sept. 14, 2017. He will serve until a special election is called by the board at its monthly meeting on Aug. 10. That special election will be held Nov. 7.

Rodriguez had passed away in July, so his seat had been vacant for about four weeks. The Board put out a call for applicants a week ago. This Chron story about Leal’s appointment contains a quote from Board President Wanda Adams that Leal “was the only candidate who met the caretaker qualifications the board was looking for in this temporary appointment”, so I take that to mean he will not run for a full term in November. Leal had run against Rodriguez in 2015, finishing second in a three-way race and then getting 44% in the runoff. Whether he will run again or not, I’m sure this will be a hot race. Congratulations and best wishes to Leal for however long he serves.

HISD and the TEA

Still catching up on things.

Texas education officials are warning that Houston ISD could be placed under the jurisdiction of state-appointed managers as early as next year if 13 district schools don’t show improvement.

The warning was issued during a meeting [last] Monday between Texas Education Agency officials and Houston’s legislative delegation.

TEA officials told lawmakers that if even one of the district’s 13 schools that has struggled for at least the past three years receives failing accountability marks in 2017 and again in 2018, it could trigger state oversight of the entire district. Alternatively, the state agency could take over individual, chronically failing campuses.

Houston ISD is among 46 independent school districts that could face such sweeping changes thanks to a law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2015 that targets schools that have been in “improvement required” status for five or more years, as of the 2018-2019 school year.


“Houston ISD is aware of major concerns the Texas Education Agency has expressed regarding several of our schools considered ‘chronically underperforming,'” the district said in a written statement Tuesday. “HISD shares the agency’s concerns and is working closely with TEA on the transformative work we must do at the local level to ensure every HISD student receives an excellent education.”

District officials said Wednesday that state officials told them only eight of their campuses, along with two charter schools it took over in 2016-17, must improve to avoid triggering the new law.

The discrepancy is due to conflicting interpretations of the law. Houston ISD believes its only at-risk campuses are those with six straight “improvement required” ratings as of 2018. The Texas Education Agency confirmed Wednesday that schools with five straight “improvement required” ratings as of 2018 put the district at risk.

Houston ISD officials also said Wednesday that they expect some schools to break their “improvement required” streak in 2017. They declined to specify how many. School districts have received preliminary school ratings for 2017, but they will not be publicly released until next week.

Several other large school districts — including the Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Waco ISDs — also have multiple struggling campuses that could fall into “improvement required” status again this year and in 2018, potentially prompting a state takeover.

Locally, the Aldine, Alief, Brazosport, Galveston, Spring Branch and Victoria ISDs all have at least one campus that could potentially trigger such major changes by 2018.

Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of the advocacy group Children at Risk, said Houston ISD and other districts facing potential state takeover are not in nearly as dire straits academically or financially as other districts that the TEA has taken control of or forced to close. He said data supported the TEA’s closing of North Forest ISD in 2013 and of La Marque ISD in 2016.

“HISD on the other hand, and Dallas ISD — they clearly have many success stories, many good schools,” Sanborn said. “Dallas and Houston ISDs have a lot of high-performing, high-poverty schools, and if you look at Houston ISD’s record in the last five years they have seen a turnaround.

It’s hard to believe the state could do more to enhance that turnaround than what’s already being completed.”

For sure it’s hard to imagine the TEA being better equipped to handle a challenge like that. HISD was good enough to be the landing place for North Forest ISD students – by the way, have we ever seen any data about how those students have fared since the NFISD shutdown? – and I doubt anyone would argue that it’s substantially worse since 2013. I imagine there will be a lot of discussion about this, so I have hope that a sensible solution will be found. The Chron wants Mayor Turner to be involved, and while I think he should have a role as advocate, I’m not sure what more he can or should do, given that HISD is a completely separate governing body. But yes, he should speak out and forcefully advocate for not screwing around with what is overall a pretty successful school district, as should all invested stakeholders. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we should remember that poverty is the common factor among these schools, and while some schools and some students can overcome that, there is a lot more that the state and the federal government could do to help more schools and students overcome it as well. There’s blame that goes beyond HISD, is what I’m saying. Campos has more.

RIP, Manuel Rodriguez

Sad news.

Manuel Rodriguez

Every Tuesday at 8 a.m., Houston ISD Trustee Manuel “Manny” Rodriguez, Jr., would roll his maroon mobility scooter up to his favorite table at the Tel-Wink Restaurant & Grill in Southeast Houston.

Rodriguez always left the seat across from him empty. Constituents and complete strangers knew those were his office hours — the hours he set aside to visit with community members with questions about the school district, parents worried about new policies or those who just wanted to get Rodriguez’ opinion on the latest local news. If you were lucky, Rodriguez would buy your breakfast.

