Snake Oil

State Board of Education chair Barbara Cargill
State Board of Education chair Barbara Cargill

As Tincy Miller said this week, “We are in a different era today, and that is technology.”

The Dallas Republican was describing, at Tuesday’s hearing on the adoption of new science textbooks, how things had changed for the State Board of Education since she first joined in 1992. And while our present “Technology Age” probably predates even her tenure, she’s right that, thanks in part to classroom technology, the board’s influence on textbooks has changed dramatically. It’s shrinking—fast.

Miller spoke Tuesday about how a 2011 law has “regretfully” stripped much of the state board’s authority from the textbook adoption process by letting school districts spend state money on any books they want, including ones that aren’t on the state board’s approved list.

This week showed the board adjusting to its new, more advisory role in textbook selection—and a few board members hoping to get some of that old authority back. SBOE chairwoman Barbara Cargill, in her latest newsletter to supporters, advocates restoring the board’s authority to rule on the quality of lessons, a power the Legislature revoked in 1995. (“Now is the time to ride the wave of public concern and outrage about CSCOPE,” she writes.)

Two years ago, as the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public education, it also eliminated the state’s classroom technology account and told districts to use the state’s $750 million textbook fund for their tech needs too. Senate Bill 6 let districts spend that money on any textbooks they wanted, or software, or iPads, or people to keep the equipment running. They got less money, but more freedom.

“If I were a publisher, I would simply bypass the state adoption process,” former state board member Michael Soto told the San Antonio Express-News last year.

So far, districts haven’t exactly abandoned the books on the state board’s approved list, but David Anderson, an education lobbyist whose clients include publishers and school districts, says the change has been faster than he expected. “I really thought it’d take four to five years till districts see all the possibilities this has opened up,” he says.

Thanks to some meticulous record-keeping at the Texas Education Agency, it’s easy to see how districts are spending their money. So far this school year—as of today—districts have spent $83.5 million from the state’s “instructional materials” fund, $36 million of which has gone to books that aren’t on the state board’s list of adopted materials. Another $20 million has paid for software, tech gear and personnel.

“They’re still buying a lot of state board approved items,” Anderson says, but mostly, districts are buying less of everything.

As gatekeepers to book sales for 5 million students, Texas’ State Board of Education used to have a huge influence on schoolbooks sold nationwide. Former chairman Don McLeroy famously said, “Sometimes it boggles my mind the kind of power we have.”

Lawmakers relieved the board of much of that power in Senate Bill 6, two years after McLeroy led the SBOE on a tear of culture-war revisionism. Meanwhile, the vast majority of other states adopted the federal Common Core standards, creating a much more enticing market for publishers—one that doesn’t include Texas or the whims of its state board.

But a weaker state board doesn’t mean an end to pitched battles over how we teach evolution or global warming. As nasty as the SBOE’s efforts to politicize education have been in the past, they’ve been the lightning rod that spares local districts from hosting those fights.

Under a new law carried by by Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock), school districts now have to hold public meetings on any new “major curriculum initiatives” they adopt. Activists agitating against the CSCOPE lessons hope the law means a chance to wage little battles over Islam or Agenda 21 at districts across the state. But the law also means any new textbook adoption could flare up another culture war.

“The possibility absolutely exists,” Anderson says, “and the atmosphere is more conducive for a successful push for local hearings now than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago.”

 

Great Hearts Academies
Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) is asking Education Commissioner Michael Williams to deny Great Hearts Academies' plans to expand into North Texas.

The latest round of charter school hopefuls are wrapping up their interviews with state regulators today, the first group to apply since Senate Bill 2 shook up the state’s charter school program. This year, for the first time, charter approval is up to Education Commissioner Michael Williams and not the State Board of Education—and one lawmaker says public input is getting shafted under the new system.

All the charter applicants are required to tell nearby school districts and lawmakers about their plans, but Fort Worth Democratic Rep. Lon Burnam says Great Hearts Academies—a school that’s faced opposition to its expansion plans across the country—waited till the last minute to notify him and Fort Worth ISD about its planned expansion to North Texas. In a letter to Williams, Burnam says Fort Worth ISD got notification from Great Hearts on Monday—the day of TEA’s deadline for input before this week’s interviews.

Burnam says his office hasn’t even heard from Great Hearts directly, and only got letters from two other applicants on Monday. “I know that other legislators and school districts across the state have also experienced this same limited time for comments,” he writes.

Burnam wants Williams to delay his decision on the charter schools so that lawmakers and school districts can weigh in.

Buried in the 200-plus-page charter applications, these “statement of impact” letters can look like technicalities, but it’s still easy to see why schools like Great Hearts might enjoy a quiet approval process.

