Snake Oil

Eddie-Lucio-Jr-double
Onetime business-tax-credit proponent Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville), left, and private school voucher skeptic Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville).

State Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) sat before the Senate Education Committee this morning pitching his proposal to give state-funded grants to parents of children with special needs, to cover private school tuition.

It’s a common approach for opening the door to school voucher programs—a favorite of free-market school reformers—and Brownsville Democrat Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. made it clear he has some concerns.

Private schools aren’t subject to the same class size limits as public schools, he noted, so a student might actually be worse off in private school. Private schools don’t need to offer transportation to their students, either—only parents with the time and means to drive their kids to school could use the scholarship. And what if the private school tuition costs more than the state grant? What about low-income parents who can’t afford to pay the difference?

“I would be willing to do anything to help them turn their little lives around,” Lucio said, “but I want to make sure that we’re not going to strap them economically either.”

These are longstanding concerns about school voucher programs, and Lucio sounded genuinely concerned. And he would have sounded even more genuine if he hadn’t told a newspaper—just last week—he was interested in filing a bill to create a state-funded private school scholarship program.

It’s a confusing contradiction… Or is it?

Later this morning, the Houston Press quoted Lucio’s general counsel, Daniel Collins, who said their office never planned on filing a voucher bill—and cast doubt on Rio Grande Guardian reporter Steve Taylor’s story. “I wasn’t there for that conversation, so I don’t know if he misquoted [Lucio],” Collins said.

In fact, the business-tax-credit-totally-not-vouchers bill had already been filed Monday, by McKinney Republican Ken Paxton. So ends the great mystery, begun in a little Catholic schoolroom last December, of who would carry Sen. Dan Patrick’s voucher bill.

That leaves two school voucher proposals—defined as programs that would divert public money to private school tuition—floating around the Senate today. Here are more details on the pair:

Paxton’s Senate Bill 1015 would let companies steer up to 75 percent of what they owe in state taxes to a nonprofit that, in turn, awards private school scholarships for students. Only low-income students, in schools rated “unacceptable” the previous year, would be eligible for the scholarships. Those nonprofits awarding the scholarships can’t spend “100 percent” of their scholarship awards at one school—though they could presumably spend 99 percent at a given school.

Williams’ SB 115, discussed this morning in the Senate Education Committee, would provide a voucher for parents of children in special education programs, with its value tied to the special education funding the school district would receive from the state. Texas Education Agency General Counsel David Anderson told lawmakers this morning it’s hard to estimate just what that would be worth, because the state’s funding varies widely depending on a student’s disability.

The bills represent just the latest chapter in a decades-long school choice soap opera—either one would represent a milestone in Texas, though House Speaker Joe Straus has already warned his chamber isn’t likely to support any voucher plan.

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr.
Voucher? Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. hardly even knows 'er.

Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) has been telling us to expect a school voucher bill since last summer. Since December, he’s been floating the idea as a “business tax credit scholarship“—letting companies divert money they’d pay in business taxes to a private school scholarship fund instead.

School groups lined up to fight the proposal. Some Republican leaders noted their distate for vouchers, too, and Paul Burka declared the scheme as good as dead. And still no voucher bill.

But Wednesday, from the Rio Grande Guardian, came word that a voucher “pilot program” could be introduced by—wait for it—Democratic state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. He just doesn’t want to call it “vouchers.” He told reporter Steve Taylor, at least twice, not to call it that:

The other bill would allow academically under-achieving students to leave their public school and received an education in a private school. A combination of taxpayer and private funding would help pay for their education but Lucio is keen to stress that the state funds would not come from the public education budget.

“The question is whether we are going to make a difference for those in need and those who are falling through the cracks. That is what my bills are really all about. It is not about taking away from public education funding. It is not about vouchers. It is more about helping a category of students who have fallen on hard times, who are disadvantaged economically and who need our help to make it through the system,” Lucio said.

[...]

“This will not be considered a voucher system. It will be set up in such a way that we do not use public education money. I do not want to see us being divided on this issue. It is just like feeding needy children, we do not really care where the money comes from. We just need to feed our children. It is the same thing with education.”

Lucio hasn’t filed a bill yet, but the plan as he describes it would be a lot like the business tax credits Patrick proposed last December. The Guardian explains that Lucio wants “a combination of taxpayer and private funding” for the program, which he figures would cost from $50 million to $100 million per biennium and pay for 10,000 to 20,000 students to attend private school.

