Snake Oil

Patrick Michels
Representatives of the Latino Coalition for Educational Equality, from left, included Joey Cardenas of Texas HOPE, MALDEF attorney David Hinojosa, Patricia Lopez of the National Latino/a Education Research and Policy Project, Bobby Guerra of the Texas Association of Bilingual Education, and MALDEF attorney Luis Figueroa.

Outside the Senate chamber Tuesday afternoon, advocates for minority students laid out their priorities for public education this session—and wondered why so few Latino experts have been invited to help shape this session’s biggest school reform bills.

The press conference, heralding a new Latino Coalition for Educational Equality, fell midway through a long day of hearings on bills that would scale back school testing and rework Texas’ graduation plans. Texas HOPE director Joey Cardenas worried that lawmakers are sidelining Latino voices as they rush ahead with those plans.

“I’m just amazed by the lack of participation of Latino experts in the process,” said Cardenas. “I think you’re leaving a significant part of the equation out.”

He said it’s time lawmakers include Latino leaders “not as an afterthought, but as decision-makers in that process.”

MALDEF attorney Luis Figueroa chimed in that there are, for instance, no Latino members on the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles public school funding.

As the fastest-growing demographic in Texas schools, Figueroa said, Latino students need a system that serves their needs—including schools that are better funded, measured by more than test scores, and support students still learning English. He said Latino students need schools that put them on a track to college, and keep expectations high.

Patricia Lopez, associate director of the National Latino/a Education Research and Policy Project, confronted the “tracking” issue more directly, worrying that lawmakers could set schools up a system that prematurely decides which students are college-bound and which are workforce-bound. Lawmakers insist the current plans won’t create a tracking system, but in committee meetings so far there’s been little more than a low rumble of doubt.

Issues like tracking are why Cardenas said lawmakers need to invite Latino experts to participate early in the process. It’s “fine”, he said, to have Latino leaders testify when bills are already drafted, “but we do so as an afterthought.”

“I think that’s part of the political process that needs to change.”

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston
Patrick Michels
State Sen. Dan Patrick unveils his plan for public education reform and school choice at in Austin last December.

Sen. Dan Patrick’s charter school bill filed Monday reads like a wish list for school choice fans: facilities funding for charter schools, an end to the cap on state-approved charters, and a dedicated board to grant charters.

It would also simplify the process for closing low-scoring charters—a popular measure among big players in the charter school world who hate bad press.

Patrick, chair of the Senate Education Committee, hinted at some of these reforms in December, and others—like the cap on charters and money for school buildings—were raised in the school finance trial that just wrapped up. District Judge John Dietz said that those were questions best left to the Legislature, and in Senate Bill 2, Patrick has taken him up on the offer.

Here, then, are some highlights of how Patrick’s bill changes the scenery for charter schools in Texas:

- Scraps the cap on state-approved charters, which currently stands at 215. Charter holders can already open multiple campuses (big chains like Harmony or KIPP), but charter advocates say there’s huge unmet demand, with long waiting lists at many charters across Texas.

- Creates a seven-member “Charter School Authorizing Authority.” Currently, charters are approved by the elected State Board of Education, but Patrick’s bill would put the power in the hands of seven appointees: four picked by the Governor and one each appointed by the lieutenant governor, education commissioner, and the State Board of Education chair. The governor would get to name the board’s presiding member.

- Give charters money for school buildings and other facilities—something charter schools in Texas have always done without.

- Requires school districts to make any empty or “underutilized” facilities available to charter schools that want them for the low, low price of $1.

- Makes it easier to close low-performing charters. Under Patrick’s proposal, the new charter authority must close charter schools that get poor academic or financial ratings from the state in three of the last five years.

- Gives more freedom to “home-rule districts.” Any school district can already become a home-rule district with approval from its local school board and the state, freeing itself of many rules imposed by the state. It’s a favorite cause of free-market groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, but in 17 years, no district has even tried to make the switch. Patrick’s bill would give “home-rule” districts almost all the freedom charter schools enjoy, and let districts make the change with a majority vote of the school board, not the two-thirds vote required today.

But the Texas Charter Schools Association is delighted with what’s in here. But there’s plenty here to rile advocates of traditional neighborhood schools—from the extra facilities money in a time when the Legislature is otherwise tight-fisted with money for schools—to the requirement that school districts hand over their empty buildings to charters.

