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Raise Your Hand Texas

Where the education reform bills stand

As we know, the attempt to take a first stab at school finance reform did not make it to the House floor. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some action on school-related issues. This Chron story from the weekend recapped a couple of the major bills that did make it through.

Jimmie Don Aycock

Lawmakers likely could have killed House Bill 2804, the A-F and accountability legislation, by delaying debate until midnight Thursday, the deadline for passing House bills out of that chamber. Instead, out of respect for [Rep. Jimmie Don] Aycock, the bill’s opponents chose to allow a vote even though they knew it would win approval.

On Friday, Aycock said he would be proud if the bill is the last piece of legislation he helps shepherd to passage.

“I was pleased and surprised that some people who opposed the bill, had every right to oppose the bill, chose not to kill it on the clock,” said Aycock, who is mulling whether to retire from politics. He was elected in 2007 and quickly rose to become chairman, but at nearly 70, says he wants to return to his central Texas ranch life.

[…]

Originally, House Bill 2804 sought solely to revamp the way schools are held accountable by placing less emphasis on state standardized test performance in grading campuses.

Sensing he didn’t have the political support to pass the bill as it was, however, Aycock amended it to mandate schools be given A-F grades, a proposal popular with many Republicans. Educators and many Democrats oppose the A-F scale, saying it stigmatizes low-performing schools.

Aycock says having an A-F system won’t be an issue if the grades are determined fairly: “It’s not the horrible deal that everybody thinks it will be if you have an accountability system on which to base it. If you have the present accountability model, then it’s just totally unacceptable.”

Schools are graded now either as “met standard” or “improvement required,” based largely on student performance measures. Under House Bill 2804, 35 percent of a school’s grade would be determined by measures like completion and dropout rates, and by how many students take AP and international baccalaureate classes. Ten percent would be based on how well the school engages with its community, and 55 percent on state test scores with a particular emphasis on closing the gap between the top- and bottom-performing students.

[…]

House Bill 1842, which would force districts to improve failing schools or face tough consequences, passed the House the day before with little of the discussion Aycock’s other legislation generated. Aycock called the bill “one of the most far-reaching bills of the session,” and said while he carried it, Dutton was the architect.

“I think House Bill 1842 is the best bill on public education that helps students more than any bill that I’ve seen in this Legislature, and I’ve been here 30 years,” [Rep. Harold] Dutton said Friday. “We have never pressured districts to do something about (low-performing schools). This does that. This says to the school district, ‘Either you do it, or we’ll get someone who can.’ ”

The legislation would require any school that has received a failing grade for two straight years to create an improvement plan to take effect by the third year. If the school has not improved by the end of the fifth year, the commissioner of education would have to order the school’s closure or assign an emergency board of managers to oversee the school district.

Schools that have received consistently failing grades, such as Kashmere and Jones High Schools in the Houston Independent School District, would have one less year to implement a turnaround plan.

“Kashmere is what started me down this road,” Dutton said.

Kashmere earned the state’s “academically acceptable” rating in 2007 and 2008, but it has failed to meet standards every other year over the last decade. Its enrollment has fallen to about 500 students, most of whom come from poor families. Last school year, more than a quarter were in special education and 2 percent were designated as gifted, state data show.

“We’re just going to wait and see what the state does,” HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said about Aycock’s legislation. “If the state gives us the option of trying to manage it, we would implement some of the same strategies we have found to be successful in North Forest.”

I don’t care for the A-F grading system. I tend to agree with the critics that say it will stigmatize some schools. Not just the schools that get a D where they might have gotten a “meets standards”, but perhaps also the ones that get a B instead of an “academically recognized”. Who wants to send their kids to a B school if an A school is available? As for HB 1842, I don’t have any problem with the concept, but I’d like to know there’s some empirical evidence to suggest something like this can work, and has worked before. We haven’t done much to track the progress of students that were taken from failing school districts that the state shut down, so there’s not much of a track record here. What happens if we try this and it doesn’t work? What comes next?

The Observer updates us on some other education bills.

“Parent Empowerment”

Under a measure passed in 2011, parents can petition the state to turn schools with five consecutive years of poor state ratings into charter schools, to have the staff replaced, or even to close the school. It’s a tactic known as a “parent trigger,” and Taylor’s Senate Bill 14 would reduce that period to three years.

“This is about parent empowerment,” Taylor said when he introduced his bill in March. “[Five years] is too long to have young children stuck in a school and to have people defending that failing school district.”

California adopted the nation’s first parent trigger law, and its use there has prompted controversy. Critics say the few instances when the law has been invoked led to community conflict, teacher attrition, and dubious results. Nevertheless, reform advocates hope to spread and strengthen such laws across the country.

SB 14 easily passed the Senate in April but has less support in the House. The measure will also be heard in the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday.

Virtual Schools

Texas law allows public school students in grades 3-12 to take up to three online courses, paid for by the student’s school district at up to $400 per course. Senate Bill 894, by Taylor, would lift the three-course cap and extend online courses to students in kindergarten through second grade.

Texas needs to remove existing barriers and provide greater opportunity for students to access online courses, Taylor said as he introduced his bill in March.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit education advocacy organization, has called SB 894 a “virtual voucher” that would drain funds from public schools and direct them to for-profit virtual school providers.

Research has shown that student performance lags in corporate-run virtual schools compared to their traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts. “There is little high-quality research to call for expanding [virtual schools],” according to a 2014 report from the National Education Policy Center.

SB 894 was voted out of committee in April but has yet to be brought up on the Senate floor for a vote.

Vouchers

After numerous defeats by a coalition of rural Republicans and big-city Democrats during past sessions, the fight for school vouchers returned to the Capitol this session.

