Playing politics with school desegregation decision is playing politics with racism

In Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 struck a strong blow against racism by ruling that racial segregation of schools was unconstitutional. Although, 65 years later, many schools in Texas and elsewhere are still segregated because of economic and racial disparities among communities, the landmark ruling nevertheless has long been considered the established law of the land and a goal that we must continue to work to achieve.

But in Trumpworld, where racism is winked at and encouraged by the Tweeter-in-Chief and education is an afterthought, even something as fundamental as equal opportunity in public schools is being questioned.

For months now, many of President Trump’s nominees to federal judgeships, including several from Texas, have refused in Senate confirmation hearings to declare without reservation that the Brown v. Board of Education case was correctly decided.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights believes an affirmation of the correctness of the Brown decision should be a requirement for Senate confirmation of any judicial nominee.

“The refusal by some nominees to say that the decision was correctly decided sends a dangerous signal to all Americans – especially African Americans – that Brown could someday be overturned and that our nation could return to the disgraceful days of racial segregation,” the conference’s president and CEO, Vanita Gupta, has told senators in a letter.

“Affirming Brown is an essential principle of racial equality that must be endorsed by all who seek a lifetime appointment on our federal courts. Regrettably, it is not, and that should be disqualifying,” she said.

Ada Brown, an African American on the Texas 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas who has been nominated by Trump to be a federal district judge, acknowledged that she has benefited from the Brown ruling.

“Because of Brown v. Board of Education, I went to an excellent integrated school where my father went to a very poor segregated school,” she said at a Senate hearing.

But she is among the Trump judicial nominees who have refused to comment on the correctness of the desegregation decision because, they claim, a judicial canon prevents them from commenting on court decisions.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who has been asking nominees to answer the Brown question, said the judicial canon they cite was “completely inapplicable” to established decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh answered similar questions about the Brown decision at their confirmation hearings. Both said it was correctly decided.

Fearful their confirmations were in danger, some nominees have begun to break their silence in favor of offering support for Brown, but the civil rights group lists 23 nominees around the country who are still refusing to answer the question.

Does this mean they are segregationists? Probably not. But for whatever reason, they are playing politics with an issue at the heart of the American sense of fairness and equality. And when judicial nominees refuse to declare the importance and correctness of the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling, they are encouraging racists who want to tear it up.

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How many teachers plan to “waste” their pay raises?

Most Texas school districts are getting more state funding, teachers all over the state are getting pay raises and one school privatization group in Austin, which thinks it knows more about education than educators do, doesn’t like it.

This, of course, would be the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a pro-voucher, pro-testing outfit that believes teacher pay should largely be based on test scores. During the legislative session earlier this year, TPPF’s senior policy advisor, Kara Belew, told the media an across-the-board teacher pay raise would be “wasteful.”

The Legislature didn’t approve across-the-board raises, but it did provide extra funding and order school districts to provide raises without tying them to STAAR scores.

The raises aren’t big enough, but many teachers soon will have enough extra cash to “waste” on things like health care, groceries, student loan payments, child care, rent, car payments or maybe a vacation or an extra night out.

The Legislature increased per-student funding by several hundred dollars and also provided extra money for critical programs like full-day, pre-kindergarten for low-income children and students with dyslexia and other special needs.

And TPPF is grousing because, as Belew writes in a new oped, the districts can spend a lot of the money “nearly as they wish.”

Imagine that, locally elected school boards and educators being allowed to decide how to best spend education money for education programs, rather than have to “earn” extra dollars through improved STAAR scores or some other data-driven formula.

Some mistakes may be made, but that is what school board elections are for. And public school educators, as a whole, are a better judge of what works in the classroom than a so-called “think tank” in Austin that has consistently promoted the under-funding of public schools in favor of privatization.

TPPF argues that there is no evidence that extra funding alone will improve student performance. Extra funding, though, will provide additional resources, including pay raises, that will encourage more teachers to stay in the classroom and allow some districts to take steps like reducing class sizes. These are the kind of improvements that will improve student performance, not more STAAR testing.

Extra funding hasn’t helped in the past, TPPF argues. The truth is that Texas’ public education system has been woefully under-funded for years, and so have the health care and social support systems so crucial to academic success for the low-income students who now account for more than half of our public school enrollment.

