Message to Texas Lawmakers: Say No to the Hostile “Home Rule” Takeover of Public Schools

Private and corporate interests targeting Texas public schools for a hostile takeover have an experiment under way right now in Dallas ISD. And you have a big stake in the outcome, no matter where you live and work in Texas.

The Dallas experiment features the use of a long-dormant state law authorizing the transformation of a public school district, in the name of “home rule,” into a charter entity that can exempt itself from vital state laws protecting students, parents, teachers, school support personnel, and communities. Even something as basic as democratic accountability to the voters through an elected school board can be eliminated through a “home rule” petition and referendum.

All it takes to launch such an experiment is a petition signed by 5 percent of the registered voters in a school district. And in Dallas ISD we have learned how easy it is for special interests to fund a misleading petition drive to secure the necessary signatures. If this deceptive process ultimately delivers Dallas ISD—the second-largest school district in Texas—into the hands of the privatizers and profiteers who have targeted the public schools for takeover, then it can happen anywhere in Texas.

The Alliance-AFT, our local affiliate with thousands of members in Dallas ISD, is playing a leading role in fighting back against this threat at the local level. But you have a role to play, too, no matter where in Texas you call home. You can help stop this hijacking of public education in its tracks by educating your state senator and your state representative about the false allure of “home rule” and the need to repeal the law that opened this door to school privatization. You can begin to educate your legislators by sending them this letter now:

Public education in Texas is at a crossroads. Our public schools are under constant attack from private and corporate interests that seek to profit from a hostile takeover of public education. One weapon they are now using in this attack is a 19-year-old provision in state law authorizing school districts to declare “home rule”—a deceptively labeled device that really would usher in the opposite of democratic, local control of neighborhood public schools.

Dallas ISD is currently serving as the laboratory for this bad idea, which has never before been tried in Texas. But make no mistake—if privatization in the guise of “home rule” gains a foothold in Dallas, it is coming soon to a school district near you.

The home-rule push in Dallas has been bankrolled by a Houston billionaire, hedge-fund manager and former Enron trader John Arnold, a backer of school privatization who also has made himself notorious nationwide for his attacks on public pensions. The home-rule district charter process he and his confederates have launched in Dallas ISD is a Trojan horse. In the name of local control, it would pave the way for nullification of state class-size limits for most K-4 classrooms, elimination of teachers’ professional contracts, demolition of parents’ and students’ and teachers’ rights to due process in student discipline matters, and elimination of accountability to the community through an elected school board.

The Dallas home-rule scheme would transfer power from the parents and citizens in the neighborhoods of Dallas ISD–especially from those in predominantly minority and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods –to special-interest elites and private operators. These special interests are likely to pursue even more intensely the top-down policies that already have disproportionately hurt those communities within Dallas ISD, like recent controversial school closures and layoffs of school personnel.

Home-rule schemes like the one in Dallas ISD undermine genuinely democratic, grass-roots efforts to improve struggling schools, such as community-initiated school turnarounds that provide wraparound community health and social services at school to students and their families, thereby building up rather than tearing down neighborhoods. Instead of transforming our public school districts into profit centers for private operators, policymakers should support authentic community-supported alternatives that have proven effective.  A good example is the in-district “campus charter,” initiated by teachers and parents at a campus working together with community partners to provide innovative educational programs, while preserving both democratic local governance and important state safeguards such as class-size limits, due process in student discipline, and teachers’ contract rights.

I ask that you oppose the home-rule policy, which would allow educational standards to be lowered and serve as a pathway to privatization. Please work to repeal this unfortunate provision of state law and reject the underlying agenda of privatization of control over public schools and destruction of democratic school governance.

Posted in Alliance-AFT, Charter Schools, Legislature, Local Unions, Privatization | Leave a comment

State Asks for Extra Year to Pilot Teacher-Evaluation Model, Still Using Discredited Methodology

State Commissioner of Education Michael Williams has asked the federal government to grant Texas an extra year to pilot a proposed evaluation system in 70-plus school districts. Under the proposed extension the statewide rollout of the evaluation scheme apparently would occur in school year 2016-2017. In part, Williams said, he wants more time to get feedback from educators on the new evaluation model.

