Court Issues Ruling: A Broken School-Finance System Needs Fixing Now—the Kids Can’t Wait

State District Judge John Dietz of Austin today issued a long-awaited final decision in the school-finance case brought against the state by hundreds of school districts. Judge Dietz found overwhelming evidence that the current funding scheme is constitutionally inequitable, inadequate, and in violation of the ban on a statewide property tax.

He noted that the state has raised its standards of required academic achievement while depriving school districts of the resources needed to help students meet those standards. He cited the ongoing effects of deep budget cuts enacted in 2011—including layoffs of teachers and support personnel, inflated class sizes, and the elimination of pre-K expansion grants and extra services for struggling students. Dietz found that the cuts in state aid to districts have been only partially reversed in 2013, leaving annual funding on average some $600 per pupil below levels reached in 2008.

Even without the 2011 cuts, Dietz said, a trend toward systematic underfunding has been evident over the past decade. The districts hit the hardest have been those with the highest concentrations of high-need students—the economically disadvantaged and English Language Learners especially. Overall, Dietz found, credible expert testimony indicated a shortfall in state funding as high as $1,000 per pupil. That would translate into more than $5 billion a year that is needed but not being provided to meet state college-readiness targets.

Texas AFT President Linda Bridges responded to today’s ruling with this statement:

Here’s how this situation looks from the classroom perspective: The kids are worth it, and they shouldn’t have to wait any longer for the state to do what’s right, fix this problem, and fund their education adequately and equitably as required by law.

The Texas Constitution requires the state to provide a free and effective system of public schools for all our children, not just some. The decision by District Judge John Dietz holds that the state system of school finance leaves our schools underfunded, deprives our schoolchildren of equitable access to educational opportunities, and improperly burdens local taxpayers—all in violation of clear constitutional requirements.

State officials should stop trying to defend this indefensible system. Instead of delaying the case as long as possible on appeal, they should face up now to the state’s duty to provide every child with a full opportunity to achieve his or her educational potential.

The timing is right. The state economy is booming, and the state treasury is overflowing with available revenue. Lawmakers have the wallet, if they have the will, to give our students the education they deserve.

Posted in Funding, Legislature, Rulings, School Finance | Leave a comment

The Kids Are Worth It—Back-to-School Message from Texas AFT President

With a decision in the long-running school-finance lawsuit expected later this week, Texas AFT President Linda Bridges put the legal issues in classroom perspective in an op-ed article published today by the Austin American-Statesman:

As teachers and parents filled the state Capitol in 2011 to fight unprecedented education cuts, a reporter asked why we kept on when the odds seemed stacked against us.

Our answer was simple: The kids are worth it.

Support for their education is not only a moral imperative and economic necessity — in Texas, it is a constitutional mandate.

This week, as teachers and students begin a new school year, our kids’ cause could receive powerful reinforcement in state district court in Austin.

District Judge John Dietz has been hearing a case brought by hundreds of school districts against the state alleging multiple violations of the Texas Constitution in the wake of the severe 2011 cuts.

These cuts totaling $5.4 billion reduced the teacher workforce by more than 10,000. Overall job losses topped 25,000, including many classroom educational aides whom students depended on for individualized instruction. Vital grant funding for full-day pre-K was wiped out, along with nearly all funds earmarked to ensure extra help for students struggling to meet state achievement targets.

Since 2011, these cuts have been only partially reversed. Annual funding on average remains some $600 lower per pupil than in 2008. While student enrollment has risen to more than 5 million — 60 percent economically disadvantaged students, 17 percent English language learners — the ongoing cuts have left them with 15,000 fewer teachers than they otherwise would have had. The continuing shortfalls mean Texas schoolchildren still sit in crowded classrooms; meanwhile, little has been done to restore lost funding for pre-K or those additional services for struggling students.

But the picture presented in Judge Dietz’s courtroom is actually worse than that, because the cuts have come on top of systematic inequity and inadequacy of school funding.

In Texas, a student’s educational opportunity depends to a shocking degree on that student’s ZIP code. A school district’s ability to meet students’ needs hinges significantly on the happenstance of local property wealth. Plaintiffs in the school-finance trial testified that the poorest 15 percent of districts have been compelled to make do with $73,000 less per classroom than the wealthiest 15 percent.