“That was like his little home away from home,” said Carlos Calbillo, a Latino community activist who described Rodriguez as a “dear friend.” “He did more work at that breakfast table than he did at his office or the HISD offices. He was a people person, just loved by everyone.”

Rodriguez, an HISD trustee since 2003 and a voice for the city’s Latino community for years before that, died Wednesday morning after suffering a massive heart attack, according to a statement released by the Houston ISD.

His unexpected death stunned the HISD community. Funeral arrangements had not been finalized as of Wednesday evening, and the district did not respond immediately to questions about the selection of a possible successor.

Trustee Anne Sung said Rodriguez’s death was “tremendously sad.”

“Manny has been such a long-standing servant on the HISD board,” said Sung, elected last year to represent District VII. “He is extremely committed to his community and has been a great mentor to me as I’ve joined the HISD board. I’m very sorry to hear about this great loss.”

Houston City Council Member Robert Gallegos announced Rodriguez’ death at Wednesday’s meeting. He, Mayor Sylvester Turner and other council members offered their condolences to Rodriguez’ family.

I interviewed Rodriguez in 2011, and we met at the Tel-Wink for it. I don’t know how audible any of it was over the background noise, but that was clearly his preferred place to hang out and be with people. There are many qualities that can make a person a successful politician, and the community Rodriguez had at the Tel-Wink was a fine example of one. My sincere condolences to his family and friends for their loss.

Rodriguez was last elected in 2015, so he was not going to be on the ballot this November. I expect the Board will appoint someone to serve for now, and that there will be a special election to finish out his term in the fall. We’ll know more after their next meeting.

No changes to HISD magnet programs

Not this year, anyway.

Houston ISD Superintendent Richard Carranza this week withdrew a plan to deeply cut funding for the district’s magnet programs over the next three years, shelving a proposal that had angered parents and some school board members who consider the specialized academic programs to be jewels in an oft-troubled school system.

The proposed cuts, outlined in a presentation to the HISD board last week, would have eliminated all extra funding per student to many of the district’s 121 magnet programs by the 2019-2020 school year while cutting funding to many of the other programs by hundreds of dollars per student. Only funding for secondary-language and early-college programs were spared.

But after the plan triggered a backlash from magnet school supporters, Carranza and district officials pulled back the proposal and said they instead planned to conduct a review of the district’s magnet funding and programs.

HISD spokeswoman Lila Hollin said in a written statement on Wednesday that the district had no plans to cut funding or make changes to magnet schools for the coming 2017-2018 school year.

“HISD magnet programs are reviewed annually. Discussions about the equitable funding of schools – both magnet and neighborhood campuses – are part of that review process,” Hollin wrote.

She added that a comprehensive review of the magnet program would likely be completed by January.


Magnet schools and programs have been a touchy subject in Houston ISD as their prevalence and prominence has grown. While some are more diverse both in terms of race and economic status than many other district schools, critics have argued that they accept a much larger percentage of white and Asian students than those groups account for district-wide.

Only 8 percent of HISD’s students are white, according to TEA data, yet they make up about 36 percent of students at Carnegie Vanguard High. At DeBakey High, about 50 percent of the students are Asian, even though only about 4.7 percent of students district-wide belong to that ethnic group.

But the district’s demographics don’t match those of the city overall, largely because more-affluent white families have generally opted to send their children to private schools or to other districts. About 15 percent of those 18 and under in the city of Houston are white, according to Census data.

Houston ISD Trustee Anna Eastman said she’s glad the proposed cuts to magnet schools and programs appear to be off the table for next year, but she worries that any future cuts along the lines of the recent proposal would be “incredibly drastic.” She said cutting extra funding to the magnet programs is not the way to bring more diversity to those campuses.

“I think our goal should always be to create schools that draw the diversity of Houston into them and spread it across and throughout the district,” Eastman said. “I don’t think the problems in our other schools is the fault of kids in our magnet programs.”

I haven’t been paying close attention to this, but nothing that happened here surprises me. As the story notes, there have been reviews of the magnet program going on for some time, and they usually don’t get very far because the stakeholders really don’t like the proposals. The last section I quoted above captures the conflict succinctly – this program and its schools are very successful and desirable, but there’s limited space and the schools’ demographics don’t come close to mirroring the district as a whole, and they draw students away from their neighborhood schools, which can suffer as a result. It would be best to have more magnet-style programs in more schools all around the district, but that’s a hard thing to do when resources are scarce. I don’t see anything about this dynamic changing much in the near future.

SBOE approves new evolution standard

Shockingly, it doesn’t suck.

The Texas State Board of Education tentatively voted to remove language in high school biology standards that would have required students to challenge evolutionary science.

Currently, the curriculum requires students to “evaluate” scientific explanations for the origins of DNA and the complexity of certain cells, which some have argued could open the door to teaching creationism. Wednesday’s vote, preceded by a lengthy and contentious debate, would change how science teachers approach such topics in the classroom.