What the Legislature did this session is only a down payment on real school finance reform. Lawmakers must provide more resources – not test-driven “incentives” – the next time they meet.

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Teachers didn’t get the biggest pay day from the Legislature

Yes, the Texas Legislature gave teachers a pay raise, which may be worth a few thousand dollars a year on the high end to some teachers and less to others, depending on decisions by their individual school districts. We hope this will prove to be a down payment on more school funding and more pay raises in the future for teachers and other school employees.

But lawmakers gave another, much-smaller and much-wealthier group of people a better windfall. They gave the buyers of luxury yachts a new tax break that is potentially worth several times the average teacher’s total salary.

How much more exactly? Well, that will depend on how much someone spends to purchase a yacht. But the new law will cap the sales tax at $18,750 for any luxury boat as large as 115 feet. That tax savings, according to the Houston Chronicle, will be about $228,000 on the purchaser of a $3 million yacht. How many teachers do you know who make $228,000?

Supporters of the new law say it was necessary to revive the marine industry in Texas, which has been losing money to several other states, including Florida and Alabama, which already have similar tax breaks.

Those states, or so the argument goes, are recouping additional revenue from yacht sales that could have been made in Texas as well as from the marinas, fuel purchases and other products and services related to the industry.

Industry jobs also are at stake, they point out. And the total estimated cost to state government for the yacht tax break will be only $2.3 million over the next two years, compared to the $2 billion appropriated for teacher pay raises.

But the real issue is this. This is a tax break for the super-wealthy to be stacked on top of numerous other tax breaks that already exist for various corporations and special interests.

All those tax breaks undermine the ability of future Legislatures to continue meeting state needs, including an increased investment in public education and more pay raises.

The additional funding the Legislature appropriated for education, including teacher pay raises, and school property tax relief, will cost $11.6 billion over the next two years. The Legislature paid for it this time with a $9 billion revenue surplus and an assortment of other sources, which may not be available two years from now.

The yacht bill was bad enough that even Gov. Greg Abbott refused to sign it. Instead, he hedged and let it become law without his signature. Too bad he didn’t think it was bad enough to veto.

Instead, he let a relative handful of rich boat buyers sail away with part of the next state budget.

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The Legislature did little to curb STAAR

With the lion’s share of attention focused on school funding and property tax relief during the recent legislative session, one of the most-hated features of our public schools – the STAAR testing regime – was allowed to tighten its stress-inducing hold on our educational system.

STAAR is hated by many educators, parents and other voters, based on TSTA polling, but the powers-that-be in Austin still think they know better than educators about how to rate the performances of Texas students and schools. So, legislators inflicted only minor wounds on the monster.

They repealed the requirement that fourth and seventh graders take a stand-alone STAAR writing test, effective Sept. 1, 2021. They ordered some changes in the administration of other exams, including a new prohibition on the tests having more than 75 percent of questions in multiple choice format. And they will allow some STAAR tests to be spread over multiple days to shorten testing periods.

Lawmakers also ordered the state education commissioner to appoint two advisory committees on test development to assure the validity and academic appropriateness of exams, following reports that some STAAR exams were written above grade level.

And they decreed that school districts not use STAAR scores in developing new performance pay programs for teachers, a ban that I expect many districts will try to circumvent.

The Legislature inflicted minor wounds when a full-frontal assault was what most of their constituents really wanted. So STAAR test scores will continue to play the dominant role in allegedly measuring student “success” and remain the backbone of the school “accountability” system.

Accurately or not, test scores will continue to define “struggling” campuses and, in turn, keep the door wide open for more takeovers of neighborhood schools by corporate-style charter chains. This, in turn, will transfer more of our tax dollars from school districts into the bank accounts of for-profit charter management companies.

The same STAAR scores, beginning this summer, will determine which schools get As, Bs, Cs, Ds or Fs. Most of the Ds and Fs will go to campuses with high percentages of low-income students, who historically have struggled the most with STAAR testing. Even with the new school finance law, those kids still may not get all the financial support they need from the state, but they will get a new stigma

And taxpayers who hate STAAR will continue to shell out millions of dollars every year to pay for it.

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