If a change is coming, though, it won’t take effect till next school year. Last year, Texas suspended its school ratings to ease the transition from the TAKS to the STAAR testing regimes.
Now, state Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, is asking the Texas Education Agency to do the same for the current school year.
In a letter to Education Commissioner Michael Williams last week, Patrick warned that if Texas uses the current ratings for just this year, “there will be more public confusion about what the ratings mean, uncertainty of their merit, and general distrust of the system.” (The Texas Association of School Administrators has posted her letter on its blog.)
“What I’m asking for is just an extension of the moratorium that has been in place,” Patrick told the Observer this week. “You can talk to almost any legislator and find they are very interested in making some change to the current accountability systems.”
Patrick, a leading House education figure who helped craft H.B. 3, said there’s still plenty worth saving from that system. The 15 end-of-course exams under STAAR, which students must pass to graduate, are an improvement over TAKS subject tests that may not necessarily coincide with the subjects students took in a given year—students in a geometry class, for instance, might have been required to take an algebra exam at the end of the semester.
As of Tuesday, Patrick said she hadn’t heard back from Williams or TEA about her request.
“All of these things, I think, are very positive steps, but I think we have to tap the brakes,” she said. Patrick, like many others in the Legislature lately, recommended building in multiple paths for students to graduate, and seeking more ways to get math and science credits from career-oriented courses.
That may sound pretty conservative, in a year of growing cries to end or seriously scale back the state test. But Patrick reads the atmosphere differently.
“There seems to be a concern, not so much with the test itself, as how it’s being used,” she said.
Bishop Oscar Cantu, State Sen. Dan Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst unveil a new plan for public education reform and school choice at Cathedral School of St. Mary's in Austin.
In a little Catholic school classroom a block from the Capitol, three wise guys heralded the birth of a new agenda to shake up Texas’ public schools.
Surrounded by festive decorations and Christmas prayers, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Bishop Oscar Cantu took turns this morning introducing a broad school reform plan they’ll push during the coming legislative session. The plan includes changes to Texas’ accountability system; school choice; more charter schools; more career education and more online learning in classrooms.
“Look, we don’t have time for evolution in public schools,” Patrick said, and he wasn’t talking about intelligent design either. “We need a revolution. … It is immoral to say to any student or any parent, ‘You must go to a poor-performing school.’”
Even before he was named the Senate Education Committee’s new chairman, school-watchers were buzzing about what sorts of reforms Patrick might push for next session. Today, Patrick finally showed his hand, and the result will keep his critics scrambling through the session. It’s an all-of-the-above approach full of ideas that would be controversial enough on their own, but taken together, could turn Texas into one of the country’s biggest laboratories for conservative school reform.
Patrick was clearly fired-up at the occasion. He got to headline today’s press conference, after a welcome from Bishop Cantu, and a somber introduction from Dewhurst, who recalled Friday’s school shooting in Connecticut before offering broad support for the plan Patrick was about to detail.
“We want to make sure public schools stay strong and viable,” Dewhurst said.
Over the last few months, Patrick has suggested he would introduce some kind of voucher program—giving parents public money to spend on their child’s private school tuition—but hasn’t offered any details. His announcement today didn’t exactly include a voucher scheme, though he said one still may be introduced during the session.
Instead, his plan includes a business tax scholarship, which would let companies divert a fraction of what they owe in taxes to a nonprofit that distributes need-based scholarships to private schools. While the details are still being worked out, he said public schools could even get in on the action and apply to receive scholarships for pre-K or afterschool programs.
“We’re creating a deduction. It is not going to impact school funding,” Patrick said. ”This does not take money from public education. … If students leave and take these scholarships, that’s one less student [public schools] have to educate.” He and Dewhurst took pains to reiterate that point—as if repeating it might make it more true—anticipating worries that their proposal is simply a voucher program by another name, drawing public money into private schools. There would be less money going to general revenue under the plan, they explained, but not necessarily less for schools. That’s for the folks writing the budget to decide, not the ones writing this bill.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Patrick said. “This is a moral issue … to give students an opportunity to have the American-Texas dream by giving them the best choices they can find for their education.”
Public support for private tuition will be the most contentious aspect of his plan, but Patrick’s school revolution reaches much further. He’ll also push for more charter schools as well as allowing studentsto transfer to any public school they like.
He also wants the state to count more career and technical classes toward graduation requirements, limit the number of STAAR tests students must pass to graduate, and to build in more opportunities for online learning. And he wants to revise the state’s accountability system for schools, with an A-to-F system of letter grades.
“If you’re an F-rated school after two years, you need to be closed down,” Patrick said at one point.
“Amen,” Dewhurst mumbled behind him, quietly overcome. In his remarks, Dewhurst said he planned to advocate a “trigger” bill that would let parents vote to restructure a “failing” neighborhood school.