The word “evaluate” could require another two weeks of lesson time for teachers who are already on tight schedules to cover material for the state’s standardized tests, said Ron Wetherington, a Southern Methodist University professor on the 10-member committee of teachers and scientists that the board appointed in July to help streamline science standards.

The committee wrote a letter last week requesting narrower language to replace the word “evaluate,” arguing it would save valuable instruction time without creating significant instructional problems.

On Wednesday, board member Keven Ellis proposed two amendments that reflected this feedback and eliminated the word “evaluate” from biology standards — replacing it with language requiring students to “examine scientific explanations for the origin of DNA” and “compare and contrast scientific explanations” for the complexity of certain cells.

The word “examine” reflected a compromise between those on both sides of the debate who tussled between using the words “identify” and “evaluate.”

Both amendments passed unanimously. A final vote on the issue will occur Friday.

Even Republican board member Barbara Cargill, who previously championed the effort to keep the controversial language in the curriculum, was on board.

It was a necessary change, according to Wetherington.

“‘Evaluate’ means you rank these scientific explanations in terms of how adequate they are, how complete they are, how many problems exist with them, what the evidence for each of the alternatives are. It takes a long time to do compared to just describing them,” he said.

Students would not have the sufficient knowledge to go so deep, Wetherington said, explaining that they would have to know higher-level chemistry.

He does not consider creationism a relevant concern since schools are “forbidden by law from even talking about it in the classroom.”

See here for the background, and these two Trib articles for the preliminaries to the vote, which will be finalized today. It’s a rare pleasure to be able to say that the SBOE had a meeting to discuss biology standards and they managed to do it without showing its rear end to the rest of the world. The Texas Freedom Network calls for Wednesday’s vote to receive final approval today, and if it’s cool with them then it’s cool with me. Kudos, y’all.

Some things never evolve

The SBOE, for instance.

The Texas State Board of Education on Wednesday voted preliminarily for science standards that would keep in language that some say opens the door to creationism.

The votes came a day after the board heard from scientists begging them to remove the language. Board members are set to hold a second public hearing and take final votes on the changes to the science standards in April.

The process began in July, when the board convened a teacher committee that recommended the deletion of several high school science standards, including four controversial biology standards they said would be too complex for students to understand. In their recommendation for deleting a clause requiring students examine explanations on the “sudden appearance” of organism groups in the fossil record, they included the note, “Not enough time for students to master concept. Cognitively inappropriate for 9th grade students.”

Republican board member Barbara Cargill led the charge Wednesday to keep three of those four standards in some form — arguing that they would actually help students better understand the science and keep teachers away from creationist ideas.


At Tuesday’s public hearing, former Texas science teacher Joni Ashbrook told the board that specific language is included in creationist arguments that a supernatural agent explains a burst of new forms in the fossil record.

But Cargill said her addition allows students to fully comprehend the ebbs and flows in the number of organism forms over time. “Something obviously happened in the environment, and they’re gone and the fossil record flatlines and we don’t see them anymore,” she said.

I did not follow this closely, so let me point you to the Texas Freedom Network, which is as always on top of it. If you’re looking for a place to channel some excess activist energy in between calls to Cruz and Cornyn’s offices, contacting your SBOE member and asking them to support the change to this language would be helpful. If you want to bone up on creationist talking points and the scientific responses to them, the delightfully old school Talk Origins FAQ secion is a good resource. The Chron has more.

A re-vote on recapture?

This is very interesting.

After reconsideration of an 18-year-old law, state education officials are adjusting their school finance calculations in a way that could save several dozen school districts roughly $100 million — while costing the state the same amount in revenue.

One of the apparent beneficiaries is Houston ISD, where the change means taxpayers will be sending about $60 million less to the state for public education than they had expected.

At issue is a calculation for recapture — the state’s term for the money that districts with higher property wealth send to the state for use in districts with lower property wealth.

It’s more commonly known as the Robin Hood system of school finance.

Some of those rich districts — “rich” here refers to the value of the districts’ property and not the income of its residents — have adopted homestead exemptions that are bigger than the exemptions mandated in state law. All school districts in Texas have to let homeowners deduct $25,000 from their taxable property values, but districts are allowed to raise those exemptions up to 20 percent of a home’s value.

Not all districts do that, and not all of those that do that are property rich. But some — including Houston ISD, the biggest one in the state — offer the higher homestead exemptions and are also subject to recapture, and they’re the ones subject to the new calculations from the Texas Education Agency.

In a letter sent Feb. 1 to school administrators, the agency’s associate commissioner for school finance said that starting in the current school year, TEA will include half of the money the districts have forfeited in optional homestead exemptions when calculating how much recapture money those districts should pay. That’s the agency’s new reading of a law that’s been on the books since 1999.