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) raised some of those concerns Monday afternoon in a Senate Finance Committee working group. “I don’t want to take away from what has to be done for charter schools, but we don’t want to leave the public school facility needs out at the time,” he told Patrick.

“These are public schools, and we’re not funding them,” Patrick said.

Fans and critics will all get to have their say soon enough: Patrick’s already scheduled the bill for a hearing Thursday morning.


Observer legislative intern Liz Farmer contributed to this story.

At Senate Hearing, Donna Campbell Misses A Link or Two

At confirmation hearing for SBOE chair Barbara Cargill, freshman Sen. Donna Campbell steals the show.
State Board of Education chair Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) wasn't the only one who seemed surprised by Campbell's line of questioning.
State Board of Education chair Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) wasn't the only one who seemed surprised by Campbell's line of questioning.

State Board of Education chair Barbara Cargill sat down before the Senate Nominations Committee this morning to make a promise: under her watch, the board won’t be the “circus” it’s been in the past.

Instead, while Cargill carefully massaged away her contentious history, a truly remarkable circus act played out across from her, in the person of freshman Sen. Donna Campbell.

Cargill’s prospective nomination for another term as chair caught the ire of church-state separation groups like Texas Freedom Network and Americans United. In 2011, Cargill told a Texas Eagle Forum crowd they could count on only the “true conservative Christians” serving on the board, and—earlier this month—suggesting that textbook publishers should “soften” their language about the scientific merits of evolution.

Today, though, we met the kinder, gentler Barbara Cargill. When Sen. Kirk Watson asked Cargill about her practice, in the past, of asking textbook reviewers whether they were conservative, she said, “I don’t ask that question anymore.” Cargill said she called members of the board to apologize after her comment about the “true conservative Christians.”

Sure, there was the reference to David Barton, who she called “a leading historian of our state, if not the nation.” And yes, she made references to teaching about “stasis” and “transitional fossils“—dog-whistle references to anti-evolution critiques of the fossil record. But for the most part, things were progressing sanely enough until Donna Campbell piped up, “I wanna ask something.”

“Drinking from the fire hydrant here. Are we saying here that there is opposition because we do not have the scientific facts to teach creation, that God did create world and man?” Campbell wondered. “I mean, are we trying to eliminate that, or are we just saying we want to include evolution? Or… where are we there?”

Campbell, the San Antonio Republican and tea party-backed neophyte who upset long-serving Sen. Jeff Wentworth in a 2012 primary runoff, seemed genuinely baffled to learn that Texas students don’t already learn creationism in class. (Federal courts long ago ruled that public schools couldn’t teach creationism. Or Intelligent Design, as it’s more fashionably known today. Or “Intellectual Design,” as Campbell called it a few minutes later.)

An odd, pregnant pause followed Campbell’s questions. Cargill seemed unsure how to proceed after taking such great pains to prove what a pro-science moderate she was. “Um,” is what Cargill said.

“For my edification,” Campbell urged.

Cargill responded by repeating her support for teaching the supposed evidence for evolution, as well as those troublesome gaps in the fossil record. What’s most important, Cargill said, is that no students are discouraged from asking questions in science class.

It was a deft redirection, and it might have ended there had Campbell not persisted, and unleashed the following:

“We don’t want to eliminate those things that you still do have to go on faith that are out there. I would venture to—we’re not gonna know until we go onto eternity. Obviously, I’m a Christian. I do believe in God as the creator of life … I’m just trying to see, and I don’t know if it’s your purview or I need to check with the TEA where that falls in line to make sure we’re not just teaching that evolution is our only—because we can measure—to me obviously, if I was creating anything and had a good model like DNA, I’d use it. And just tweak it a bit, and have a monkey here and a fish here, whatever.

“So I’m not sure you’re even the right place for me to go and double-check that.”

This time, it was up to Sen. Kirk Watson to rein the hearing in, and remind Campbell, the Vice Chair of the Senate Nominations Committee, why they were all in that room together.

“They’re the ones that are in a position to establish what’s in the textbook,” Watson said, referring to the state board.

“Uh-huh?” Campbell prodded.

“She, as chair,” Watson slowly explained, “is an in enormously powerful position to push publishers of textbooks and instructional materials. And there has been a significant debate on this board, including I’d point out, prior chairs who took very strong positions.”

