A panel of education leaders said the future of Texas’ public education system is clouded by underfunding and a looming teacher shortage. Still, for the sake of the state’s 5 million children served by public schools, the panelists offered insight into potential progress.
The San Antonio chapter of the League of Women Voters heard from panelists Shari Albright, chair of the Department of Education at Trinity University; Catherine Clark, senior consultant with the Texas Association of School Boards; Pedro Martinez, superintendent of San Antonio Independent School District; and Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside ISD, Monday night at the Central Library downtown.
Speaking before a full house, they shared their concerns and recommendations with the nonpartisan group as part of what has become an continuing public discussion on the seeming disconnect between state lawmakers and Texas public schools.
“In any system, there needs to be investment in infrastructure,” said Woods, who sees education as critical infrastructure for the state.
In Texas, he said, lawmakers have chosen to focus on short-term issues that fare well during a campaign. While long-range planning would be beneficial, Woods said, “we’re just not set up for that, by structure or by personality, right now in Texas.”
In criticizing the Legislature, all four panelists made an exception for State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), who attended the discussion. Bernal is the vice chair of the House Public Education Committee and authored several bills aimed at school finance reform.
The closest the Legislature came to making meaningful strides toward reform was House Bill 21, which would have added $1.5 billion to public schools and simplified some of the formulas for allocating money to districts.
“There was a real conversation for the first time in a long time about what school funding could look like,” Woods said.
Clark, a school finance consultant, said she was disappointed to see that conversation die in the Senate.
“There’s no one that can say ideas were not presented,” Clark said, “viable ideas.”
It was the Senate’s inclusion of a voucher amendment, a controversial addition to subsidize private school tuition for special education students, onto HB 21 that ultimately killed the bill, Clark and Woods agreed.
“Instead of treating it like a school finance bill, it became a vehicle for vouchers,” Clark said.
To her, the two school finance issues slated to be addressed in the Legislature’s upcoming special session are too narrow to make an impact. A study to determine the inadequacies of current funding and a $1,000 pay raise for teachers are not nearly the level of attention the education funding issue needs, she said.
She would like to see a study that begins by giving a low-income district every resource needed to perform at the level of their middle class peers. “Then see how much that costs,” Clark said. “We’ve never fully funded [public education].”
The special session could result in less funding for public education, which receives the majority of its revenue from local property taxes. The Legislature will be looking at limits on taxes that can be collected at the local level.
“It is ironic to me in a state dominated by conservative politics we have less and less local control after every legislative session,” Woods said.
Even with funding deficiencies, Albright said, public education has reached notable heights.
“We know more about how people learn now than at any other moment in time,” she said. “We have stepped out of the industrial era of schooling in really remarkable ways in many many places.”
Technology has given educators more tools, and with that has come more customization, optimization, and personalization in teaching.
While Albright considered herself the “optimist” of the group, she nevertheless voiced concern about how the Legislature has underfunded schools, underprepared teachers, and clung to testing practices that do not adequately measure the effectiveness of education. All in all, lawmakers seem to think that education is far simpler than it is.
“People used to say, ‘It’s not rocket science,’” Albright said. “I’m going to say, ‘It may be.’”
For-profit, alternative teacher certification avenues are not providing the kind of well-trained workforce needed by the state’s growing population of children living in poverty, Albright said.
Martinez echoed the need for well-qualified teachers, which is why SAISD has entered into partnerships with Trinity and the City Education Partners, a group of local philanthropists whose mission is to deepen the teacher talent pool in San Antonio.
These partnerships, along with in-district magnet and charter schools, are allowing Martinez to “change the conversation” about education for children living in poverty. The waiting lists for SAISD’s Advanced Learning Academy, Steele Montessori, Young Men’s Leadership Academy, and other district-run charter schools have proven to Martinez that parents want options to fit their kids’ needs, and that those children are intellectually equal to their middle-class peers when given access to high-quality education.
The panelists also spoke about the importance of traditional neighborhood schools and well-rounded students. Northside ISD, Woods said, has chosen to fully fund fine arts programs in every school, as well as the athletic and career-track programs that keep students engaged.
SAISD has entered into a partnership with the Culinary Institute of America to generate similar motivation for students.
Moderator Richard Middleton, a former North East ISD superintendent, pointed out that voters and taxpayers are aware of changes in the way schools are held accountable. Accountability, like school finance, is decided at the state level and not yet fully figured out, Albright said.
The Texas Education Association currently relies on multiple-choice tests that are not the best yardstick of actual learning, Albright said. She would like to see emphasis placed on a more holistic assessment.
The tests even work against real learning at times, Martinez said. “We’ve been so test-driven that we forget about instilling the love of learning.”
Woods said that what the tests measure most accurately is family income. Low-income children do uniformly worse, while middle-class students do uniformly better.
Test scores have reinforced the “failing schools” discourse that Clark sees as a deliberate tool of those who want to dismantle the public education system.
“There’s a contingent moving around the country that doesn’t like government because they assume it’s wasteful,” she said.
Pushback against the uniformity of public school has led to charter schools and discussions of vouchers, using dismal test results to justify the need for alternatives.
Clark advised concerned citizens to get to know their state representatives while the Legislature is out of session, attend community meetings, send thank-you notes, and keep feedback brief.
“They need to know your face,” Clark said.