While this move by the commissioner is good as far as it goes, Williams is still wedded to a discredited, valued-added methodology of teacher evaluation based on students’ scores on state achievement tests—a methodology that is not supported by the great weight of scientific educational research. It also lacks support in the Texas legislature, judging by the unanimous votes last session for legislation to prevent such misuse of students’ test scores. Only the veto pen of Gov. Rick Perry preserved the status quo and thus allowed the continued misuse and overuse of standardized test scores in gauging student and teacher performance.

As reported in the Texas Tribune, Texas AFT President Linda Bridges sized up the commissioner’s proposal to pilot the evaluation scheme for an extra year this way:  “It’s a good step, but any feedback the commissioner is going to get in this short time will certainly echo what teachers have said all along, that bogus value-added measures are no way to evaluate teachers, and in fact, misusing test scores for evaluations will drive teachers away from the profession.”

Posted in Evaluations, TEA, Testing | Leave a comment

Rocketship Corporate-Charter Chain Pulls Down Bid to Operate in Texas, While Others Wait in Wings

As a new wave of would-be charter operators came up for consideration in Austin this week, one was conspicuously missing. Rocketship Education, an out-of-state corporate charter chain with a dubious record, had been scheduled for an applicant interview but withdrew at the last minute. A Rocketship spokesperson said the company had decided to focus on its existing operations, all in other states.

Texas AFT was pleased to see Rocketship pull down its application to operate in Texas. The firm had been touted by charter advocates for its heavy emphasis on computer-based instruction, but its anemic academic results didn’t back up the hype.

However, Rocketship aside, the Texas Education Agency still heard pitches from ten other charter applicants this week, and several will require close scrutiny by the State Board of Education if the commissioner of education gives them his okay. (The State Board by simple majority vote can veto the commissioner’s approval of a new charter.) Two to watch out for are Foundations Charter School and Athlos Academy. The promoters behind the Foundations application, lacking much of any track record of successful school operations to speak of, want nonetheless to open 50 charter schools statewide over five years, starting with a dozen in the Houston and Dallas suburbs. The Athlos operators, who want to open 15 schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, should be required to address some serious questions about potential conflicts of interest among their interlocking networks of corporate affiliates providing charter services, curriculum, and facilities.

Posted in Charter Schools, Michael Williams, SBOE, TEA | Leave a comment

Operators Oppose New Charter Regulations, But If Anything the Rules Should Be Tighter

At a Texas Education Agency hearing today a parade of witnesses from the state’s charter-school industry complained that new state rules for charter schools would make it too hard on charter applicants and  operators seeking renewal of their charters or state approval for expansion of their operations. Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi was on hand to counter that tale of woe with Texas AFT’s testimony that the charter rules if anything need to be more stringent.

By and large the charter operators seemed to be saying that their entitlement to taxpayer funds should not depend on strict compliance with state rules governing their academic and financial performance and practices. Mere “administrative error” should not be the basis for adverse state regulatory action, several said. Texas AFT’s Quinzi pointed out that in several respects the proposed rules already appear to make it easier for charter operators to comply with state standards, not harder. For instance, Quinzi called for tightening the rules to ensure that only truly high-performing charters receive approval based on a stated commitment to locate and serve students in high-need areas.

Quinzi also stressed that the advantageous “high-performing” designation should be reserved for charter entities that have genuinely earned it. As previously reported in the Hotline, Commissioner of Education Michael Williams rankled State Board of Education members and raised new doubts about his judgment earlier this month by granting a waiver and giving “high-performing” designation to an out-of-state charter operator called Great Hearts despite its uneven record in other states and its lack of any record of success at all in Texas. The commissioner used the waiver to bypass the State Board’s veto last November of the Great Hearts application for a charter to operate in the Dallas area.

The public-comment period on the commissioner’s proposed charter rules will last until August 18. Texas AFT will supplement today’s testimony with more comprehensive written comments before that deadline and will provide you with an opportunity to submit comments of your own.