As state support has dwindled, even prosperous districts increasingly find they must tax to the maximum allowed by state law to meet rising state requirements.

The Texas Constitution requires the state to provide a free and effective system of public schools for all our children, not just some. Chances are good that Judge Dietz will jolt state officials by ruling that the current funding scheme is constitutionally inequitable, inadequate and in violation of the ban on a de-facto statewide property tax.

Then the Legislature will face a choice. State officials can continue to defend the indefensible and delay the case as long as possible on appeal. Or they can face up to the state’s duty to provide every child with a full opportunity to achieve his or her educational potential.

The timing is right. The state economy is booming, and the state treasury is overflowing with available revenue. Lawmakers have the wallet, if they have the will.

One thing is sure: The kids are worth it.

Posted in Funding, Legislature, Pre-K, School Finance | Leave a comment

Senate Education Hearing Showcases Flaws of High-Stakes State Testing, Issues with Virtual Schooling, and Successes of School-Breakfast Program

The Texas Senate Education Committee hearing today was gaveled to order by committee chair Sen. Dan Patrick, Republican of Houston, but it was Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, Patrick’s rival for the lieutenant governorship, who led the discussion of flaws in the state testing regime and what to do about them.

Van de Putte used as a starting point testimony from Highland Park ISD superintendent Dawson Orr, who said the state’s English II writing exam is not “a meaningful diagnostic tool” and “does not provide useful information.” Orr said that negative results for some of his students on the state’s exam do not correlate with other evidence showing they are college-ready, including their performance on college-entrance tests and Advanced Placement exams as well as their success in college coursework.

Van de Putte noted that other districts with far more disadvantaged students than Highland Park also are readying high percentages of their students for college success, yet that reality is not reflected in state test scores. The San Antonio Democrat pressed Commissioner of Education Michael Williams to admit that with the current testing system “we are not measuring what we need to measure.” One result is that, based on state end-of-course exams, nearly 50,000 students are currently not on track to meet graduation requirements in 2015. As Commissioner Williams conceded, that figures means more than 16 percent of the students in the class of 2015 are at risk of failing to graduate next year.

Sen. Larry Taylor, Republican of Friendswood, echoed Van de Putte’s concern, asserting that it seems the English II exam in particular is “not measuring proficiency accurately.” Williams retorted that he was “hard-pressed to say it’s a problem with the test,” suggesting the real culprit is the quality of teaching in our schools—“we haven’t raised the level of instruction,” he contended.

Van de Putte did not let that claim go unchallenged. In fact, she said, teachers and parents will tell you that state testing is taking up a month each year that could be devoted more meaningfully to instruction, and there is a real problem “about trusting this accountability system.” She urged the elimination of the high stakes tied to state tests, a move toward statistical sampling for accountability purposes, and a return to diagnostic rather than punitive uses of students’ test scores.

Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi in her testimony pointed to several bills that drew overwhelming support last session as springboards for the kind of testing reform Texas needs in 2015. One bill (HB 2824) would have allowed districts to experiment with more rounded alternatives to STAAR exams, including locally developed assessments and nationally recognized college-prep exams. Another (HB 2836) said that before a state achievement test could be used it “must, on the basis of empirical evidence, be determined to be valid and reliable by an entity that is independent of the agency and of any other entity that developed the assessment instrument.”  Only a pair of vetoes by Gov. Rick Perry prevented passage of these bills in 2013.

Regarding virtual schooling, testimony from private providers of online courses predictably called for expansion of their access to Texas students at public expense. The Texas Education Agency is developing rules under a bill (HB 1926) passed last session that will indeed give private providers more access. Meanwhile, Texas AFT’s Quinzi and other witnesses acknowledged a role for distance learning but sounded a note of caution. Said Quinzi:

Our basic contention is that educational quality, not financial gain, should guide where, when, and how distance education is employed.

Recent data provided by the Texas Virtual School Network show very high rates of attrition among those students enrolling in online high school courses. In the fall of 2013, the attrition rate was 35 percent. TEA should find out why so many students failed to complete their online courses. This information could help identify which types of students are best suited for online instruction and which courses are best delivered via intensive, in-person instruction.