Senate Bill 4, by Taylor, would create scholarships to enable mostly low- and middle-income students to attend private and religious schools. Under the measure, private businesses would receive a tax credit for funding the scholarships.

Students from families with an income of not greater than 250 percent of the national free and reduced-price lunch guideline would qualify—for a family of five that means an annual income of about $130,000. Patrick proposed a very similar measure in 2013.

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) memorably used a hearing on this measure to denigrate public education.

The bill passed the Senate, but several representatives told the Observer vouchers will be easily defeated in the House. SB 4 is currently stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Dan Bonnen (R-Angleton). Bonnen has emerged as a fierce foe to Patrick this session, and it is not clear if he will even bring the bill up for a vote.

Here’s Raise Your Hand Texas testifying against the “parent trigger” bill. I can’t say I’ll be sad to see any of these die.

And finally, there’s still the budget, which as always has an effect on schools. Here’s some information of interest for anyone who lives in HISD from local activist Sue Deigaard:

HB1759, that would have made structural modifications to school finance and added $800 million more to the $2.2 the House added in their budget for public education, was pulled from the floor on Thursday. Basically, there were so many amendments it was unlikely there was time left to get it to a vote and the time spent on a HB1759 vote would have preempted other bills from being discussed. It also sounds like the vote in the Senate for HB1759 would have been especially steep even if it had been approved by the House.

So, HISD will go into “recapture.” That means that per Ch 41 of the Texas education code, because HISD is a “property rich, student poor” district, instead of HISD receiving money from the state we will have to send local tax revenue TO the state to redistribute to other districts. We are projected to lose as much as $200 million over the coming biennium. Here’s the fun part…the electorate in HISD gets to decide whether or not to send that money back to the state. Yet, not really. First, the HISD board will have to vote on whether or not to even have such an election. If they don’t hold an election, the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. If they do hold an election and voters do not approve to give money to the state (which is the likely outcome), then the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. The “ask” now is for the budget conferees, which include a few members of the HISD legislative delegation, to approve the House pub ed allocation that increases basic allotment for pub ed by $2.2 billion instead of the Senate version that increases it by $1.2 billion. Also, at least as I understand it, that “increase” still does not restore the per pupil allocation that was cut back in 2011, and like last session mostly just funds enrollment growth. As logic would dictate, adding the extra $1 billion in the House version over the Senate version infuses the system with more money so HISD has to send less back to the state through recapture. Basically….House budget = better for HISD.

Unfortunately, the Senate won this skirmish.

The budget conference committee — made up of five senators and five House members — approved a $1.5 billion boost to public education beyond enrollment growth, according to the LBB. The figure matches what the Senate had requested. The House had pushed for a $2.2 billion increase, and had briefly considered an additional $800 million on top of that tied to reforms in the state’s convoluted school finance system.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, was the lone “no” vote on the committee’s decisions to set the level of public education funding, in large part because he felt the amount was too little compared to how much the state was putting toward tax cuts and border security, he said.

“Conservatives spend money like they’re printing money,” Turner said, except on education.

Budget conferees included Rep. Sarah Davis and Sen. Joan Huffman. When HISD has to raise taxes or cut programs to cover this loss, you can thank them for it.

More pre-K bills filed

The Observer has the best reporting on the latest pre-k bills that have been filed in the Lege.

pre-k

There’s widespread support around the Capitol for more state spending on pre-kindergarten programs, and much less agreement about how to do it.

State Reps. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) have proposed a $300-million-a-year plan to fund full-day pre-K for some children in districts that agree to meet new quality standards. Meanwhile, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has introduced a more ambitious plan: universal, full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the state.

On the campaign trail last year, Gov. Greg Abbott also proposed more pre-K spending, but more cautiously. Rather than a blanket pre-K expansion, Abbott suggested rewarding districts with $1,500 per student if they meet new standards for program quality.

That’s the plan outlined in House Bill 4, filed [Thursday] by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston). The bill creates a framework for defining the “high quality prekindergarten programs” eligible for extra state funding, but remains vague on how much each school district would get and how their programs would be evaluated. Under HB 4, those decisions would all be left up to the education commissioner.

[…]

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas and a former superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, says HB 4 includes some important elements—encouraging districts to use the state pre-K standards, and rewarding districts for using qualified teachers—but the bill is a missed opportunity if it doesn’t fund full-day learning.

Our research shows students achieve the greatest gains when enrolled in high-quality, full-day pre-K,” Anthony says, with an emphasis on “full-day.” “We have seen first-hand in the research and talking with teachers that they can accomplish so much more in a full-day program than with the half-day.”

See here for more on Raise Your Hand Texas’s research, and here for more on the Johnson/Farney bill. The Zaffirini bill is basically what Wendy Davis proposed, so you can guess what its likely outcome will be. The main problem with Abbott’s approach of course is that the $100 million appropriated in Rep. Huberty’s bill is still less than what was cut in 2011. The Chron story doesn’t mention any of this, though it does give a nice report on that public announcement event Abbott held, since that’s what really matters.

There are more reasons to prefer the full-day pre-k options that Johnson/Farney and Zaffirini are proposing:

“Right now it looks like the governor’s proposal [as written in HB 4] is basically recreating a similar grant program,” [Center for Public Policy Priorities analyst Chandra Villanueva] says. “This program just isn’t going far enough and meeting the needs that we really have.”

Villanueva, like many other early education advocates, says the Legislature should fund any pre-K expansion through the same funding formulas it uses to pay for K-12 education. Grant programs like the one cut in 2011, or the one proposed under HB 4, are much more susceptible to cuts from one session to the next.

