In the Texas Senate, ideology collides with evidence

For the pro-voucher, pro-charter majority in the Texas Senate, ideology often trumps evidence when it comes to school privatization schemes. But in the Senate Education Committee’s hearing on Tuesday, billed as a review of successful educational programs worthy of replication, the majority’s preference for privatization kept colliding with inconvenient facts.

In one case, the majority celebrated a program not even implemented yet as a surefire success. That would be the district-charter partnerships under which school districts receive extra money per pupil and a two-year exemption from accountability sanctions for low performance ratings if they contract out control of a campus to a charter operator. Under legally questionable rules promulgated by the commissioner of education, these contracted-out campuses would have to be exempt from safeguards of teacher contracts and other quality standards in the Education Code. Senators led by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), coauthor of the bill (SB 1882) last session authorizing these incentives to encourage charter takeovers, greeted with effusive praise the news of a push to implement this option in San Antonio ISD. “I don’t have to wait for the scores,” said Bettencourt, in order to know that the San Antonio charter takeover will work, and he called for rapid replication of this unproven model. Verdict first, evidence afterward, in other words.

The committee invited testimony only from the superintendent who has led the charge for this new version of charterization. Hence unheard by committee members were the parent, community, and local teachers’ union voices focused on the lack of transparency and grass-roots involvement in the top-down implementation of the superintendent’s charter push. (A legal challenge to that lack of transparency has been filed by the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, Texas AFT’s affiliate in SAISD, under the state’s open-meetings law.)

In the case of another education model committee members favored–virtual (i.e., online) schools–committee members were similarly disinclined to weigh the actual evidence. Nonetheless, Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi patiently persisted with testimony laying out the evidence of study after study demonstrating the flaws of virtual schooling.

As Quinzi noted, just last year, researchers from New York University (NYU) and the Rand Corporation as well as the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) all found troubling trends that continue among virtual learning programs throughout the United States. These researchers all have sounded the same cautionary note for states considering the expansion of blended or full-time online schools—that unfettered growth of virtual schools will likely result in poor performance and low graduation rates for the students who most need accelerated instruction. States are also cautioned to “prioritize understanding why virtual schools perform poorly under a college- and career-ready accountability system and how their performance can be improved prior to expansion.” The evidence indicates that for-profit virtual operators, including major ones operating in Texas, are getting disappointing results because their students are in courses with pupil-teacher ratios as high as 300 to 1 and are not supported with supplemental services such as face-to-face tutoring.

In contrast to their uncritical embrace of charterization and virtual schooling, committee members seemed uninterested in promoting another educational model–community schools—despite the real evidence of its success that keeps piling up. Texas AFT’s Patty Quinzi nonetheless persisted in laying out that inconvenient evidence as well. She said in part:

Community schools are developed by parent-teacher-community partners who come together to identify and marshal the services that students at a campus and their families need to support academic success. This model is especially valuable and effective for struggling campuses that must develop a turnaround plan that meets state requirements.

Here in Texas, community schools have been highly successful. In Austin, Reagan High School and Webb Middle School—both campuses previously targeted for closure for low academic performance—were transformed through the community-schools approach. After embracing this model of bottom-up reform, Webb became the top Title I school for academics in Austin ISD, and Reagan—now an “early college” offering more college credit opportunities—almost doubled its graduation rate, from 43 percent to more than 90 percent. Other community-schools initiatives under way in Texas include four in El Paso ISD, one in Dallas ISD, 11 in Austin ISD—and in Houston ISD our union is working with the district and city to bring the community-schools approach to more than 50 campuses.

Studies on community schools in Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Oakland show how community schools are able to succeed where others have failed. Their success stems in large part from the time spent assessing community needs and the ongoing collaboration between community partners and the school. This ensures resources and partners are deployed where they can have the greatest impact.

The other major factor is who is doing the planning and assessing, and this is where community engagement comes in to involve teams of parents, community leaders, school administrators, nonprofits, teachers, and support staff.

….Data consistently show that students who attend community schools, and who receive services, supports, and enrichments, have improved academic performance as well as increased motivation and engagement in learning. With social services, expanded educational opportunities, and more time to focus on instruction in the classroom, schools will see attendance go up, mobility go down, and a more engaged student body, leading to higher achievement.

You can view all of Quinzi’s testimony at the 5:48:11 mark of the hearing video.

(Upcoming Hotlines will report on other important action at the capitol on April 4, including a hearing on TRS benefits and a meeting of members of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance.)

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