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Texans for Education Reform

Trib overview of SBOE races

As always, there’s a lot of action in these low profile races.

Among the contenders in the races to replace Republican Thomas Ratliff of Mount Pleasant and Democrat Martha Dominguez of El Paso is a 68-year-old East Texas retiree who has said that President Obama used to be a prostitute and a 41-year-old self-described “MeXicana Empowerment Specialist” who says the board’s Democrats have sat silent for far too long.

Both Republican Mary Lou Bruner, of Mineola, and Democrat Georgina Cecilia Perez, of El Paso, taught in public schools for years. That’s one of the few things they have in common, along with a clear passion for their respective causes. Observers and political scientists say both women have emerged as strong contenders in their separate races and could easily claim victory in the March 1 primary, an outcome that could mean the return of a more quarrelsome board.

DISTRICT 9

Bruner, who has won endorsements from influential movement conservatives like Cathie Adams and JoAnn Fleming, is one of three Republicans vying for the nomination to replace Ratliff in representing District 9, a 31-county swath that spans the northeast quadrant of the state.

But it’s Bruner’s voluminous Facebook posts, not her endorsements, that have generated the most buzz in the race. A majority of them echo the kind of anti-Muslim, anti-gay or anti-science opinions commonly spouted by members at education board meetings of yore, but observers — and detractors — say she takes it to a whole other level.

“Obama has a soft spot for homosexuals because of the years he spent as a male prostitute in his twenties,” Bruner said last October in a now-deleted post on the wall of her personal Facebook page, where she also has posted campaign materials and solicited votes.

Bruner, who worked for 36 years in East Texas schools as a teacher, counselor and educational diagnostician, said she stands by all her posts but deletes the ones she comes to learn are inaccurate and also publicly apologizes.

“I’m not ashamed of anything that I have ever said,” Bruner said, noting she plans to bring to same zeal to the state board, speaking her mind even if she’s outvoted. “If I’m on the State Board of Education, I’m going to speak up for the things that I believe because I have a First Amendment right.”

The Tribune could not, however, locate a public apology for that post on Obama, which Bruner has since deleted from her Facebook page. Asked specifically about the post and whether she still believes the president used to be a gay prostitute, Bruner said: “You are obviously a hostile and biased reporter pretending to be a friendly reporter to gain my confidence. The interview is over.”

[…]

DISTRICT 1

Much like Bruner, Perez, a 41-year-old mother of four, also vows to bring “a very strong voice” to Austin. The former 8th grade language arts teacher contends the board’s five Democrats are “far too silent most of the time” — often sidelined as the board’s moderate and social conservatives dominate the debate.

Perez, who retired from teaching a year ago and now is seeking a doctorate in education at the University of Texas at El Paso, targets the education panels’ far-right Republicans prominently on her website.

“The SBOE is an important entity that has been hijacked by extremists that are more concerned with advancing an ultra-conservative agenda and rewriting textbooks than they have been overseeing the education of Texas youth,” reads a quote on the homepage.

But Perez, who has won endorsements from fellow El Paso Democrats Sen. José Rodriguez and Rep. Mary González, also dismisses any concerns that she might not play well with others. She points to her work last year crafting a proclamation that the education board ended up approving in a 12-2 vote supporting the implementation of ethnic studies courses.

“It was my presentation and my research and my testimony that brought them on board with how this closes the achievement gap,” Perez said. “In the past, the SBOE has been known for, perhaps, uncivil discourse, but that has not been my experience up there.”

Bruner of course has drawn national attention for her repugnant statements; as is usually the case, the Texas Freedom Network is your best source of information for this brand of crazy. She’s very much the face of the Texas Republican Party these days. She has a sane, Ratliff-esque opponent in Keven Ellis, and I suppose the question is whether the people that elected Don McLeroy or the people that ousted him in favor of Thomas Ratliff will show up for that race. Lord knows, the state GOP deserves her, but the schoolchildren of Texas do not.

As for Georgina Perez, it’s lazy and irresponsible of the Trib to draw a parallel between her and Bruner, even of the rest of their writing makes it clear that outside of a willingness to mix it up the two are completely different. One of these two will be a laughingstock, and it ain’t Georgina Perez. One of her opponents is a recipient of money from the astroturf group Texans for Education Reform, so I’ll be rooting for Ms. Perez on March 1.

And there’s also our local race:

DISTRICT 6

[…]

Two of the Democrats seeking the District 6 nomination — Jasmine Jenkins and Dakota Carter — criticized [incumbent Donna] Bahorich, as well as each other, for lack of experience and predicted their own passionate campaigning will push them to victory.

Carter, 28, is a child and adolescent psychiatry resident at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston who said he is “the only person running in the primary or the general election who understands how kids develop, at what ages they should be learning different subjects.”

The Panhandle native expects to receive his doctorate in education next year from the University of Houston, with a focus on curriculum instruction and leadership.

Jenkins, 32, also has a doctorate in education but says her experience teaching bilingual 4th grade in the Houston area for two years may be more important to voters.

“Being well educated doesn’t make someone an educator,” said Jenkins, who now is the manager of community-based initiatives at Advantage Testing of Houston.