With that Campbell seemed satisfied, or at least distracted, and Watson—who asked the only tough questions of Cargill this morning—seemed ready to throw his support behind nominating her for another term as chair. The committee will take an informal vote on Cargill Tuesday.

“I want to make sure that our chair of the SBOE is, in fact, making sure that good science is taught,” Watson said. “I think I have that commitment from her.”

Jimmie Don Aycock
Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)

Under a plan introduced today by new House Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), Texas high schoolers would need to pass one third as many STAAR exams to graduate, and schools would be evaluated with a three-part rating that includes new measures of good budgeting and community success.

Aycock’s House Bill 5 is a monstrous reworking of the education code that finally commits to legalese the testing and accountability reforms he and other lawmakers have batted around for the last year or so. Still, Aycock stressed this morning that it’s only meant as a starting point.

“It is not a final work product that will go to the floor. I’m asking members to give suggestions of where they think it ought to wind up,” he said at the Capitol this morning.

The roughest debate will probably focus on the bill’s changes to the state testing requirements for high school graduates and a new accountability system for Texas schools.

Under Texas law today, high schoolers must pass 15 end-of-course exams in order to graduate. Aycock’s bill would trim that down to five: algebra I, biology, U.S. history, and reading and writing tests for English II. Some advocates want zero tests and business groups have said they want more, but Aycock said five seemed like the place to start. “We’re hoping that’s a reasonable sweet spot,” he said.

Today, the state assigns schools ratings based on academics—STAAR test performance and graduation rate—but Aycock’s bill would create a three-part test of school quality, covering academics, money management and community satisfaction.

That second piece would mean creating one streamlined financial report for school districts. The “community” piece, as defined in the bill, includes programs for fine arts; wellness and physical education; community and parental involvement; workforce development program; and programs for English language learners.

As with the bill’s testing reforms, Aycock said he’s still flexible on the accountability program. “I’m somewhat willing to let local districts say, ‘This is where we need to get to as a community,’ and let them say, ‘How did we do?’”

Aycock’s bill would also strip the wildly unpopular “15 percent rule,” which ties 15 percent of a high school student’s grade to their STAAR test scores. A bill from Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) addressing that issue already sailed through the Senate floor morning.

Somewhere around 100,000 high school students in Texas are off-track to graduate, thanks to the new STAAR requirements—even after two rounds of retakes—which is why Aycock says it’s urgent to find a fix.

He’s far from the only one in the Capitol with a plan—in the Senate, Patrick, Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) and Leticia Van de Putte have (D-San Antonio) all filed big reform bills too. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) is among the House members with bills that would scale back STAAR testing.

With 11 other authors and co-authors (as of this writing), Aycock is lining up broad support to make sure his bill is the one the House sends to the Senate.

Travis County District Judge John Dietz
Patrick Michels
Judge John Dietz rules from on high Monday in Travis County's 250th District Court

Just before breaking for lunch today, Travis County District Judge John Dietz joked that it was appropriate the last day of the school finance trial fell so close to Groundhog Day. Like him, many of the lawyers making their closing arguments today had been through this before in at least one of the six previous school finance cases against the state since 1984.

This afternoon, Dietz issued his ruling—again, a repeat of many school finance rulings issued from the Travis County Courthouse—that Texas’ system for funding its schools is inadequate, unfair and creates a de facto statewide property tax. As a broad coalition of school districts spent 44 days arguing in court, each of those means the finance system violates the Texas Constitution.

And now, just as in those six previous cases—known colloquially and at really wild parties as Edgewood I-IV and West Orange-Cove I and II—it’s up to the Texas Supreme Court to make the final call. If the Supreme Court agrees with Dietz, it’ll be up to the Legislature to “fix” the system to their satisfaction, a whole ‘nother messy procedure that could mean special legislative sessions and new trials to see if the new system passes muster with the courts. (Hence the previous cases’ Rocky-esque names.)

The latest case, likely to be remembered as Fort Bend ISD v. Texas Education Agency (or, God forbid, Fort Bend I), brought together more than 600 districts representing three-quarters of the students in the state—the largest school finance case Texas has ever seen.

