News Deregulation, not education

House bills let schools set their own standards

Editor's Note: These House bills were scheduled to be voted on April 29, after the Current's deadline. Go to to see the results of the vote.

A decade ago, Texas public schools performed so poorly and were such a national disgrace that the only way state officials could soothe their consciences was to say, "At least we're ahead of Mississippi."

Now Texas has rebounded - and not just to 48th. According to the National Educators' Association, the state ranks first in the United States in the proportion of public school students taking Advanced Placement calculus. Texas eighth graders score among the highest in the U.S. in writing, and more seniors are taking - and scoring higher - on the SAT.

Illustration by Joe Lee

Yet, two education bills have been introduced into the state legislature that opponents say could unspool what Texas has accomplished in the last 10 years. In effect, the bills deregulate public education, nudging schools toward the private sector. Like the airlines or the phone companies, schools could freewheel it in the marketplace.

Sponsored by State Representative and Chairman of the Public Education Committee Kent Grusendorf (R-Arlington), House Bill 973 would permit exemplary-rated schools or districts to more easily adopt home-rule charters, allowing them to discard many state regulations governing class size, curriculum, and teacher certification, preparation time, and labor rights.

According to the state's accountability directory, there are 55 exemplary schools in Bexar County and 372 in Texas.

A similar measure, HB 859, authored by Grusendorf, Jerry Madden (R-Richardson), and Ron Eissler (R-Woodlands), would allow any school or district - not just exemplary ones - to do the same. Teachers also could lose their rights and benefits, and would keep their minimum pay - but only if they worked at the school before the school changed to home-rule.

"This bill would probably enable us to learn how fast a district can go from exemplary to low-performing," says John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. "Grusendorf truly believes schools should operate within a free-market system, like a fried chicken franchise, with the principal as the franchise manager."

Not only are the bill's opponents appalled by the lack of standards, they also are concerned about the ease - and the reduction of public participation - with which a home-rule district can be formed. Under state law, school districts can become home-rule only after a lengthy process: First, the decision requires a two-thirds majority vote of the school board. Then, a committee, comprised of parents and teachers from the district, drafts the charter, which is then voted on by the public. For the vote to be valid a minimum turnout of 25 percent of registered voters in the district is required; for the charter to pass, it must receive 5 percent of the district vote.

No Texas public school has changed to home rule since the law was passed in 1995.

Contrast this process with the new proposal. To become home-rule, a district would require only 51 percent of the school board vote. There is no charter committee, but the school board would draft the charter with its attorney - without the oversight of the public or the Secretary of State, which often monitors these processes. Under the bill, when the charter comes before the public, the minimum voter turnout is only 5 percent. To pass, the charter would require a number of votes equal to 5 percent of those cast in that district in the most recent gubernatorial election.

"There is a lack of public participation," said Ashley McIlvain, political director of the Texas Freedom Network, a non-profit group that describes itself as a mainstream organization to counter the reach of the Religious Right. "These have wide-reaching implications. We're talking about lifting the most basic education standards that most people have come to expect: qualified teachers, minimum school day lengths, and standard curriculum. It raises more questions than answers."

The bills' proponents answer their critics by contending that schools deserve autonomy, and still would have to abide by many state regulations including criminal background checks,

"What happens if an exempt school district fell below rating after stocking up on unqualified teachers, textbooks that don't meet standards, and classrooms filled with 38 kids?" asks Ashley McIlvain of the Texas Freedom Network.
record-keeping, some reading programs, student discipline, and high school graduation and dropout rates. Students would also have to take the TAKS test, the primary yardstick of accountability.

State Representative Madden, who wrote HB 859, says he's "proud of the bill," adding it is modeled on the home-rule platform that George W. Bush touted during his gubernatorial campaign. Madden also contends that no schools have gone home-rule in part because of the many steps required; his bill would remove those hurdles for any district, regardless of its rating.

As for exemplary schools, under HB 973, if their ratings drop to unacceptable status, then state standards would immediately be enforced, Madden says, adding that schools can be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. For example, if an exemplary school falls to recognized, but only because of its dropout rate, it still could retain its charter. "There's a great deal of incentive to keep up the high standards," Madden says.

Not so, says John Cole of the Texas Federation of Teachers. The carrot of these bills is really a stick in disguise. Under home-rule, kids could be in a class of 35 instead of 20; their teacher may or may not be certified, and the curriculum can be developed haphazardly. Teachers are also at the school or district's mercy. "This is a most peculiar way to get employees to redouble their efforts to get an exemplary rating," Cole explains. "OK, we've made it, we're exemplary. Next week you won't have a planning period, we're reducing your salary, and you're an at-will employee. We'll punish you for success."

The bill places more power in school boards, many of which are as prone to infighting, territorialism, and controversy as city government. While some school boards might be on a power trip at the thought of establishing their own fiefdoms under home-rule, Harlandale School Board Secretary Joshua Cerna says a "civil war" would erupt in his district if a school switched to this system. "It creates competitiveness within a district," he says of House Bill 973. "It creates a dual standard and really adds disparity."

