I attended a conference of around 30 large school district superintendents in San Antonio on Wednesday. The University of Texas at San Antonio hosted the conference at a downtown hotel, and Mike Moses was the facilitator. John Montford, who has the inside track to succeed Mark Yudof as chancellor of UT, and I talked about the political situation in the state. I talked about the voter turnout in the primary and what it might or might not portend. The unknown question for the Democrats is whether the wave of new voters are simply Obamaniacs who don’t care about downballot candidates or whether they can become the next generation of Democrats. The movement of middle class families into the suburbs–there is substantial black flight in southern Harris County–is of equal significance in education as in politics. The superintendents didn’t have to be told what was going on demographically. They deal with it every day. To continue with the obvious: The leadership of the state cares more about tax cuts than public education. They have set up a financing system that is designed to strangle education: All of the new money is dedicated funds, like the high school initiative, and there is nothing to cover inflation in the cost of health insurance, utilities, and fuel. As a result, school districts are having to dip into their reserves. Education is no longer funded by formulas; instead it’s “hold-harmless.” The public is unaware of this because the media haven’t covered it. The Capitol press corps is shrinking, and editors are interested in episodic coverage (the Mansion fire), not thematic coverage (the squeezing of education budgets). Perry and Craddick are no friends of pub ed; they will want to use the surplus for tax cuts rather than for schools. (Perry may want to use general revenue for highways as well; of course, the current bond program ultimately is funded with GR for debt service. The last thing education needs is having to compete with transportation for GR.) Dewhurst wants to do the right thing, but it’s been two against one since 2003.
Montford said that he believes that Democrats are coming back and will field a strong candidate for governor in 2010. As an AT&T executive, he expressed his concern with dropouts and talked about how the company had committed $100 million to address it. Even blue collar workers, he said, needed to have writing and computer skills these days. Montford expressed his belief that the Legislature will make changes to the business tax and will address appraisal reform and, of course, will not raise taxes. If it sounds like I am not giving him equal time, I was making some notes about what I would say when it was my turn to speak again.
Our panel was followed by Bob Craig, a sane member of the State Board of Education. “I bring greetings from the State Board of Education, which is kind of like bringing greetings from the IRS,” he said. “We have a dysfunctional board. We couldn’t agree to go to dinner together.” Ten, fifteen years ago, Craig said, we would fight it out and then go have a drink together. The board is not that way any more. “The people lose, the parents lose, the school children lose.”
Craig talked about the process leading to the adoption of the new standards for teaching English. “It was deplorable,” he said. The board appointed a teacher group to develop the standards–and then they ignored the recommendation of their own appointees. TEA has been so downsized that it was unable to oversee the development of the standards and had to hire a private company, Standards Work, to facilitate the process. Three days before the February meeting, the chairman, Don McElroy, substituted a ten-year old version supported by educational conservatives [my characterization, not his; I refer to the ongoing battle between “whole language” and “phonics” as the basis for teaching reading]. Action had to be postponed. In March, six experts were appointed, three from Texas, three from outside of Texas, none of them Hispanics. “That was wrong,” Craig said.
Craig supported the teacher version of the standards. “We worked to get the two documents aligned,” he said. Craig made the motion to approve the revised document. The motion failed, 7-8. Standards Work produced a document that the teacher group never saw. Craig didn’t see it until 7:45 a.m. on the day of the vote. It was approved, 9-6, but it was still a piecemeal document.
And then the really bad news: science standards are next, with a battle looming over teaching creationism.
“I truly believe teachers make a difference,” Craig said. “If we’re going to appoint them to redo the standards, we should listen to them. We’re getting away from listening to good input. It shouldn’t be educational professions against us.”
Craig expressed his concern with the goal to have every student on the “recommended” graduation plan that includes four years of English, four years of math, four years of science, and four years of social science. “Four years of science and four years of math may sound great, but not everybody needs it. Not everybody is going to go to college.” He believes that the insistence on four years of math and science is creating dropouts. “We need at least three tracks [leading to graduation],” he said. “We can’t make a dent in the dropout rate unless we have more graduation plans.”
He believes that the Democratic Congress will kill or overhaul No Child Left Behind. “It’s never been properly funded,” he said.
“I apologize for the way the ELAR (English Language Arts Reading) went,” he said. “We’ve got to get away from people pushing personal agendas. They were accusing the teachers of hijacking the process.”
There were two big fights, he said. One is whether grammar should be taught as a separate entity or whether students should learn it in the context of what they read. The other is over “phonics” versus “whole language.” “I believe more people learn to read through phonics,” Craig said, “but not everybody does. We shouldn’t tell teachers, ‘You have to teach everybody just this way.’”
Craig ended by saying that the best SBOE members had served on local school boards. “Where is TASB (‘Tasby’–Texas Association of School Boards) when it comes to SBOE members?” he asked.
I thought Craig was terrific. He cared about public schools, he respected teachers, he wanted kids to succeed, and he didn’t care about ideological battles over obscure educational issues. There just aren’t enough members like him on the board.
The session concluded with a roundtable presided over by Mike Moses in which superintendents aired their concerns.
* It’s hard to attract qualified math and science teachers to rural school districts.
* We’re paying mediocre algebra teachers the same as highly competent English teachers.
* We’re in danger of propping up mediocrity.
* To get the best science and math teachers, we have to make them coaches. They can earn $75,000 a year.
* There is a perennial teacher shortage. We’re losing 30,000 teachers a year. Fewer than that are being certified.
* There is a small pool of certified math and science teachers.
* The optional homestead exemption is killing us.
* We passed our 13 cents rollback election by promising not to touch the optional homestead exemption.
* We’re dead in the water. We’ve had to cut $25 million a year. We’ll be insolvent by 2011.
* We’re growing so fast that we can build schools but we can’t afford to open them.
* TEA has been gutted. There is a state grant program for an intensive reading initiative, and it just sat for a year because TEA doesn’t have the people to administer the grants.
* If you cut positions, the Legislature will tell you, it just proves that you’ve been fat all along.
To wrap up: I hope that the state’s leadership realizes what is happening to the schools and responds accordingly. But I’m not optimistic that they will.