Texas has about 5.4 million public school students, and 39 of them go to school in Valentine ISD, a one-school district that is so isolated in the mostly empty reaches of West Texas that, to most of us, it may as well be on the moon. There is no gasoline station in the tiny town, and residents have to drive 30 miles to the nearest grocery store.
But Valentine is not on the moon. It is under the jurisdiction of the Texas Education Agency and operates within the gravity pull of the STAAR-spangled Texas accountability system. And, as the story from Marfa Public Radio, linked below, reports, it earned an A in the new A-F grading system last year.
There is no way, of course, to compare the challenges of a rural, one-campus, 39-student district with the multitude of issues of Houston ISD and its 200,000-plus urban enrollment, or even to compare Valentine ISD with most rural districts. You also can make a valid argument that Valentine shouldn’t even be rated on the same scale as Houston or Dallas or Austin ISD. For that matter, why do we keep wasting time and resources on STAAR anyway?
But all those issues aside, the Valentine experience showcases the basics of education – the value of teachers and small classes. Valentine has 10 teachers for its 39 students, a student-teacher ratio of 4-1, with teachers crossing grade levels and giving all their students lots of individual attention.
Individual instruction from teachers, in Valentine or Houston, is crucial to student success, not only on STAAR but also on the more important goal of public schools – preparing students for life. And even though there is high teacher turnover in rural Texas, most of Valentine’s teachers are experienced educators, and they obviously are making a difference.
Valentine was one of 38 single-campus districts that received a scaled score of 90 or higher (the equivalent of an A) on the accountability ratings last year.
Some may suggest that tiny districts should be consolidated with their neighbors, although that isn’t always feasible because many West Texas schools are many miles apart. In some cases, consolidation also may be strongly opposed by local residents who fear it would destroy their sense of community.
Consolidation aside, the teacher is the heart of education, and the critical issue – in Valentine or Houston or anywhere in between — is class size. A 4-1 student-teacher ratio, of course, is not realistic for the vast majority of Texas school districts. But 22-1 is, or it should be, and it is the law for kindergarten through fourth grade. But districts continue to plead financial hardship and get waivers for larger classes.
It is time for legislators to put limits on the waivers, and the only realistic way to do that is to increase state funding for public schools.
School finance reform is on the agenda for this legislative session, and real school finance reform starts with more state funding, including for higher teacher pay and smaller classes.