Funding pre-K through the formulas, she says, would also help ensure students get more equal funding. HB 4, on the other hand, could reward wealthy districts that already have the money to meet new requirements for, say, class size or teacher qualifications.

“The governor’s bill that’s outside the formulas, it’s really increasing inequity in the system,” Villanueva says. “I think we need a systemic approach to dealing with pre-K, and increase the equity in the system.”

You know what that sounds like to me? A future school finance lawsuit. Good to know some things never change, isn’t it?

How Texas can improve its pre-k programs

From Raise Your Hand Texas:

How Texas stacks up on pre-k

Raise Your Hand Texas recently released a report highlighting research-driven practices proven effective in public pre-kindergarten programs across the country, and comparing how Texas’ pre-k program stacks up. “Pre-Kindergarten for the Modern Age: A scalable, affordable, high-quality plan for Texas” was prepared by Dr. Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and a leading expert on early childhood education.

The report shows that Texas currently has in place few of the elements of high-quality public pre-k programs and collects very little data on program quality. With regards to statewide policy and funding, Texas only partially meets three of the eight elements of effective pre-k programs. The report recommends a series of policy changes to improve the quality and impact of the state’s pre-k program, starting with the need to expand our statewide commitment from half-day to full-day for at-risk children currently eligible for public pre-k.

“The current, rigorous research is clear – there is no longer any question that publicly funded, high-quality pre-k programs play a critical role in closing the achievement gap, both in the short and long-term, and that states are getting these results in a cost-sustainable manner” said Dr. Pianta.

The report’s recommendations include:

  1. Fund high-quality, targeted full-day pre-k for currently eligible students
  2. Implement structural quality elements such as:
    • required standards and curricula
    • pre-k specific preparation and professional development for teachers
    • effective adult-child ratios to promote learning
  3. Require uniform measurement, data collection and oversight
    • require participation in Texas Student Data System
    • require districts to collect and report data regarding children’s learning and teachers’ skills
    • provide sufficient staff to ensure effective program management and oversight

According to the report, multi-state evaluations demonstrate “academic gains can be maintained at least through third grade and in many instances, beyond.” To achieve those types of gains, the report says Texas must commit additional staff resources: “No state with a pre-k program has less state-level capacity (in terms of absolute numbers of staff) to monitor and oversee pre-k than does Texas – even states as small as Delaware.”1

“Providing currently eligible populations with access to high-quality, full-day pre-kindergarten probably represents the single most powerful reform tool at our disposal to give every Texas child a fair shot at success in school and in life, and to improve performance in public schools across the state,” said Dr. David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas.

To learn more, and to download the full research report or executive summary, please visit www.RaiseYourHandTexas.org/prek.

The full report is here. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

As an example of the new wave of programs with results, an analysis of the impact of five state-funded preschool programs on young children’s school readiness in Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia showed 31% more annual growth in vocabulary skills for children enrolled in pre-k when compared to those who did not attend preschool.1 Increases in math and early literacy skills were also pronounced, showing 44% and 85% more annual growth, respectively.2

And a recent analysis combining results from 123 early childhood program evaluation studies estimated the short-term (one-year) impact of early learning programs to be about half the poverty achievement gap* , the equivalent of a four-year-old jumping from the 30th percentile to the 50th percentile on achievement tests.3

Notably, recent evaluations have demonstrated that gains can be sustained through elementary school and beyond. Although fade-out of program effects had been cited previously as evidence of preschool’s limited effectiveness, it is now clear that fade-out is far more likely a function of the stunning variation in quality of programs than in the value of pre-k per se.

Recent and rigorous research evaluations from multiple states, including studies of Texas programs, demonstrate that academic gains can be maintained at least through third grade and in many instances, beyond. Of note, in some evaluations the benefits of pre-k extend into early adulthood, with improved outcomes such as educational attainment and cognitive performance.4

In other words, the most current research indicates that high-quality pre-k programs can lead to significant and sustained gains for young children. Based on recent programs and rigorous research, there is no longer any question that publicly funded pre-k programs hold enormous potential for closing skills gaps, both in the short and long-term.

Notably, the contemporary statewide programs that show the impacts noted above are all funded at levels considered sustainable by state legislators. In other words, these programs are not “Cadillac” or boutique models with excessive costs that exceed state allocations or are offered to small select groups of children. Rather, they typically operate at per-pupil costs no greater than those of the K-12 system and still achieve these benefits.

What’s more, these investments in early education return financial benefits downstream. Analyses of various statewide and experimental studies estimate a total return on investment between $3-7 saved per child for each dollar spent on pre-k.5

Findings consistently show that the benefits of high-quality programs significantly exceed the costs by producing immediate improvements in school readiness, cuts in school spending related to retention and special education, and long-term impacts related to reduced delinquency and increased productivity.6

These benefits over the lifetime have been estimated to lead to savings of $9,901 per participant taking into account short, middle, and long-term outcomes, making pre-k a highly cost-effective intervention.7

Moreover, the rate of return on investments in quality pre-k is larger than other well-known educational expenditures, such as class size reduction.8

And although pre-k helps all children, it seems particularly beneficial for children who are low-income or dual language learners,9 which is a significant and growing percentage of the
Texas student population. So not only does pre-k work, the most recent research also makes it clear that quality preschool, especially for those children most at-risk for school failure, is a wise investment.10

Sounds pretty good, wouldn’t you say? Too bad we’re not going to get anything like this in Texas. But at least now the Early Matters folks have a blueprint for what they might want to achieve in Harris County.

Texas asks for federal funding for pre-k vouchers

Not sure how I feel about this.