This case isn’t just the biggest one Texas has ever seen, but the most complex as well, thanks to a pair of groups that joined the case with arguments that hadn’t been raised in school finance trials before. The Texas Charter School Association and TREE (Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, if you’re long-winded about it) argued for more charter schools, more money for charter schools, and a guarantee that schools spend their money wisely. Today Dietz ruled against both groups, saying the issues they raised are best left to the Legislature.

Dietz was more sympathetic to the central argument raised by school districts in varying forms: that lawmakers had raised standards for Texas schools—specifically by rolling out the new, tougher STAAR test—just when they were cutting funding from public education.

“We either want increased standards, and are willing to pay the price, or we don’t,” Dietz said today.

His ruling came after a long day in the crowded third-floor courtroom, as six lawyers took turns with their closing remarks.

Rick Gray, a lawyer with the Equity Center—which, on its own, represents 40 percent of the state’s school districts—kicked off the proceedings with a dramatic recap of his case, recalling the “appalling” test scores produced by students whose schools get thousands less per year than other, wealthier schools.

“Texas should be ashamed,” Gray said. “The gaps are marked, they are extreme, and they’re simply wrong and unconstitutional.” The last school finance ruling included a requirement that districts have the flexibility to pay for student enrichment, on top of a basic education. Gray called that notion a “cruel, cruel joke” on districts given the funding levels today.

“For reasons that I have never understood, the state, each and every time when forced to look at the equity and constitutional conformity of the system, have chosen to put a Band-Aid on what continues to be a gushing wound.”

David Thompson, a veteran school finance lawyer whose group represents some of the state’s largest districts, also focused on what the Texas Supreme Court called “meaningful discretion”—that districts must be free to supplement basic learning.

He also noted a pair of trends in school spending: first, that the districts with more economically disadvantaged students get less per student than those without—even though students from poor families require more expensive school programs. Second, he said, districts with more money got better scores on last year’s STAAR tests. “It is a straight line relationship,” he said.

Last year, the Texas Education Agency chose 23 school districts from across the state—big ones, small ones, rich ones, poor ones—to serve as models for others in test performance and overall management. Getting picked for this “High Performance Schools Consortium” was a sign of trust from the agency and came with the promise of a little extra freedom from state regulations so the chosen few districts could really work their magic.

It was up to the consortium and the agency to negotiate what those special privileges would be. As you might guess, like almost all school districts in the state, these high-achievers wanted less state testing.

In fact, as The Dallas Morning News reported in January, the consortium’s first report to the state, in December, asked for no testing. No accountability ratings, either. They’re writing their own standards, in fact, so they’ll write their own tests. They’ll write their own ratings system too, when they get to it. Essentially, these high-performing schools want to secede from Texas’ testing system.

It would be a laughable request coming from anywhere else, but now that Texas has put its gold star on these districts, there’s a chance they might get what they want.

Education Commissioner Michael Williams wrote in a December letter that he’d “chosen neither to endorse nor reject” the group’s requests, though there’s no firm deadline on when he’d have to decide. The consortium is a long-term project with at least a five-year scope.

In all, the group wants 10 waivers from state and federal laws. Beginning with the school year starting this fall, they’ve asked to be exempted from reporting STAAR test scores to the state; to let students skip STAAR exams in high school if they do well on their SATs or other national tests; and to be free from a handful of other state and federal requirements.

So just when Texas finally tells these districts how it feels about them, they all decide it’s time for a little distance. The group can try hiding behind legalese, but the report sure makes it sound like these districts think it’s time for a break. “‘Space’ must be provided for new possibilities to emerge,” they write, “because it is impossible to run alternative or parallel systems in conjunction with the current system.”

In other words, it’s not you, Michael Williams. It’s us.

Change is already coming for Texas’ standardized test-heavy school accountability system, even to the thousand districts that aren’t part of the consortium. Top lawmakers have suggested reducing the number of tests, and opening avenues to a diploma geared toward career—rather than college—readiness.

Districts that didn’t make the cut are left to hope the Legislature will deliver them from the all-consuming wrath of the standardized test—and it’s likely this session will bring major changes to Texas’ testing program—but while they wait, they’re sure to enjoy one choice line from the group’s report to the state: “STAAR is not the best tool for being the sole indicator of school success.”

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks to the Texas Association of School Administrators.
Patrick Michels
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks to the Texas Association of School Administrators' annual midwinter conference Tuesday.