“I hope that people will really recognize that and put these decisions in the hands of experienced educators.”

I interviewed Dakota Carter, and apparently got door-knocked by Jasmine Jenkins, but wasn’t home for it. Either one would be fine by me (there’s a third candidate who’s been invisible so far), but Bahorich got 57.1% in 2012, which was enough to win by over 100,000 votes. I’ll be happy if we can know that down a point or two – for sure, if we do, we’ve probably done pretty well countywide, too.

Meet your “education reform” groups

The Observer provides a primer.

For 20 years, Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) has been protecting our hospitals and business leaders from meddling trial lawyers, convincing the Texas Legislature to cap damage awards and closing the courthouse doors to some potential plaintiffs. For two decades, TLR has been wildly successful, perhaps the most successful special interest in Texas. Having conquered the civil justice system, TLR is moving on—to education.

Texans for Education Reform launched midway through the 2013 legislative session, and shares lobbyists, board members and a spokeswoman with TLR. (TLR president Dick Trabulsi, for example, sits on the school reform group’s board.) The two groups also share a few of the same deep-pocketed donors, wealthy individuals like Dick Weekley, Ray Hunt and Doug Foshee who helped the education group raise nearly $1 million for its new political action committee. Just under $200,000 was distributed to candidates ahead of the March primary.

It might seem strange that Texas’ preeminent tort reform advocates have taken a keen interest in public schools, of all things. But TLR’s move into education mirrors a nationwide trend over roughly the last decade: Advocacy groups and business leaders have spent big money trying to apply business principles to schools, a particular brand of school reform built around school choice and fewer job protections for teachers.

[…]

Texans for Education Reform emerged last year to make up for lost time and to shake schools from the status quo. “Most of the other interest groups in this space weren’t advancing agendas; they were restricting bills,” Texans for Education Reform consultant Anthony Holm told the Texas Tribune last year. The group dispatched 19 lobbyists to the Texas Capitol, many of them highly paid, pushing charter school expansion, online learning and state takeover of low-performing schools. Texans for Public Justice noted the group was the 2013 session’s most formidable newcomer, debuting by spending as much as $1.2 million on lobbyists like former Senate education chairwoman Florence Shapiro, Rick Perry’s old friend Mike Toomey, and Adam Jones, a former deputy education commissioner.

The group’s spokeswoman, Sherry Sylvester, declined to discuss what the group will go after next session, offering only that it will advocate “research-proven reforms that empower parents, reinforce local control and provide pathways for intervention in chronically failing schools within a morally responsible timeline.”

Whatever that means, Texans for Education Reform will likely find itself in agreement with Democrats for Education Reform, which recently launched a chapter in Texas. That group—through a spinoff group called Education Reform Now Advocacy—has already distinguished itself as Texas’ No. 2 “dark money” spender in this year’s elections. Dark money is cash culled from undisclosed, usually corporate, contributors. In a flurry this spring, Democrats for Education Reform dropped $114,000 in anonymous cash on phone banks and mailers supporting four candidates: El Paso Reps. Marisa Marquez and Naomi Gonzalez; Ramon Romero, who upset longtime Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam in March; and Erika Beltran, a Teach for America alum who’s worked on school reform in Dallas, in a race for the State Board of Education.

[…]

Democrats for Education Reform has been around for years, with support from multi-billion dollar hedge fund managers. But its Texas branch is just getting started, led by Jennifer Koppel, whose past titles include vice president for growth at the IDEA charter school chain. Koppel says she’s still forming the group’s Texas-specific strategy. “We are definitely still trying to think about where we’ll get involved legislatively,” she tells the Observer, but that they’ll support candidates who’ve been engaged with school reform issues and aren’t “beholden to the old way of doing things.”

Texans for Education Reform may have the power of the Texas GOP establishment behind it, but Democrats for Education Reform’s national scope gives the group a different sort of strength. Koppel speculates her group might take Texas lawmakers to see school reforms in action in other states.

“For Democrats there is this constant questioning to say, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’” she says. “And they’re asking these questions. It’s hard in a vacuum to build that confidence.”

While conservative groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation have embraced school choice from a free-market perspective, Koppel says there’s a simple reason Democrats should be enthusiastic about reform: “You’re looking at the places where these failing schools are, and they’re overwhelmingly places that are represented by Democrats. And you wonder where the disconnect is.”

Let’s start by stating the obvious: Texans for Lawsuit Reform is a malignant force in our politics, and any effort that is associated with them should be treated with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility. It’s always possible that they could end up on the right side of a given issue, but those cases are highly likely to be exceptional, and one should not lower one’s guard without a long and sustained demonstration of good faith on their part. Seriously, as much as possible, stay away.

As far as Democrats for Education Reform is concerned, the picture is a bit murkier. This is an area of often strong disagreement among people that otherwise agree on a lot of things. A lot of the dispute is about strategy and solutions, since for the most part there is common ground on what the problems are and what the goals, broadly speaking, ought to be. It’s a rift within Democratic circles that isn’t going away. Still, any time “dark money” is involved there’s ample reason for mistrust, and until Democrats for Education Reform articulate an agenda, it’s hard to know what to think. Keep your eyes and ears open and we’ll assess as we go.

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.