Saturday, April 09, 2005

Don't mess with Texas?

The stakes have been raised: said Spellings yesterday, "I intend to take a very strong approach." The approach? Withholding $11 million from the Texas Education Agency -- an agency she once worked very closely with -- if they don't reform their ways and force special ed kids to take the dang tests. Currently, the TEA exempts 9% of special ed kids. NCLB allows for 1%.

From today's Houston Chronicle:

WASHINGTON - Texas could lose $11 million in federal funding and be denied flexibility on federal No Child Left Behind rules unless the state exempts fewer special-education students from standardized testing, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings warned Friday.

Spellings' statement came a day after she offered states that follow federal laws more leeway. She also increased the cap on testing exemptions from 1 percent to 3 percent of all students.

Texas defied the law by allowing 9 percent of public school students to take an easier exam the past two years.

"Texas is an outlier," said Spellings. "Nine percent is nearly half a million kids. No Child Left Behind does not mean 'No Fewer Than Half a Million Left Behind.' ... I intend to take a very strong approach."

An outlier? Isn't this the state that was the inspiration for No Child Left Behind? What, oh what has become of the Texas Miracle? (Oh yeah, I almost forget, it never existed.)

State education officials said they have not been notified of the secretary's admonishment.

"We appreciate Secretary Spellings looking into this difficult area of the law," said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe. "But if Texas, for whatever reason, isn't allowed to take advantage of this new flexibility, we'll simply keep the status quo in place."

So the don't-tread-on-me Feds vs. Texas smack-down continues. That statement was the political equivalent of throwing a punch. This confrontation between Spellings and her old chums is becoming even more fun to watch. Everyone loves a good train wreck, especially when it involves Republican infighting.

So one day after telling the nation how flexible she was going to be, Spellings says, in effect, forget it. Interesting.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The message is clear

The message is clear: We'll give more flexibility, but no more money. I'm talking of course about the rash of news stories about Spellings' much ballyhooed meeting at Mt. Vernon with state education officials where she said -- yet again -- that the feds would give more flexibility, specifically on testing of special ed students.

This is undoubtedly a good step. But it's maddening that it took them three years to figure out that some students, with severe disabilities, can't take the same tests as every other kid. Spellings suggested raising the cap on exempted special ed students from one to three per cent-- but only for states that raise test scores to begin with. There's a huge problem here. It's a catch-22. You can't raise your test scores if you can't raise the cap, and you can't raise the cap if you don't raise your test scores. Spellings talks about common sense but she doesn't seem to have a lot. Or, this could be a calculated approach to playing favorites. It's the W. way: you're either wit' us or agen' us.

And perhaps even more importantly, check out this from the NPR interview with Secretary Spellings from just before the Mt. Vernon meeting. Asked about schools with crumbling ceilings and a principal who wears a surgical mask at a DC school to protect him from the mold in his building, she was perfectly evasive. We're focusing on results, she said. Great. Thanks. Results mean one thing: test scores. Forget about results like new buildings or new textbooks or curricular tools or even mold remediation. We're not worried about those kind of results. Just give us those test scores, baby. I swear these people have a fetish or something.

So the message is clear. Flexibility? Maybe. More testing? Definitely. More funding? Not a chance.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Florida Supremes will hear voucher case

I missed this one from the other day:

High court to consider the legality of vouchers

TALLAHASSEE - (AP) -- Attorneys will have a chance to argue the constitutionality of Florida's first school voucher law in the state Supreme Court on June 7, the court said Tuesday.

The 1999 law, which allows children at failing public schools to transfer at state expense to private and parochial schools, has been ruled unconstitutional by the First District Court of Appeal. It concluded that the law violated the separation of church and state.

The court may consider another constitutional issue as well. A trial judge ruled that the law violates a part of the state Constitution that requires the state to provide a public school system -- but the First DCA overturned that decision.

The law was challenged the day after Gov. Jeb Bush signed it six years ago. Nearly 700 children attend private schools under the law.

More than a dozen groups have filed ''friend-of-the-court'' briefs. The U.S. Department of Justice is supporting the state, and the International Reading Association backs the voucher opponents. Those include the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union; the Florida PTA; the NAACP and the League of Women Voters.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Choice on whose terms?

I heard hours of passionate testimony on vouchers in the Texas House Public Education Committee on Tuesday. Some parents tearfully recounted hellacious stories of abuse and violence done to their children by other students in public schools. A six year old was urinated on. A 12 year old was beaten up for getting an A on a test. And so on... These stories are powerful and they aren't made up. You can hear it in the voices of these working people who came to testify. They want very badly to support public schools; they believe in education with a religious fervor. But the public schools -- for whatever reasons -- failed them.

I don't think vouchers are the answer. There is no doubt they would siphon funds from the public schools that most desperately need them. But no one can deny that there are schools that are failing. I'm not talking about test scores here. I'm talking about basic safety, about an environment that you would feel good about sending your child to.

This blog is about "education, politics and the intersection of the two," so here's the point: Republicans are going to use vouchers with increasing regularity in the very near future to garner support in Latino and African-American communities. They're already doing it and they're going to do it more. For Democrats to simply say that public schools need more money won't cut it-- even if it is true.

