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Texas students don’t need another test

 

Although state Rep. Bill Zedler seems to be trying to swim upstream against a pretty strong current of public opinion, he has filed a bill to require Texas students to pass a civics test in order to receive a high school diploma. I know. Another  test. Just what we don’t want, right?

Remember, two years ago the Legislature, rather than be stampeded out of town by outraged parents, reduced from 15 to five the number of end-of-course exams high school students already have to pass to graduate.  And, many of those same parents wouldn’t take kindly to seeing the number begin to creep back up. They prefer, instead, more reductions in testing, beginning with grade school.

So, what does Zedler, an ultraconservative from Arlington, have in mind? Maybe he thinks a new civics test would encourage more students to participate in politics or, at least, vote. I doubt that. Another test would just annoy more kids and their parents, encourage more teaching to the test and steal even more valuable learning time from classrooms. Besides, students in Texas public schools already have completed many lessons and tests in U.S. and Texas government and history, from elementary school through high school.

Zedler’s bill (HB829) would require the civics test to be “composed of all or a portion of the questions on the civics test administered by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services as part of the naturalization process under the federal Immigration and Nationality Act.”

By copying the federal citizenship naturalization test, Zedler’s proposal could save taxpayers the multi-million-dollar cost of hiring a private contractor to develop a new test. Many students who would be tested, of course, would be immigrants.

Interestingly, according to a recent article in the Washington Post, more than 97 percent of immigrants applying for citizenship pass the Naturalization Civics Test. That suggests many immigrants know more about how our government is supposed to work than many native-born Texans do. But that, still, is no reason to increase an already excessive test burden on Texas students.

 

“School choice” is not a choice for many families

 

For a long time, “reform” has been the most abused word in the political arena surrounding education, and now it has a strong competitor – “choice,” as in school choice.

In the correct meaning of the word, reform describes an action that improves something. Most of the self-styled education “reformers” who will be pontificating at the state Capitol over the next few months don’t want to improve our public schools. They want to milk money from them for their own privatization schemes, such as private school vouchers , corporate charters or online learning courses, where teachers are an afterthought.

The big privatization push this session will be vouchers, which advocates, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, are trying to deliberately soft-pedal as school choice. They claim falsely that vouchers will give low-income parents in neighborhoods with struggling schools the “choice” to send their children to good private schools. Remember that poor “working mom” in the inner city that Patrick wrung his hands over in his inaugural address last week?

The reality is that vouchers wouldn’t do that mom or thousands of other working parents just like her any good. Vouchers wouldn’t give them a choice in schools. That’s because vouchers wouldn’t come close to covering the full cost of tuition at most private schools, particularly the better facilities, and low-income families wouldn’t be able to afford the difference. Nor would vouchers cover the transportation costs of getting kids to school.

A voucher bill filed by state Sen. Donna Campbell would cap each voucher at 60 percent of what the state is spending now on each public school student. During the 2013-14 school year, the state spent an average of $8,998 per student, based on average daily attendance. Sixty percent of that is about $5,400.Compare that with private school tuition rates in Texas as high as $26,000 a year, or more, for many schools.

The only real choice would reside with parents who make a lot more money than that inner-city mom. And many of them already can afford their own private school tuition without state assistance. Choice also would rest with the private schools, who would have their pick of students bearing tax dollars. In a private education system, the students don’t choose the schools. The schools choose the students.

Texas cannot afford to pay for two separate school systems: a private system for its more affluent families and a public system, weakened by the diversion of tax dollars from already underfunded schools, for everyone else.

 

Patrick: A huge problem for education

 

True to form, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick used his inaugural address to mislead Texans about private school vouchers and “school choice” and then shamelessly abused the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“When it comes to school choice, remember, we already have it,” he said. “If you’re rich enough, you send your kids to private school. You have choice. If you’re mobile enough, you move to the suburbs. You have choice. But if you’re a poor working mom in the inner city…that parent, that grandparent, that guardian does not have choice.”

And the crocodile tears kept flowing.

Patrick refuses to admit that, even with a tax-paid voucher of several thousand dollars, most poor working moms in the inner city still wouldn’t have a choice. They still wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition to send their children to most private schools, where tuition in Texas can be as high as $26,000 or more a year. Since most private schools aren’t in poor, working class neighborhoods and many low-income families don’t have autos, vouchers wouldn’t help them transport their kids to private schools either. Unlike public schools, most private schools don’t have buses.

Vouchers primarily would benefit private school owners and the middle-class and upper-middle-class families who already can afford private schools. Meanwhile, the public schools where the vast majority of Texas school children, including most inner city kids, would continue to be educated would lose even more tax revenue from their already strapped budgets.

In his inaugural address, Patrick also had the gall to invoke the memory of the late Dr. King and his “I Have a Dream” speech, suggesting, wrongly, that vouchers are a new civil rights initiative.

“I don’t think he (King) could have dreamed that 52 years later, that many of our inner city schools would still be failing our children,” Patrick said.

For education, Patrick is the problem, not the solution. Patrick and those of similar mind in the Legislature are the main obstacles between inner city schools and success. As a state senator, Patrick joined the legislative majority in 2011 to slash $5.4 billion from public school budgets, and he voted in 2013 against the entire state budget, including ALL education funding – inner city schools, suburban schools, universities, every public educational institution in Texas.

Patrick also was heavily involved in weakening another MLK priority, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was designed to encourage and protect voting by minority Americans, including that inner city mom Patrick bemoaned at his inauguration. Patrick voted for and remains a strong advocate for Texas’ voter identification law, enacted in 2011 and designed to make it more difficult for people like that mom and other members of her family to turn out and vote against candidates like Patrick.

“It’s a new day in Texas,” Patrick declared.

There is nothing new about his bad old ideas, though.

 

Abbott: A cookie-cutter education?

 

An inaugural speech is not the place for a new governor to lay out policy details, and Governor Greg Abbott didn’t do that. But, in his prepared remarks, as he continued to talk generally about making Texas the “leader” in education, he did strike out against what he called a “cookie-cutter approach to teaching.”

I am not sure what he meant by that because Texas doesn’t have cookie-cutter teachers any more than it has cookie-cutter, or standardized, students. But in addition to having one of the most underfunded public education systems – per student – in the country, we also have an official state policy that encourages excessive “cookie-cutter” testing.

Maybe that’s what the new governor means. Teachers are increasingly feeling pressure to teach to the test – to follow a rote pattern — instead of using their knowledge and skills to teach children how to learn, to encourage their creativity and imaginations, to show them how to enjoy learning and not fear to be different from anyone else.

If that is what Abbott means, and if he intends to sharply curtail standardized testing, then he can be an advocate for positive change in our educational system. If he was simply being rhetorical, Texas school children will continue to suffer the consequences of unfair standardization.

Abbott, in his address, indicated a recognition of the “value and uniqueness of each student.” Now, he needs to also recognize that state government not only has been stifling those students with excessive tests and test preparation but also short-changing them with an inadequate and unfair school finance system.

 

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