Posted in Charter Schools, TEA | Leave a comment

More AFT Convention Highlights Guaranteed to Fire You Up

Three extraordinary speakers—including one just 11 years old!–lit up the AFT convention in Los Angeles earlier this month with messages guaranteed to give you renewed energy for the fight to reclaim the promise of public education. Check out the videos of Chicago student activist Asean Johnson, North Carolina minister and Forward Together Movement leader Rev. William Barber, and longtime political activist Donna Brazile, who is heading up a new group called Democrats for Public Education. All these and more highlights from the national convention can be found here.

Posted in AFT | Leave a comment

Tuning in to Teachers

Today’s Hotline shares with you a recap from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten of key moments at the biennial AFT convention held in Los Angeles last week. (Upcoming Hotlines will add to our report on the convention as it was experienced by your Texas AFT delegates representing all branches of our union, including school nurses, paraprofessionals, and school-related support staffers.)

Why would 3,500 people go to sun- and fun-filled Los Angeles and opt to spend the bulk of their time inside a cavernous convention hall? To be heard. This was the case last week at the American Federation of Teachers biennial convention, where educators spoke up forcefully and passionately about economic and social justice, education and professional issues on which they are often denied a voice.

These days, the wisdom and experience of educators are often ignored and, worse, dismissed by policymakers who favor approaches emanating far from the classroom. Yet no one is better able to weigh in on what will help children succeed academically than educators, who have incomparable firsthand knowledge. That’s exactly what AFT delegates did–setting union policies for how to reclaim the promise of public education–for our kids, families and communities.

AFT’s new policy revamping accountability is perhaps the most important because it confronts the destructive obsession with standardized testing.

Educators didn’t simply rail against the harmful effects of “test-and-punish” accountability systems driven by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top; they gave near-unanimous approval to a new approach aimed at ensuring kids have meaningful learning outcomes–based on a systemic support-and-improve model that holds to account all who have responsibility for education.

The most intense debate concerned the Common Core State Standards. Teachers have been told that these are an essential building block to help all students be ready for college and career, yet stories of inadequate resources and preparation for teachers and students were as legion as they were heartbreaking. The anger over the emphasis on testing and the profit-seeking developers of tests and textbooks as well as other “edupreneurs” was evident and justified.

That’s why some who object to the standards believe that they are being used to set up public education, kids and teachers for failure. Even with all of this, supporters said the standards–when properly resourced and supported–develop deeper learning, and help disrupt educational inequities by making essential skills and knowledge available to all children.

The passionate debate ended with two-thirds of the delegates in support of the standards’ potential, but calling for teachers and parents to have real input in their implementation; for officials to be held accountable for proper implementation; and reaffirming the call the AFT started in April 2013 for a moratorium on the high-stakes consequences of Common Core-aligned assessments until the new accountability system envisioned here is in place. Officials who say they believe in the Common Core should heed these commonsense actions.

These debates about accountability and standards show why the California judge who recently stripped teachers’ due-process rights was so wrong. Educators not only should be heard on the floor of a convention, they also need their voices to be respected in their schools and by policymakers.

AFT delegates strongly stated that due process is not a shield to cloak incompetence, nor an excuse for managers not to manage. When I addressed the convention and said that no teacher wants to work alongside someone not cut out for this demanding profession, it was met with applause.

Due process gives teachers professional latitude, such as to use scenes from the movie “Mean Girls” to help teach the power dynamics of “Julius Caesar,” as one teacher has. It enables educators to fight for their students’ needs. It protects people such as the former Teacher of the Year who was told to remain silent about her sexual orientation until she had tenure, and the teacher parents sought to remove from the classroom for teaching the California state curriculum on Islam. It’s necessary to prevent reverting to a patronage system so that teachers’ jobs do not depend on whom they know, but what they know.

Finally, it was no surprise to me that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was criticized for “misguided and ineffective policies on deprofessionalization, privatization and test obsession.” Those policies have created a toxic climate for schools, kids, educators, parents and communities; but because we value both the potential to improve and due process, delegates called for Duncan to be placed on a “secretary improvement plan.” If he does not improve, they resolved, “he must resign.”

Too often education edicts come down from on high with a directive to “just do it,” without question and without complaint. Educators’ voices should be as welcome in the halls of power as they were in the halls of our convention. That is the lesson Secretary Duncan and others must learn if the goal truly is to strengthen America’s public schools.