The Observer wrote last December about the Phoenix-based chain’s expansion plans into San Antonio, and the school’s rejection in Nashville over concerns that Great Hearts’ schools create segregated student bodies catering to wealthy families. In its latest application to the state, Great Hearts proposes four campuses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, with up to 3,440 students after five years.

For an area that big, Burnam complains in his letter, Great Hearts should have held more than a single meeting all the way over in Dallas. Burnam flat-out asks Williams to reject Great Hearts’ application, with a little dig at the Arizona chain’s lack of Texas bona fides.

“As Texans know, Ft. Worth is not Dallas,” he writes. “Conducting a hearing in Dallas is not sufficient to provide an opportunity for my Ft. Worth constituents to comment on a proposed school in their district.”

Attracting high-quality out-of-state charters is precisely part of the point of SB 2, the biggest set of changes to Texas’ charter school program since its creation almost 20 years ago. The changes also include raising the state’s cap on charter schools, which begins next year, and the new process for charter approval.

The bill also takes the authority to approve charters away from the elected State Board of Education and places it with Williams, a Rick Perry appointee. During yesterday’s charter interviews, TEA officials were ready with tough questions for charter applicants, questioning plans to charge mandatory fees for supplies, for instance, and asking another school about word-for-word similarities between their application and another school’s.

State Board of Education members still have sway, though: Under SB 2, they maintain the power to veto a school’s approval. Many of them were there to ask questions during the charter interviews yesterday too.

 

TEA now posts charters’ applications online, but if you want to read more about the dozen new candidates without downloading the giant files, you can find them all here:

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams says TEA will get serious with those who cheat the accountability system.

One of the nice things about starting a new job is that nobody can blame you for mistakes that happened before you arrived.

Michael Williams, for instance, must have been thrilled to take over the Texas Education Agency a year ago, and not have to answer for TEA’s colossal inaction in response to cheating complaints at El Paso ISD. Twice in 2010, TEA cleared El Paso ISD of wrongdoing—before a federal investigation confirmed the district was “disappearing” low-scoring students to game federal accountability ratings, carrying out one of the most nefarious cheating schemes ever in U.S. schools.

Not long after he became education commissioner, Williams pledged to get to the bottom of TEA’s failure, asking State Auditor John Keel to investigate all the nasty stuff that went on before he got there.

The state auditor’s report was released a week ago. It pretty much confirms early EPISD whistleblowers’ concerns that TEA was (a) uninterested in investigating their complaints and (b) overmatched by then-Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia’s scheme. The El Paso Times, which got an early copy of the audit, summed it up in the headline, “Texas Education Agency can’t spot cheating.”

Williams made the most of the moment, telling the Times that TEA’s past response was “an entire organizational breakdown and … started with the old leadership team.” But now, he assured them, there’s a new sheriff in town: “This is a new agency, this is a new leadership team and this leadership team understands the importance of aggressively ferreting out and identifying the truth.”

Williams said nobody at the agency will be punished based on the audit’s findings. He blamed leadership and institutional shortcomings at TEA, which is consistent with the new audit. I’ve highlighted a few choice passages from the audit below, but the main takeaway is that TEA is not built to catch the kind of cheating that went on at El Paso ISD and, it seems, other districts around the state.

If a district is mishandling state money, or if teachers are helping students to cheat on tests, TEA has ways to investigate those complaints. But if whole groups of students are being misclassified or shooed away from class to boost a school district’s test scores, the agency is paralyzed. While they don’t dwell on TEA’s shrinking staff and funding over the years, auditors note that TEA is poorly outfitted for fraud-catching, with just one investigator.

One TEA employee told auditors she’d been suspicious of the miracle turnaround underway at EPISD, but didn’t know who to tell about it. TEA’s plan for monitoring districts, according to the audit, “does not encourage Agency employees to initiate investigations based on observations and professional judgment.” And when the U.S. Department of Education directed TEA to investigate 10 complaints from then-state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, TEA’s investigators decided half of them were outside the agency’s jurisdiction, and never followed up.

State auditors recalled the time in 2009 when the Winfree Academy Charter Schools around Dallas rearranged their students so none were listed as 10th graders—meaning there’d be no test scores on which to base a federal rating—and TEA only caught it after receiving an outside complaint.

That, too, was on former commissioner Robert Scott’s watch. (Scott didn’t reply to a voicemail from the Observer, nor has he spoken with other media about the new audit.) But blaming the old boss for TEA’s shortcomings doesn’t quite explain what went wrong.