If there's one thing we must have learned from the past presidential election it's that, in politics, truth is important, but perception is essential. If the public perceives that Republicans are the innovators on education -- right or wrong -- they're going to win that issue.

Democrats should embrace public school choice. Encourage charter school development with increased financial accountability and scrutiny. Encourage charters run not by for-profit corporations but by principals, teachers, and counselors who are fed up with public school bureaucracy. Give them a chance to run smaller, more human (and more efficient) public schools. Keep religion out. Keep profiteers out.

Look, this is simple. There will be choice in public education. There's a real public demand for it. The question is: Will it be done on their terms, or on ours?

(For more on the voucher hubbub, click here, here, or here).

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Deep in the Heart of Texas

I wondered recently about Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley's resistance to NCLB standards. It seemed out of place, especially when Gov. Perry said he supported her.

Well, it now seems that Bush adviser Sandy Kress has encouraged Neeley and the Texas Education Agency to muscle up. The result is astounding. From the Dallas Morning News:

TEA stiffens school rating system
Many more schools will be
'unacceptable'; bill could spur privatization

By JOSHUA BENTON / The Dallas Morning News
The number of schools the state considers failing will skyrocket next year under a tougher accountability system approved by state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley. And a new Senate proposal could pave the way to dozens or hundreds of those failing schools being taken over by private companies.
...The confluence of two distinct shifts in the Texas education world has some
wondering whether schools are being set up for failure.
"There are people out there promoting the idea that public schools are bad," said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. "You'd almost forget that we have a president who ran on the idea that he had fixed the schools in Texas."
Dr. Neeley formally approved the new system Monday after more than a month of consideration by Texas Education Agency committees and staff members. Starting next year, the passing rate schools have to reach to be "academically acceptable" will increase by 10 percentage points in reading, writing, social studies and science. In math, the required passing rate will increase 5 points.
That – combined with other changes in the accountability system – will make it much harder for schools to stay out of the ratings gutter. Last year, 92 Texas schools were labeled unacceptable. If the new standards had been in place, 1,213 schools would have received the tag. Texas has about 7,700 public schools.

That's about 1 out of every 6 public schools. But keep reading:

But if Ms. Shapiro's bill becomes law, many of those schools would be managed by private – perhaps for-profit – companies. Under her proposal, any school that is rated unacceptable for two years must be removed from the control of the local school board and handed off to "alternative management."
The most likely candidates for such management would be school management companies.
The best-known is Edison, a for-profit company that has managed public schools in Dallas and elsewhere. It's received mixed reviews; many of the districts that've
worked with Edison, such as Dallas, have severed ties to the company.

They're not just mixed. The record of for-profit companies is abysmal. But don't worry, Sen Shapiro says they won't necessarily be for-profit companies:

Ms. Shapiro emphasized that "alternative management" does not necessarilymean a for-profit company. "It could be a group of parents that wants to do a better job," she said. "It could be UT-Austin or UT-Dallas or a school with a college of education. I think we're focusing too much on the potential of a for-profit management team."
But her bill includes language that appears to favor established companies over upstarts. The bill requires anyone wishing to take over a school to have "documented success in whole school interventions that increased the educational and performance levels of students in low-performing campuses."
Her bill is a Senate substitute to House Bill 2, the school finance bill passed last month by the Legislature's lower chamber. The House bill contained a similar private-management provision. But instead of tying takeovers to the "unacceptable" label, it targeted schools whose test scores ranked in the bottom 5 percent of the state.
That change makes Dr. Neeley's change to the definition of "unacceptable" more important. Under current law, schools rated unacceptable for several years can be subject to dissolution by the commissioner. But that tool has been used rarely.
Ms. Shapiro's proposal removes much of the commissioner's leeway in determining whether intervention is appropriate.

In other words, the "unacceptable" schools must be taken over. Must. Be. Privatized.

If you live in Texas, call your representative and senator and tell them you oppose this. Please.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Voucher Hell

I'll spend most of my evening tomorrow in the House Public Education Committee hearing on vouchers. To me, the whole thing comes down to this:

"I think the business model, free market system would work well, for kids and for their parents," [Rep. Frank] Corte [R-San Antonio] said.

The mystical belief in the omnibeneficence (yes, I just made up a word) is almost inspiring: it makes you think you can believe anything if you just try hard enough. For people who are so engrossed with "results," the Republicans repeatedly fail to notice that private, for-profit education companies have an abysmal record (see Edison Schools, Inc.).

I mean, why stop with education? Why not privatize the postal system? Hell, the Defense Department made some critical errors in the last few years, privatize them, too. Intelligence gathering? Sure. Why not the State Department while we're at it? Let's just privatize everything.

Can't most Republicans agree that some things -- just some things -- ought not to be privatized? And wouldn't PUBLIC schools fall under this category?

Anyway, I've studied the three proposals that will be laid out tomorrow and they are all ill-conceived, poorly drafted bills. Normally, this would be cause for relief, but unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of legislation Texas Republicans seem to enjoy most.

God help us.

Update: According to the Dallas Morning News:

A Hispanic group will stage a rally in support of school vouchers today, with [Gov.] Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick expected to attend.
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