 Regarding the expansion of school-breakfast programs under another bill (SB 376) passed last session, the news is good. The legislation requires that (starting this school year) schools with 80 percent or more of their students eligible for free or reduced-price meals must offer breakfast, free of charge, to every student. The program’s effectiveness at meeting more students’ nutritional needs, increasing attendance, and improving focus on academic achievement has been documented. As the bill’s author, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Democrat of Brownsville, was pleased to note, only 38 campuses statewide, in just 19 school districts, have taken the opportunity to seek a first-year waiver from compliance.

Posted in Accountability System, Legislature, Michael Williams, Testing, Virtual Schools | Leave a comment

Back-to-School Homework—Tell Walmart’s Owners to Stop Their Attack on Public Schools

Did you know the Walton family, which owns Walmart, has spent more than $1 billion to support privatization of our public schools? They’ve even used their money to oppose commonsense proposals like giving all kids access to free public pre-K education.

As Texas students head back to school this week, teachers and parents are taking action to fight back against Walmart-style classrooms. You can add your voice by signing this petition.

Posted in Privatization | Leave a comment

Senate Education Committee Meets August 26 on Testing, School Nutrition, Online Instruction

The Texas Senate Education Committee meets Tuesday, August 26, to hear testimony on standardized state testing, access to free breakfast programs at school, and changes in the state’s regulation of online schooling (virtual schools). Texas AFT will be on hand to monitor the proceedings and testify in favor of new curbs on the misuse of standardized testing and careful implementation of virtual schooling to ensure that online instruction serves the needs of students, not the needs of the for-profit distance-learning industry.

Posted in Legislature, Testing, Virtual Schools | Leave a comment

Testing Tweaks, Retreats, But No Restarts (Yet)

This week ended with interesting developments on the testing front in both Washington, D.C., and Austin. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a one-year delay in federally mandated, high-stakes use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers, and Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams announced that high-stakes use of state math tests to determine student promotion from grades 5 and 8 would be suspended for the coming school year.  Neither action was a decisive step away from the pervasive overreliance on and misuse of standardized testing. Yet both were marked by unaccustomed acknowledgment of defects in the current testing regime.
Secretary Duncan in making his announcement surprisingly echoed the language of some of the fiercest critics of his own testing policies, as the New York Times noted.  He said:  “I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.” And he added that “too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress.”
Commissioner Williams alluded to “substantial challenges associated with implementation of the revised mathematics statewide curriculum standards.” Because of these challenges, including slow rollout of performance standards tied to the revised math curriculum, for the 2014-2015 school year he said “districts will use other relevant academic information to make promotion or retention decisions for mathematics.”  In effect, at least for 2014-2015, the commissioner is inviting districts to make these decisions by applying professional judgment based on a more complete picture of student performance than the standardized test can provide.
Texas AFT President Linda Bridges called the one-year delay in misuse of test scores for teacher evaluation a “tactical adjustment in pursuit of what is still a bad educational strategy.” She said Secretary Duncan’s August 21 announcement apparently does not change the Texas timeline for developing at federal behest a state evaluation template substantially based on students’ scores on state achievement tests.
However, the Texas legislature will have a say in the matter when it convenes next year, and Secretary Duncan’s announcement certainly gives state lawmakers added reason to rethink the wisdom of Commissioner Williams’ executive decision to follow federal guidance down this test-driven path for teacher evaluation. In similar fashion, the commissioner’s announcement on August 22 suspending the high-stakes use of math tests in grades 5 and 8 should give legislators new impetus to reconsider other aspects of the high-stakes testing phenomenon, especially as it affects grades pre-K through 8.
AFT President Randi Weingarten meanwhile offered some pointed comments and recommendations for more fundamental policy changes in response to Secretary Duncan.  She said:
This administration—acting through the Department of Education—has sadly made an overreliance on testing the centerpiece of its education policy. The department spawned this testing fixation—through both Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers—when it said that standardized student testing must be a “significant” piece of teacher evaluation and accountability systems. As a result, the administration’s policies throughout the country…have reduced kids to a test score. And that’s been painfully obvious in my visits to schools nationwide; I’ve heard from parents who are frustrated, teachers who are discouraged and students who are petrified as a result of this testing. Thankfully, the Department of Education has finally heard this as well. I’m glad he did a paean to teachers. They never get enough respect and acknowledgment for the Herculean efforts they have made in the last few years. The department’s admission today that testing has gone too far is a good step, if there is a real course-correction that is linked to concrete action and not just words.
And that concrete action can start today with a stroke of a pen through the waiver process. We shouldn’t be testing every child, every year. We need assessments that meaningfully measure student learning. We need to invest the time and resources wasted on excessive and unhelpful testing back into art and music and other enriching curriculum. And we need a new accountability system that moves from a test-and-punish model to a support-and-improve model. The overtesting this administration has too often championed has sapped our students and our classrooms of the joy of learning. We need to restore that joy now.