“The commissioner thinks he has the latitude to give them half credit for this,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.

The recalculations would trim those districts’ bills considerably — by $100 million in rough numbers. In addition to Houston ISD, the unofficial list of beneficiaries of the new calculation include Spring Branch ISD, Highland Park ISD, Lake Travis ISD and Comal ISD. Officials with TEA said they have not yet calculated exact amounts for each district but said the $100 million is a reasonable estimate of the total cost this year.


Houston ISD said Friday evening that the board will consider a do-over and will vote next Thursday on whether to hold another election on May 6 to give voters an opportunity to reverse that November vote.

The effect of this new interpretation of the law would be to reduce HISD’s bill for recapture by about $60 million. HISD would still need to pay a bit more than $100 million to the state, so this is hardly a cure-all, but it’s a significant savings.

To me, this is a win for the No vote on recapture last November. As the story says, the TEA could have interpreted the law in this fashion, to allow districts that grant the higher homestead exemption more credit in the byzantize school finance system, years ago. I believe one reason – maybe not the only reason, but surely a big reason – why it didn’t happen before now is because there wasn’t a loud enough voice demanding the change. HISD’s No vote on recapture was a big deal that got people’s attention and focused some energy on just how screwy the system had become. Another boost to their argument was that HISD was being penalized for having a lower tax rate than it could have had. This particular kink in the way the finances were calculated was one of the things that “No on recapture” advocates like David Thompson pointed out, as it was a simple fix that could be easily implemented and would not only be fair but also have a big effect. Maybe this happens anyway if HISD meekly paid its recapture bill, but if anything should be clear at this point in time, it’s that kicking up a fuss tends to be a better way to get what you want.

Bettencourt’s office put out a press release lauding HISD for scheduling another vote. I haven’t seen any other reporting on this – as of Saturday there was nothing on HISD’s website or Facebook page about this – so he’s either being a bit premature or he’s gotten some verbal assurance that the Board will indeed approve a May election at its Thursday meeting. The Board can claim a victory here, and it should be able to sell the idea of writing a smaller check to the state to its constituents and allies from the last election. I’d be inclined to vote Yes this time around – the problem isn’t fully solved, and even without a big school finance overhaul there are other things that could be done for recapture districts like giving credit for pre-K students, but it’s a step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see how the Board reacts, and to see if groups like CVPE and the teachers’ union go along. Whatever else happens, this was a good thing.

Lawsuit threatened over special education limits

The clock is ticking.

Disability advocates on Monday threatened to sue the Texas Education Agency unless the state permanently ends its special education enrollment benchmark within the next month.

The advocates said immediate action is necessary because of the “devastating harm” caused by the benchmark.

The state already has suspended and pledged to eventually eliminate the decade-old cap, which punished school districts for giving special education services to more than 8.5 percent of students. But the state has angered advocates by not saying when it will permanently end the policy.

“The time for action to protect and support Texas’s children with disabilities is now,” the advocates from the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities and Disability Rights Texas wrote in a letter to the Texas Education Agency and Commissioner Mike Morath.

Asked to comment on the letter, agency spokesman Gene Acuña said that officials already are working to eliminate the 8.5 percent metric. Changes to the policy should be proposed in the spring, he said.

“As always, we continue to seek input from stakeholders during this process,” Acuña said.


The letter also outlined the group’s legal theory.

First, the advocates said, the benchmark was inappropriate because states are allowed to monitor school districts “only as necessary to ensure compliance with federal law.” Moreover, they argued, the benchmark actively violated the law “because it directs, incentivizes, and has caused school districts to deny enrollment in special education programs to eligible students.”

The advocates said they would not file the lawsuit if Morath and the agency counter-sign their letter and initiate the process of permanently ending the benchmark within 30 days.

See here for the background; a copy of the letter is in the story. The TEA officially backed off enforcing its policy of capping special ed funding in November, but the policy still remains on the books. From the TEA quote above, it sounds like the deadline given will be too short, so it’s a matter of how much progress they make and whether the plaintiffs-to-be will be satisfied with that. Check back in a month and we’ll see.

