District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal attends Leticia Van de Putte's address to her supporters on election day. Photo by Scott Ball.
District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal attends Leticia Van de Putte's address to her supporters on election day. Photo by Scott Ball.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) is on a mission to visit every school in his district before the next legislative session. He’s going without staff, without media, and without a program. He’s not shaking hands, or even delivering speeches to inspire kids. The legislator has one goal: to listen to teachers, principals, and superintendents as they tell him what they need in order to bring out the best performance in their schools.

On April 2, from 10-11:30 a.m., Bernal will share what he has learned so far in a community discussion at 5 Points Local, 1017 N. Flores St.

When debating school finance and accountability, law makers often forget that they are not the experts, Bernal said. Just because people have spent a lot of time in school, doesn’t make them professional educators. By listening to the real professionals, Bernal hopes to be able to push better, more helpful legislation.

“The reason I’m doing this is so that I can go to the district, be a good partner, get the legislature on board, and get things done,” Bernal said.

Chandra Villanueva with the Center for Public Policy Priorities has pointed out that the state legislature hands down a lot of rules and regulations without the day-to-day responsibility of implementation or political will to increase funding.

“The Legislature is continuously changing and increasing standards without any additional funding to support those changes,” Villanueva said. “In just the last five years, our schools switched from TAKS to STAAR and HB 5 completely changed the path to graduation for students across the state. With major changes to the accountability system and increased expectations of our students you would expect to see an increase in funding, but in fact per student funding is actually on the decline.”

Assessments and interventions are often blunt instruments that only add to the substantial burden already carried by Independent School Districts. That burden gets heavier in proportion to the poverty rate in a given district.

“Inner city schools felt the brunt of those policies,” Bernal said.

While this is true, assessment criteria has proved to be universally burdensome as more and more well-resourced schools failed to meed adequate yearly progress (AYP) for standardized test scores.

To make a long story short, everyone has something to say to their elected leaders in Austin.

District 123 contains 56 public schools, 18 charter schools, and a yet to be calculated number of private schools. It includes portions of NEISD, NISD, and SAISD. Bernal has also met with representatives of the home school community.

He admits that he went in with a strong point of view on education. Coming from a Civil Rights background with experience litigating school finance cases, Bernal did the simple math that if schools were underfunded – which they are – then more funding would fix their problems.

Now, 33 schools into the tour, Bernal’s equation is more nuanced. Each conversation added a layer of complexity to the issues educators face as they try to raise students to universal standards using vastly unequal resources.

The difference between District 123’s northernmost high school, Churchill High School in NEISD, and its southernmost, Lanier High School in SAISD, illustrates the kinds of resource gaps one might expect to see. While those gaps are real, and do shape the conversation on needed resources, Bernal has been equally surprised to find out how much educators in those schools have in common.

“If these communities and schools are so different, and the principals are saying the same thing, there’s something to it,” Bernal said.

Feedback has fallen all over the political spectrum, Bernal said. With the promise of anonymity, educators have been candid with him. When he asks, “What works?,” he gets some answers that would make his party happy, and some that would make them cringe. The on-the-ground reality of transforming young human beings into an informed citizenry turns out to be a lot messier than a political platform, which is probably why partisan politics has served it so poorly. 

What Bernal hears the most is that districts need better resources and less government involvement in their operations.

It’s not simply a matter of more money, though that is part of it, Bernal said. Administrators want to be able to hire good, qualified teachers, and expand their training in meaningful ways. They also want to be able to fire the ineffective teachers, which some feel is harder than it should be. Technology, textbooks, and the tools of learning are valuable, and no school would turn them down. However, the most valuable resource for teachers is time.

For many teachers, what happens during instructional time is why they got into teaching in the first place. That time is whittled away by test preparation, interventions, and every turnaround program that comes with its own administrative process. In schools with high levels of poverty, that time is whittled away by chronic absence and additional interventions to address the many ways that poverty inhibits learning. A student falls behind when she’s chronically hungry, homeless, unsupervised at home, or anxious. Interventions are not as effective as they could be if those issues were addressed.

Educators would like to see resources that target root issues for students who struggle, which may mean a layer of professionals designated to help students access healthcare, food, clothing, and counseling. It also might mean additional instructional support for students struggling in the classroom, or for those who need to be challenged above and beyond.

Targeted resources would free teachers to spend more time doing what they were trained and hired to do. However, a huge reservoir of stolen time is under the control of the state legislature, particularly when it comes to testing and the many layers of bureaucracy that start piling on when a school fails to meet expectations.

“I believe that the state has a tremendous amount to say about what these tests mean to individual students, schools and districts,” Bernal said.

Bernal hopes that by listening to what teachers have to say and pursuing needed changes to school finance law and assessment, the state could be a better friend to public education instead of continual adversary in the eyes of educators. 


*Top image: State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123). File photo by Scott Ball. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.