The Dallas Morning News was quick to point out TEA’s cursory investigation—before Scott’s arrival—after a Morning News report uncovered many schools making “statistically improbable gains” in test scores. TEA did hire an outside investigator, which found hundreds more suspicious schools. TEA responded with swift and ruthless justice… by sending those schools a questionnaire about their test security.

But why stop there? Walt Haney, the Boston College researcher famous for debunking the “Texas Miracle” of rising test scores in the ’90s, analyzed statewide enrollment by grade in 2001. His results, he wrote, “clearly suggest the possibility that after 1990-91, when TAAS was first implemented, schools in Texas have increasingly been failing students, disproportionately Black and Hispanic students, in grade nine in order to make their grade 10 TAAS scores look better.”

Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia’s way of “disappearing” students from the 10th grade was a particularly nasty rendition of the same old con. So long as there’s such a huge incentive to raise test scores, administrators will keep finding creative ways to beat the system. And when the state’s investigators are underfunded and uninterested, it’s that much easier for cheaters to get away with it.

Now, at least, Michael Williams says TEA is ready to get proactive. TEA responded to the state audit by announcing that it will create a new office dedicated to these investigations. The agency will start watching districts’ enrollment and testing data for funny stuff. And as for TEA’s outdated complaint tracking system, the one that made it so hard to communicate within the agency—they began work on its replacement six years ago. According to TEA’s response to the audit, there was just one problem:

“The project was not able to be completed due to budget constraints and resource limitations.”

 

Forty years after NASA canceled its Apollo 20 mission to the moon, Houston’s school district reclaimed the name for a new program with even bolder ambitions: Turn around 20 of its most struggling schools, lower dropout rates and boost test scores.

The program shares a goal with the most popular school reform initiatives—from Teach for America to the KIPP charter schools—and it draws inspiration from their methods as well. The Apollo 20 program stresses longer school days and one-on-one tutoring, plus less clearly defined priorities like quality school leadership and high standards with a “no excuses” approach.

Some education experts saw Apollo 20 as such a revolutionary program because it took lessons from the charter-school movement and applied them in the nation’s seventh-largest school district.

Since Apollo 20 launched in fall 2010, it’s been featured in a PBS Frontline documentary, lauded by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and has attracted just shy of $17 million in support from private foundations and implacable do-gooders like Chevron and JPMorgan Chase. Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier claims that the dropout rate has hit an all-time low, and the graduation rate an all-time high.

At the same time, Apollo 20 has been lambasted by critics who say the district is spending too much to help too few students. They also say the program’s reforms have been disruptive. Before the program’s first year, more than one-third of the teachers in Apollo 20 schools were replaced; 76 first-year Teach for America teachers helped take their place.

Principals in some Apollo 20 high schools turned over frequently: After one principal left Kashmere High in 2012, his predecessor had to return from a nonprofit he’d fled to just months earlier. Four of the nine new Apollo principals left after less than two years. Another Apollo campus, Ryan High, was slated for closure earlier this year.

Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist whose research formed the basis for Grier’s design, sent research teams to evaluate Apollo 20 classrooms and test results. Fryer released encouraging research on the results after Apollo 20’s first year, showing gains on state math and reading tests, and modest improvement in school attendance. But Fryer’s report also criticized the program for presenting students with material that they found too easy.

Two years later, some of the program’s funders are growing impatient. Fryer’s next round of research is due in November, though the Houston Chronicle reported that this isn’t soon enough for the Houston Endowment, which is withholding the final third of a $9 million grant until it sees the results of Apollo’s first three years.

“It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen data,” Houston Endowment President Ann Stern told the Observer. “All of us in public education are going to learn a lot from these results, so we want to get it right.”

Stern is satisfied to wait a month or two more for Fryer’s report, but the Houston Endowment’s announcement set off a brief panic in the school board, which contemplated asking Fryer to speed up his results, then voted to hire an outside reviewer to check out Fryer’s report for bias or faulty methodology.

Fryer, a 2011 MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, wasn’t too pleased, judging from an email he wrote to Grier, which the Chronicle published. “I think your school Board is a bit confused about the academic process,” he wrote.

Perhaps, but we’ll all find out soon enough if Apollo 20 has been a success, or if its promises were out of this world.

bootcampcover-705x475
Jen Reel
A drill instructor at the Brownsville Academic Center.

Back in June, the Observer featured Brownsville ISD’s boot camp school, exploring the question of whether—to steal a line from the cover of the magazine—”military-style discipline helps or harms.”

The Brownsville Academic Center, a gleaming new $8 million campus built for up to 200 students, is Texas’ largest boot-camp style disciplinary school—but as I wrote in that story, it isn’t the only one. Juvenile boot camps, popular in the ’80s and ’90s heyday of zero-tolerance discipline, have generally fallen out of fashion after a string of allegations of abuse and intimidation by drill instructors.

