Lisa Falkenberg has a balanced take on Greg Abbott’s education plan.
Progress has been tragically slow for the students of North Forest. And their saga makes great fodder for those beating the drum to create something called an “achievement school district” in Texas. It would have the power to take over low-performing schools with the intent of turning them around, or turn them over to a charter operator.
Julie Linn, executive director of the well-financed Texans for Education Reform, was quoted in The Dallas Morning News telling lawmakers that an entire generation of students had been lost at the North Forest district during the chronic underachievement. True.
“If an achievement school district had existed,” Linn told lawmakers, “it would not have allowed 20 years of failure at North Forest ISD.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. Many of the failures were the result of the state’s own missteps. Conservators hired unqualified principals and poor-performing superintendents who squandered funds and donations. A parade of monitors and boards of managers had little effect.
But when I called North Forest’s new principal, Pamela Farinas, she supported the concept of achievement districts.
“I think it would have made a big difference,” Farinas said, explaining that every time the state took over North Forest it was the whole state, a “massive entity with a whole bunch of compliance paperwork.”
A small, specialized district knowledgeable about struggling schools would have more power and agility, she said. But she made clear she’s “150 percent” against turning to charters, which are often unwilling or unable to serve the neediest students.
“They’re exiting kids as quickly as they accept them and everybody seems to be brushing that under the carpet,” said Farinas, who worked briefly at a charter school.
On its face, the idea of a takeover district is attractive, especially with education horrors like the former North Forest still fresh on our minds.
We have to do something. But we can’t just do anything. I think I’m inclined to agree with David Anthony, the former Cypress-Fairbanks superintendent who now leads an influential education advocacy group called Raise Your Hand Texas.
He says the group has traveled the country looking at turnaround strategies. Anthony is not yet sold on the idea of achievement districts. The data just isn’t there.
Even in Tennessee, where homegrown superstar YES Prep Public Schools founder Chris Barbic went in 2011 to lead the effort to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent, students the first year made modest gains in science and math but fell behind in reading.
The answer, Anthony says, “has to be a long-term, sustainable transformation. It can’t just be the new fad du jour.”
Anthony’s chief concern about Abbott’s proposal is the same as mine: “Why are we investing in a strategy we’re not quite sure about yet?”
See here for more. I consider myself neither an advocate nor opponent of charter schools. The good ones are very good, but there are a lot of not so good ones, and overall the numbers suggest that charters as a whole don’t do any better than traditional public schools. It’s also never been clear to me that the charter model, which depends in large part on a high degree of commitment from students, parents, and (generally less-paid) teachers is scalable to the magnitude needed for this kind of problem. How will charter schools do when they have no choice at all about who they get to educate? That’s a pretty big question.
There’s another reason to be wary of this, and that reason is money. Part of that is about school funding, which is still well below 2009 levels thanks to the massive and as it turns out needless budget cuts of 2011. If we really want to try something that’s never been done before in our schools, why don’t we try funding them at truly adequate and equitable levels first? As Attorney General, Greg Abbott is in a unique position to do something about that by settling the ongoing school finance litigation. His continued refusal to do that, and his constant avoidance of any talk about school finance is quite revealing. But beyond that, there’s also the presence of yet another well-financed interest group on the scene that’s pushing for this change, Texans for Education Reform. Like black holes do with space-time, groups like that warp the discussion and suck in all the light in their vicinity. Who will benefit from Abbott’s plan? It’s a sure bet that the funders behind Texans for Education Reform are at the top of that list. That’s as good a reason as any to be deeply skeptical of this.