If only there were a STAAR test for legislators


I have long been convinced that many elected officials, including members of the legislative majority, use the student and school “accountability” system as an excuse to under-fund public education. These are the same people who also like to say that “throwing money” at education doesn’t improve student performance.

The truth is Texas government has never “thrown” money at education. Quite the contrary. You don’t throw money at education by cutting $5.4 billion from public school budgets, as the legislative majority did four years ago. And, you don’t throw money at education if you consistently rank, as Texas does, in the lower tier among the states in per-student funding.

What the Legislature does throw at school children, though, beginning with third-graders, is a series of standardized tests supposedly designed to hold students and their teachers “accountable” for the insufficient tax dollars that are spent on them.

In truth the STAAR tests – the latest and most difficult generation of a series of such exams – measure little more than a child’s ability to take a test. The whole experience is wasteful and stressful, for students, parents and educators alike. Countless hours of classroom time that could be spent teaching critical thinking skills and other important educational issues are frittered away on teaching kids how to take and pass the next STAAR or a practice benchmark. But don’t blame the teachers. They are teaching to the test because their school rankings and maybe their jobs depend on the STAAR scores.

Many children start worrying about the STAAR test as early as second grade, a year and a half before they will have to take their first one. This is counterproductive to the extreme, tarnishing and perhaps even destroying the joy of learning that is so crucial to a child’s education. TSTA President Noel Candelaria noted in a television interview this week that such stress made his daughter dread the start of third grade this year.

Members of the legislative majority claim they are simply holding those third-graders and their teachers “accountable.”

Bunk. They are using their definition of “accountability” as an excuse to continue to shortchange public education and school children. And now that the passing standard on the next round of STAAR tests is being raised, children as young as 8 and 9 will feel even more stress.

Accountability should start at the top, with the Legislature, but the legislative majority refuses to acknowledge its responsibilities to school children and educators. Texas spends $2,400 less per public school student than the national average, yet the legislative majority left billions of tax dollars in the bank. And, led by the governor, the state continues to fight a court order finding the school funding system inadequate, unfair and unconstitutional.

While state policymakers drag their feet, thousands of Texas school children will remain in overcrowded, under-equipped classrooms, and teachers will continue to struggle to provide the individual attention that many children need.

Yet, if STAAR scores drop this year, these same legislators will act surprised and continue pontificating about “accountability” – not theirs, the kids.

If only there were a STAAR test for legislators. The closest thing we have are elections, and most of these lawmakers will be on the ballot next year. Virtually all will claim to be “friends” of education, but many of them aren’t. They would rather test kids, continue to under-fund classrooms, declare the public schools a “failure” and propose vouchers and other privatization schemes. So, do some research before you vote.

TSTA will be endorsing genuine, pro-education legislative candidates in both party primaries.




A toothless school seat belt law


Some 1.5 million of Texas’ 5 million-plus public school students ride the bus to school, and day in and day out they get to campus and back home safely. But when the rare tragedy strikes, as it did last month when two Houston ISD students were killed in a bus accident, one issue that is almost sure to reemerge is seat belt usage.

This is an issue that state government tried to address with a 2007 law, following a previous fatal bus accident involving a high school soccer team from Beaumont. But the statute was woefully under-funded, mostly ignored and is now toothless.

According to the Houston Chronicle’s Ericka Mellon, in a story linked below, the bus involved in the accident in Houston last month had lap belts, not the more-secure, three-point belts that go over a passenger’s shoulder as well as waist. Officials haven’t said if the students on the bus were wearing them.

The 2007 law required all school buses purchased on or after Sept. 1, 2010, to have three-point belts. The Chronicle story provides a pretty thorough account of how the law fell way shortof its goal.

In 2009, two years after the law was enacted, the Legislature appropriated $10 million to carry it out, way short of the $31 million that local school officials believed was the full cost of compliance for all school districts. Only 12 districts, according to the Chronicle, applied to the Texas Education Agency for seat-belt grants in late 2010 and early 2011. And, some of those districts withdrew their requests after realizing the state assistance covered only seat belts, not the total cost of buying new buses.