These school district-run programs promise a kinder, gentler approach drawing on the military as an inspiration for the structure and self-esteem the schools hope to hard-wire into students. Still, it’s an extreme model for a public school—especially when it’s the only disciplinary program the district provides.

Here, then, is a rundown of the other districts around Texas with boot camp-style disciplinary schools. Any quotes are from district spokespeople or principals. This isn’t a scientific list—it’s based on my own research and interviews with school officials, so join in the comments with any others you know and I’ll add them here.

Judson ISD (San Antonio)
Judson Secondary Alternative School
Students: 15
Grade range: 6-12

The district has other disciplinary options, but students are referred here for “significant and or chronic disruption to the safety and education of the student or fellow students.” It includes military uniforms, drill instructors, physical training and a zero-tolerance discipline policy.

Southwest ISD (San Antonio)
Southwest ISD Boot Camp
Students: 25-28
Grade range: 6-12

One of two disciplinary programs run by the district, students are referred here for “infractions of the student code of conduct.” It was created as a “transition back to the traditional secondary campuses.”

Sherman ISD
Sherman ISD Boot Camp

(Sherman ISD officials did not reply to questions)

Lamar CISD (Southwest Houston suburbs)
Fort Bend County Alternative School
Students: 14-23
Grade range: 4-12

LCISD has its own alternative learning center, but operates this school under contract for the Fort Bend County Juvenile Probation Department, not its own students.

Floresville ISD
Wilson County Boot Camp School
Students: up to 25
Grade range: 7-11

A partnership with the Karnes/Wilson County Juvenile Probation Department, it’s a juvenile justice alternative education program (or JJAEP) for mandatory expulsions, or for students referred by a judge. Floresville ISD runs a separate (non-boot camp) disciplinary program as well.

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD
Buell Central High School

Includes military dress, physical training and drill instructors. Students are referred for violating the student code of conduct.

Harlingen CISD
Secondary Alternative Center
Students: 93
Grade range: 6-12

HCISD’s only disciplinary program, the “S.A.C. uses military drill, counseling, and strategies in order to achieve student success.”

 

You’ll notice none of these districts are among the wealthiest in the state. As I wrote in June:

Misbehaving kids from Austin, Houston and Highland Park don’t wear battle-dress uniforms to school or have a drill sergeant follow them into the bathroom for “head breaks.” Most of BAC’s students come from schools in the poorest parts of town, where the military and Border Patrol recruit heavily.

That last line was based on remarks I heard repeatedly during interviews, that students from Brownsville’s poorest schools were disproportionately represented at the boot camp.

Adding up five years of referrals to BAC show that’s pretty much the case. In the map below, each dot represents a Brownsville ISD school—blue for high schools, green for middle—and the size of the dot represents how many students were referred to BAC. Click on a dot, or hover over the school’s name on the table, for more detail.

El Paso ISD School Board
Patrick Michels
El Paso ISD trustees, in happier times.

Former El Paso ISD Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia is still cooling his heels in a Pennsylvania prison on the mighty Susquehanna River, but the cheating scandal that put him in jail is now spurring other investigations in school districts outside El Paso.

McAllen ISD, 800 miles from El Paso, is the latest district touched by investigations into special policies that keep transfer students from Mexico out of 10th grade—when test scores determine a school’s state ratings.

It’s less insidious than Garcia’s scheme in El Paso ISD—in which students with limited English skills were intimidated into staying home on test days, or told to leave the school district—but it reflects a common response in border school districts adapting to the huge influx of students fleeing violence in Mexico, beginning in 2007.

There’s a delicate line between McAllen ISD’s policy and an all-out gaming of the system, as The Monitor in McAllen describes it:

To be clear, the McAllen school district is not accused of cheating, but in the world of Texas education, the questionable practice — at first glance — shares a similar characteristic to a high-profile scandal in El Paso that dates back to 2010.

The El Paso Times broke the McAllen ISD story on Tuesday, based on an audit released this month about El Paso’s Socorro ISD, which had a similar policy from 2007 to 2012.

According to auditor Pam Padilla, from 2009 to 2012 Socorro ISD kept 70 transfer students from Mexico in ninth grade their first year, then skipped them past 10th grade—the year their standardized tests count for the school’s state rating.

Socorro’s superintendent at the time, Xavier De La Torre—who’s since moved on to lead a large district in Northern California—says he had no idea about the policy. He’s blamed either his predecessor, or counselors acting on their own. Socorro ISD placed four administrators on leave after the audit came out this month.