BagOfMoney

Teacher groups are up in arms as Texas seeks millions from the federal government to fund a new pre-K voucher program that would begin next fall.

Last month, the Texas Education Agency applied for $30 million in prekindergarten grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education, its share of the $160 million federal Preschool Development Grants Program. If approved, officials plan to use 25 percent of that money to pay for full-day, high-quality preschool for eligible children in Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.

Currently, the state funds half-day public preschool for children from low-income, educationally disadvantaged, non-English speaking and military families. Under the proposed program, parents with eligible kids would sign up for the public or private pre-K program of their choice through a lottery system. If the program meets the grant’s quality requirements, the full cost of the child’s preschool would be paid for using the grant money. At around $8,000 a year per child, the grant could add an additional 17,900 additional pre-K slots, a 25 percent increase, to the existing system.

According to the grant application, the proposal would be one of four ways the TEA would use the $30 million to “expand” and “enhance” access to full-day, high-quality preschool in Texas. Critics of the proposal, however, said it would amount to little more than the creation of a pre-K school voucher program.

[…]

While the proposal is unpopular among educators, it could find friends in the state’s newly-elected leaders. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott campaigned on smarter and more accountable funding for pre-K programs, while Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick long has been a vouchers champion.

The idea also is likely to find favor with Early Matters, a coalition organized by the Greater Houston Partnership to seek ways to expand local pre-K and child-care programs. A previous effort failed to get off the ground in 2013, when organizers unsuccessfully sought to force a referendum on a 1-cent property tax to fund expanded pre-K programs locally.

The main critic cited in the story is the Coalition for Public Schools, which sent a letter to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on October 30 outlining their issues. The Coalition’s super-minimalist website is here, and they don’t appear to have a Facebook presence, so I have been unable to find a copy of their letter and learn what their specific beefs are. Fortunately, Lisa Falkenberg was on the job and did some digging to find out more and fill in some of the gaps.

I was initially skeptical of the criticisms. After all, the Texas Workforce Commission has administered a federal subsidy system since the 1990s that essentially provides very low-income parents a voucher to pay for private child care so they can go back to work or school. A Texas Education Agency spokeswoman said this program would serve as a model for the proposed one.

And isn’t it a bit early for complaints anyway? Shouldn’t we all still be singing “Kumbaya” about Texas applying for any program near and dear to President Barack Obama’s heart? After snubbing Common Core and Race to the Top – in part, for good reason, I might add – Texas announced in September that it would apply for the federal grant. Much of it would benefit Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.

[…]

We need money. The grant proposal, written with the help of the folks at The Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center here in Houston, offers some good ideas.

“I guess I was kind of shocked to see the article this morning with the outcry … all about the voucher system,” said April Crawford, the institute’s director of state initiatives. “Certainly, 75 percent of it is not about a voucher approach at all. Twenty-five percent, they might go to a private program, but they also might go to a school near work that they know as a high-quality program. It just gives them more flexibility to pick and choose.”

So, what’s the problem?

For starters, a little reporting revealed I was wrong in thinking Texas had been there, done that with the Workforce Commission program. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. The Workforce program is about private child care. It has nothing to do with the public education system. So, there’s no risk of a private entity siphoning off dollars intended for public schools.

Then, there’s the Greater Houston Partnership’s beef. The business group, which considers pre-K its No. 1 legislative priority, has been working with Early Matters to expand and improve pre-K in Texas. A critical part of its effort is to create partnerships between school districts and private providers with extra classroom space.

“A voucher system really complicates that and gets in the way of that partnership,” said Jim Postl, former CEO of Pennzoil-Quaker State Company who heads the Partnership’s early childhood committee and is chairman of Early Matters. “The voucher system would bypass the ISDs and potentially go directly to the private providers. So, there’s less incentive for the two groups to work together.”

And then there’s the political taint of the V-word.

“I’m always suspicious when vouchers seem to come out of nowhere,” says Anthony, of Raise Your Hand.

Indeed, no one I talked to could tell me who insisted on including the voucher component. No one could really explain the purpose of it, either.

I basically agree with Falkenberg, and that leaves me back where I started. The v-word, as she puts it, is automatically suspicious, and in this case has a mysterious origin. Until that has been explained, and the concerns raised in her column have been addressed, I will be suspicious. There’s plenty of reason to not give any benefit of the doubt here. As we saw during the gubernatorial campaign, Greg Abbott isn’t interested in fully funding pre-k, so for better or worse we should continue to push for it locally.

Falkenberg on Abbott’s education plan

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.

Charter bill passes Senate, voucher bill passes out of committee

Score one for Sen. Dan Patrick.

As colleagues praised Education Chairman Dan Patrick’s efforts at building consensus, a significantly altered version of his expansion of the state’s charter school system quickly passed out of the Senate Thursday afternoon.

Patrick, R-Houston, said the bill accomplished what should be the goal of lawmakers — lifting everyone through quality education.

“The key to that is to have the opportunity for a great education, and I’m real proud to be a member of the Senate today,” he said as senators approved the measure by a vote of 30 to 1.

[…]

Talking with reporters afterwards, Patrick said the measure focuses on closing poor performing charter schools while allowing high quality schools to open.

Calling it “the most important education bill of the session,” he predicted by the time lawmakers go home in May, they will have passed “some of the biggest reforms in education that we’ve passed in a long time.”

Patrick originally intended to lift the state’s 215-school cap on charter contracts. After amendments, including one from Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, it now incrementally increases the limit on charters, reaching a hard cap of 305 by the year 2019. Charter schools aimed at dropout recovery or operated within traditional school districts would not count toward that cap.

