Monthly Archives: December 2010

Happy Holidays

I won’t be blogging for the next couple of weeks. It’s time to start enjoying the holidays and resting up for the legislative session.

Happy Holidays! See you next year.

A “flexible” chokehold


Remember that word. It may soon become the new buzz term – something akin to “accountability” – as legislative leaders continue their discussions of how to improve the public schools without giving them more money. Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro dropped the word during a meeting with administrators from her hometown Plano ISD.

“If we’re (the Legislature) not going to give you the money, and we aren’t, what can we do to give you more flexibility?” she asked. “That’s what we’re really looking at.”

Another term for flexibility, in the language of school superintendents, is local control, which is what they are seeking on the eve of what promises to be a very budgetstressed legislative session. That local control, if granted by lawmakers, will begin – but won’t end with a lifting of the 221 studentteacher ratio in grades kindergarten through four. Teachers will lose their jobs, class sizes will grow, popular electives will be cut, extracurricular programs will be trimmed and school bus routes may be consolidated.

Before long, parents will be outraged, having been reminded that all the flexibility and local control that school districts can grab doesn’t allow them to do more with less, or even maintain the status quo.

Superintendents and elected school board members will try to blame the Legislature. But guess what? The Legislature will already have put them on the hook, left them dangling while they frantically dispatch their lawyers to the courthouse to sue the state – again – over an inadequate school finance system.

When budgetstrapped legislative leaders tell you they are going to give you more flexibility instead of more money, they are, in essence, telling you to do more with less. But, save for a very few remarkable instances, that goal is a pipedream.

Imagining that money flies

Peggy Venable, the Texas director of the antigovernment group, Americans for Prosperity, is at it again, perpetuating the moldy myth that Texas legislators are binging on public school spending. “We don’t want to simply continue to throw more dollars at education,” she is quoted in an article in the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio ExpressNews.

Know anybody who’s ever been hit by a bag of money flying out of the state Capitol? Certainly no one who teaches in a public school.

For the record, the Texas Legislature has never thrown money at education, and it certainly isn’t doing so now. Texas ranks 38th among the states in average expenditures on student instruction and 34th in average teacher pay.

Is there administrative waste in public education? Most likely, but not to the extent that Venable and other governmentbashers would like you to believe. Waste should be eliminated, but there isn’t enough waste to spare teachers’ jobs and avoid overcrowded classrooms in many districts if the Legislature, as anticipated, makes deep cuts in the public education budget next year.

People who claim that Texas is “throwing money” at education aren’t helping the school kids or the taxpayers, and they aren’t trying to. The key to prosperity for young Texans is a strong, adequately and equitably funded public education system, not a meaningless sound bite promoting a shortsighted agenda.

The story by Gary Scharrer is linked below. School districts are getting closer to another lawsuit against the state over education funding but apparently will wait until after the session to give lawmakers one more chance to “do what’s right.”

I hope they are not wasting their time. Hope springs eternal – or until the next lawsuit.

Trying to dodge the heat

Often overlooked in the controversy over proposals to lift the 22student limit on class sizes in kindergarten through the fourth grade is the fact that school districts that can’t afford to meet the requirement already have an escape clause. All they have to do is ask the Texas Education Agency for waivers, which usually are granted.

So, why are some superintendents pressing the Legislature to lift the cap? Because the 221 limit is extremely popular with parents and other taxpayers, and superintendents don’t like the responsibility of removing such an important educational tool from their schools. They want the Legislature to take the blame instead, particularly since lawmakers are poised to slash the education budget next year.

A statewide survey conducted for TSTA last year showed that 77 percent of Texans consider smaller class sizes either extremely or very important to a quality education and improved student learning. The 221 limit has been on the books since 1984 because it works, and people know that it does. It keeps classes small enough to allow teachers in the primary grades to give our youngest students the individual attention they need.

Jason Embry notes today in his column in the Austin AmericanStatesman that 3,085 waivers have been granted and only five requests denied by TEA since 1984. Jason speculates correctly that superintendents dislike having to “tell parents they are requesting a waiver to make classes larger.”

If districts “routinely” circumvent the limit with waivers, Jason also wonders, what’s the point of having the limit? According to my math, though, the waivers aren’t routinely requested. They average out to only about 120 a year, meaning most of the state’s 1,100 school districts are complying with the cap, and that’s why it has been successful.

As I noted in a blog post a few months ago, there is evidence that class size waivers can result in lowering a school’s accountability rating. This is based on research conducted by the Texas Elementary Principals & Supervisors Association (TEPSA) in 20072008.

According to TEPSA, the number of class size waivers granted per campus that year was in direct inverse proportion to the state accountability rating of that campus. In other words, higher rated campuses received fewer waivers to the 221 cap. TEPSA derived its findings from the TEA Regional and District Level Report to the 2009 Legislature.