Sen. Lucio’s Town Hall in Harlingen Spotlights Need for Change at Capitol

The harmful impacts of the 2011 state legislative session on public education do not sit well with Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., and he is determined to hold the legislature to account for what it did and to try to fix it in the 2013 session.  Hence the Brownsville Democrat has been holding a series of town halls across his Rio Grande Valley district, with the latest occurring just last evening in Harlingen.

Texas AFT and other teacher organizations at the Harlingen meeting were called on to lay out the evidence of the harm done last session and to proposes corrective action, with Texas AFT’s legislative counsel Patty Quinzi serving as both moderator and panelist.  Sen. Lucio cited data from two recent Texas AFT surveys of budget impacts to document the effects of $5.4 billion in state cuts to public education that left districts with $540 less per pupil annually, on average.

Quinzi stressed the compounding effects of multiple adverse developments in the wake of the budget cuts, which have included a more than threefold proliferation of class-size waivers (to more than 8,000) in grades K-4, the advent of a new state accountability exam (STAAR) with little or no preparation for many teachers, and the introduction of evaluation experiments that tie hiring and advancement decisions closely to student’s test scores on the standardized exams.

Teachers and administrators in the audience brought up additional negative ramifications of budget cuts, citing ballooning class sizes outside of grades K-4 and an increase in disciplinary problems, among other examples. One teacher said the current school year was the first time her school had to have a police presence on campus. Proposed legislative ideas for 2013 accordingly addressed getting classrooms back under control, by increasing the availability of classroom paraprofessionals and by renewing efforts to reduce class sizes.

One teacher spoke for many when he described some of the ill effects of the focus on standardized testing. Testing vendors may be thriving, he said, but students are not. Students may pass the test, but many are actually failing their courses and are not prepared for college, he said, and he attributed the problem in large part to what he termed “the lost connection” between the classroom practitioner and the state’s decision-makers.  Another teacher said part of the solution is a return of respect for career and technology education, which has suffered from the system’s one-sided focus on college as the goal, when that is not necessarily the pathway to success in school or in life for everyone.

Another theme of the town hall was the need for supportive services in and out of school to help at-risk students. Audience members noted that counselors are consumed with administering standardized tests or are doing the job of others whose positions have disappeared; the result is that students in crisis often do not have a counselor when they need one. Texas AFT’s Patty Quinzi said the evidence justifies a new effort to pass Sen. Lucio’s bill setting a minimum pupil-to-counselor ratio for high schools. State Board of Education candidate Celeste Sanchez added that there is also a desperate need for social workers, who can supplement in-school efforts by making home visits.

Sen. Lucio closed the meeting by recalling occasions when teachers have turned out to vote in large numbers and changed the players in the capitol. If you will use that power, he said, you can do it again.