The El Paso ISD scandal struck fear in border school administrators who scrambled to audit their districts’ policies toward students transferring from Mexico.

This summer, Congressman Beto O’Rourke called on the U.S. Department of Education to investigate all of El Paso County’s school districts.

Canutillo ISD is one such district—where according to an internal audit released in December—Garcia’s lieutenant Damon Murphy replicated the scheme to boost test scores by manipulating transcripts and holding back students deemed likely to score low on state tests. Facing pressure from the school board, Murphy resigned later that month, and others in the district also left.

When I was in El Paso last year reporting on El Paso ISD, people I spoke with were convinced that Garcia’s scheme had spread not just around El Paso, but all along the border and throughout South Texas.

Dan Wever, a former El Paso ISD board member and one of the first to notice the district’s stats looked fishy, said EPISD administrators had software to predict which students would score low on the state tests, so they could take action before test day. Those programs, like Inova and Eduphoria, would help any other district do the same.

Eliot Shapleigh, the former state senator who very publicly accused Garcia of running a scam in 2009, was adamant that Garcia had brought “a cancer” into El Paso’s schools. “I have no doubt that this approach has been rolled out in various states, and different districts around the state,” he said.

Anti-CSCOPE activist Alice Linahan
Patrick Michels
Anti-CSCOPE activist Alice Linahan speaks at the Capitol Monday, next to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Kids in school learn that it only took four major battles to secure Texas’ freedom. But that was before today, before Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Rep. Steve Toth and a few of their favorite patriots fired the first shots in the Battle of Llano ISD.

The enemy, of course, is CSCOPE, the curriculum tool that’s become a hot target for Texas culture warriors who claim its lessons support an anti-American and anti-Christian agenda.

After enlisting lawmakers to make an example of CSCOPE, the program’s Tea Party foes discovered that by striking CSCOPE down, they had made it more powerful than they could possibly imagine. Once CSCOPE’s state-funded managers pulled the plug on the lesson plans, they fell into the public domain—free for any teacher to copy its lessons. Rural school districts have indicated they still want to use CSCOPE’s lessons next year.

Now CSCOPE’s opponents have gone to the courts, and announced at a press conference today that they’ve secured a temporary restraining order preventing Llano ISD teachers from using any CSCOPE lessons.

Llano Tea Party president Bill Hussey is one of six plaintiffs in the suit (read the whole thing below), which says Llano ISD will run afoul of a new state law if its employees use CSCOPE lessons in the classroom. Senate Bill 1406, by Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), “bring[s] the lesson plans under the same vetting process that the [State Board of Education] uses for textbooks and instructional materials,” according to the House Research Organization.

But thanks to a 2011 law, that vetting process is totally optional for textbooks, notes Thomas Ratliff, a Republican State Board of Education member who’s pushed back strongest against the “Stop CSCOPE” movement. Under a different bill passed earlier this year, districts have to hold hearings and get public input before adopting new curriculum materials.

Ratliff says CSCOPE is subject to the same local control afforded to any textbook, and he doesn’t see much merit in the Llano ISD case. “Whoever wrote that TRO would do very well on the state standardized test for creative writing,” he says.

That man is Tim Cowart, a personal injury and family lawyer in Llano who introduced himself today as “not a government lawyer,” “not an education lawyer,” but “a podunk lawyer from Tow, Texas, that’s spelled T-O-W.” Standing next to Dewhurst today, he recalled how Hussey visited him with a story from the local newspaper about Llano ISD planning to use CSCOPE, despite the new law about the state review process.

“What they’re all saying is [S.B. 1406] doesn’t apply because CSCOPE is in the public domain. … I can say this, I’ve got a neighbor of mine in Tow, Texas, named Boose”—he didn’t bother spelling that one out—”and Boose tells me that you can try to glue quills onto an armadilluh, but that’s not gonna make him a porcupine,” Cowart said. Dewhurst, beside him, stared straight ahead as Cowart went on, “In this situation these lesson plans were developed by these educational service centers, thus they are subject to State Board of Education approval.”

Cowart said District Judge Dan Mills signed the restraining order last Friday “based on our side of the story.” Next, he’s scheduled to fight it out with Llano ISD’s lawyers at the Burnet County courthouse this Friday, August 16, at 1:30 p.m.

In a statement today, Llano ISD administration said it “believes that its actions are legal, and is contesting the claims raised in the lawsuit.” Llano ISD Superintendent Casey Callahan wouldn’t elaborate on the legal case they’ll make on Friday, but did say he’d been hearing from “many concerned teachers” since news of the lawsuit broke. “We didn’t expect this. I don’t know how else to put that.”