The GLSEN 2015 National School Climate Survey

A lot of the stuff we talk about when we discuss Dan Patrick’s bathroom bill is business – the opposition from businesses, the political ramifications of a GOP/business schism, the economics of the bathroom bill, etc etc etc. But schools and students are a big piece of the picture here, as the lawsuit against the US Department of Education directive on student access to bathrooms and other facilities shows, and the effect of a bathroom bill on schools and students has been in the background. With that in mind, let me direct you to the GLSEN 2015 National School Climate Survey, for which a much more easily read executive summary is here. Let me quote a bit:

In 1999, GLSEN identified that little was known about the school experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth and that LGBTQ youth were nearly absent from national studies of adolescents. We responded to this national need for data by launching the first National School Climate Survey, and we continue to meet this need for current data by conducting the study every two years. Since then, the biennial National School Climate Survey has documented the unique challenges LGBTQ students face and identified interventions that can improve school climate. The survey documents the prevalence of anti-LGBT language and victimization, such as experiences of harassment and assault in school. In addition, the survey examines school policies and practices that may contribute to negative experiences for LGBTQ students and make them feel as if they are not valued by their school communities. The survey also explores the effects that a hostile school climate may have on LGBTQ students’ educational outcomes and well-being. Finally, the survey reports on the availability and the utility of LGBT-related school resources and supports that may offset the negative effects of a hostile school climate and promote a positive learning experience. In addition to collecting this critical data every two years, we also add and adapt survey questions to respond to the changing world for LGBTQ youth. For example, in the 2015 survey we expanded upon the types of discriminatory practices we explore by including questions related to extracurricular activities, school athletics, and gender segregation in school activities. The National School Climate Survey remains one of the few studies to examine the school experiences of LGBTQ students nationally, and its results have been vital to GLSEN’s understanding of the issues that LGBTQ students face, thereby informing our ongoing work to ensure safe and affirming schools for all.


LGBTQ students who experienced higher levels of victimization because of their sexual orientation:

–Were more than three times as likely to have missed school in the past month than those who experienced lower levels (62.2% vs. 20.1%);

–Had lower grade point averages (GPAs) than students who were less often harassed (2.9 vs. 3.3);

–Were twice as likely to report that they did not plan to pursue any post-secondary education (e.g., college or trade school) than those who experienced lower levels (10.0% vs. 5.2%);

–Were more likely to have been disciplined at school (54.9% vs. 32.1%); and

–Had lower self-esteem and school belonging and higher levels of depression.

LGBTQ students who experienced higher levels of victimization because of their gender expression:

–Were almost three times as likely to have missed school in the past month than those who experienced lower levels (59.6% vs. 20.8%);

–Had lower GPAs than students who were less often harassed (2.9 vs. 3.3);

–Were twice as likely to report that they did not plan to pursue any postsecondary education (e.g., college or trade school; 9.5% vs. 5.4%);

–Were more likely to have been disciplined at school (52.1% vs. 32.7%); and

–Had lower self-esteem and school belonging and higher levels of depression.

42.5% of LGBTQ students who reported that they did not plan to finish high school, or were not sure if they would finish, indicated that they were considering dropping out because of the harassment they faced at school.

I highlight this for three reasons. One is that we as a state and as a society put high expectations on our students, which are reflected in the never-ending and continually-increasing academic standards we demand that they meet. It is therefore on us to ensure that we are doing all we can to remove barriers to their success, of which harassment and discrimination are two of the most pernicious. Two, Dan Patrick presents his bill as a way of “protecting” children. I would challenge him and his minions to explain why this “protection” of some undefined set of children must come at the direct cost of so many other children. And three, to remind the business lobby that is now doing the hard work of opposing this travesty that it is not just about how their employees and customers are treated, but also how the children of their employees and customers are treated, or to put it another way, how their future employees and customers are treated. The Supreme Court is about to hear a case that may force the issue nationally, or it may punt it back to the states. We need to be ready to respond appropriately and compassionately.

Sung and Vilaseca sworn in at HISD

The HISD Board is back at full strength.

Anne Sung

As Anne Sung and Holly Flynn Vilaseca took their oaths of office and became Houston ISD’s newest Board of Education trustees on Thursday, their husbands swaddled their months-old babies in one hand and held holy books in the other.

Sung’s 11-month-old daughter, Sarita, and Flynn Vilaseca’s 13-month-old, Nicolas, hardly made a peep as their mothers became leaders of the nation’s seventh-largest school district.

Sung was elected as the District 7 trustee and will replace Harvin Moore, who resigned from the board last summer. Vilaseca was unanimously appointed by the board Monday to fill the District 6 seat vacated by Greg Meyers, who resigned at the board’s December meeting.

Both new members will serve through 2017. Then their seats will be back up for election.


Holly Flynn Vilaseca

Sung and Flynn Vilaseca said top priorities include ensuring equity in terms of the number of talented teachers, funding and facilities across Houston’s campuses. Flynn Vilaseca said she would also like to focus on lobbying the state to abandon “recapture,” which takes money from so-called property-rich districts to assist those with lower property values.

Houston ISD officials have argued that because 75 percent of district students are considered low income, the money it pays to the state for recapture would be better spent locally.

Sung also hopes to make sure the board and district are operating ethically and transparently, particularly in the way it spends money.

Both also plan to focus on improving student achievement, especially among the district’s lowest-performing students.

