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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.

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.

Two more ways to divert money from public schools

Number One: Taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools.

When the Georgia legislature passed a private school scholarship program in 2008, lawmakers promoted it as a way to give poor children the same education choices as the wealthy.

The program would be supported by donations to nonprofit scholarship groups, and Georgians who contributed would receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits, up to $2,500 a couple. The intent was that money otherwise due to the Georgia treasury — about $50 million a year — would be used instead to help needy students escape struggling public schools.

That was the idea, at least. But parents meeting at Gwinnett Christian Academy got a completely different story last year.

“A very small percentage of that money will be set aside for a needs-based scholarship fund,” Wyatt Bozeman, an administrator at the school near Atlanta, said during an informational session. “The rest of the money will be channeled to the family that raised it.”

A handout circulated at the meeting instructed families to donate, qualify for a tax credit and then apply for a scholarship for their own children, many of whom were already attending the school.

“If a student has friends, relatives or even corporations that pay Georgia income tax, all of those people can make a donation to that child’s school,” added an official with a scholarship group working with the school.

The exchange at Gwinnett Christian Academy, a recording of which was obtained by The New York Times, is just one example of how scholarship programs have been twisted to benefit private schools at the expense of the neediest children.

Spreading at a time of deep cutbacks in public schools, the programs are operating in eight states and represent one of the fastest-growing components of the school choice movement. This school year alone, the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students, according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization. Legislators in at least nine other states are considering the programs.

While the scholarship programs have helped many children whose parents would have to scrimp or work several jobs to send them to private schools, the money has also been used to attract star football players, expand the payrolls of the nonprofit scholarship groups and spread the theology of creationism, interviews and documents show. Even some private school parents and administrators have questioned whether the programs are a charade.

If this sounds a lot like vouchers to you, you’re right. It’s vouchers in a different package, done in a clever way to work around those pesky church-state obstacles. I haven’t seen this particular variant rear its head in Texas yet, but I figure it’s only a matter of time.

That leads to Item Number Two: Virtual schools, which are operating here in Texas.

report released Tuesday by the liberal groupProgress Texas is adding another layer to the controversy over virtual schools, claiming that despite their popularity, the programs have failed Texas students and are run by businesses seeking profit.

“It’s a $24 billion industry with zero accountability,” Progress Texas executive director Matt Glazer said in a statement. “Virtual schools provide unregulated financial windfalls to a few insiders by shortchanging our children’s education.”

The Progress Texas findings come in response to a March report by  the conservative Austin think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which supported virtual schools. The TPPF report claimed that virtual schools save money and can reduce drop-out rates because students who must drop out to work can take classes online whenever they have time. It said that virtual schools can also help students with special needs like dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and physical disabilities.

In 2004, the American Legislative Exchange Council, made up of businesses and nearly 2,000 legislators, created a bill that supported online learning in classrooms and virtual schools. The measure initiated a wave of virtual schools across the country. In 2007, Texas approved Senate Bill 1788, similar to the ALEC model, which created a state-operated virtual school network and supported integrating online learning in Texas classrooms. Tax dollars help fund virtual schools, but businesses run them.

One of the only full-time virtual schools in the state, Texas Virtual Academy, was ranked academically unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency in 2009 and 2011, yet enrollment in the academy increased 3,203 percent in those years – from 254 students to 8,136, according to the Progress Texas report.

The report is here, and Progress Texas’ press release is here. ALEC was also a factor in the scholarship scam. Yeah, I’m as shocked as you are. Read ’em both and keep your eyes open during the next legislative session. There’s a lot more to what’s going on with schools than just the nasty budget cuts from last year.