The coming court fight is just the latest chapter in a controversy that looked to be finished months ago, except on conservative networks like Texas CSCOPE Review and Alice Linahan’s Women on the Wall Radio. They’ve kept up the drumbeat calling for Ratliff’s impeachment (over conflict of interest with his lobbying work for Microsoft) and further investigation into CSCOPE’s finances. Toth, a Republican freshman from The Woodlands, urged Ratliff today to either resign his SBOE seat or give up his business with Microsoft—repeating a suggestion, common among CSCOPE’s loudest critics, that Ratliff is pushing an effort by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote the Obama administration’s Common Core standards.

“The layers have been peeled back, and peeled back,” Linahan said today. “I firmly believe that Common Core is in Texas.”

Gov. Rick Perry has vowed that Texas won’t adopt the Obama administration’s Common Core standards—but Linahan says CSCOPE is rooted in the same collectivist, pro-critical-thinking mindset. In an email promoting today’s press conference, she detailed what’s at stake:

If we allow our public schools to be taken over by the Common Core/CSCOPE philosophy of education they will fail. Charter Public and Private schools will no doubt fill in the gap. The challenge is these schools are run by appointed boards and they are beholden to who provides the grant money. Local elected school boards will be no more. The gift of earning that vote by a local school board giving freedom and control to parents and teachers in the community will be no more. Our American System will be effectively dismantled from the ground up. School Choice then becomes no choice.

Today Dewhurst thanked Linahan and other anti-CSCOPE activists for their efforts, and said the restraining order against Llano ISD is evidence that “the active participation of citizens” remains critical to our democracy.

“I personally have a problem with any effort to politicize this fight,” added Dewhurst, who is facing a primary challenge from Dan Patrick.

Update Friday at 4:33 p.m.: Saying his court lacks jurisdiction judge in Burnet County has set aside the temporary restraining order on Llano ISD, the Austin American-Statesman‘s Kate Alexander tweeted today.

For background on the CSCOPE panic, check out our web feature posted Friday: “Adios, Reality: Texas Culture Wars Take a Madcap Turn.”

 

Three long months ago—back when folks were still calling 2013 the Legislature’s “kumbaya” year—school funding was one of the things that had Republicans and Democrats singing and holding hands.

After cutting $5.4 billion from schools in 2011, lawmakers came back together this year to add $3.4 billion back in.

That extra cash, along with a big scaling back of standardized testing in high schools, was enough to prompt the judge in the big school finance trial to reopen the case. Lawyers for school districts, charter school groups and the state will regroup to argue the numbers again in January.

So, at last, here’s the only chart you ever need to see about school finance in Texas:

Growth-in-Public-Ed-expenditures-v-Enrollment

 

Kidding! But ultra-simple (and outdated) pictures like this are still used regularly to paint Texas’ school system as a bloated, out-of-control money-sucker.

Nothing is simple in Texas school finance. Even after two years, whether the Lege cut $5.4 billion or $4 billion from schools in 2011 is a matter of entrenched debate. Federal, state and local money all figure into the total. Your local school district’s budget depends on its enrollment, its tax rate and what the local property is worth—plus a recapture system that redistributes money from the richest districts to poorer ones.

Now that the dust has settled on the session, and as schools get the 2013-2014 school year started, it’s a fine time to step back and look at how the next budget figures into big school finance trends.

The first thing to remember is that the state’s public school system is growing at a steady clip.

Enrollment-Growth-in-Texas-Public-Schools-Attendance_chartbuilder

 

And the students coming into the school system are the ones who cost more to educate.

Enrollment-Growth-Breakdown-in-Texas-Schools-Hispanic-African-American-White-Economically-Disadvantaged_chartbuilder

 

Since the last estimates from before the session, we’ve got a better idea of what school spending will look like in 2014-15, as well as what the state spent in 2012-13. In her breakdown of the new school budget picture, Center for Public Policy Priorities analyst Chandra Villanueva noted that in the next two years, Texas will still spend $761 less per student than it did five years ago. Here’s a year-by-year look based on CPPP’s data, zoomed in to show how it’s been changing:

Per-Student-Spending-on-Texas-Schools-2002-2015-Spending_chartbuilder

 

When she shared these numbers—they’re based on reporting from the Legislative Budget Board—Villanueva explained that the spike in 2009 only reflects the Lege spending more to undo a payment deferral from the previous session.

Students are better off in the next two years than they were the last two. But the long-term trend—the most important measure for a system like public schools—is less spending over time:

CPPP-school-finance-chart-2013

 

This chart from CPPP is based on one produced by Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston). The gray bars in the background show Texas’ growing enrollment, and that red line across the top is the overall per-student spending shown in the previous chart.

