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Texas School Debate Could Make a Liberal Nostalgic for the Bathroom Bill

Touting the success of Dallas public schools last August, left to right, were state Sen. Royce West, Dallas School Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner and former Dallas school trustee Mike Morath.EXPAND
Touting the success of Dallas public schools last August, left to right, were state Sen. Royce West, Dallas School Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner and former Dallas school trustee Mike Morath.
Jim Schutze

I liked the previous session of the Texas Legislature a lot better. The Republicans concentrated on what I consider to be their innate concerns – dehumanizing women, disenfranchising minorities and putting Big Brother in the bathroom.

I didn’t like what they did, but I did like that they wanted to do it. It assured me there is order in the universe.

And anyway, when the Republicans act like that, it leaves the lane open for liberal Democrats like myself to come along and be virtuous, magnanimous and pure of heart – also how the universe should be. I look in the mirror, I sigh, and I see that it is true.

So I really hate this session. This year in the 86th Texas Legislature, the Republican leadership led by Gov. Greg Abbott will take up school reform proposals at a proposed cost to taxpayers between $6 billion and $9 billion, a huge chunk of which would go to increased teacher pay.

That’s enough to increase state education spending by more than half. It’s an additional expenditure for schools twice what the state spends on highways. This from Republicans.

Even more disorienting: a primary focus if not the main focus of Abbott’s reform is improving core competence for kids who need it most, which in Texas mainly means poor minority kids in urban school districts.

Not topsy-turvy enough for you yet? Try this on for size: the main opposition forming up already is from the Texas State Teachers Association. The TSTA and other public education bargaining groups have long comprised a rare but reliable center of liberal Democratic support and activism in the state. Their last big statewide victory was the election of Ann Richards as governor almost 30 years ago.

In opposing Abbott’s proposed reforms, teacher groups here take a line pretty much in lockstep with what teacher’s union officials are saying in Los Angeles, where teachers are striking in the nation’s second-largest school district. In fact, for any hope of getting the universe lined up right again we should look to LA and see what can be sorted out.

Union officials in Los Angeles are telling the public they want two things, which they tend to conflate as one. They want more money for schools. And they want fewer charter schools – independent public schools that operate outside regular school districts.

The conflation happens here: the union officials in LA say charter schools are supported by tax money. True. So they say the tax money that goes to them is taken away from regular school districts. Maybe, sorta, possibly not too much.

Researchers at Georgetown University and elsewhere have been taking a hard look at the proposition that a zero-sum game is at work here – that a nickel given to a charter public school is a nickel taken away from a traditional public school. The main hitch in the zero-sum proposition is that a kid who goes to a charter public school is almost always a kid the traditional public school doesn’t have to teach anymore. But traditional public schools continue to reap some tax revenues – especially for land, buildings and maintenance – just as if that kid were still coming to class.

One could even argue that the traditional public school district ought to be getting rich off charter school growth. Fewer kids should mean fewer teachers and lunch room workers and janitors and everything else, with more money per pupil to spend on plant.

What the researchers have found so far is that it doesn’t work out that way, and it’s not entirely clear why. A traditional public school system does lose some of the per-pupil support it gets from the state and some federal money when a pupil defects to a charter. That money follows the student to the charter.

In Dallas, the state provides 13 percent of the district’s revenues. The federal government kicks in 11 percent. Local taxes provide 77 percent of district revenue.

Big public school districts seem to have a hard time paring down expenses by laying off surplus teachers. Maybe it's because a surprisingly small share of the money they spend is for teaching. In Dallas, only 46 percent of a $1.8 billion annual school district budget goes to general instruction.

The bulk of traditional public school money goes to activities that school districts may have a legitimately hard time scaling down when enrollment shrinks – debt service or plant maintenance and operation, for example. Or the money goes to things the district just doesn’t feel like scaling back, like administration, use of consultants and so on.