“We need to bring attention back to doing what’s right for students and preparing them for life after high school,” Sung said. “We need to make sure we align what we’re teaching with what’s happening in the world.”

See here for more on Vilaseca. I’ve heard some chatter that she does plan to run for a full term in November, which will be a race to watch. I look forward to interviewing her down the line. In the meantime, the Board (which elected its officers for the year; Wanda Adams is now Board President) has a lot to deal with, including lobbying the Lege to do something about recapture, dealing with the revelations about special education, continuing the bond-funded construction projects, and so on. Welcome aboard, ladies (*), let’s get to work. The Press has more.

(*) In case you hadn’t noticed (I only just did), with the election of Sung and the selection of Vilaseca, the HISD Board is now comprised of seven women and two men.

HISD Board appoints Meyers replacement

Meet your new Trustee.

Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca

Houston ISD’s Board of Education voted unanimously Monday night to name former Teach for America staffer Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca as its new District VI trustee.

Flynn Vilaseca, who will replace outgoing Trustee Greg Meyers, will be sworn in at the board’s Thursday regular board meeting along with Anne Sung, the winner of a December special election to replace District VII Trustee Harvin Moore.

Moore submitted his resignation in the summer, and Meyers submitted his in December.

Flynn Vilaseca was the first in her family to attend college and worked for Teach for America in underprivileged HISD and Bryan ISD schools. Most recently, she worked as chief relationship coordinator with ThinkLaw, which aims to enable teachers to teach critical thinking skills through case law. She said she wanted to join the board to help parents and students better navigate the system and their options.

“Public education has played such an important role in my life,” Flynn Vilaseca said. “I found out when I’m a teacher here that my story is not unique. Social capital should be built into the system.”


Board President Manuel Rodriguez Jr. said of the nine applications the board received, Flynn Vilaseca’s background and understanding of the community in district VI gave her the edge.

“With her education and research backgrounds, being bilingual and having a different cultural experience, having Colombian heritage, those were attributes that gave her an advantage,” he said.

See here and here for the background. The embedded photo is from Ms. Vilaseca’s LinkedIn profile. Here’s a slightly longer bio of her on her employer’s webpage. Among other things, she serves on Mayor Turner’s Hispanic Advisory Board, on the Civic Engagement and Promotions Subcommittee. The official HISD press release announcing her appointment is here. It remains to be seen if she will run for a full term in November or not. Regardless, congratulations and welcome to the Board to Ms. Vilaseca and to Anne Sung, who will also be sworn in on Thursday. Stace has more.

New school grading system looks pretty harsh

Brace yourselves.

Schools in poor neighborhoods overwhelmingly received the worst grades under Texas’ new rating system — but even typically high-performing districts got C’s and D’s, according to scores that will be released Friday.

The “what if” grades show how schools and districts could fare in the new A-F system, which won’t take effect until 2018.

The plan to give public schools letter grades has infuriated educators across the state. As of Thursday, 152 districts have adopted resolutions opposing it. Critics say the approach is over-simplistic and stigmatizes poor schools.

Education Commissioner Mike Morath — who cautions that the new system is a work in progress — has said grades will give families a better understanding of how their schools are doing while crediting schools for the progress they are making.

All North Texas districts meet current state standards according to results released this summer. But 11 would have earned an F in at least one of four categories in the new grading system, including Mesquite, Wylie, Farmersville, Lancaster and Cedar Hill. Highland Park, Plano, Allen and McKinney each got at least one C.

“That’s amazing when you consider that they all met the standard two weeks ago and the scores, the data, haven’t changed,” Mesquite Superintendent David Vroonland said. Both the new and old system are largely based on the same STAAR results and other data.

Dallas ISD got a D in student performance and B’s in three other categories.

DeSoto got an F in student performance and in preparing kids for life after high school.

“We continue to wait for more information from TEA on the methodology of the new system, however, this continued attack on public schools, your DeSoto public schools, is an attack on the foundation of our country,” superintendent David Harris said in a prepared statement on Thursday.

“The government ‘ranking’ and comparing schools, feeds the agenda of those claiming our schools are failing and vouchers are the answer. Meanwhile, public schools tend to be underfunded and over mandated by the state and federal governments.”

The Legislature approved the grading system during the 2015 session. Other states, including Oklahoma and West Virginia, have similar accountability measures. But Virginia killed its plan to give letter grades over concerns of fairness to schools.

The Texas Education Agency is releasing grades in four areas: how well students performed on state tests; how much progress students made from year to year on those tests, how well schools are closing the gaps between poor children and their peers; and students’ college or career readiness. Next year, a fifth measure will allow schools to grade themselves on student and community engagement. Schools and districts will also receive an overall grade.

Critics of the system say it doesn’t actually reflect what’s going on in classrooms and will only stigmatize schools in poor neighborhoods that will have a harder time meeting standards. Those schools already struggle to recruit and keep talented teachers and engaged families.