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It’s a Win: Commissioner Omits Corporate Charter Chains From Recommended List

Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams has chosen not to approve applications to open corporate-style charter-school chains proposed by two out-of-state operators. Foundations Charter Schools wanted to open 50 charter schools in Texas, starting with a dozen in the Dallas and Houston areas. Athlos Academies was targeting the Dallas-Fort Worth area for at least 15 schools. Many of you heeded our call to write to Commissioner Williams in opposition to these applications, citing sketchy academic offerings and potential corporate conflicts of interest. Congratulations on a successful effort to make grass-roots concerns heard!

The commissioner’s omission of the two out-of-state operators means they cannot be further considered by the State Board of Education in the current application cycle.  But the SBOE will be able to exercise the final say over the applications of five other would-be charter operators given a preliminary okay by the commissioner.  Texas AFT will be giving those applications even closer scrutiny now that they have made the first cut, and we will report our findings to you shortly. The SBOE review of the commissioner’s recommended charter applicants will occur next month.

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

TELL survey of Texas educators produces more questions than answers

The Texas Education Agency today released results–at least some of the results–of a survey targeting more than 425,000 Texas educators. The Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) Texas Survey was authorized by legislation passed last session in the Texas legislature, andTEA intended for it to help schools plan for improvement by gauging the working conditions of teachers, principals, counselors and other professional staff. (The plans are to conduct the survey every two years.)

But low participation rates–about 20 percent overall–and questions about how the survey was designed and distributed, and whether it was truly anonymous, put a bit of a damper on the release of results. Also making the numbers murkier is the fact that TEA only made public results for districts and campuses that achieved survey participation rates of 50 percent or higher.

Texas AFT President Linda Bridges had this to say today in a news release on the TELL survey results:

We supported this survey and did a lot of legwork encouraging our members to take it, because we felt it was important to get more information on the working environment for school professionals.

Unfortunately, the low response rate and the inability to view much of any specific data related to campuses and districts leave us with a lot more questions than answers, and that’s a position you usually don’t want to be in after spending a lot of time and money on a statewide survey of 425,000 educators.

We also expressed our concerns to TEA about the 50 percent participation rate threshold required for public reporting of the results. While we agree that some threshold is needed, we would have preferred a lower threshold and more information on how representative the responses were for different types of educators and campuses.

Without the ability to evaluate specific kinds of campuses, the overall results could be misleading. For instance, is there a particular type of district or campus that was most likely to meet the 50 percent participation threshold for public examination of results?

What does it tell us when only 9 percent of districts met the 50 percent threshold, with the vast majority of those being small districts or charter school districts? How revealing can the results be if every major urban school district—with the exception of Austin ISD, which required participation—fell significantly short of the 50 percent threshold?

Two districts facing challenges in educating our kids, Houston ISD and Dallas ISD, had dismal participation rates–11 percent and 13 percent respectively. That only allows us to view results for 8 of the 286 campuses in Houston ISD, and 21 of the 233 campuses in Dallas ISD.

While there are going to be kinks in any project of this size, we noted a significant number of problems with its implementation. Key problems included lack of knowledge of the survey, administrators stifling participation, and educator mistrust that the results truly would be anonymous.