Posted in Accountability System, AFT, Randi Weingarten, U.S. Department of Education | Leave a comment

Hearings at State Capitol Set Parameters for TRS Health-Care Debates in 2015 Legislature; Next Hotline will be July 21 recap of AFT Convention

At hearings this week in the state capitol, key legislators played down the potential for significant change in state health-insurance programs, even as they also acknowledged that significant new funding would be needed to help cover a shortfall in the TRS-Care program for retirees.

Texas AFT legislative spokesman Ted Melina Raab, on your behalf, offered the legislators some advice–urging them to set higher expectations of accomplishment for themselves when it comes to improving your health-insurance coverage and cost situation. Here is what he shared with the lawmakers:

The more than 65,000 members of Texas AFT are active and retired public school and higher education employees. We are entry-level hourly classified workers and teachers at the top of a salary schedule. We are new to our jobs, mid-career, near retirement and long retired. We work in teaching, cleaning, counseling, food service, nursing, transportation and dozens of other jobs. Despite our personal and  professional diversity we share many common concerns and goals. Prominent among those is a need for affordable good-quality health care.

The evidence is undeniable that active and retired school employees need relief from the high and rising costs of health care. Current state funding structures for vital health-care benefits are not fit to sustain them over the long term. The state has been limiting its own contributions while shifting more of the costs of care onto the shoulders of active employees and retirees, to the point where decent health-insurance coverage is increasingly unaffordable. Here are the facts:

• For the retiree health-care program, a shortfall of almost $875 million is projected in the 2016-17 biennium. Meanwhile, active employees face ever- growing premiums and are being pushed rapidly toward lower-benefit plans.

• TRS-Care, the health program operated by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas for retired school employees, was established in 1985 with a “temporary” funding mechanism that practically ensures the program will never be adequately funded. Almost 30 years later, that “temporary” mechanism is still in place.

• Required TRS-Care contributions from the state, active employees, and school districts are based on payroll, not on actual health-care costs. As a result, the survival of TRS-Care has depended on intermittent infusions of additional cash from the state, occasional premium and benefit restructuring, and higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs for retirees.

• Premiums for retirees would almost have to triple to cover the full projected 2016-2017 shortfall for TRS-Care. For retirees, who have seen the real value of their pensions eroded by more than 20 percent due to inflation over the past dozen years, that is a frightening prospect.

• For active school employees, too, state funding for health care bears no relationship to actual costs. State contributions and the minimum school-district contribution for premium-sharing assistance were set in 2001 at $225 per month—$75 from the state and $150 from the district. Those fixed amounts have not been increased, despite years of rising health-care costs.

• The state instead has shifted an ever-larger share of costs onto active employees. In 2004, $225 of premium assistance covered 68 percent of the employee-only premium for ActiveCare-2—a plan with modest benefits. Ten years later the guaranteed state and district premium assistance only covers 43 percent of the premium. TRS-ActiveCare health plans are offered in districts employing about one-half of all Texas active school employees but the situation in ActiveCare plans is illustrative of that in districts with self-insured or commercial health-care coverage plans.

• As premiums have gone up, the employee’s premium share since 2004 has risen to 57 percent from 32 percent, and at the same time the benefits of the ActiveCare-2 plan have eroded, causing employee out-of-pocket costs to rise as well. Last year, premiums for ActiveCare-2 increased 15 percent over the previous year. Not surprisingly, participation in ActiveCare-2 dropped by 12 percent last year.

Health-care coverage for active and retired school employees is a critical benefit yet is simply becoming unaffordable, yet these health-care programs are only sustainable to the extent they provide decent, affordable coverage. Our experience with the dissolution of ActiveCare-3 and the trend toward lower participation in ActiveCare-2 makes that clear.

To Texas AFT members, in fact to almost all public school employees, the answer to the current situation is obvious—we must have a significant and sustained increase in state funding for school employee health care. That will be a primary focus for us in the upcoming legislature and we will not shy away from identifying existing and new sources of revenue to fund this vital purpose. While funding is clearly available to fund school employee health care adequately in the short term, Texas AFT recognizes that a long-term solution requires reform of our state’s revenue structure. We are committed to active support for legislators willing to take on the work of closing outdated loopholes and modernizing our tax system. Texas AFT members ask that the members of these committees lead state lawmakers in ensuring for our health-care programs long-term sustainability, including affordability for a reasonable level of benefits.