See here for a bit of background. The A-F grading system was part of a larger bill authored by outgoing Education Chair Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock. It generated controversy at the time, but as is sometimes the case when the end of the session is approaching and things need to get done, it was passed in spite of the concerns about that part of the bill. The story above is from the Dallas Morning News, but similar stories are coming in from all over the state.

Various Central Texas districts, including Austin, Leander, Hays, Georgetown, Bastrop, Manor, Elgin, San Marcos, Hutto, Dripping Springs and Elgin received unacceptable grades of Ds and Fs in certain categories, according to a report sent to the Texas Legislature last week that was obtained by the American-Statesman.

Even some nationally ranked campuses, including Round Rock’s Westwood High School and Eanes’ Westlake High, didn’t muster straight As under the new system, and schools that received top marks from the state just a few months ago received unacceptable scores. The grades are meant to give districts and the public a glimpse of how the new system will work when it is finalized next year, and are not official or punitive. The accountability ratings doled out in August still stand.


Austin school district Superintendent Paul Cruz said having an A through F system is confusing if it is not the same A through F system that people know and understand. Under this system, a school can have a 90 and still be failing, he said, and “that’s not the grading system we use in our schools.”

Blackshear Elementary, for example, is a national Blue Ribbon school, and has been recognized by the Texas Education Agency for the work it has done with a high concentration of students from low-income families. Yet it received an F under the postsecondary readiness category because of absenteeism, he said.

And of course, from here in Houston.

Houston ISD, Texas’ largest school system, earned B’s for closing achievement gaps and learning gains on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness. It earned a C for student achievement on the STAAR, and its lowest mark – a D – came in postsecondary readiness, a stumbling block for many Texas schools.

Educators argue that this new system relies too much on standardized tests and fails to take into account the complexities of individual schools and districts, like whether their student body is predominantly poor or non-native English speakers.

“The real education experts are pretty united on this one. We see it doing more harm than good,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, which represents 68,000 teachers and support staff.


Katy ISD Superintendent Lance Hindt lambasted the preliminary grades on Friday as an attack on public schools for political gain.

“Our legislators’ ‘ranking’ and comparing of public schools feeds the agenda of those claiming our public schools are failing and vouchers, tax credits, scholarships, etc. are the answer,” Hindt said. “Meanwhile, public schools are underfunded and overmandated by the state and federal governments. Our private school counterparts would never accept funding that tied them to the mandates the Legislature and the TEA place on our public schools – essentially eroding communities’ local control.”

The final system that will be used to calculate letter grades in 2018 is expected to include five domains. Friday’s tentative grades included just four categories, similar to those in the state’s current accountability system.

At least two Houston-area schools, including HISD’s Sterling High and Spring Branch ISD’s Sherwood Elementary, scored straight F’s in Friday’s preliminary grades despite having “met standard” in their official accountability rankings.

At least 78 Houston-area schools, including charters, earned D’s and F’s, even though they “met standard” in the current system. Of those, 12 schools and five districts got straight F’s on the preliminary letter grades but “met standard” in the current accountability system.

The two systems are not meant to be compared, said Lauren Callahan, a TEA spokeswoman.

“When you’re looking at the current system, you really don’t have a good idea as a parent whether your campus barely met standard or they are knocking it out of the park,” she said. “There is a lot more that goes through the A-F system than is in the pass-fail system.”

Still, the mismatched results baffled leaders at schools that earned F’s but still “met standard,” as was the case at Sherwood.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez has filed a bill to rescind the A-F grading system. I don’t think that will pass, but given the massive problems with the STAAR test, I do think some action will be taken, with a delay in implementation being the most likely possibility. As always, you should contact your legislators to let them know what you think about this. A statement from the TEA is here, and the Trib has more.

“Denied”: HISD and special education

There are problems here as well.

Superintendent Richard Carranza announced Thursday that the Houston Independent School District has decided to conduct a detailed review of the way that it serves students with disabilities.

The effort will include asking “independent, third-party experts to conduct a deep-dive analysis of our special education operation,” Carranza said.

The newly-hired superintendent announced the review in a statement, saying it would be the district’s “first order of business when the new year begins.”

“We will have a tough conversation about the importance of serving all children, regardless of any disability,” Carranza wrote. “Together, we will find solutions that serve our children because that is what Houston expects, and that is what Houston’s children deserve.”

The announcement came one day after the Houston Chronicle published a story detailing how Houston ISD has deliberately denied special education services to thousands of students with disabilities over the past decade.

Here’s that earlier story. It’s pretty damning.

Houston schools provide special education services to a lower percentage of students than schools in virtually any other big city in America. Only Dallas serves fewer than Houston’s 7.26 percent. The national average is 13 percent.

