The $11.5 billion public education bill passed by the Texas House and Senate last week is proof that Texans are getting smarter, especially those who thought they were already smart, like education reformers. Intently focused for the last two decades on clearing the sludge out of the state’s public school system, the reformers have learned, as this bill illustrates, how to use the back door.
Barging in the front door — announcing brashly that public schools in Texas are stupid, that they incentivize crappy teaching and turn out kids who are not educated — never got the reformers one inch down the road, even though it was mostly true. The front-door approach set off all kinds of racial fire alarms and stirred up resistance from the IBSPOWOCTWDCIKCRALATKTJ (International Brother and Sisterhood of Pissed-Off Worn-Out Crappy Teachers Who Don’t Care If The Kids Can Read As Long As The Teachers Keep Their Jobs).
So this new bill is the backdoor approach to the same thing, reform. Instead of penalizing crappy school districts for not teaching their kids squat in 12 years, this year’s bill offers significant incentives to districts that do manage to turn out high school graduates who are really and truly high school graduates, that is, who are academically capable of going on to junior college or a university, as opposed to not being able to read or do arithmetic and not knowing what country this is.
And it’s not that reformers didn’t need to learn the lesson. Most of what the reformers seek, which they tend to call “performance-based accountability,” is based on the conjoined concepts of merit and effort. It’s the idea that school districts need to put incentives on the table for teachers, mainly in cash, some of those incentives positive and some negative, designed to elicit effort and sort out the wheat from the chaff. The problem is that narratives of merit and effort are deeply undercut in our society by our history of racism.
This is especially hard for white people, of which I am one. We have trouble conceiving what we look like to black people when we wag our fingers and talk about merit and effort. The best I can imagine is a guy with a gun wearing a ski mask who has just robbed another guy after tripping him from behind with a stick, and the ski mask guy is wagging his finger saying, “People like you just need to have more performance-based accountability.” When you look at it like that, it’s not hard to figure out why so many people don’t like white people. I’m not totally in love myself, and, you know …
But the fact remains that most of the serious school reformers — whose numbers do include many white people, even some rich ones, even some Republicans — are the only people taking a serious run at the worsening inequality and inequity in our society. And by that I mean they are the only ones with hard numbers to argue from and real solutions to offer.
The numbers are irrefutable, and the picture they paint should be clear to everybody. In fact, one of the more interesting factoids excavated by the Texas Commission on Public School Finance was that inequality between Texas school kids is not solely a racial issue.
The TCPSF, established by the Legislature in 2017, is a 13-member body whose mandate has been to dig for data and come up with recommendations based on those findings. In Texas, the student categories called “low-income” and “not low-income” closely resemble and may even be used as statistical code for white and non-white.
The single biggest inequality the commission found among kids was not between low-income and not low-income. It was between more affluent kids (mainly white) who attend very high-achieving school districts and affluent kids (mainly white) who attend very low-achieving districts.
Among the not-lows, 87 percent of those attending the highest-achieving districts “met the standard” (passed) the 2017 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams. But of the kids in the same income group attending the lowest-achieving districts, only 28 percent passed. That gap — or inequality, we might call it — was twice the gap for low-income students in good and bad districts and almost twice the gap for English-language learners.
And, yes, you can bring it all back to race if you absolutely must, because the highest-achieving districts are the whitest, and the lowest are the most minority. But if being white were all it’s cracked up to be by some people, you’d think it would serve as more of an offset. Anyway, the bottom line, according to the STAAR results, is that school districts are the real inequality. Presumably that means there also are important differences in teaching quality.
That idea — that inequality can have anything at all to do with teaching — is the super-no-no and top anathema for the teachers unions. Their portrait of reality is that it’s all race and poverty, and therefore none of it is anything for which they can be held accountable. Therefore the biggest flaw in the new state education bill is the main contribution pushed through by the IBSPOWOCTWDCIKCRALATKTJ (see above). Their answer to the gaps exposed by the STAAR results was to outlaw STAAR results in determining teacher pay. And the Legislature — desperate, I’m sure, to get them out of town — did it. That’s part of the new bill.
Try that one on for size. The state pays $90 million a year to administer the STAAR tests. By my calculation, that’s enough for me to take 60,000 fantastic vacations, enough for my wife to take 6,000. The STAAR is the one consistent statewide statistical tool we have for measuring achievement. Now it’s against the law to use it to determine if teachers are doing their jobs.
That, however, is the small news. The big news is really great, if deliberately undersold. By coming in the backdoor with positive incentives only, the reformers have managed not to fall all over all the racial trip-wires. The bill is on Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk now, and Abbott can line-item veto anything he wants. But it looks good.
This new education budget will recognize one thing first: All public school teachers, counselors, nurses and principals need to be better paid and need more help with benefits. So the lion’s share of the new money will go to across-the-board compensation boosts.
A significant portion will be carved out, however, for a kind of statewide pilot program based on the successful merit pay reforms in Dallas, put in place by former Superintendent Mike Miles and implemented by current Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. It means the Mike Miles concept — better pay for really good teachers, less pay for really bad ones — has a chance now to go statewide. On down the road, that’s huge.
The front end of the new bill, however, is entirely positive, free of penalties and hopefully free from the fatal taint of elitism. School districts will be awarded very significant chunks of money by the state if they increase their number of kids who can read fluently by the end of the third grade and if they up the number of kids who are real high school graduates when they graduate from high school. Those incentives are designed to tug districts forward by the nose rather than kick them forward at the other end.
The Rev. Gerald Britt, one of the most respected voices in Dallas black leadership and a man who speaks carefully, wrote an op-ed piece recently for one of the daily newspapers in Dallas praising the new bill. In it, I thought I heard the faintest hint of an acceptance of something that sounded sort of like performance-based accountability:
“Those skeptical of outcomes-based funding must be challenged to provide a proven successful alternative. The children and families of our state expect and deserve a public school system that prepares them for the realities of the modern workforce. We must take bold steps to ensure that every single one of Texas' 5.4 million schoolchildren has the preparation necessary for a fulfilling, lifelong career.”
I called Britt, hoping I could get him to say he’s now in favor of the Miles reforms. He said, “The most enduring gift of western civilization has been the concept of a free public education.” After he hung up, I bet he was thinking, “Wow, Schutze must think I rode into town on a load of turnips.”
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OK. He did not say it. I’m not going to suggest he did. But I’m also not going to stop thinking about that line in what he did say about the new bill: “Those skeptical of outcomes-based funding must be challenged …”
The whole key here, the trick, the answer is for the basic concept of performance-based accountability to pass out of the hands of the non low-incomes and into the hearts and minds of the parents, teachers, ministers and political leaders who stand for the low-income children. It’s a seriously heavy lift, in no small part because it involves a handoff that was unthinkable for so long. How on earth could a bunch of reformers whose number includes not just white people but rich white people have one single thing to say worth hearing about poor minority kids?
Look. I don’t know. Don’t ask me. Life is mysterious. I have no idea how it happened. Maybe they’re Martians. But make no mistake: If the governor doesn’t screw it up, this bill is a clear signal that things are changing in Texas, and you know what they say. If you can change a thing in Texas, you can change it anywhere.