Posted in Health Care, Pensions, Retirees, TRS | Leave a comment

Attorney General Abbott’s Hazardous Opinion: Keep Parents, Educators in the Dark About Chemical Dangers

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott reportedly has already bought $10 million worth of television ad time for his gubernatorial campaign. But no amount of advertising will be enough to help him sell his latest bad idea—which is to keep communities in the dark about hazardous chemicals stored near their schools, homes, and businesses.

The attorney general stoked a media storm by issuing an official opinion interpreting state law as a license to keep such information secret in the face of public inquiries. Then he compounded his blunder by saying anyone concerned about hazardous-chemical storage could just “drive around” to ask business owners if they have dangerous chemicals on their premises. Unfortunately for Abbott, some enterprising reporters put that idea to the test and found that asking was one thing, but getting an answer was another.

The AG thereupon tried to distance himself from his own official, signed opinion, claiming he had not even been aware that his office issued such an opinion allowing information on hazardous chemicals to be withheld.

The upshot has been even more shellacking for Abbott from the Texas press corps, exemplified by this commentary from Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News:

Attorney General Greg Abbott is scrambling to deal with the uproar over his ruling that state records on the locations of dangerous chemicals around the state are confidential.

Abbott stumbled this week in defending the ruling, saying state records are closed to the public but homeowners could ask local companies what they have. The response brought a rebuke from Democratic gubernatorial challenger Wendy Davis, who said families with children playing near facilities with dangerous chemicals shouldn’t have to go door to door to find out. Abbott faces Davis in the November general election for governor.

On Wednesday, the attorney general tried to distance himself from the decision. Abbott said he didn’t even know his office made the ruling until it made headlines. But he defended it. He said state law passed after Sept. 11, 2001, keeps the records from public view in order to deter terrorists. In an interview with Associated Press, he said he was just interpreting what the Legislature did.

“This is not a law or conclusion that I created,” Abbott told the AP.

Last year’s ammonium nitrate explosion that killed 15 people in West has focused public attention on the storage of potentially dangerous chemicals across Texas and regulatory gaps in prevention, data-gathering, enforcement and disclosure to prevent explosions in the future. For years, the locations were available from the Department of State Health Services. But Abbott’s ruling shut that down. On Wednesday, Abbott suggested that fire stations might be a place the public could go to find out what’s in their neighborhoods.

Abbott is a big recipient of campaign contributions from the chemical industry, whose lobbyists are on record advocating fewer regulations and less disclosure.

Posted in Elections | Leave a comment

Education Commissioner Okays Charter Expansion Despite State Board’s Veto

Last November the State Board of Education vetoed a decision by Commissioner of Education Michael Williams to give the out-of-state Great Hearts charter-school chain a license to set up shop in the Dallas area. A nine-member majority of the State Board found the Great Hearts charter application deficient on multiple grounds. They cited the sketchy overall academic record of Great Hearts’ existing out-of-state schools, significant community opposition to Great Hearts’ Metroplex expansion plans, and limited services proposed for economically disadvantaged students.

But the commissioner now has found a way to bypass the State Board and give the charter chain what it wanted anyway—by treating the Dallas expansion as merely an extension of the chain’s previously approved charter to open a school in San Antonio.

Commissioner Williams bypassed not only the State Board but also state law requiring charter entities to demonstrate high performance before they can expand. Williams contends that he has been granted discretion to waive such bothersome requirements, as reported in a July 2 article from the online Texas Tribune:

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has used his waiver authority to effectively overrule a vote by the State Board of Education to deny an Arizona-based charter school’s expansion into the Dallas area, according to an email obtained by The Texas Tribune on Wednesday.

In December, the 15-member elected board voted 9 to 6 to veto Great Hearts Academies’ application to open a new school in Dallas, citing concerns about the school’s commitment to serving low-income students and to teaching Texas curriculum standards. The organization had already received approval for a campus in San Antonio, which is set to open this fall.