For months, as special education has come under increasing scrutiny in Texas, Houston Independent School District officials have described their percentage as a good thing, saying it is the product of robust early interventions that have helped students without labeling them.

But a Houston Chronicle investigation has found that HISD achieved its low special education rate by deliberately discouraging and delaying evaluations in pursuit of goals that have clearly denied critical services to thousands of children with disabilities.

Records show the largest school district in Texas enthusiastically embraced a controversial state policy that has driven special education enrollments to the lowest in the United States. In fact, after HISD officials reduced their enrollment rate from 10 percent to the Texas Education Agency’s 8.5 percent target, they set an even more restrictive standard: 8 percent.

To accomplish the objective, HISD officials slashed hundreds of positions from the special education department, dissuaded evaluators from diagnosing disabilities until second grade and created a list of “exclusionary factors” that disqualify students from getting services, among other tactics described in district documents, court records and dozens of interviews.

Read the whole thing. This is a travesty, and it needs to be fixed. Whatever it takes, this needs to be fixed.

Here’s your chance to give feedback on special education

The feds are coming to Texas to hear what you have to say about it.

The U.S. Department of Education is sending representatives to tour Texas and take comment from school community members on special education, continuing to look at whether the state is denying services to students with disabilities.

Representatives from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services will join Texas Education Agency officials for “listening sessions” in five Texas cities between Dec. 12 and 15.


“The sessions provide members of the public an opportunity to comment on the timely identification and evaluation of students with disabilities, as well as the delivery of special education and related services to all eligible children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA,” the advisory reads.

The federal department is also collecting comment on a blog for those who cannot attend any of the listening sessions.

Officials from the Texas Education Agency have been planning the listening sessions with the federal government, working with regional Education Service Centers to secure meeting sites for the five stops, said agency spokeswoman Lauren Callahan.

“The listening sessions parallel with our ongoing efforts on the state level to continue to get feedback on this important issue,” she wrote in an email to The Texas Tribune. “As a result, TEA will have representatives at each stop.”

See here for previous blogging on this topic. I don’t have anything to add beyond saying that this is a great opportunity to be heard and to make sure there is pressure on the TEA and the Legislature to get this right.

TEA officially backs off special education limits

We’ll see about that.

Facing increasing criticism over its special education enrollment benchmark, the Texas Education Agency this week told schools that they must provide services to all eligible students with disabilities and that they will no longer be penalized for serving too many children.

In a five-page letter, Penny Schwinn, the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics, advised school districts that a federal provision known as “child find” requires them to locate and evaluate all kids who live within their boundaries who might qualify for services such as tutoring, counseling and therapy.

“A school district’s failure to meet the child find requirements is a serious matter,” Schwinn wrote. “Furthermore, the failure to identify a child may entitle the child to compensatory education or tuition reimbursement.”

Schwinn told the districts that the TEA eventually would end the decade-old benchmark that has set 8.5 percent as the ideal rate of special education. And effective immediately, she wrote, exceeding the target would not “adversely affect” district performance levels or determinations about whether districts are audited.

A decade of audit threats related to the target has left Texas with the lowest rate of special education in the country. If the state was at the national average, more than 250,000 more students would be receiving services.

But as in the past, Schwinn also defended the policy, saying it was not a “cap” on enrollment and did not seriously punish districts for failing to comply.

“It has been alleged that some school district personnel and others may have interpreted the (benchmark) to mean that districts are required to achieve a special education enrollment rate of no more than 8.5%,” she wrote. “This interpretation is incorrect.”

The letter followed through on a promise to the U.S. Department of Education, which last month ordered the TEA to end the enrollment target and remind schools about the requirement to provide special education services to children with disabilities.


But some advocates and lawmakers said the TEA’s message was undercut by its refusal to accept responsibility for the benchmark.

“TEA says it understands the complexities of schools differentiating between problems due to disability and other factors,” said Dustin Rynders, of Disability Rights Texas. “In reality, the complexity is deciphering the mixed messages TEA sends schools.”

“We welcome the reminder that schools should evaluate those suspected of needing special education, however TEA is the cause of the problem,” he added, arguing that “TEA has no credibility” because it “keeps trying to sell its preposterous story that the 8.5 percent indicator was not a cap or a goal for the percentage of students receiving special education, while offering no explanation for why they awarded their best performance level to districts that served fewer than 8.5 percent of students.”

See here for the backstory. I agree with Dustin Rynders that we should not just take the TEA’s word for it on this. They have not been been particularly transparent, and there’s no way any of this would be happening if it weren’t for the spotlight that has been shone on them by the Chronicle’s investigation. There’s also the small matter of ensuring adequate funding for all the students who need special ed services, which as we know are not cheap. This does represent progress, but it’s definitely a situation that requires oversight and verification going forward.