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Guest post: A response to Sen. Patrick on school choice

Note: The following is a guest post, by Aboubacar Ndiaye. It was sent to me unsolicited. I liked it and agreed to print it, so here it is.

Aboubacar Ndiaye

In an editorial published last Wednesday in the Houston Chronicle, State Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston) again argued for what he sees as education reform. In the article, he proposed increasing the use of online learning, course credit testing, and vocational training programs. He also pushed for removing the cap on the number of charter schools in the state. Glaringly absent was any mention of the voucher initiatives he has introduced in the State Legislature.

Numerous policy experts and other commentators have shown definitively that vouchers do little to improve the lot of the children they are said to help (i.e. smart kids forced to go to failing public schools). According to a report from Raise Your Hand Texas, an education policy group, voucher programs in other states and in the District of Columbia have shown no discernible increase in performance for voucher students at private schools. They also found that vouchers actually benefited wealthier households by effectively giving them state-funded private school discounts.

In the past, proponents of public education like myself have been backed into a rhetorical corner. Because of the state’s radical (and unconstitutional) underfunding of public schools, we have had to focus on fighting for money to support basic education programs. That focus, unfortunately, has left us open to the charge that we are “defending failure.” Though it is hard to talk about remodeling a house while it’s on fire, we make a mistake by not proposing and supporting broad-based reform of education in Texas.

As a product of HISD schools and as a former Math tutor in HISD schools, I’ve seen first hand the impact that underfunding has had on public education. Whether it is crowded classrooms or insufficient learning materials, the educational well-being of Texas students is drastically below what it should be. But as we argue for more money from the State and from local property taxpayers, we must, in the same breath, argue for sensible reforms at failing schools in the State.

For example, while Sen. Patrick’s online education proposal seeks to replace classroom time with online teaching, web-based and interactive learning and tutoring sources added onto a full school schedule has been proven to have great educational benefits. A New York Times investigative feature in December 2011 showed the pitfalls of over-reliance on online education sources, but supplemental resources can help low-income students who may not be able to afford private tutoring otherwise.

Along with adding online learning, we should argue for giving principals, teachers, and parents at underperforming schools more flexibility in the management of their own campuses. That means letting them make decisions about school day and school year length, funding extra teachers and teacher aides to reduce class sizes, and to let them experiment with different curriculum strategies like Double Dose Math Courses and Cooperative Teaching. Individual schools districts and the Texas Education Agency would still have to sign off on proposed changes, but that process should be swift and transparent.

Another element of school reform, one that is garnering bipartisan support in the wake of the STAAR debacle, is reducing the emphasis on high-stakes testing. Over-dependence on testing as an accountability measure has had a terrible impact on the way kids are taught in the state. At the school where I worked, I remember constant benchmark testing, weekend test practice, lessons on test-taking strategies, all of which impeded our ability to actually teach content and reasoning skills.

Lastly, we should not reflexively dismiss the idea of school choice. Sen. Patrick’s proposals seek mainly to undermine public education, but they call attention to a problem that too many of us either ignore or tolerate. Every day, thousands of kids in this state are going to failing, often unsafe, schools. Private school subsidies are not the answer, but more funding and transportation options are needed to support magnet and school choice options within the public system. School districts in Houston, Dallas, and Austin have done a great job increasing school choice options, but their magnet systems are not large enough to meet the demand from parents and students. We must also make sure that the magnet and school choice options are true improvements over the home school, and not the proliferation of “magnet in name only” programs at some HISD campuses.

Many of the proposals I have mentioned require buy-in from communities, parents, teachers, and government officials. None of these reforms are easily implemented or cheap for that matter, but they are necessary. If Texas continues on its current educational trajectory, it will create an undereducated low-skill and low-wage workforce that will force companies to either import its skilled labor from other states or move to those states. As the legislature debates restoring the lost funding from the past legislative session, it should also consider the sensible reforms above.

Aboubacar “Asn” Ndiaye was a Field Organizer on the Harris County Democratic Party’s 2012 Coordinated Campaign, and is currently an independent policy professional.

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