Many educators also felt the questions presented were too vague. For example, we know that time spent preparing for and administering standardized tests is a significant concern, but two questions simply asking for the number of hours spent per week on assessments aren’t sufficient to gauge that impact.

Here are a few of the comments we received regarding the survey:

“I would have never known about this survey had I not stumbled upon it.”

“The survey did not feel confidential because you had to request a code, and the admin would be aware of who received what code.”·

“Every teacher I spoke to at my campus was basically afraid to be completely honest. No one believed in the anonymity, and retaliation in the school is swift and very stern.”

“My principal knew nothing about it, and I had to request the codes myself for the campus. I encouraged teachers to complete the survey personally and during in-service. We got only 40% of our campus to participate.”

“It asked for my campus name, my grade level, what other grades I’ve taught, and my years of experience. And they considered it an ‘anonymous’ survey. Really?”

“I was never given a code. It was awkward to ask admin for a code. I did request one online, but by the time I knew about the survey, I was neck-deep in end-of-year duties, so the timing was bad.”

“I didn’t find the survey useful at all. The questions were entirely too vague, not specific enough to be of any use to anyone.”

Posted in Legislature, Reports, TEA, Teachers | Leave a comment

Upcoming Events at the State Capitol

The Texas Senate Education Committee will mark the start of the 2014-2015 school year next week with a public hearing on August 26 on some important issues sure to receive the attention of lawmakers in the 2015 legislative session. The committee will take public testimony on the testing and accountability changes enacted in 2013 as well as on the state’s policies encouraging online instruction.

Texas AFT will be on hand to monitor the hearing and advise the committee that Texas students and teachers need further relief from the continuing overuse and misuse of state achievement tests. We also will urge the committee to be on guard against dubious claims of educational effectiveness made by purveyors of full-time virtual schooling, including for-profit operators like K12, Inc. To put it mildly, these claims are not supported by the evidence.

Anticipation is meanwhile mounting in Austin that a state district judge will soon issue a final ruling in the long-running lawsuit filed by hundreds of school districts against the state for failing to fund the public schools properly. District Judge John Dietz had issued a preliminary ruling against the state last year, then reopened the case to take new evidence after the legislature restored some funding last session. If Dietz issues a final ruling that the state has not met its obligations under the state constitution to fund public schools adequately and equitably, the stage will be set for further judicial review and eventually a legislative response. However, a final Texas Supreme Court ruling in the case might not come in time for the legislature to respond in the 140-day regular session that begins next January. Hence chances are that lawmakers will have to hold a special session to deal with school finance later next year.

As soon as we have the ruling from Judge Dietz, you can expect a thorough report on its scope and implications in future Hotline messages.

Posted in Accountability System, Funding, Legislature, School Finance, Testing | Leave a comment

Leveling the Playing Field—Call for Stronger Standards for Charter Schools

Lax application standards and weak oversight of charter schools authorized to operate by the state have left Texas with charter campuses that on the whole have a track record of academic performance inferior to that of traditional public schools. Last year the legislature enacted a partial corrective. Senate Bill 2, while authorizing continued charter expansion, called at the same time for more rigorous standards to be applied when charters are initially approved and for quicker revocation of charters that are consistently substandard. But the legislature left it largely to the commissioner of education to enforce the new regime and flesh out the new requirements in his administrative rules.

Now he has proposed those new rules, with public comments invited through August 18. Texas AFT has submitted suggestions for strengthening the rules, while representatives of the charter-school industry have been lobbying to weaken them. You can help level the playing field between taxpayer-funded charter schools and traditional public schools by sending in to the Texas Education Agency comments of your own on the rules, reinforcing the Texas AFT message that if anything these rules need to be toughened in accordance with legislative intent, not softened at the behest of charter interests.

You can submit 14 recommendations regarding the commissioner’s proposed charter rules here. For your convenience, here’s the text of the comments–which you can edit or add to–prepared for you to submit in support of Texas AFT’s recommendations:

Transparency and Integrity

1.  These proposed rules regarding academic criteria and financial criteria for charters are incomplete, and their rigor cannot be fully evaluated, because there is a missing link—the still-“pending” Charter School Performance Frameworks referenced in Section 100.1010 on page 12 of these proposed rules. The frameworks should have been available to view alongside the proposed rules in order to see a complete picture of the proposed regulatory scheme.