For the growing number of Texans demanding less standardized testing in our schools, we’ve reached an important anniversary.

It was January 31, 2012 when then-Education Commissioner Robert Scott took the stage before a Texas Association of School Administrators conference, and uttered the words that galvanized the movement. Standardized testing as practiced in Texas schools, he said, had become a “perversion of its original intent.”

Since then, more than 800 districts have signed onto anti-testing resolutions, calling for major reforms from the Legislature. Conservative, suburban parents have joined a movement that, for years, focused around minority and low-income schools. Nonetheless, Texas continued rolling out the new STAAR exams, testing and retesting students whose scores bumped them off the graduation track.

So on Tuesday, when new Education Commissioner Michael Williams stepped onto the same stage as Scott occupied a year ago, he had a hard act to follow.

Williams, the consummate showman, stepped lightly to the stage in a navy suit and matching polka dotted bow tie. He began upbeat, praising Texas’ graduation rates, falling drop-out rates and scores on national tests. But as for the fiery talk of broad test reform that the crowd enjoyed last year, there would be no encore.

“We heard you. And because we heard you, we’re redesigning the accountability system,” he said. He’s already unveiled his proposals for a redesign that largely leaves the testing program in place, and he said today he’s gotten 1,600 comments already.

“To back away from it now, in my humble opinion, does nothing more than put at great risk the futures of those young children,” he said. “I’m gonna ask to pump our brakes and slow our roll, and let’s get through this transition period.”

Williams announced encouraging new STAAR results from last year—cumulative passing rates, after two rounds of retakes, that showed high schoolers passing algebra, english and biology at rates of 70 percent or more. He didn’t need to remind the audience about how low a “passing” score was set on some tests last year.

The scene was a fair summation of how last year’s anti-testing fury has softened with age, spun into high-level but modest policy recommendations that now have as much to do with vocational education as testing.

So instead of dwelling on tests, Williams tried to change the conversation. He told the crowd he was most concerned with the rate of out-of-school suspensions in some school districts, particularly for black and Latino students.

“I want you to be able to make sure there’s order in the classroom,” he said. “But my friends, if it is indeed true that the most significant, impactful factor in a youngster’s learning experience is the teacher in front of them, then the teacher has to be in front of them to get instruction.”

Williams said he’s going to seek the power to set minimum learning standards for students in suspension, and authority to hold hearings in districts where he sees “chronic suspension.

At the end of his talk, Williams took questions from the audience. Through the bright stage lights, he said he couldn’t see who was asking the questions, so he paced the stage instead, as the voices of school administrators came down from the speakers.

As Williams paced, one man asked if he would show his courage by joining school leaders in asking the Legislature to restore the $5 billion cut from the public education budget last session. The question drew a long round of applause that grew into a standing ovation from the crowd—after which Williams repeated what he told the Legislature last week.

He said it’s best to wait until after the school finance trial and its appeals wrap up, before making any big changes to the funding. “At that point in time, I believe there’s going to be a very big conversation, which I hope we’re a part of, about this $5 billion, or whether it’s even more than that,” he said. “I can assure I’m going to be in the middle of that.”

Small consolation to school leaders who are dealing with budget shortfalls in the current school year, when any new money from a court ruling is one or two years away, but there it is.

“I have never been afraid,” Williams said. “We just have to do it at the right time.”

The audience rises in applause after a man in the audience asks Williams to join in asking the Legislature to restore $5 billion in school funding cut last session.
Patrick Michels
The audience rises in applause after a man in the audience asks Williams to join in asking the Legislature to restore $5 billion in school funding cut last session.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks to the Texas Association of School Administrators Tuesday.
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks to the Texas Association of School Administrators Tuesday.


Catherine Engelbrecht
King Street Patriots founder Catherine Engelbrecht unveils an exciting new bunch of projects in time for 2014.

Houston’s preeminent tea party group, King Street Patriots, and its spinoff True The Vote, had big plans for last November’s election. After making a splash in the 2010 midterm elections by dispatching teams of suburban poll-watchers into inner-city Houston neighborhoods, they planned to significantly up the ante by organizing one million poll-watchers nationwide.

As former Observer-er Abby Rapoport reported for the American Prospect in October, True The Vote’s actual poll-watcher force would fall far short of that milestone.