When District Judge John Dietz ruled in February that the state’s school finance system was unconstitutional, he pointed to a similar (though less colorful) chart from the LBB that showed inflation-adjusted spending hadn’t changed much since 2004, even though the school system has to serve many more students:

LBB chart

 

When he and the lawyers get back together in January, they can add two more years to the trend line. This is an unscientific Photoshop job, but based on CPPP’s inflation-adjusted numbers, I’ve extended that chart out a couple years:

LBB-chart-2015-estimate

 

What that line of little diamonds shows is that, once you correct for inflation, Texas’ school spending has increased pretty modestly over the last 10 years. Its enrollment over the same stretch has risen by almost a quarter.

Remember that the next time you hear about reckless waste in public education. Even with some of the damage from 2011 undone, the long-term trend is that we’re spending less on each young Texan’s education.

Partying for School Choice on Milton Friedman’s 101st Birthday

David Dewhurst's gift to school choice fans on Friedman's birthday: He'll skip the two-thirds rule to pass a voucher bill in 2015.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Patrick Michels
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst speaks at Americans for Prosperity-Texas' school choice event at the Acton School of Business in Austin Wednesday.

If you’re anything like me, you woke up this morning with a little extra spring in your step. The birds seemed to sing a little sweeter, the coffee brewed a little stronger. Because July 31 is a great day for America—today would’ve been free-market hero Milton Friedman’s 101st birthday. How did you celebrate? Maybe you treated yourself to a haircut, or splurged on a spa treatment and soaked up the cucumber and freedom.

Or maybe, like me, you celebrated with Sen. Donna Campbell and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, for a school choice jam session in the Capitol Grill. Maybe you followed that up with Americans for Prosperity’s school choice ice cream social this afternoon.

And maybe now you’re a little jealous.

Those are just a few of the ways school choice fans—folks who want to see way more publicly funded, privately run alternatives to the traditional public school system—celebrated Friedman Fest 2013.

It’s funny timing for Texas school choice fans to celebrate, so soon after Senate Republican leaders’ promises for “taxpayer savings grants” fell so completely flat in the House. Sen. Dan Patrick’s Senate Bill 2 will expand the state’s charter school program, but it’s a far more modest change than what Patrick had hoped for.

Back in the days of James Leininger’s San Antonio voucher program, education free-marketeers really had something to rally around. In 2013, even with such a strong Republican majority in the Legislature, 103 House members signed on to an amendment prohibiting public spending (or tax credits) on private schools. So how do you celebrate the eternal word of Milton Friedman in a time like this?

By repeating the arguments Friedman made 50 years ago, for starters, and decking them out in red, white and blue. As Donna Campbell reminded the room at the TPPF event: “Folks, we’re in Texas. We’re in America. Choice. Shouldn’t parents have the freedom to choose the best school for their child?”

Sen. Donna Campbell
Patrick Michels
Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) speaks at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s school choice event on Milton Friedman’s birthday.

Over the lunch hour today, Campbell re-explained her taxpayer savings grant bill to a crowd that was already on board. Tom Currah, a senior adviser in the comptroller’s office, explained how the state calculated how much voucher bills cost or save the state.

Lindsay Gustafson, with the Texas Classroom Teachers Association until recently, reprised her role as foil for TPPF’s school choice crowd—”My boss calls me the piñata at these things”—wondering how private schools would be accountable for how they spend public money. The school choice argument is rooted in the fear that our school system today is failing, and Gustafson said there are plenty of measures, like scores on the NAEP test, to show today’s schools are doing pretty well.

Peggy Venable, the Texas director for Americans for Prosperity, couldn’t let that one go: “One of the tragedies of our system,” she said, “is that we can sit here and say that our public schools are overall doing very well.” Venable reminded the room of the kids trapped in failing public schools, the reason vouchers are “the civil rights issue of our generation.”

Venable was the only one who mentioned Friedman’s legacy, calling him an “amazing, amazing man,” and fondly recalling his visit to a TPPF event years ago. At her group’s ice cream social a few hours later, Uncle Miltie’s presence was strong.

AFP’s event was at the Acton School of Business—the school founded by Jeff Sandefer, Rick Perry’s higher education visionary—across the river from downtown Austin. A smaller crowd, including a lot of the same folks, milled around the bright, professional-looking entry room.

I asked Venable what makes celebrating Friedman’s 101st birthday different from his 100th, where she sees progress in the school choice cause when the House seems so set against vouchers. She said technology and distance learning are the new variables that will force a major shift in the public education system

“I’m fairly confident that education won’t look like it did years ago,” she said. “When markets are allowed to work, we can’t really know where they might take us.”