The Senate dropped a requirement for school districts to lease or sell underused buildings to charter schools and another that would have provided facilities funding for charters, which — along with the state cap on charter school contracts — is a primary issue in a lawsuit pending against the state.

Patrick was hailed by Democrats after the vote for his willingness to listen and work with them. (The lone No vote was cast by Republican Sen. Robert Nichols, in case you’re wondering.) You know that I’m a frequent critic of Patrick’s, for very good reasons, but I do recognize that he’s got skills, and when he puts them to use in service of non-ideological items, he can be both good and effective. Patrick drew praise from Raise Your Hand Texas for his performance, and his SB 2 got kudos from Sen. Jose Rodriguez, who is very much on the opposite side of Sen. Patrick ideologically. I’ll throw in my own “attaboy”, since this bill does most of what I would have preferred and not much if any of what I opposed. That’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. The Observer and Harold Cook have more.

And just to balance out all those good feelings, Patrick’s voucher bill, SB 23, was voted out of committee, with four Rs and one D (Eddie Lucio, of course) voting Yes. It seems likely that the remaining Democrats will unite against it, which will be enough to block it from coming to the Senate floor, but you never know. All in all, not a bad week for Dan Patrick.

Patrick has his voucher hearing

It went about as you’d expect.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, delivered an impassioned plea in support of what threatens to become a beleaguered tax credit scholarship plan during a Tuesday morning hearing on his legislation.

“We are great enough in this state to do this thing if we just knock down some barriers of people who are against opportunity and competition because they always have been,” he said.

Currently, those barriers likely include the Texas House, where lawmakers recently made their opposition to the issue clear when they overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the state budget aimed at banning private school vouchers — which nine out of 10 members of the lower chamber’s education committee voted for — and possibly members of Patrick’s own party in the Senate.

“I may go down fighting on this issue, but I will never apologize for trying to reach out and help families who are desperate for their children to have chance they never had,” Patrick said Tuesday morning.

Nor will he ever apologize for doing nothing to help families who are desperate for their children to have access to health care. No, I’m not going to stop harping on this.

For much of the morning’s testimony, questions primarily came from Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who does not sit on the panel, but articulated many concerns of the legislation’s opponents, including whether private schools accepting students under the scholarships would be subject to the state’s accountability standards.

Patrick told the panel that the tax credit legislation had brought together “Catholics, Jews, Christians” and members of the business community to help low-income families secure the best educational opportunities for their children.

“I’ve taken a lot of criticism for this bill, but I’m okay with that,” he said. “And I’m okay with that even if we are not victorious because this a noble cause.”

Some of that criticism came from former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, who now works for the education advocacy and research group Raise Your Hand Texas, which does not support Patrick’s legislation. Ratliff noted that he carried the state’s first charter school legislation while in the Senate in 1995.

The Observer also covered the hearing and noted the exchanges with Sen. Davis and former Lt. Gov. Ratliff, but this was my favorite part:

Testifying this morning at his invitation: Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, Bishop Placido Rodriguez of Lubbock, Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, Rabbi Eliezer Langer of Austin and Cornerstone Christian Schools Superintendent Jerry Echelin.

Rodriguez reminded lawmakers that the Catholic Church runs the country’s biggest private school network, with more than two million students. All the invited speakers were enthusiastic about the possibility of a major new revenue source. The unspoken subtext is that the rise of charter schools—another side of school choice movement—has been especially rough on Catholic schools.

None said they were concerned about being accountable and transparent, if that’s what it took to get the scholarships, though they stopped short of volunteering to give STAAR tests or submit to open records laws. “In itself,” DiNardo said, “accountability is always good. I don’t know what all the ins and outs would be in terms of accountability.”

Zurek recalled the Catholic Church’s proud history of openness and transparency. ”We have never hidden any records,” he said, “in any diocese that I have been in.”

Yeah, I can’t think of a more open and transparent institution in the world than the Catholic Church, either. They’re always up front about what’s going on with them. On a tangential note, see here for more about that decline in private school enrollment and the connection with charters. Puts this debate in a new light yet again, doesn’t it?

Anyway. As the DMN notes, Patrick’s bill SB 23 and the other Senate and House bills that were discussed in this and the concurrent lower chamber hearing were left pending, which is usually how these things go. Given that Patrick chairs the Senate Education Committee, I’d say it’s a safe bet his bill comes up for a vote in committee unless it’s clear to him that he doesn’t have the votes. If it does pass out of committee, I think it’s unlikely to get to the Senate floor for a vote. But at least he had his hearing. The Statesman, Hair Balls, Burka, and the TSTA have more.

House passes major changes to testing and graduation requirements

This is a big deal.

Texas public high school students would face far fewer high-stakes exams and gain more freedom in choosing courses under a major education bill approved by the state House on Tuesday.

Hours of debate among lawmakers centered on whether the state was giving students much-needed flexibility or scaling back too far – eliminating an Algebra II class as a standard graduation requirement, for example.

The bill, which is similar to proposals in the Senate, says students would have to pass five end-of-course exams to graduate, down from 15. It also scraps the default requirement that students take four years of math and science courses.

Supporters say House Bill 5 would decrease dropouts, letting students take more meaningful vocational classes that will prepare them for jobs after high school if they decide against college.

“I believe this is good policy. I think most people in Texas believe this is good policy,” Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said after his bill passed following nearly nine hours of discussion.

[…]

The legislation would end the three-tiered diploma system that kept some students on the lowest level from being admitted into most colleges.

All students now would have to complete a “foundation” curriculum that includes four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies.