The puzzle is this: in most of life, when your enterprise serves fewer constituents, it needs less money. Even within public education, researchers point to the difference between a public school system in a big city and a system in a smaller city. The bigger city’s budget is bigger, because it has more students to serve.

So when a big public school system’s enrollment shrinks, why shouldn’t its budget shrink? Could that not happen without degrading the amount spent per remaining pupil?

And here we begin to get into the area where things don’t make sense, which is usually the same neighborhood where the truth is to be found. As part of the conflation of issues in Los Angeles – and, by the way, in Austin, too – teachers union officials are complaining simultaneously about the growth of charter schools and what they paint as a corporate culture of emphasis on teaching to the test.

But, wait. Why do people put their kids in charter schools? The main selling point of the charters has been that they are better able to prepare children to perform, which in this world means taking the test. So to the extent there is a head-to-head competition between charters and traditional schools, it’s all about whose kids do better on the tests.

Should we not be suspicious, then, of one side in that competition when it starts telling us not to pay attention to the tests? Isn’t that kind of like telling us it doesn’t matter how many goals you score in soccer, only whether you have fun? Yeah. At the Y.

Dallas led the state last year in reducing its number of failed schools, called "improvement required campuses" in state education jargon.
Dallas led the state last year in reducing its number of failed schools, called "improvement required campuses" in state education jargon.

If there is a contest to see what kind of school best prepares students to be competent in the real world, then why shouldn’t the teachers unions be the ones emphasizing testing? Do they not think they can do it?

The resistance to performance measurement by the teachers groups masks the truly good news in the picture. Teachers absolutely can improve student competence, and guess who’s the proof of it? Us. Dallas.

You heard right. A key to our own understanding in Dallas of the education debate in Austin during this session will be realizing that we are the reason for it. The two most influential consiglieri whispering in Gov. Abbott’s ear this session will be former Dallas school board member Mike Morath, now Texas Commissioner of Education, and Uplift Schools co-founder Todd Williams, now chairman of the governor-appointed Texas Commission on Public School Finance.

For the last year their sales pitch to Abbott has been that recent stunning successes in the Dallas school district are proof that measurement and rigor do work, that teachers are the most important element in student success, not family life or economic circumstances, and that teachers can be taught to teach better.

The counter argument from the teacher groups is that this is all a sinister Republican plot to avoid dealing with core issues of poverty. But before we get to solving poverty, what’s wrong, again, with rigor? Poor people can’t have rigor? Or is there another problem with rigor?

Rigor, in the Dallas model, includes firing or running off incompetent teachers. The teachers unions, doing what unions are supposed to do, want to protect jobs – all the jobs of all their members. But they can’t say publicly, “We want to keep incompetent teachers in the classroom.”

So what they have done in Los Angeles and what they are doing in Austin already is to create a kind of camouflage by conflation. Saying that you want more money for the kids sounds like a good, solid liberal principle. It does even to me when I look at my virtuous self in the mirror. “Yes,” I tell myself, “I am for the kids.”

Saying that measurement and rigor are borrowed from corporate culture makes a certain sense to me, too. These damn corporations have been making me wake up every Monday morning my whole life.

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Painting the charter schools as a drain on public schools doesn’t really make sense, as we have discussed already, but when you put it together with wanting more money and making us wake up Mondays – yeah, I can sort of see it as a liberal thing in a hazy kind of way.

But back to rigor. The fatal bullet hole in the teachers union argument is that rigor, including teaching to the test, is bad for kids. The Dallas instance proves that it is not. That’s why Morath and Williams have the governor’s ear. It’s why Republicans are becoming the champions of school reform for urban poor kids.

They’re even starting to say they’ll spend more money on education if it works. The teachers unions, who used to speak for liberals in Texas, are saying they want more money but not if they have to make it work. So the Republicans are steering toward a commitment to the destiny of poor urban children while the liberals seem to be steering away.

Please. Bring back the bathroom bill.

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