So here we are today, days after President Barack Obama’s re-inauguration, and what do the Patriots have to say about it?

“Make no mistake, there was fraud.” That’s how Catherine Engelbrecht, who heads both groups, helped explain what happened at King Street’s post-election recap earlier this month.

Conservative groups across the country are soul-searching and charting new courses after this election, and King Street Patriots and True The Vote are no different. As Engelbrecht stressed from the stage two weeks ago, that course runs back through Houston.

“People think, ‘Oh, Texas is a red state.’ Texas is not a red state, Texas is a purple state,” Engelbrecht said. “If you don’t think Harris County can, in the next election cycle, flop all of Texas—they can.”

Yes, she said, Democrats have the advantage in voter outreach software—witness the Romney campaign’s disastrous voter outreach program, Project Orca—but there’s more to their apparent dominance. “They’re out in the neighborhoods, and they’re up in the hive mind,” she said. “We’ve not as a party, as a movement, we’ve not been walking in people’s lives.”

So. Rather than simply repeat the one-off poll-watcher fiascos that have turned off so many Houston voters in minority neighborhoods like Kashmere Gardens, Moody Park and Sunnyside, King Street Patriots are playing the long game.

Engelbrecht introduced Matt Armstrong from the conservative outreach operation Political Gravity to explain:

“The election was won a year and a half or two years before it ever started. They were out living in these people’s lives. I don’t believe that liberals actually care about those people, I think they use them for power and for gain. We actually do care about people but, you know what, we’re not out in the neighborhoods like they are. So they have no competition. We’ve got to get out and we’ve got to live in these people’s lives—people you don’t agree with and people you don’t look like. And we’ve got to let em know we care about ‘em, we’ve got to engage in things other than politics.”

It’s time, he said, to get a little warmer and a little fuzzier all around.

“I think we’d all agree that if we lose again in 2016, we probably are done,” Armstrong said. “We’ve got to bring the best of the best together, drop the egos, drop the feuds among tea parties or 912′s and we’ve got to work together. Because our enemy is not in this room. The enemy of liberty is progressive policies and those that advocate them.”

Engelbrecht conceded the plan might sound a little out-there. “You sit back and think, ‘Holy moly, they have lost their minds, talking to prostitutes and drug [dealers],’” she said, but she asked her fellow Patriots to trust her. “We’re just gonna start helping in the community and it will turn things around.”

To handle this new plan—itself a resuscitation of the group’s dormant “Citizen Patriot Response,” or CPR, program—King Street has tapped another friend of the program, anarchist-turned-tea-partier Brandon Darby. Darby explained his plans to “take a small area of Harris County, probably close by,” and “begin to work with them, and get our communities…involved in their communities.” He went on:

“I’m going to walk the streets and I’m gonna talk to ‘em and I’m gonna ask, ‘Who helps you? Who really helps and cares in this area?’ And people are gonna tell me. And when we find those people who are actually helping, not receiving the dollars from the federal government, and trying to get people off that dependence, when we find em, I’m gonna ask you all to help me work with them.

“I’ll do the walking, you don’t need to walk with me,” he cooed. All he’ll need is support from the Patriots when the time comes. “There’s probably some elderly lady taking care of her dying husband right now, whose yard is high. And we could cut that grass.”

Who knows what you’ll find! There’s just no telling.

Well, except for one thing: Darby was quite sure they’ll encounter a few of those scammers and layabouts who while away the hours sucking your tax dollars away. And what’s he going to do then? “We would call out charlatans in the low-income communities and the black communities,” he said. (Update Jan. 28: Darby called to make it clear he’s not talking here about looking for individuals. The folks he’s after are the ones running groups and institutions supposedly in the public interest, taking money and then doing nothing with it. “By no means am i going into black and Latino communities and looking for people on the dole,” he says. “Usually the groups that get the most money to help people do the least to help people.”)

He’ll be the one to help King Street decide who’s worthy of their help. “The people in the low income communities who actually help the prostitutes and the people who need their roof fixed,” he said, “those people don’t get any resources.”

They also announced a new spinoff group to handle research for King Street, dubbed the Keystone Research Group. King Street’s executive director Mark Antill took the stage to introduce this one.