Students could add on “endorsements” by taking courses in a speciality: business and industry; science, technology, engineering and math; public services; arts and humanities; or a mixture. Those students also would have to take a fourth math class, meant to raise the rigor, under an amendment from Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

Students who complete an endorsement and take four years of science and math, including Algebra II, would meet the “distinguished” standard.

The Statesman notes the main issue debated during the daylong discussion of this bill, led by Rep. Mark Strama, who was one of only two votes against it.

A bipartisan coalition of members led by Strama argued that the state would be backing away from the rigorous requirements that have produced results, particularly among low-income and minority students, in the name of giving students flexibility.

“Every conversation I’ve had for months has revolved and swirled around this issue,” Aycock said.

Under current law, the 4×4 curriculum is the default graduation plan for all students unless they opt for a minimum plan requiring fewer credits for graduation that doesn’t qualify the student for a four-year college.

Strama put forth an amendment that would make the default plan under House Bill 5 the “distinguished diploma,” which is close to the 4×4 plan and a prerequisite to qualify for automatic college admission under the state’s top 10-percent law.

The distinguished diploma requires four years of science and math, including Algebra 2, rather than the three years called for in the “foundation diploma.” Algebra 2 is seen by many educators as a key indicator of whether a student is ready for college.

“We should assume all of them want a college prep curriculum and are capable of it, and let them decide if they don’t,” Strama said.

Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, signed on to Strama’s amendment and said he was concerned that looser requirements might be sending the state in the “slightly wrong direction,” away from ensuring students are prepared for the 21st century economy.

Forcing students to choose between an upper and lower track would stigmatize the foundation diploma as the lesser option when that isn’t the intention, said Aycock and his allies.

“It would have all these students have to admit at the very beginning of school: ‘I can’t hack this. I have to drop down to a lower level in order to get through high school,’” state Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, said of Strama’s amendment.

After nearly 90 minutes of debate, Strama’s amendment was set aside on a 97-50 vote.

Bill McKenzie, for one, heartily approved of Strama’s amendment. Strama explains his No vote here, and it’s worth your time to read it.

In a preview story, the Trib expanded on these concerns.

Over the past several years, Texas has had “significant gains among all students, especially those of low income backgrounds,” in college and career preparation, said Sonia Troche, the Texas regional director of La Raza. “What they are doing now is actually helping.”

Primary among the concerns of opponents like Troche is a provision that would do away with the state’s so-called 4X4 graduation plan, which requires four years of courses in math, science, social studies and English. Instead, students would complete a “foundation” program with four credits in English, three in math, two in science, three in social studies and then they would earn “endorsements” by completing five credits in areas of study like humanities, science, engineering, technology and math, or business and industry.

The array of choices available to students could prove difficult to navigate for low-income and minority students whose parents are not acquainted with the system because of language or educational barriers, Troche said. Under the current plan, the default is a diploma that requires all of the courses needed for college readiness. The proposal would also reduce the number of end-of-course exams students must from 15 to five total tests, one each in reading, writing, biology, algebra I and U.S. history.

“To a family that may not know all the details, they might think their son or daughter just graduated from high school and are now eligible for college,” Troche said. “But, in fact, if they did an endorsement type of program and graduated from high school but didn’t complete all the required courses, they would have a high school diploma, but would not ready to go to college.”

[…]

State education officials like Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams have joined Shapiro and Troche in sounding an alarm about the proposed changes.

Paredes said in a February interview that even if there are currently high-paying jobs in fields that do not require post-secondary education, the job opportunities for those without a college degree continue to dwindle.

“There’s an increasing amount of information that suggests career technical education is going to be done increasingly in two-year institutions, because once again, the demands of advanced manufacturing jobs and high skilled industrial jobs are growing,” he said.

High school, Paredes said, needs to prepare students to be successful in that setting.

At a Senate hearing Monday, Williams said he would recommend the number of required end-of-course exams to be reduced to eight — three more than under the HB 5 plan in either geometry or algebra II, world history or geography, and chemistry or physics. In remarks delivered around the state, he also said he does not support moving away from the 4X4 curriculum.

See Burka for more on that. I don’t agree much with the Texas Association of Business, which has been among the most stalwart supporters of the STAAR tests, to the point of hostage taking, but this is a valid concern, and it tracks with what I’ve been hearing from people who actually work in schools. Raise Your Hand Texas on the other hand seems pleased with HB5. I’m not sure what to make of all this just yet.

Rep. Harold Dutton knows what he makes of it.

No Child Left Behind, and its precursor Texas system, was created to make sure that, well, no child was left behind. But to Dutton’s way of thinking, no version of accountability, past to present, has touched the lives of African-American males in the Texas school system. So Dutton, being Dutton, proposed our accountability system be based solely on the progress of African-American males.

Aw, ever the jokester, that Dutton. On the floor, near the tail end of yesterday’s debate, Dutton talked about the dominance of African-American males in the state jails, county jails and the probation system.

“What’s the one thing they have in common, other than their race? You know what that one thing in common is?” Dutton asked from the front microphone of the House. “The TEAMS test didn’t help them. The TAAS test didn’t help them. The TAKS test didn’t help them. The end-of-course exams didn’t help them, and the reality is that House Bill 5 is not going to help them, either, unless we do something about it.”

And Dutton’s idea of doing something about it would be to judge school districts by how they teach the children on the bottom rung of academic progress. Needless to say, he didn’t get a lot of support in the House.

Not a lot of big-money lobbyists for that, I’m afraid.

The Observer tracked the amendments that were proposed for HB5.

The amended bill includes new requirements that STAAR tests be given later in the year—no sooner than the third week of May—and that copies of the test be released annually instead of every three years. (Strama introduced both of those.)