In 2011, TEA distributed only $416,582 of the seat belt allotment. Remember, 2011 was the same year the legislative majority slashed $5.4 billion from public education budgets, and the remaining seat belt appropriation was transferred to other education programs or put back in the state treasury. With no remaining state appropriation, the seat belt law is unenforceable.

The $416,582 was shared by Austin ISD, Pettus ISD, South Texas ISD and Dallas County Schools, which operates buses for Dallas ISD and 10 other districts. According to the Chronicle, Dallas County Schools is considered an “outlier” in seat belt use with all of its buses, except back-ups, having seat belts. And nearly two-thirds of those are three-point belts. State funding provided only a fraction of the cost.

Houston ISD applied for a seat belt grant in 2010 but never completed the application process because district officials believed they didn’t meet all of TEA’s criteria. Statewide, the Chronicle reported, most standard-size school buses in Texas still lack seat belts.


PTA needs more than stay-at-home moms


I certainly don’t object to stay-at-home moms – or stay-at-home dads – playing an active role in the PTA. But I do object to stay-at-home parents making it more difficult for other parents to participate. I am familiar with one grade school in Austin where PTA leaders do this, intentionally or not, by scheduling all PTA meetings during the work day, making it impossible or extremely difficult for most working parents to attend.

Because some stay-at-home parents from one-income families are more affluent than many other parents, this raises a potential difference in a local PTA’s economic perspective. And, that difference becomes more critical on campuses that are undergoing significant demographic and cultural changes.

One of these schools (there are many) is Huffman Elementary in Plano ISD, the subject of a Dallas Morning News article linked below. The story, which may be behind a paywall, tells how parents at Huffman have recognized the inclusive role the PTA must play for student success and the steps they have taken to accomplish it.

Huffman used to serve almost exclusively an affluent student body. But in recent years, a growing number of subsidized apartments has created an influx of working families and single mothers into the neighborhood. Consequently, students at the school now are mostly minority and low-income.

“But despite the changing demographics, some felt the school’s PTA reflected only one type of parent: affluent stay-at-home moms,” the newspaper reported.

That began to change when the PTA took steps to ensure that all parents were included. A bilingual survey of parents was conducted, and the PTA began sending out invitations to school events in both English and Spanish. The PTA also started scheduling meetings so that working parents could attend.

Parental involvement increased, and Huffman earned recognition from the national PTA as a School of Excellence, one of only 11 in Texas to receive the honor this year.

“In many ways, Huffman is a microcosm of Plano ISD, which has become more economically and racially diverse in recent years,” the Dallas News wrote.

Huffman is a microcosm of the entire Texas public school system, where Hispanic and African American students outnumber Anglos and most students are from low-income families. Parental involvement – the involvement of all parents – is crucial to student success, and local PTAs must take steps to ensure that all parents have a chance to participate.


When bullies get out of hand


October is National Bullying Prevention Month, a time of particular importance to parents and educators seeking to raise awareness of the cruelty of bullying and its devastating impact on young victims’ lives. Interestingly, the month also falls in the middle of a contentious season in which bullying of a political sort continues to all but paralyze our national Capitol.

With a little luck – and no thanks to bully-in-chief Ted Cruz – the federal government may stay open for another couple of months, providing paychecks to thousands of everyday, working people who perform hundreds of essential public services that most of us take for granted. And, critical federal funds will continue to be available for Head Start and other educational programs for millions of low-income and disabled children throughout the country.

But the reprieve comes at a cost. House Speaker John Boehner was bullied into resigning. A conservative Republican who recognized that government is a process of compromise and accommodation, Boehner finally got tired of butting heads with Cruz and other hard-right ideologues from his own party who seek election not to govern, but to pontificate, pander and destroy.

And, the reprieve is just that, a delaying action that may be lost to a government shutdown by the end of the year, as Cruz and his allies continue to bully their way through Washington.

Cruz has such little disregard for government – and the public education, health care and other critical programs it provide for millions of Americans – it almost makes you wonder why he is running for president, until you are reminded that many bullies have over-sized egos.

In the presidential race, the bully tag has been most prominently attached to billionaire egoist Donald Trump, who wears it with pride as he tries to intimidate everyone on the campaign trail. Cruz, so far, is content to bully Congress.

Unfortunately, it will take more than National Bullying Prevention Month to make either one of them sit down and shut up.




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