Onslaught Against Public Education Continues in Senate Committee

A steady stream of pseudo-reform legislation promoted by would-be privatizers of public education will continue flowing in the Texas Senate Education Committee during the week of April 1.

SB 1298 by Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy), up for a hearing on April 2, would authorize state-funded online instruction up to full-time for students now home-schooled or in private school, and the provider of the online instruction could be a private company. Together with a requirement that all students take at least one online course in grade six or higher, and together with opening up grades K-2 for the first time to online providers, these provisions of SB 1298 would cost taxpayers more than $500 million a year, according to the official estimate by state fiscal experts at the Legislative Budget Board. Not just coincidentally, the bill also could result in a lucrative business opportunity for private, for-profit providers of “virtual schooling” such as K12 Inc. and Connections Education (a subsidiary of the Pearson educational conglomerate, which also holds the contract to run the Texas testing system).

This “virtual voucher” bill by Sen. Hegar is just one of many bills coming through the Senate Education Committee that fit the privatizers’ agenda. Another is SB 2, the charter-school expansion bill by Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), which was approved in committee on March 26. Contrary to some press reports, the substitute version of the bill now on its way to the full Senate still includes removal of any limit on the number of one type of state-authorized charter schools. There would be no limit on the expansion of out-of-state charter operations in Texas if deemed high-performing according to an ill-defined standard. The substitute also contains a provision authorizing school districts to take up to 15 percent of their students out from under Education Code safeguards and standards such as class-size limits and teacher certification—as if smaller classes and teachers properly trained in the subject they teach were a source of low performance instead of a solution to it. The idea seems to be that a whole feeder pattern of schools could be handed over to a private operator, as was recently attempted in Austin ISD.

Also being promoted by super-rich education privatizers through their network of foundations and lobbyists at the capitol are other Senate bills like:

–SB 1263 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), the “parent-trigger” bill that would hand neighborhood schools over to charter and other private operators (passed in committee on March 28—send your senator a letter now in opposition to this bill!);
–SB 1403 by Sen. Patrick, a bill that would make teachers’ evaluations and salaries depend more than ever on students’ scores on standardized state tests (set for hearing on April 2); and
–SB 1718 by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), a bill inspired by the New Orleans “recovery district,” which promised much through state takeover of local schools, but which actually has turned scores of schools over to charter operators with little educational benefit, judging by the recovery district’s worst-in-the-state academic performance (also set for hearing April 2); and
–SB 1408 by Sen. Patrick, a bill whose substitute version, unveiled on March 28, would give Texas a school-ratings system more obsessively focused than ever on students’ scores on standardized tests. This one would be modeled after the Florida system proposed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, which even includes bounties for teachers—cash per-pupil awarded for test-score gains.

Former Gov. Bush came to Texas recently at Sen. Patrick’s invitation to tout the Florida model, attributing all manner of educational improvements to its impact. But he failed to mention that simultaneously Florida implemented intensive reading instruction and, over his objections, provided students with universal pre-K and and smaller class sizes. Bush also failed to acknowledge that despite some gains at lower grade levels Florida ranks well below Texas and indeed near the bottom of interstate rankings—44th—in terms of on-time graduation rates.

So Florida as advertised by Bush and Sen. Patrick is far from a model, unless the goal is an increasingly privatized system of charters and vouchers, with neighborhood public schools ever more driven by the chase for test scores that translate into dollars for adults. Nobody should be fooled by the privatizers’ sanctimonious “kids first” rhetoric. The private takeover of public schools, piece by piece, bill by bill, is on the agenda in the Texas Senate. (A similar spate of bills has been introduced in the Texas House but has yet to advance in committee.)