Republican Rep. Tony Dale got the crowd’s attention to share his memories of that House vote against vouchers—and how shocked he was that just 43 Republicans voted for school choice. “Obviously, we’ve got more work to do.”

The guest of honor walked in as Dale was winding down, and Venable introduced Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, “who’s really been fighting for freedom issues for a long time.”

“I don’t know why, but there’s this blind, blind stubborn resistance to school choice,” Dewhurst told the crowd. He recalled donating to the private voucher program in Edgewood ISD, how the schoolchildren in San Antonio would run up and grab his leg.

And he made a promise for the 2015 session, if he’s back in the Senate to enjoy it, suggesting he’d bend the Senate rules the same way he did this year to ensure abortion restrictions passed: “I’m determined to make school choice a reality. And to do that, we may have to adjust the two-thirds rule in the Senate.”

Thomas Ratliff
State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff

As the Great CSCOPE Controversy of 2013 continues on its baffling way, State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff has emerged as the embattled program’s most outspoken defender at the state level—one of the very few elected officials willing to wade into tea party waters and pick a fight.

Democrats have mostly stayed out of the controversy over the state-produced curriculum tool and its supposedly un-American, anti-Christian classroom lessons. As Rep. Dawnna Dukes put it on the House floor in May, “CSCOPE is not a concept that Democrats even know about.” So rural superintendents looking for a little cover from Austin have found support from Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant.

“I think Democrats are probably enjoying this,” he says, “because this is yet another example of the Republican Party eating its own young—and people like Dan Patrick are only accelerating the state’s conversion from red to purple.”

(New Democratic SBOE member Marisa Perez has been one entertaining exception, complaining about Patrick’s grandstanding back in May and, more recently, suggesting he’s trying to claim the title of “Academic Tool Czar online.”)

After declaring the end of the CSCOPE era earlier this year, Patrick has cranked the volume back up lately, after news that CSCOPE lessons are in the public domain, and would be free for any teacher. Now he and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst want to somehow police Texas classrooms to ensure no kids are learning any CSCOPE lessons.

Ratliff’s home turf—Mount Pleasant and nearby East Texas districts—happen to be where CSCOPE was born in the early ’90s. He was an early defender of the program, calling out its critics late least year for scaremongering about CSCOPE as an indoctrination plot.

Since then, he’s only gotten in deeper. After Patrick issued an open challenge to debate CSCOPE with any of its defenders, Ratliff emailed reporters last Friday to announce he had accepted Patrick’s challenge. Ratliff said Monday that so far, he hasn’t heard back—but he’ll keep reminding the lite guv candidate that his offer is on the table.

“The only reason why it’s still alive today is because Dan Patrick told everybody, ‘I killed CSCOPE’ when he didn’t. And now the tea party’s mad at him, and he’s got to take it up to the next level … to prove to the tea party that he’s not all hat and no cattle.”

Ratliff, meanwhile, came onto the SBOE with a mandate to represent the reality-based community’s interests in the culture wars, ousting Don McLeroy in 2010 and fending off a challenge last year from social conservative Randy Stevenson.

Since his first days on the board he’s been a tea party target. Conservative blogger Donna Garner has kept up a steady drumbeat writing that Ratliff isn’t eligible to serve on the SBOE, because he’s also a lobbyist. CSCOPE critics have taken up the Ratliff impeachment cause, despite the fact that Attorney General Greg Abbott clarified the law’s limits on lobbyists on the SBOE two years ago and the the state’s Public Integrity Unit has cleared him to serve.

Ratliff says he helped the SBOE’s then-chairwoman Gail Lowe draft the request for Abbott’s opinion, and went to the Public Integrity Unit on his own, hoping to put the question to rest. Of course, it hasn’t been that simple.

“This is the only thing they’ve got, so they just play that card over and over,” he says. “The tea party has opposed me from day one … and I can’t make ‘em any madder than they were three years ago or four years ago.”

Ratliff says there’s a simple, related reason he called out Dan Patrick:

“Throughout my life, I have never tolerated bullies. And if you’ve seen my physical structure, you know that’s been a dangerous place for me to be, because I’ve got a pretty big mouth, but I don’t have a very big body to defend my mouth when I open it. … This issue to me really isn’t about CSCOPE. It’s about standing up to a bully that wants to micromanage our schools from Austin at the same time as he rails against government overreach.”

“If you polled public education parents and asked them what CSCOPE is, or asked them if they thought their kids were being taught to hate America or convert to Islam, they’d laugh in your face.”

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