This may be Patrick’s plan for the next session, but the trigger law, business tax credit scholarships, school choice and other pieces of the plan come straight from the playbook Republicans are pushing across the country, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as lead cheerleader. In Texas today, Patrick is doing it all in the name of poor parents—”very often a single working mom,” he said today.
In hushed tones, he served his plans with thick syrupy coatings of Christmas-card wisdom. “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you don’t dream for your children.”
Outside St. Mary’s, where anti-voucher protesters gathered this morning, Texas State Teachers Association Vice President Noel Candelaria said he didn’t buy the idea that public schools won’t be hurt if Texas puts public money toward private tuition. “The schools are still going to be left to educate these students, with less money,” he said.
Legislators have proposed vouchers, and seen them beaten back, for years. Candelaria said he figures Patrick is pushing hard for vouchers now because he sees the door of opportunity closing. “They’re trying to take one last stab, knowing the demographics in Texas schools are changing.”
After the announcement, teachers’ groups and advocates for public school funding promptly dismissed Patrick’s plans. The Texas Charter Schools Association and the Texas Association of Business wrote to offer their support.
Bill Hammond, president of the business group—which bills itself as “Texas’ leading employer organization”—compared school choice with the racist history of school segregation with a clunky attempt at populism.
“For 100 years the man stood in the door and said you cannot get in,” he said. “Today the man is standing in the door saying you cannot get out of a failed school.”
Charter schools have historically been sold as places to try out innovative, low-cost education—a way to give poor kids a chance at a good education outside a failing local school. But some rich folks in San Antonio are trying out another idea.
All this one takes is a cool $50 million from wealthy donors to help a few charter school chains come to town and grow like crazy. The plan is named “Choose to Succeed,” which sounds agreeable enough. It’s a well-manicured proposal, a triumph of branding and public relations-speak, like the charter schools it supports.
Victoria Rico, chair of the San Antonio-based George W. Brackenridge Foundation, is leading this effort. With the money she raises, she imagines building 145 new charter schools with room for 80,000 students in San Antonio. That’s in addition to the charter schools in place today. More than a quarter of the students covered by the San Antonio Independent School District, for instance, are in charter schools already, the ninth-highest charter-school enrollment in the country. (SAISD is just one of 17 San Antonio school districts.)
The foundation’s pitch to donors advertises the opportunity as “for a very limited time” only and appeals to discriminating potential donors with the promise of results. “Billions of philanthropic dollars have disappeared into public school districts with no aggregate impact,” the pitch says, noting the “highly bureaucratic and politicized nature of districts run by elected boards.” Elections! What a drag.
Not to worry, though—Choose to Succeed has the answer. First, donations would help expand KIPP and IDEA, two Texas-based charter school chains that already have campuses in San Antonio. The money would also help lure four out-of-state charter chains with strong national buzz: Rocketship Education, BASIS Schools, Great Hearts Academies and Carpe Diem Schools.
Charter schools, you’ll recall, get public funding based on the number of students they enroll. So these private donations would pay for building construction and other costs of starting a new school. After that, the group says, student education is “sustained completely by public funds.”
At most charter schools, parents usually can’t afford to give a school $1,500 or more a year. Great Hearts is different. Most of its Arizona schools are in wealthier communities with mostly white and Asian students, and do very well on state tests. Great Hearts’ track record is less impressive in more diverse communities.
Great Hearts operates 15 schools in Arizona, built on a “Great Books” curriculum that will sound familiar to anyone acquainted with St. John’s College in New Mexico and Maryland. (Great Hearts Chief Academic Officer Peter Bezanson is a St. John’s grad.) Three of Great Hearts’ campuses are recent additions, but the Arizona Department of Education does have performance and demographic data for 12 of its campuses.
Seven of the Great Hearts schools earned an “A” rating from the state, the highest possible, in the 2011-2012 school year. Three earned “B” ratings and two got “C’s.” But of those dozen schools, only one had any students with limited English proficiency or from low-income families (measured by enrollment in free or reduced lunch programs). In all but one Great Hearts campus, the student body’s racial makeup is at least 70 percent white or Asian. The lone outlier is a school called Teleos Prep, with a vast majority of Hispanic, African American and low-income students, that earned a “C” rating from the state last year.
In Nashville, concerns that the schools foster segregation led school trustees to reject a Great Hearts expansion this year, over the strong objections and threats from state leaders.
It’s not hard to imagine Great Hearts taking a similar tack in San Antonio, fueled by the generous funding from Choose To Succeed. Great Hearts’ application with the Texas State Board of Education requests five school campuses in San Antonio, a city full of opportunities to serve low-income, limited-English and minority students.
The application asks where, specifically, the campuses would be located, and Great Hearts is a little more specific: Alamo Heights and Monte Vista, wealthy enclaves home to just the sort of folks San Antonio’s enthusiastic school reformers are hope to hit up for cash.
Choose to succeed, then, by all means. But you’ll have to pay up first.