“It’s still a voucher, because you’re still talking about diverting a funding stream out of [general revenue] that could have gone to funding public education,” says Monte Exter with the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Exter notes that Lucio would go one step further than Patrick suggested last year, because his plan seems to include state spending up-front. It would take time, he says, to raise the tax credit money, so the state might have to start off paying for private tuition.

“What they’re doing is they’re creating a middle man, so instead of the state providing the money, they launder it through these tax credits,” says Texas Freedom Network spokesman Dan Quinn. “If you want to donate to send kids to a private school, you’re welcome to do that today. Getting a tax credit from the state makes it a publicly funded voucher program.”

If Lucio does introduce a tax credit program, Quinn figures he’d be the only Democrat backing it. “It’s a talking point more than it is a political advantage,” he says.

As in voucher fights past, Democrats and rural Republicans are still likely to oppose it. The vast majority of Texas’ public school districts don’t have any private schools in their boundaries that students could transfer to.

For what it’s worth, Lucio’s district has 27 private schools, according to the Texas Private School Accreditation Commission. All but three are Christian schools, and half are branches of St. Mary’s School in Brownsville.

John Whitmire, Dan Patrick and Royce West
It wasn't all smiles this morning when Dan Patrick (R-Houston) got caught between John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Royce West (D-Dallas)

The Senate Finance Committee approved an extra $1.5 billion for public schools this morning, adding $1.375 million to formula funding and millions more for other education programs.

Finance chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) said the new amount would mean “no net revenue losses for any school district for 2014.” The Senate’s budget now also includes $14 million for the Student Success Initiative—a starved state program for helping at-risk students pass state tests—$40 million more for pre-kindergarten, plus millions more for Teach for America and the Texas Virtual School Network. The Austin American-Statesman‘s Kate Alexander has more.

The committee left just one piece of the education budget in limbo: funding for a new charter school authorizer that would be created under Sen. Dan Patrick’s Senate Bill 2—a seven-member appointed board to oversee the state’s charter schools.

It was a telling diversion in an otherwise agreeable budget meeting to watch a pair of Democratic senators try to make Patrick, the usually tight-fisted tea party favorite, defend the extra cost of his school reform plans.

Dallas Democrat Royce West began by saying he wasn’t convinced Texas should create a separate board for authorizing charter schools. That’s already the State Board of Education’s job, West said. He worried about putting charter school approvals in the hands of an unelected board and questioned how they’d be held accountable.

The move clearly irritated Patrick, who said he wished West had told him about his reservations sooner. (West said he already voted against it once in their workgroup, which should have been sufficient notice.) Members of the charter school authorizing board, Patrick said, would probably need Senate confirmation, and might answer to the State Board of Education—though those details aren’t final yet.

SB 2 is still pending in Patrick’s education committee after a hearing last week. The Legislative Budget Board has estimated Patrick’s bill would carry other huge costs to the state, growing every year—from $24 million in 2014, up to $55 million in 2018. Those costs include students coming from private or home-schooling into a charter school, new funding for charter school buildings, and state employees to oversee all the new schools.

Today’s argument focused on what the new Charter School Authorizing Authority would cost.

“Why would we turn to more government as a solution?” Houston Democrat John Whitmire asked Patrick. “Because I know that’s not your philosophy; I do listen to you closely.”

“Instead of fixing the agency that is in charge of this responsibility, you want to turn and create a new bureaucracy, more state employees, and I promise you this [charter school authorizer] budget will not remain where it is,” Whitmire said.

“I will bet you, whoever evaluates us,” Whitmire said, “this will be a measurement by the folks that advocate less government, that we’re creating another governmental entity. It is what it is.”

“Sir, this isn’t expanding government,” Patrick said, before explaining why this particular expansion is so important. As it is, the SBOE approves four or five charters a year, he said, but if Texas removes its cap on charters, the SBOE and the Texas Education Agency can’t handle scaling up to “15 or 25 or 35 a year.”

“The truth is, you know, sometimes we have to do the right thing. And if people on the outside don’t agree, they don’t agree,” Patrick said. “We’re gonna give poor children in this state who have no hope for a quality education an opportunity to learn.”

Latino-Coalition-for-Educational-Equity
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.

 

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