2.  One improvement in the application and selection process would be the commissioner’s own attendance at charter interviews, which should be required in these rules. These decisions are important and should not be treated as matters for mere paper review by the commissioner.

3. The ethics requirements articulated in Section 100.1002(d) on page 7 for persons serving as external application review panel members are commendable and should be maintained.

Quality Criteria

4.  Section 100.1002 (h) on page 8, regarding selection criteria, states the commissioner “may” consider the listed criteria. The word “may” should be changed to “shall,” so that the enumerated criteria must be used by the commissioner in determining whether to grant a charter.

5.  On page 28, in Section 100.1022, subsection (b)(2)(F), for grade levels in a charter school where most students are not given a state assessment, the commissioner would be empowered simply to “evaluate the performance of the charter holder” without reference to any specific criteria. The rule should be revised to say the commissioner may “evaluate the performance of the charter holder using meaningful, research-based criteria.”

6.  Proposed Section 100.1002 (j) on page 9 states that “priority” should be given to a school proposed in an attendance zone of a school district campus assigned an “academically unacceptable” performance rating. However, this section needs elaboration.  Surely the intent here should be to give “priority” not to just any applicant making such a proposal but rather to a genuinely high-performing applicant with a track record of demonstrated success in schools with student enrollment having similar socioeconomic characteristics. Language to this effect should be added to the provision. Section 100.1002 should also give priority to those genuinely high-performing applicants that seek to serve the fastest-growing student demographic in Texas–low-income, English language learners.

7.  Item (25) in Section 100.1001 on page 6 provides a definition for “high-performing charter.” This designation should be reserved for entities that have actually fully complied with the “high-performing” criterion stated in the Texas Education Code (e.g., in Section 12.1011), excluding those entities that have been exempted from full compliance with this criterion by commissioner waiver. The commissioner may have the power to confer waivers of this statutory criterion but should not dilute the legislatively intended meaning of genuine “high performance” in the process. An entity that has received a waiver from this criterion should be identified as such.

Parental communication and involvement

8.  Charter board members are not elected by or responsible to local voters. Unlike regular school districts that hold periodic public meetings, charter school boards are likely to meet by phone or internet. Hence charter schools should have a communication plan to relay information easily to and from parents. Parents should be informed by multiple avenues, including publication and website.

9.  Sec. 12.130 of the Ed Code states each open-enrollment charter school shall provide to the parent or guardian of each student enrolled in the school written notice of the qualifications of each teacher employed by the school. The statute was written in 2001 and does not specify when or how often this notice must be provided. The proposed charter school rules should require teacher qualifications and experience to be posted on the school’s website and at an accessible physical location for parents with no access to computers.

10.  The proposed deletion of Section 100.1021, subsection (c), on page 25 would eliminate a requirement that charter holders notify parents and guardians of students in a school subject to adverse action that such action is pending. Such notice is important and the requirement should be reinstated at the appropriate points in the proposed new sections of these rules relating to adverse actions.

11.  In Section 100.1002, subsection (h), criterion (4) on page 8 now makes “evidence of parental and community support for the proposed charter school” a criterion for determining whether to grant a charter. That criterion should be amended to say “evidence of parental and community support for or opposition to the proposed charter school.”

Additional Issues

12.  On page 19, changes in Section 100.1015(b)(1)(C) appear to loosen current standards in place for the determination of financial viability of charter applicants. The rules for financial viability should if anything be strengthened, not weakened, and I question whether this change conforms to legislative intent to raise standards for charter applicants.

13.  The term “proprietary material” is left undefined in Section 100.1002, subsection (f), on page 8. It should be defined as narrowly as possible to prevent indiscriminate withholding of information essential for the evaluation of a charter application on the mere say-so of the applicant.

14.  On page 21, in Section 100.1015, subsection (b)(3)(F), the requirement that charter applicants commit to hiring teachers who must have baccalaureate degrees, regardless of subject matter taught, is sound and should be retained. 

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