Amendments approved back-to-back by Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) and Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) would bar anyone working for a test contractor like Pearson from making political contributions or serving on advisory committees for the state. The amendments appear targeted at Pearson lobbyist Sandy Kress, who serves on a Texas Education Agency committee on accountability.

Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) tacked on an amendment limiting the benchmark tests school districts can give to two benchmarks per STAAR test. The House also approved his amendment that requiring a review of the bill’s effects on graduation rates and college readiness.

Villarreal said he supports HB 5 because he’s seen how vocational opportunities help students in his district. He said some students who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in school get to see how classroom concepts apply to the real world, and find high-paying jobs after graduation.

Rep. Diane Patrick (R-Arlington) voted for the bill, but tried in vain to add protections for rural students in small schools, who she worried wouldn’t have enough course options to finish one of the “endorsements” required for a distinguished diploma.

“My concern is that we have created a plan that is not available, not attainable to all students,” Patrick said. Some representatives suggested distance learning would solve that problem.

Strama sparked the day’s toughest debate around noon, with a proposal to make the college-ready “distinguished” path the default for students, reflecting concerns from higher ed leaders and some Latino and African-American members that HB 5 would leave too many minority students unprepared for college. Strama’s amendment failed, and he eventually voted against the bill.

After the vote, Strama told the Observer that while there are many issues with standardized testing in Texas, the problems are with the execution of the tests and not with the number of end-of course exams.

“I’m afraid that in the upper level coursework we’re going to have wildly varying degrees of rigor and achievement across the state,” he said. “It is more important than ever that we measure kids with one yardstick.”

As the state’s low-income population continues to grow, Strama said it’s more important that students in poor schools are held to the same tough standards as all students.

“If we can’t get those kids to pass these tests, we’re going to pay a high price, and saying they don’t have to pass the test isn’t going to solve the problem,” Strama said.

Here’s a press release from Rep. Villarreal on his amendments. Like I said, I’m still thinking about all this. To say the least, it’s a big and complicated subject, and I don’t claim any particular expertise. I am certain that there will be differences with the Senate bill, and there will be much horse-trading in conference committee. Reducing the number of exams, and aligning them with college admissions makes sense to me. Providing viable alternate paths to high school graduation that prepare kids for a professional career and aren’t viewed as lesser achievements is a good idea, too. I feel confident that whatever we do this session, we’ll be revisiting it next session, and likely again after that.

Patrick files his own voucher bill

I guess if you want something done right, you do it yourself.

Ending speculation over when — or whether — his widely promoted school choice legislation would emerge, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has filed a bill creating a business tax scholarship for students to attend private schools.

The Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program, or Senate Bill 23, would allow economically disadvantaged and at-risk students who attend public schools to transfer to private schools, including religious institutions. Under the program, businesses would receive an up to 15-percent state tax credit in exchange for contributions to a nonprofit organization that would distribute grants to qualifying students, with priority given to those at underperforming campuses. The legislation is co-sponsored by state Sen. Ken Paxton, the McKinney Republican who filed his own tax credit scholarship bill Monday.

“In order to give the children of Texas a better education and a brighter future we must focus on creating more choices for parents including charter, online learning, and the ability for parents to find the right school for their child,” Patrick said in a news release announcing the bill Friday. “Several hundred-thousand students are stuck in low-performing schools today. This should not be acceptable to anyone.”

Many hundreds of thousands more suffer from lack of access to health care, but of course Dan Patrick (and his soulmates) don’t care about that. You just have to admire the brazenness of it all.

But despite the high-profile praise, leaders in the House, including Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and Public Education Committee Chairman Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, have expressed skepticism that such programs could pass in the lower chamber.

They have also generated opposition from advocacy groups in the state, including the Coalition For Public Schools, whose membership includes the state’s major education associations. The coalition released a statement Friday saying it was “appalling to see such legislation filed that would create a corporate tax loophole and voucher scholarships to divert critical dollars into an experimental voucher program to subsidize private education” following the $5.4 billion state budget cut to public education in 2011.

There is also concern about what critics of the plan view as a lack of accountability it provides for taxpayer dollars. The program would intercept the money before it hits public coffers, which would allow private schools to remain outside of regulations and accountability measures applied to the state’s public schools. At a Thursday event hosted by the Tribune, Aycock said that he considered a tax credit program to be a use of public funds — and that any proposal that did not provide adequate accountability measures for public money would be unlikely to pass out of his committee.

I’ll throw in a statement from Raise Your Hand Texas as well. I’m not going to waste my breath on this. It’s a lousy idea that will line a bunch of pockets and benefit a select few at the expense of everyone else. I’ll just add one more thing, via RYHT, that I hadn’t really thought about before: the potential for fraud.

A Texas Freedom Network Education Fund briefing paper documents serious problems with tax-credit voucher schemes in other states. Often, for example, tax-credit vouchers simply subsidize tuition for students already in private schools rather than helping needy children as promised by proponents. In fact, some Georgia private schools have worked to funnel voucher donations back to the children of the donors themselves. In addition, tax-credit voucher schemes have led to the creation of a virtual cottage industry of organizations that make money soliciting donations. Lobbyists in Pennsylvania control the state’s largest voucher organizations and use decisions about who gets vouchers to curry favor with lawmakers.

A tax-credit voucher scheme in Texas would open the door to similar problems in this state. In fact, that’s essentially the warning from Gov. Rick Perry’s former education commissioner, Robert Scott. Speaking at a Texas Tribune event in Houston last week, Scott said:

“Whether it’s public funds or it’s siphoned off tax dollars that go into a 501 (c) 3 and they get to hand out the money, the potential for fraud is incredible. Those checks are going to go out and they’re going to find out that those kids don’t actually exist, as we have with charter schools in the past.”

