From the desk of Dr. Kirk Lewis

Updates from the Superintendent

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Just the Facts

Those of you who are near my age will remember the television show Dragnet. Sgt. Joe Friday, in a clipped, monotone voice would try to cut through the fog of information by saying, “Just the facts, sir.”

I feel much the same way each legislative session when I hear politicians speak about removing the cap on charter schools to allow unlimited expansion. The refrain has always been that charter school competition will make public schools better. Without a doubt, there are some very good charter schools. They are meeting a need for some students that have fallen through the system in public schools. Traditional schools have had to step up our game to serve all students better than we did in the past. I believe most districts have done that.

Let’s look at few facts as provided by the Texas Sunset Advisory Board:

  • The percentage of charter schools rated Academically Unacceptable is almost double the percentage found in traditional public schools (11.2 percent for charters and 5.9 percent for public schools).
  • The percentage of charter school operators who fail the state’s financial accountability standards in 2012 was six times more than public school districts (13.1 percent to 2 percent)
  • Charter schools represent 71 percent of the campuses facing state sanctions, yet their numbers comprise only 17 percent of the total public school campuses in Texas.
  • More than 50 charter schools have been rated academically unacceptable for 3 plus years and one campus has been academically unacceptable for 7 years, percentages far higher than those seen in traditional public schools.

The debate continues in Austin about expanding the charter options, despite no research that shows they are doing a better job, as a rule, than most traditional schools and despite a very uneven playing field of rules and regulations. I am not advocating an end to the experiment with charter schools. However, I encourage you to let your legislators know that continued operation of a poor performing charter schools is a drain on a financially strapped system.


The Tipping Point in Testing

Teachers and administrators have grown increasingly frustrated at the high stakes testing pushed by the State of Texas in recent years. I think the introduction of the STAAR exam and the explosion of end-of-course exams linked so closely to graduation finally brought the issue to its tipping point with parents. It’s great to see common sense returning to the system.

 Representative Jimmy Don Aycock from Kileen and the Honorable Dan Patrick from Houston, both of whom chair the education committees in the Texas House and Senate, respectively, have championed a major change in graduation requirements and the amount of testing required for our high schools students. The House passed a bill this week that reduced the number of required end-of-course exams to five: Algebra I, Biology, U.S. History and English II (with a separate Writing exam). That is welcomed news. The Senate version of the bill adds two additional tests including English I with its separate writing exam. Debate continues on the merits of adding Algebra II into the mix. What seems clear now is that the number of tests required in high school will be reduced from 15 to somewhere between 5 to 8 exams. The provision for testing in late May instead of April will give teachers additional time to cover the material. That’s welcomed news for students, teachers, and campus administrators.

The House bill’s shift in graduation requirements also gives students greater choice and flexibility in pursuing a diploma plan that more closely matches their college or career interests. The current requirement that every student take four years of math, science, English and social studies limited student options, particularly for those interested in a career or technical field. Under the House plan and versions proposed in the Senate, students are required to take four years of English, but only three years in the other core subjects, enabling them to take more electives in areas of personal interest. To maintain the push for rigor in all areas, diploma endorsements will be encouraged in the areas of arts and humanities, business and industry, public services, science and math and multidisciplinary studies.

This has been a good week for public education in Texas. Now, the legislature just needs to finish the good work by reducing the number of tests required in grades 3-8. Another bill. Another day. Keep contacting your legislators.

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Lost in the Rhetoric

I realize that public school funding will always be political issue no matter how much I wish it were about Texas children.  Truth gets lost or, at a minimum, skewed in the political rhetoric. In the recent school finance lawsuit, the judge declared the system of funding public education as unconstitutional, inequitable, inadequate and unsuitable to meet the standards set by the state. In response, a statement from the Governor’s office cited statistics to propose that the state had done more than its share to support public education. The release from the Governor’s office this week suggested that public education funding had increased 70 percent since 2002 at a time when public school enrollment increased just 23 percent.

The Governor is accurate in broad terms, but stops short of sharing the entire picture. The Legislative Budget Board showed an expenditure of $10.9 billion in state spending for public education in 2002 and $18.9 billion spent in 2012, a 73 percent increase. Enrollment did increase a little over 20 percent or by approximately 900,000 students statewide. However, and this is a BIG however, the Governor’s numbers have several critical omissions.

First, when you adjust the budget numbers for inflation, the total state spending gets reduced to 20 percent. Using 2004 dollars, state spending increased from $11.8 to $14.2, far less than the 70 percent the Governor reported, but roughly equal to the increase in enrollment. Even this is only a part of the story.

Second, and this is a key point, in its big push to reduce local property taxes for public schools, the state cut $7 billion in local property taxes in favor of new state business taxes, thereby shifting local funds to state funds. The Governor counts this $7 billion per year as additional state funding infused into the system even though did not increase the amount of total funding to local school districts. The net impact was a simple transfer of equal funds from one source to another.

When inflation and the tax transfer are factored into the state spending claims for 2012, the numbers show an adjusted state expenditure of $8.2 billion, or 25 percent less than the $10.9 spent in 2002. That’s a significant difference at a time when the state’s academic standards for college and readiness have been significantly increased.

The state has needs and finite resources. However, finding the resources to provide equitable and adequate funding for the children ought to be its top priority.

I invite you to read an article by Scott Milder, Friends of Texas Public Schools. Other articles that may interest you on this topic: Legislation after the Ruling , School Finance Resources.

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Excessive Testing

I completed my doctorate in 2008. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to Lamar University that its doctoral program focused on written research papers rather than tests to assess my knowledge. More than a quarter century has passed since I last took a test. The prospect of facing a high stakes test for graduation would have been daunting.

That’s why I understand why students and their parents across Texas are saying “enough is enough” to the number of high stakes tests our students endure during their years in public schools. The Pasadena ISD Board of Trustees joined a host of other school districts around the state in a joint resolution to echo the displeasure expressed by parents about the oppressive nature of high stakes testing. When the Texas Legislature convenes in January, we expect a great deal of discussion about reducing the number of tests given and easing the pressure facing our students and our teachers.

The tests were born out of a need for rigorous accountability. I believe in school and district accountability. Standardized tests and teacher developed assessments are necessary to assess how much our students have learned during a year and to diagnose the effectiveness of what we teach and how we teach it. However, I also know you don’t need to test every student every year to determine if the schools are educating our students.

It’s my hope the Texas Legislature will amend the state assessment program to keep a rigorous accountability system while restoring some time into the school year for the sheer joy of learning.

I know our legislators would appreciate hearing from you.