AS GOODRICH INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT (GISD) superintendent James Boyce crosses the lawn from the cafeteria to the elementary school, he passes a group of first graders walking single file behind their teacher. A girl with long blond hair and bangs breaks out of line, runs up to hug Boyce, and asks, “Did you like my birthday card?” Right behind her a boy with a round tummy and dark eyes announces proudly, “I got a hundred on my test!” Other children cluster around the 55-year-old Boyce and chime in with questions about their birthday cards and declarations about their test scores.
Boyce supervises the three schools that serve the tiny East Texas town of Goodrich (population 293), and the surrounding rural areas. The entire district serves fewer than three hundred students, with one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school, all of which are adjacent to one another on a compact campus lined with magnolia trees. The atmosphere seems pleasant and positive, and for the most part, the children are clean and cheerful. But if Governor George W. Bush wins the White House and enacts his education plan, this district in the heart of the Piney Woods could be in jeopardy. In September Bush outlined an initiative to help students whose schools are not teaching them effectively. “The federal government will no longer pay schools to cheat poor children,” he said. Under the plan, any school that is rated low-performing for three consecutive years, based on the standardized testing of economically disadvantaged children, will lose Title I federal funding, which is money specifically directed to disadvantaged children. To rescue those students, Bush wants the government to give the parents of each child in a low-performing school $1,500 to be spent on a private school, a charter school, another public school, or tutoring. Currently five schools in Texas have been rated as low-performing two years in a row, but only one campus in Texas meets the plan’s dubious standard: Goodrich Elementary.
During the 1996-97 and 1997-98 school years, Goodrich was classified as a low-performing school because its fourth-graders scored poorly on the writing section of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test. Those numbers have since improved, but during the 1998-99 school year, the GISD made a difficult decision. For the first time since statewide testing began, in 1980, the Texas Education Agency mandated that special-education students would no longer be automatically exempted from the annual TAAS tests. Many schools excused most of their special-education students on a case-by-case basis anyway, but the GISD, perhaps naively, followed the new letter of the law and tested all of theirs. Of the 52 economically disadvantaged students in grades three, four, and five who took the math portion of the TAAS, 2 were special-education students. Both of them failed, leaving Goodrich with only 44.2 percent of its student body passing the test, 0.8 percent below the state minimum. Goodrich was officially rated low-performing for the third consecutive year.
When Boyce arrived at Goodrich in the summer of 1998, he was the district’s fourth superintendent in three years. The preceding year three out of four middle school teachers had left; some of those who quit were not certified to teach or were teaching a subject they were not trained in. Goodrich’s mayor, Mark Ryman, frequently substitutes in the schools and says that students often ask their teachers, “Will you be here next year?” Boyce now has a complete staff of 29 teachers who are all certified and teaching the subjects they are trained in. He has also worked with the school board to offer additional retirement funding as an inducement to teachers to stay with the district.
But part of the problem of attracting and keeping talented teachers is the town of Goodrich itself. Mayor Ryman, who could pass as a Wilford Brimley look-alike if it weren’t for the two tiny gold earrings in his left ear, counts the number of businesses in Goodrich on his fingers. He doesn’t even need to use all ten. The town boasts a hardware store, a carpet store, a catfish restaurant on U.S. 59, two gas stations, two garages, and an air-conditioning service. Outside the city limits is American Railcar, a railroad-car refinishing plant. That’s the extent of opportunities for commercial employment in town. Of the 135 students who attend Goodrich Elementary, more than three quarters fall into the category of “economically disadvantaged,” which means they are eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches and breakfasts. Eighty-four percent of the families in the district have moved in the past five years. Boyce says that for many local residents, Goodrich is “a way station on the road to somewhere else.”
According to the 1990 census, almost one fourth of the households in Goodrich had an income of less than $9,000 a year, and almost half of its adults never graduated from high school. More-recent estimates indicate that the economy has improved only slightly. Municipal funds are so scarce that, according to Ryman, the city hall would “fall down if the termites ever stopped holding hands.” Nevertheless, there is hope for Goodrich’s students. The district has received grants from the state and other sources to fund reading programs, pay for new computers and computer training, and provide money for the Parents Center. A Goodrich resident who died several years ago left a modest scholarship fund for any Goodrich High School graduate who wants to attend college or vocational school.
So what would happen to Goodrich Elementary if it lost its Title I funding under the Bush plan? Most of the $47,900, says Boyce, pays the salary of the GISD’s only counselor, Belia Aguayo. Aguayo, a veteran educator who has been with the district for one year, is not the kind of counselor who sits in her office and waits for troubled students to come to her. She conducts a violence-prevention program as well as a series of behavior-modification programs. She arranges scholastic assistance for students with academic problems, coordinates the TAAS tests, schedules classes for the middle school and the high school, coordinates SAT and PSAT testing, and in her spare time counsels students on college and vocational placement and helps them apply for scholarships. “She is critical to the well-being of these kids,” says Boyce, who points out that Aguayo’s salary alone would not provide the $1,500 to each disadvantaged child that Bush is promising. Boyce quickly does the math on his wristwatch calculator and shows that the entire $47,900 averages out to only $156.66 per Goodrich school district student. The $1,500 promised in the Bush proposal is based on information produced last April by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., that says that Title I federal funding averages $756 per poor child. The Bush voucher plan then suggests that the $1,500 figure can be achieved by matching the Title I money with “an equal amount provided by the state from its federal or state funds.”
But the numbers just don’t hold up. First, the statistics from the Heritage Foundation are based on outdated information. According to the Department of Education, Title I funds are being spread thinner each year; currently they average only $650 per poor child. But the funding varies widely from state to state. In Texas, where there are many disadvantaged children (about half the total student population of 3.9 million), Title I funding only averages about $340 for each disadvantaged child. Obviously, in Goodrich the funding is even lower than the state average. No matter how you look at it, for Goodrich, the math doesn’t work. All federal money flowing to the GISD is only about $157,000, or 6 percent of the district’s budget. Divide that by three hundred kids in the district, most of whom are classified as disadvantaged, and you come up with $524 per child. Yet Bush insists that he will not seek additional funding for this program (though he is proposing a new program to fund charter schools).
And what would be the alternatives to the students of Goodrich Elementary if the money did materialize? At least two private schools are operated in Livingston, which is five miles away. Polk County Christian Academy serves 53 students in one small building at a cost of $1,800 a year. Livingston Christian Academy at the First Pentecostal Church is cheaper at about $1,350 a year, but the school is also much smaller, with only 19 students and one uncertified teacher. Polk County Christian may soon raise the cost of tuition to pay for a new building, and the teacher at Livingston Christian speaks hopefully of expanding as well, though those plans are at least five years down the road. Regardless, neither school could accommodate large numbers of children from Goodrich.
In the meantime, the citizens of Goodrich are disappointed about Bush’s proposal. “If the school closed down, if all the kids went to private schools, it would almost destroy our town,” says Mayor Ryman. But until the plan goes into effect—if it ever does—Boyce knows he just needs to keep trying. Test scores continue to climb, though they still are not as high as they need to be. “The Bush plan would certainly not help my community or my school,” says Boyce. “It would be tough on our children to be a political potato. That’s not what we’re about—it’s not a political ball game here.”