Tax-credit voucher schemes are a racket, which even some of the state’s most prominent Republicans are now acknowledging.

This should not be a surprise to anyone. There are many, many examples of just exactly this kind of behavior everywhere else in the tax code. Why would we want to add another avenue for it? Hair Balls and Sen. Rodney Ellis have more.

Vouchers continue to be a tough sell

I won’t be happy till they’re dead and buried, but it’s something.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, doesn’t think the Senate has a taste for vouchers. Noting that a two-thirds vote of the 31-member chamber is needed to bring up a bill for discussion, she said, “I believe there are 11 votes to block.”

House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said he and Patrick have discussed the issue. “It would be very difficult to find the votes in committee or on the (full House) floor for any significant voucher program,” Aycock said.

Besides objecting to diverting state support to private schools, some critics suggest it could be problematic to give franchise tax credits for one type of donation and not others. Some raise concerns about how scholarship recipients would be chosen.

Tax consultant Billy Hamilton, whose clients include Raise Your Hand Texas, an education advocacy group that opposes vouchers, said the proposal isn’t good tax policy.

“It’s just another thing that says you can get a special tax break if you do this. If you don’t feel like doing this, you can’t get a tax break, and ultimately your taxes will be higher because other businesses do it,” Hamilton said.

Another complicated tax break that arbitrarily favors some over others is just what our tax code needs, isn’t it? What’s really weird is how at the end of the story Sen. Patrick and his lackey Bill Hammond talk alternately about vouchers being “dramatic change” that will help “transform education”, but also just a small part of a much larger package of reforms that will really only affect a few students, so why is everyone getting all uptight about it already?!? It’s unlikely to be that big a deal on the grounds that private schools don’t serve that many students, won’t be able to accommodate that many more students, and the best of them likely won’t be terribly interested in the kind of students Sen. Patrick claims to be trying to help. It is likely to be a boondoggle for the businesses that take advantage of whatever cookie the legislation would offer, and for some number of parents who were always going to send their kids to private school and now have a way of getting the taxpayers to help pick up the tab for it. The best thing to do here is recognize this for the waste of time that it is and focus on things that might actually have a chance of improving student outcomes.

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.

What we need is better choice

With all the talk about “school choice” floating around, it’s important to remember that in Houston at least we already have a lot of options from which to choose.

Houston’s urban school leaders vowed Wednesday to continue efforts to expand quality school choices, despite financial and regulatory challenges.

Top charters schools – including KIPP and YES Prep – receive less state funding than their traditional counterparts, and Houston ISD is sometimes handcuffed by state regulations, according to speakers at the seventh annual Children at Risk Children’s Summit.

Regardless of the challenges, Houston parents are hungry for quality choices, leaders said.

“It’s like Jerry Maguire. You have them at hello,” said KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, who went door-to-door to recruit families for his new campuses in the late 1990s.

Today, more than 36,000 Houston students are on waiting lists for top charter schools. And about 68,000 students transfer from their zoned HISD school to another campus, under the district’s school choice model that includes dozens of popular magnet schools. Another 10,000 students transfer to HISD schools from outside the district.

“We’re a pretty good choice option,” Superintendent Terry Grier said.

Both Grier and charter school leaders agreed that educating the overwhelmingly low-income, minority populations that they serve takes extra time, effort and money.

We all know about the money part of that equation, so I won’t belabor it here. To the extent that Sen. Dan Patrick is talking about letting other school districts have the kind of choice model that HISD has, I’m all fine with it. I don’t know how much of a panacea that will be in less populated areas, and let’s not kid ourselves about the increased costs associated with sending kids off to non-neighborhood schools, but as a matter of principle there’s no good reason why parents and kids shouldn’t have as many viable options open to them as possible.

But as we know, this is just a side dish, with vouchers as the entree. Again, I’m not going to belabor that here, but instead want to talk a bit more about charter schools.

Charter school leaders said they will continue to look for ways to expand, which is challenging without the ability to ask for school bonds like the $1.9 billion one that HISD voters passed in November. They launched a partnership with the neighboring Spring Branch ISD last year to operate schools inside existing campuses, further lowering costs.

“We’re not going to build a $25 million building when we can get great results with less than that,” said Jason Bernal, YES Prep Public Schools president.

[…]

“High-performing charters like YES Prep and KIPP are scalable,” Bernal said. “It just validates we can continue doing what we’re doing.”

I hope he’s right about that, because we’d all benefit if schools like YES and KIPP can extend their reach. As the chart above shows, there’s probably only so far that they can be extended. It’s important to remember, however, that most charter schools aren’t KIPP or YES. In fact, the percentage of charter schools rated Academically Unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency is nearly double that of traditional public schools, and it’s very difficult to shut down a failing charter school. Somehow, that sort of thing never seems to be part of the discussion. If we’re going to expand access to charter schools by raising the state limit on charters, then we need to increase oversight and accountability on charter schools as well. I got a press release from Texans Deserve Great Schools, which is funded in part by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, whose report on school funding was the basis of this Chron story, that includes policy recommendations to address charter school oversight. I’m not sure I agree with everything they say – in particular, I remain skeptical of the cult of online learning and the belief that technology will solve all our problems; again, this is a separate issue – but aside from that they do make a number of good suggestions. You can read their release here and see for yourself. For extra credit, read the issue briefs and policy papers from Raise Your Hand Texas. There’s no shortage of education policy and reform out there. As with charter schools, the goal is to get as much of the good and as little of the bad as possible.