From left, Justin Yancy of the Texas Business Leadership Council, Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond, and Texas Institute for Education Reform Chairman Jim Windham explain their plan for adjusting Texas' school testing and accountability system.
There is great unrest over testing in Texas schools, and a few Texas business leaders have some opinions about what we should do.
Until today, Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond has been the STAAR testing regimen’s staunchest defender, meeting every new round of criticism with calls to hold fast, to stay the course, to never surrender.
If you’re wondering why the business community is trying to call the shots about school testing, well, you must be new here. The business community wants its measurables, and it will have its measurables. Two years ago, Hammond wanted the Legislature to pass an accountability system for pre-K, because employers need to know their little pencil-pushers of the future will master pushing those crayons first.
So this morning at the Capitol, Hammond announced his group was doubling down on its commitment to tough school standards… by cutting two STAAR exams and creating new graduation paths requiring even fewer tests. “HB 3 quite honestly overdid it a little bit,” Hammond said, referring to the 2009 measure that created today’s testing program.
“We still believe that those core principles [behind the original STAAR program] are intact,” explained Jim Windham, who chairs the Texas Institute for Education Reform. “Some modifications that may assist with the implementation of this plan.”
The new plan would create four high school diploma tracks: humanities, business and industry, STEM (that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and a new, lighter “foundation” diploma. All but foundation would keep the “4 by 4″ requirement that graudates take four years of math, English, social studies and science. Depending on the pathway, a student would need to pass between eight and 10 end-of-course exams to graduate—way less than the 15 required of all students today. Their plan includes a scaled-back phase-in term when students would need to pass even fewer tests. The STAAR program for grades three to eight would remain as-is.
But Hammond said he’d tolerate no further whining about students being knocked off the graduation track by because they failed an end-of-course STAAR exam. “They’ve already been given a reprieve,” he said, because it takes as little as 37 percent to pass some of the tests.
Windham called this new plan the “post-secondary readiness gold standard.” He and Hammond said the plan was the result of months of travel and meetings with lawmakers, and it reflects lawmakers’ enthusiasm for new alternative graduation path that respects career, not college, readiness—an approach that’s sure to draw critics wary of creating a system that “tracks” some students with lower expectations than others.
“We simply are not improving quickly enough in the competitive world we live in,” said Justin Yancy of the Texas Business Leadership Council.
The new plan would also completely eliminate the new end-of-course exams in world history and geography.
“U.S. history is minimally acceptable, we believe, for a Texas graduate,” Windham explained.
“If we could get ‘em past the Civil War,” Hammond said, “we’d be doing pretty good.”
The El Paso Times reported Williams’ plans Thursday morning, before his press conference, along with an exhaustive set of reactions from local officials. “If you cheat, we’ll eventually find out, and if we find out, we’re going to take strong action as a consequence of it,” Williams told the paper. The board, Williams has decided, will be replaced by five state-appointed managers, including outgoing state Rep. Dee Margo.
For months, EPISD board members have defended themselves against local critics. They’ve said they had no idea Garcia was cheating kids to boost test scores, and their hands were tied by an ongoing FBI investigation. “To take action at this point would result in interfering in their investigation,” board President Isela Castañon-Williams told the Observer in October.
David Dodge, the only current board member who was around when Garcia was hired, has said that nobody could have known what Garcia would get up to. “Folks, I can tell you that [job posting] did not call for a liar and a crook,” he said a board meeting in September.
As Williams sees it, that’s not exactly the issue. “I gave the board time,” he told the Times, and though some mid-level administrators left the districtunder pressure from the board, Williams says that wasn’t enough. “It is my further judgment that there is not much more that they could do that’s big enough to restore a sense of confidence.”
Williams’ drastic action against the EPISD trustees now will also help some folks forget that, not so long ago, the state agency cleared Garcia of any wrongdoing at EPISD. That, predictably, is about how some of the ousted trustees put it to the Texas Tribune. “What happened at EPISD as far as how they held the students back, was all because TEA allowed that to happen,” trustee Alfredo Borrego told the Tribune. “TEA is using EPISD as a scapegoat.”
“While I commend [Williams] for taking strong action, the TEA must also review its own role in this tragedy,” state Sen. Jose Rodriguez said in a statement. Williams is apparently trying to do just that, and in the most mind-numbingly bureaucratic way possible: asking state auditors to put on their auditing hats and audit the way the Texas Education Agency conducts its audits. State auditors said they were swamped, and wouldn’t get to the job for another year or two.
But in El Paso yesterday, the reckoning for Garcia’s scheme just kept raining down. Thursday night, trustees in nearby Canutillo ISD voted to suspend Superintendent Damon Murphy—who had been one of Garcia’s top officials before leaving for Canutillo—on the way to firing him.
Former EPISD administrators have complained that Murphy was one of the enforcers behind Garcia’s plan to boost test scores. Many of them have said they expect to see him roped into the FBI’s investigation—but, incredibly, that isn’t even why Canutillo trustees are forcing him out.