“When True The Vote puts out a report that’s enlightening to anyone, we get hammered because it’s True The Vote,” he explained. This way, he explained, voter roll research from “Keystone” won’t be so easily ignored.

And still, Engelbrecht wasn’t finished!

See? Totally different groups.
See? Totally different now.

If you were a fan of True The Vote’s the nonpartisan-ish poll-watcher training and voter roll checks as a 501(c)3 group, then you’re sure to love the new True The Vote NOW, their new 501(c)4 outfit. “There is a bigger need for messaging that extends beyond what a (c)3 can say,” Engelbrecht said. “The solution is to start a (c)4 that will give us a little more latitude in our messaging.”

Just what that messaging will sound like, she left up to the imagination.

Leave No Pre-K Behind

It’s hard to know which is creepier: that Texas is assessing the classroom performance of 4-year-olds in pre-K, or that those assessments are conducted with a secret algorithm by a company named Optimization Zorn.

Yes, Optimization Zorn. That’s the politically connected Arlington-based company—known more commonly (and only slightly less menacingly) as “OZ Systems”—that has the state contract to analyze Texas’ pre-K performance data. You may be surprised to learn that the state is gathering and assessing data on kids who haven’t reached kindergarten yet.

It works this way: Schools, Head Start programs and private pre-K centers submit details about their students—gender and family income, for instance—along with their scores on a reading test. OZ Systems then runs the numbers through its proprietary and secret algorithm, and out comes a state rating for the school or program the student attended.

In mid-December, Texas released its latest list of Pre-K Centers of Excellence, a kind of gold-star designation based on OZ Systems’ analysis that school districts and other pre-kindergarten operators use to attract new students.

“This is really important for our parents to know,” Pine Tree Primary School Principal Becky Balboa told the Longview News-Journal in December, following news that her school had won the award. “As they are looking at school districts, they will know that this shows we teach our kids for literacy as well as for social skills.”

Or so you’d think.

But there’s no measure of social skills in the Kindergarten Readiness System, which determines those Pre-K Centers of Excellence, and which OZ Systems has developed, managed and marketed for the state. OZ has received more than $5 million over two years for this work, according to records obtained by the Observer through a public information request.

You could argue the state has no business trying to assess 4-year-olds’ classroom performance—and, indeed, critics in the Legislature beat back two major attempts in 2011 to build a full-on accountability system for pre-K. The current Kindergarten Readiness System is pretty much a reading test and some questions about students. It doesn’t track individual students’ test scores, but if a whole class does well, the school looks good.

But getting certified “excellent” isn’t as simple as making sure your students can read. Instead of gauging how many students are proficient at reading, the Kindergarten Readiness System grades each student on a curve, compared to other children from similar backgrounds. A 4-year-old African-American girl from a military family, for instance, gets compared to other girls with that same background. And if she reads better than OZ has calculated she should, her pre-K class gets credit for raising her score.

It’s a complex, expensive analysis meant to isolate pre-K programs that make a positive impact. But Susan Kellner, a former trustee at Houston’s Spring Branch school district, says it’s being sold to schools and parents dishonestly. “They say it’s to determine kindergarten readiness, and it doesn’t determine that,” she says.

The program began in 2005, when lawmakers called on the University of Texas Health Science Center’s State Center for Early Childhood Development to gather input from parents and pre-K providers to craft a “School Readiness Certification System.”

“What was the goal here?” Kellner recalls asking. “To make kids more kindergarten-ready and find the best way to assess that. To have that collaboration, to bring everybody together so the child truly is ready by 5. That hasn’t happened at all.”

What happened instead is that the UT Health Science Center turned around and contracted the job to OZ Systems, a health-care data management firm represented by influential lobbyists Erin Jones and Lara Keel. Jones is married to then-Deputy Education Commissioner Adam Jones—a potential conflict that worried legislators in 2011, when OZ seemed a likely candidate for developing that full-fledged pre-K accountability program that never passed.

In late 2011, the Texas Education Agency quietly yanked the existing pre-K certification program away from UT Health Science Center and asked the Region 17 Education Service Center in Lubbock to handle it instead. The School Readiness Certification System became the Kindergarten Readiness System. The contract to design it, of course, went to OZ Systems.