“I have no confidence, really, in the Great Hearts organization,” board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, said at the time. She has led opposition to the charter school.

Williams, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, has issued no official statement on his decision. Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, confirmed that the commissioner had approved additional campuses in Dallas and Irving. Because the state had previously approved a charter contract for a San Antonio campus, Ratcliffe said, Great Hearts was able to apply for an expansion even after the SBOE vetoed its application for a new Dallas campus. In approving the new campuses, Williams waived a Texas Education Code requirement that charter schools must have been operating for at least four years, or hold “acceptable” or higher ratings under the state’s accountability system before they are granted an expansion.

Before the 2013 legislature convened, Texas AFT testified at the state Sunset Advisory Commission that lawmakers had delegated far too much authority to the commissioner over the years, increasingly turning this gubernatorial appointee into an unelected czar of state education policy, exercising broad discretion over state accountability measures, making judgments about the adequacy of state aid for struggling students without ever articulating a methodology to support his conclusions, and more. The sunset-review process for the Texas Education Agency was not completed in last year’s legislative sessions, so the 2015 legislature will have a new opportunity to rethink ill-advised transfers of authority like the one the commissioner claims to be acting under now to expand the Great Hearts charter chain into Dallas.

Texas AFT will continue to urge specifically that the legislature curb the commissioner’s discretion over charter expansion and set higher standards for approval of such expansion. Eligibility for expansion should be reserved for charter holders whose campuses—all of them—truly meet the highest standards.  Charter expansion also should be within limits based on recognition of TEA’s severely limited oversight staffing and capacity.

Posted in Charter Schools, Michael Williams, SBOE, TEA | Leave a comment

Texas Democratic Platform on Education—Stopping the Corporate Takeover of Neighborhood Schools

The Texas Democratic Party’s 2014 platform, approved at the party’s state convention in Dallas on June 28, offers strong support for Texas public education and those who work in public education at all levels. The Democrats’ platform is strong on equitable and adequate school funding of public schools, strongly opposed to private-school vouchers, and it calls for an end to the misuse of standardized testing in a punitive system of accountability.  It’s worth your time to read the whole platform plank covering pre-K through higher education, which you’ll find here, right after the platform’s preamble.

In the next few Hotline messages we will excerpt key provisions of this platform, which stands in such sharp contrast to the platform statement approved early in June by Texas Republicans. For today, we commend to your attention the following provision of the Democrats’ education plank declaring support for community schools and opposition to the private, corporate takeover of neighborhood schools—including the “home rule” ploy currently receiving its first test in Dallas ISD:

Community Schools: Stopping the Hostile Private and Corporate Takeover of Neighborhood Schools

Parental and community involvement in neighborhood schools has long been the hallmark of successful public schools. That model offers a blueprint for restoring excellence in public education and provides real local control and accountability that detached, corporate-run schools simply cannot match. The forces of privatization see public education as a profit-making venture and have a three-step plan to take over our schools: cut funding, declare failure, and privatize. Texas Democrats see public education as a fundamental cornerstone of democracy, where the community educates our children to keep our communities and our country strong. Texas should:

  • require every school to meet high standards and repeal so-called “home rule” statutes that would allow standards to be reduced and serve as a pathway to privatization;
  • oppose creation of a statewide so-called achievement or recovery school district that would grant control of a neighborhood school to Austin-based bureaucrats who could contract with private operators to run neighborhood schools without any local accountability;
  • utilize existing statutes and encourage expansion of neighborhood charter schools that are literally run by parents and teachers who establish elements of curriculum and policy within state standards;
  • strengthen state oversight and academic and financial standards for charter schools to provide the same level of accountability required of neighborhood schools that receive tax dollars;
  • strengthen state oversight of home schooling;
  • reject efforts to provide state funds for and shift students into privately operated, for-profit, low-quality unaccountable “virtual schools” at taxpayers’ expense;
  • oppose private school vouchers in all forms, including tax breaks for people or corporations.

Posted in Accountability System, Charter Schools, Elections, Funding, Legislature, Privatization, Virtual Schools, Vouchers | Leave a comment