This article appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of The Classroom Teacher.

By JERI STONE | TCTA executive director

At this point in a legislative session, it’s hard to predict ultimate outcomes. The two chambers of the Legislature seem far apart on many issues, though that’s not unusual prior to the frenetic activity of the last weeks of a session.

It’s really the longer-term future for public education that seems murkier in Texas. There was a time a few years ago when many were convinced that there was a coordinated effort to destroy the public schools through a combination of starving them out, offering and encouraging multiple alternatives, and hammering the “alternative fact” that they were performing poorly in Texas and weren’t worthy of the state’s children.

Now it’s beginning to seem less likely that there’s a thoughtful plan to cripple the public schools, and more likely that there are so many entities and factors operating independently of each other that chaos is the more plausible method, though the outcome may be the same. 

Support public schools — but abandon them 

Legislators run on a platform that includes improving local schools — but too often this doesn’t actually mean supporting them by providing them with the necessary resources. After the significant reduction in school funding in 2011, there are many districts that have yet to recover their funding levels from before those cuts. While property taxes have continued to escalate, for years the increases in property tax collections have been siphoned off to the state’s general revenue fund to support other causes. Yet the demands continue to increase, and both the scope of the schools’ function and the results expected from them remain on the rise. 

Beyond the damage caused by inadequate funding is the further retreat from public schools embodied in the march toward “choice” that includes non-public schools. Texas requires no level of accountability or even reporting from parents who are home schooling their children — nobody checks, what, if anything, these children are being taught and by whom. And private schools that support a voucher program have argued adamantly against introducing state accountability (those that oppose vouchers often do so because of the assumption that they would come under more state regulation). If the school system is watered down to the extent that parents can choose the neighborhood public school, or for the state to pay for a private school, or for the state to just give them money to spend on education that could even include home schooling, nobody is likely to be a winner.

Improve teacher quality — but “anyone can teach”

Probably the clearest indicator of the potential chaos on the horizon is teacher certification. Exemption from certification requirements is the second most frequently used exemption in District of Innovation (DOI) plans, after the school start date. Though most of the DOI plans focus on certification for career and technology teachers, districts are exempting themselves from the entire statute relating to certification. This could mean that, regardless of the rationale presented in the DOI plan, uncertified teachers could be hired for all positions except those for which federal law requires certification (special education and bilingual). And there are already many laws in place that represent a retreat from certification requirements, including emergency permits and the ability of charter schools to hire uncertified individuals. 

There is not another profession that comes to mind in which certification can be waived, expedited, or just not required. Are there unlicensed nurses performing high level patient care? Untrained architects designing skyscrapers? Can you even get away with working at a hair salon without showing you have received the necessary training? The deprofessionalization of teaching is a huge concern that will have implications throughout the years to come.  

Meanwhile, there is a legislative subcommittee on teacher quality that is just finishing up for the session, and at least two other entities are advocating much higher standards for teacher training. However, while advocating for these high standards, legislators are ignoring or not addressing the alternatives that already exist, the exemptions that are being granted weekly through DOI plans, and the growing population of professional, career educators who are just deciding it isn’t worth it anymore and retiring or moving to other careers. The disconnect is worrisome and, ultimately, chaotic.

Ease up on standardized tests — but increase the stakes

After high-stakes testing reached such a level that parents began to rebel, the state dialed back on the number and consequences of tests. Yet efforts are ongoing in many sectors to continue the high-stakes aspects for schools and educators. There are still plenty of people in high places who demand metrics, whether it be A-F ratings or labels for individual teachers, campuses and districts. These are simplistic and unsophisticated mechanisms to keep score, and presumably somehow make sure the state is getting its money’s worth.  

If it were easy to assign a score or a label to a human, don’t you think we’d all have a health score, or a psychiatric score, or a likelihood of success score? Yet those analogies are laughable, for the same reasons education scores should be.  

With regard to the easing off on student consequences for high-stakes tests, we are grateful to the parents and public who intervened and effectively told legislators not to put their children through this charade. TAMSA (Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment) is a prime example of a grassroots organization of a bunch of smart people who recognized the farce, and demanded that their children not be subjected to it. 

Unfortunately, the hard truth remains that if testing is high stakes for anyone, it’s high stakes for everyone. Though your child may be able to graduate without passing a particular test, if legislation proposed this session ultimately passes, the pressure will still be on from those teachers and school administrators who will succeed or fail based on how your child does. 

Pass new education laws — but ignore them

While legislators struggle with which new public education laws to pass, the District of Innovation shadow looms large. It’s impossible not to wonder how many legislators have actually internalized the fact that they can pass whatever they want, and with relatively few exceptions relating chiefly to accountability and funding, districts can choose which new laws to follow and which to ignore by converting to District of Innovation status. We have reached the point already that when a member calls our legal staff with a question or problem, we must first check to see if the member works in a DOI so we can determine which laws are applicable in that member’s district.

Forging ahead

Rather than dozens of different agendas at work through multiple mechanisms, from legislative proposals to TEA and SBEC rules, there needs to be a clear vision articulated that provides the framework for all schools. We need to be able to rely on the state, particularly at a time when school board members are being encouraged to look only at the performance numbers of their districts’ students, to provide a baseline of good practices that are required of all districts. Variations and local control can operate outside that framework, and customize the process beyond that baseline as appropriate for their informed communities. Here’s hoping that vision emerges and prevails before the chaos takes root.