The Cautionary Tale of Austin ISD’s Partnership with IDEA Charters

The end of Austin ISD's deal with a South Texas charter operator offers some lessons for the rest of the state.
IDEA Allan Elementary in East Austin
Patrick Michels
IDEA Allan: Founded 2012. Ousted 2013.

At a charter school conference earlier this month, state Rep. Mark Strama leaned into his microphone and asked the room for a show of hands. Of all the charter school founders, officials, teachers or organizers in the room, he wanted to know how many were from “in-district” charter schools.

While most charter schools in Texas get state approval, there’s a limit on how many the state can approve. State law also lets school districts approve their own “in-district” charters, too—but Texas has just 74 of those. None, apparently, was represented in that particular conference room. No hands went up.

So Strama wondered why, when some charter schools have such long waiting lists, more charter school boosters aren’t trying to win over local school districts and partner with them. One guy in the audience piped up to answer. “It’s just institutional resistance,” he said. “They’re just different people. They are.”

That may sound a touch indelicate—but look at the drama around East Austin’s Allan Elementary over the last year, and the conflict is real.

A year ago, Austin ISD announced it would bring in IDEA Public Schools, a South Texas-based charter chain with just over two dozen campuses, to run Allan Elementary, a school where more than 95 percent of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged.

New East Austin parents’ groups and an off-shoot of the Occupy Austin protest sprung up to oppose the deal. They wondered why IDEA was suddenly taking over a neighborhood school 300 miles from its home base in Weslaco. The groups said Allan was being used as a guinea pig in a school district reform experiment. Education researcher Ed Fuller became a well-known critic of IDEA before AISD signed the contract last year—he’s gone to great lengths to debunk IDEA’s claims that 100 percent of its graduates go on to four-year universities, and that they’re well-prepared for college when they get there.

Many parents pulled their students from Allan before this year. To fill out its enrollment, IDEA marketed and recruited from around Austin, well outside the Allan neighborhood.

Last week, the drama ended when Austin ISD trustees voted to sever ties with IDEA once the school year ends, and return IDEA Allan back to the district. It’s been a nasty issue that dominated Austin’s school reform debate, spawned a handful of new education activist groups and got three school board members ousted—and now it’s over.

IDEA is one of the hottest charter chains in Texas today, based in the Rio Grande Valley, with a recent expansion into Central Texas. The chain just won a $29 million federal Race To the Top grant, an extremely competitive program that only one other Texas school won (another charter, Harmony Public Schools). The day after the board’s vote, IDEA leaders announced they’d find a way to stick around Austin next year by opening their own school, outside Austin ISD.

It marked the end of a particularly nasty charter school controversy, a cautionary tale about how not to create an in-district charter. It could also be something Texas sees a lot more of after next year.

The sprawling education reform plan that state Sen. Dan Patrick unveiled last week includes a stronger “parent trigger” law making it easier to turn neighborhood schools into charters, if pro-charter parents gather enough signatures. Parent trigger laws are typically sold as tools of community empowerment, a way to assert control in your child’s education in a district run by a clunky bureaucracy.

The nasty fight over Allan could easily happen at any school where parents pull the trigger to turn their neighborhood schools into in-district charters. IDEA is part of a preferred class of charters in Texas today, along with KIPP, Yes Prep and Harmony. They’re popular, well-marketed, growing brands with institutional management cultures of their own. They’re the ones most likely to take over in a parent-trigger situation.

That’s how it’s gone in California, in the one case where a parent-trigger effort has garnered enough signatures to make a change. Parents there have selected—after a vote of 53 people—an outside charter operator to run the school.

The same night the Austin ISD board severed the IDEA contract, though, they also approved a charter built on another model.

That plan creates a homegrown charter at Travis Heights Elementary, where the school would run as a partnership between school administrators, an Austin teachers’ union, a local nonprofit and parents in the historic neighborhood just south of downtown.

The Travis Heights plan is the product of years of work from local education groups. It’s a lot tougher to pull off than handing over a school to a charter network that’s already looking to expand (especially when someone’s willing to hand them a school building). And it’s in a wealthy, historic neighborhood that doesn’t look much at all like the area around Allan.

The Travis Heights model—homegrown, locally managed—is the sort of scenario lawmakers will use to help get a parent trigger law passed next session. But with a blunt instrument like a parent trigger law, what we’re most likely to get are more turf wars like the one over Allan.

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