Following a national trend, Texas Senate leaders this week announced an ambitious and ideologically driven education-reform agenda, which critics say is aimed at undermining public schools and advancing privatization.
- Giving letter grades (A-F) to public school campuses each year based on their performance to put "pressure" on districts and parents to improve low performers.
- A stronger "parent empowerment" or "trigger law" that would allow parents to petition for new management at school districts that have been failing for two years, rather than five.
- Creating an "opportunity" or "achievement" school district, which could be run by a private entity, that would manage the state's low-performing schools.
- Easing limits on full-time virtual schools and online courses.
- Tying teacher compensation to performance, rather than just years of service, and other changes to the evaluation system.
The provisions are included within six education-related bills Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Republican Sen. Larry Taylor, the head of the state Senate's education committee, announced would be "fast-tracked" through the Senate, according to Texas Public Radio.
While the package does not include a controversial bill that would legalize school choice programs in Texas, the American-Statesman notes that at a press conference unveiling the proposals, Patrick "also promised to unveil a 'school choice' program later in the legislative session, saying the issue would be one of the upper chamber’s top priorities."
"The Taylor-Patrick agenda fails to meet the needs of 5 million public school students whose schools have been inadequately funded by the very legislators who are eager to declare schools a failure based on standardized test scores."
—Noel Candelaria, Texas State Teachers Association
The package garnered high praise from the wealthy Texans for Education Reform, an advocacy group accused of wanting to "drain money from public schools for more privately operated charter schools and online virtual learning, which offer opportunities for more enrichment in the entrepreneurial community, not opportunities for enriching the learning opportunities of thousands of Texas school children."
The deep-pocketed organization grew out of the influential Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a conservative, ALEC-linked business group responsible for laws that have effectively prevented consumers from seeking damages from corporations.
"The Taylor-Patrick agenda is a grab-bag of failed ideas cribbed from the ALEC playbook," Diane Ravitch declared in an op-ed Wednesday. "None of them has been beneficial to students or successful anywhere."
The Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA), affiliated with the National Education Association, the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, and the Association of Texas Professional Educators all came out against the package of bills.
"None of the proposals offered by Senator Taylor and the Lieutenant Governor would give teachers and students the time and resources they need to improve teaching and learning," said TSTA president Noel Candelaria. "The Taylor-Patrick agenda fails to meet the needs of 5 million public school students whose schools have been inadequately funded by the very legislators who are eager to declare schools a failure based on standardized test scores. Educators want legislators to demonstrate a genuine commitment to strengthening neighborhood public schools instead of handing them over to outsiders who have no direct stake in our students' success."
"Part of the narrative of the privatization movement is 'our traditional schools are failing,' when they are not, by and large."
—Monty Exter, Association for Texas Professional Educators
Monty Exter, lobbyist for the Association for Texas Professional Educators, told the Houston Chronicle that some of the bills discussed Tuesday are in keeping with the national push toward so-called 'school reform.'
"That brand of reform is all about privatization to one degree or another," said Exter, adding that parent triggers, 'opportunity' school districts, and A-F grading have encouraged the proliferation of privately run, publicly funded charter schools in other states. "Part of the narrative of the privatization movement is 'our traditional schools are failing,' when they are not, by and large."
Clay Robinson, also with TSTA, told Texas Public Radio: "What public schools need now is not a bunch of experiments of privatization schemes."
Similar opposition has been leveled—both recently and when it was introduced—against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's sweeping 'One Newark' schools plan, which led to a sharp rise in charter schools and prompted mass firings of teachers and principals in the state's largest city.
"The plan, which fully took effect during this academic year, essentially blew up the old system," according to an article published Tuesday in the Washington Post. "It eliminated neighborhood schools in favor of a citywide lottery designed to give parents more choices. It prompted mass firings of principals and teachers, and it led to numerous school closures and a sharp rise in the city's reliance on charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run."
On Wednesday, a group of city, county, and state officials, along with members of the NAACP and other civil rights groups, traveled to Washington, D.C. to voice further concerns about 'One Newark' and to ask the administration to help halt the plan. In addition, Newark parents have filed a federal civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that 'One Newark' disproportionately affects African Americans.
The Post reports that five years after Christie launched "what could have been a career-defining policy initiative for an aspiring future president, city leaders are in revolt."
Last year, education consultant and Campaign for America's Future blogger Jeff Bryant told writer and analyst Richard Eskow: "Newark is just the newest front in the longstanding war to pillage public schools districts for the most marginalized communities in America and turn them over to private entities who devise ever more elaborate ways to enrich themselves at the public’s expense."