The bills' opponents also worry about how a home-rule school - and its students - would recover if the school were to flounder under its new freedom. "What happens if an exempt school district fell below rating after stocking up on unqualified teachers, textbooks that don't meet standards, and classrooms filled with 38 kids?" asks Ashley McIlvain of the Texas Freedom Network. "`State representative` Madden asks, 'What are you afraid of? Let's give it a try.' I'm afraid of losing even one year in the educational life of these students."

A spokesman for State Representative Grusendorf says the fear of losing their autonomy should keep the schools in check. "They better keep doing well," he says. "We'd like to see these regulations come off the schools, but if these regulations are what make a school exemplary, we might have to change our tune."

Many teachers and administrators say that one of Texas' most effective regulations has been to cap class size. In elementary school, no classroom can have more than 22 students; in the upper grades, the number is slightly higher.

Yet under home-rule, class size caps vanish, which may not serve the kids, but it saves money on teachers. While State Representative Madden denies that money was a "selling point" of his bill, he could use the state's budget shortfall - particularly in education - to justify crowded classrooms.

"Putting 30 kids in a class is easier than hiring another teacher," says Tom Cummins president of the Bexar County Federation of Teachers. "And a duty-free lunch for teachers is supposedly not needed, so there you have another cost savings in their view."

Grusendorf's spokesman points out that 85 percent of school costs are in personnel. Meanwhile, class sizes have shrunk from an average of 28 to sometimes as low as 15. "Part of the cost increase is from teachers," he says.

Grusendorf's spokesman contends that class size isn't important in learning: we've doubled the number of teachers and that explains part of the increase. "There has been no quality research that has linked smaller class sizes to better student performance. Under a well-managed discipline situation, small class sizes aren't necessary.

Not true, say teachers and administrators who have spent time in classrooms rather than in government. Pita Rodriguez-Pollock, principal of Hawthorne Elementary School, which has an in-district charter (but must adhere to state and San Antonio Independent School District regulations; its charter was also adopted by 70 percent of parents and faculty) says she has seen low teacher-student ratios improve students' learning, particularly in a recent third-grade math class. "We believe the small learning community really gives you results."

Churchill High School teacher Steve Jennings says class size in upper grade levels is increasing, from 150 for a typical high school teacher in all classes to 160, or even 180 now. "There are many kids who slip between the cracks unless the teacher steps in at the right moment. When you have as many kids as you do and the requirements, there are going to be some kids that are just going to be left behind."

Many studies conducted in the last 20 years show a correlation between small class size (20 students) and higher scores. According to Education Week, which cited the studies, minority and disadvantaged students flourish in small classes; a Texas study of 800 school districts also demonstrated a significant relationship between smaller classes and student learning.

Texas' latest grand experiment with its schoolchildren is unprecedented, as no state has tried to deregulate its education on such a large scale - almost 1,100 school districts and about 3 million children.

Apparently free-market theories - and their alleged cost savings - are driving these two bills, but Cummins sees a more sinister plan behind the legislation. "I personally view it as an effort to destabilize public education. This would clear the way for the real agenda, which is freeing up tax dollars for private schools." `See box, this page, for bills that push this agenda.`

John Cole of the TFT echoes those sentiments. "Given that these regulations have been in place during the time when Texas went from a national disgrace to a national leader, some of us would say it's because of these laws," Cole says. "Those rules and regulations have not impaired the ability to drive education. Many teachers think that the legislative crew in charge is anti-public school." •

Textbook controversy

Here's a list of bills that could affect the content of public-school textbooks:

House Bill 1133, sponsored by Kent Grusendorf (R-Arlington) would require the state to pay for textbooks for any private school student who requests them. The House Education Committee discussed this bill just a month after state budget officials slashed Texas' textbook fund - which currently covers only public schools - from $652 million to $270 million. Although many Texas public school students learn from textbooks that are more than 10 years old, the state bean counters have demanded that public schools delay buying any textbooks unless "absolutely necessary," such as to prepare for the TAKS test.

HB 1172, sponsored by Jerry Madden, a Republican from Richardson, would mandate that "public school curriculum reflect an overall tone that portrays the United States as a country that has overcome its mistakes and emerged as the freest, most democratic nation in the history of the world." That's a long time.

HB 1447 would allow the State Board of Education to edit or reject textbooks based on members' opinions, rather than factual accuracy. If passed, HB 1447 would give the board sole and unlimited power over textbook content. The 15-member board and the commissioner are elected.

In 2002 and 1996, Religious Right groups testified before the Texas Education Association that history books had an "overkill of emphasis on cruelty to slaves" and that coverage of slavery, civil rights struggles, or discrimination was unpatriotic and anti-Christian.

Acting on a 1994 State Board of Education opinion that it was "embarrassing and objectionable," a line drawing illustrating a breast self-exam was deleted from health books. Board members also tried to remove a picture of a woman carrying a briefcase, which they said undermined traditional family values. Last year, history book references to the Ice Age and other prehistoric events were changed to read "in the distant past" so as not to conflict with Creationism.

Evolution is likely to be a flashpoint during this year's approval process for science textbooks. The Texas Education Agency will conduct these hearings in July.

To contact local legislators about these bills, see YAK AT YOUR REP, here at the Current web site. •

By Lisa Sorg