Lorie Barzano, Co-Chair, CoalitionSAUS (Strengthen Austin Urban Schools), PAA affiliate and parent led group representing 20 public school campuses in Austin’s urban core, which has a vision of quality, accessible public education for all.
According to the most recent US Census, Texas again gained population during the past ten years. That means TX legislators have re-drawn electoral district maps for the second time since the start of the 21st century. Imagine a good old fashioned land grab in Texas! Needless to say, the process has not gone smoothly either time.
The first time, Democratic legislators actually flew to New Mexico, twice, in an effort to prevent the quorum call necessary to approve re-districting maps. This time, the matter headed directly to court, went through several appeals and ultimately got remanded back to legislators. It still sits in the hands of Republicans to approve a final settlement.
When the ink dries on the new map for 2012, it will leave the Austin Independent School District split between two different electoral districts for the State Board of Education (#5-south Austin & #10-north Austin). The TX Board of Education (SBOE) has 15 districts, each representing a population of 1.6 million. Normally, SBOE representatives serve four-year staggered terms, but with the new map, all 15 seats come up for re/election this year.
With newly drawn districts, all 15 members up for election, Austin split in half and the primary election concluding on May 29th, the members of CoalitionSAUS decided to host a forum for the candidates running in the two SBOE districts now representing Austin. A non-lobbying, non-endorsing, parents group, CoalitionSAUS simply wanted to meet the candidates and find out about their views on public education. It sounded simple enough. The democratic process at work, the citizenry performing due diligence, parents engaged in the education of their children and the electoral system properly vetting candidates….
Turns out SBOE District #5 (south Austin) has an incumbent in the race, a Republican (Ken Mercer ) who has served on the Board for a number of years. He has 3 challengers, another Republican (Steve Salyer), one Democrat (Rebecca Bell-Metereau) and one Libertarian (Mark Loewe). The incumbent never responded to multiple email invitations and follow-up phone messages. Neither did the Democrat. The Republican challenger and the Libertarian candidate attended the forum.
Turns out SBOE District #10 (north Austin) has no incumbent in the race and three Republicans (#1-Rebecca Osborne, #2- Jeff Fleece and #3-Tom Maynard) and one Democrat (Judy Jennings) compete for the seat. Republican #1 responded with a phone contact, asked 45 minutes of questions and ended by declining to participate. Republican #2 simply never responded to multiple email invitations and follow-up phone messages. The Democrat responded by email with “regrets” for not participating in the forum, but offered to meet with CoalitionSAUS in a separate meeting. Republican #3 attended the forum.
First Lesson We Learned: Politics Trumps Policy, Part I.
A Republican, incumbent of several years, will not likely respond to a parent request for him to participate in a forum with his Republican challengers for the State Board of Education during the primary elections.
Second Lesson We Learned: Politics Trumps Policy, Part II.
Democratic candidates, unchallenged in their primaries, will not likely agree to a parent request for them to participate in a forum with multiple Republican candidates for the State Board of Education during the primary elections.
The parents of CoalitionSAUS have some major questions and serious concerns about Texas’ school finance structure, student testing mandates and education policy priorities. In 2010, when the federal government provided the state with $3.25 billion in additional educational aid, rather than augmenting the state’s education budget, Governor Perry chose to re-allocate state education monies to close a gap in the overall state budget. These monies would have meant an additional $19 million for the Austin School District. This past year, the state cut its educational budget by over $9 billion, and next year promises another round of similar cuts. Meanwhile, this year, the state has signed a new $468+million, five year contract with Pearson to update and expand its already unpopular student testing system. Additionally, Austin Independent School District signed (in spite of overwhelming community opposition) its first contract for an in-district, co-located (IDEA) charter school in January of this year. In February, AustinISD signed a contract with 7 charter school operators as part of the Gates Compact.
Ouch! Questioning SBOE candidates about these issues and their views seems the logical and responsible thing to do. After all, the State Board of Education has six main charges or duties in Texas. It oversees investment of the Permanent School, which has a balance of over $26 billion and helps fund public schools. It mandates what lessons classroom teachers must teach through Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards; and it reviews instructional materials based on those standards. (Texas textbooks wars just recently dominated the national news.) The SBOE also approves the creation or revocation of open-enrollment charter schools, as well as adopts the rules that govern teacher and administrator certification and ethics. Finally, the SBOE sets goals and policy priorities for the Texas public school system by adopting four-year plans for meeting those goals.
The questions began.
When CoalitionSAUS asked the candidates about their views on charter schools and the SBOE’s role in overseeing them, their answers varied in level of support and nuance regarding their role in the education system. The Libertarian candidate supported charter schools as offering parents real choice for their children’s education. He embraced charter schools as a good option in the free market system, one which provides much needed competition in the education market. He supported a market-based system for education. The Republican candidate (from District #5) felt charter schools had their place in the education system, but they should not replicate public schools. He felt charter schools should have a distinct mission for existing and serve a specialized purpose or niche market, such as a focus on or dedication to “Performing Arts” or “Science & Math” curriculum. He grew up on and received his education from a “Boys Ranch” school in rural Texas. The Republican candidate (from District #10) felt the state should not further invest in supporting or expanding the charter schools until student outcomes-based evidence demonstratively documented a positive return on the investment thus far. He clearly felt that charter school student outcomes have not done so to date. Both Republican candidates agreed that charter schools should meet all the same academic standards required of public schools by the state. The Libertarian candidate felt the free market system should set the standard for performing schools and parents could force the closure of nonperforming schools by choosing not to send their children there.
Third Lesson We Learned: Candidates Do Not Clearly Line Up on Either Side of a Pro- or Con- Question.
Given the array and nuance of their views on charter schools, next CoalitionSAUS asked the candidates just exactly what they would call a “public school” and how they would define public education. The Libertarian candidate defined public education as a government monopoly of the school system. He repeatedly referred to public schools as government schools and touted increasing the number of charter schools as welcomed competition in the educational public marketplace. He clearly stated his view that education should follow a free market model. The Republican candidate (District #10) felt public education included all schools receiving taxpayer dollars, including specialized charter schools. He felt that by definition, the receipt of public funding defined a school as public. The Republican candidate (District #5) felt that public education meant schools run by a public school district with a publicly elected board. For him, charter schools did not qualify as public education because they do not have publicly elected boards. He went onto say he wished that public schools had the additional support and funding currently poured into charter schools by philanthropic foundations such as Gates and by the federal Department of Education. He believes public schools would show better student outcomes than charter schools do with the same level of support and financial investment.
Fourth Lesson We Learned: Candidates Do Not Always Fall in Line with Their Party’s Policy Preferences.
As the SBOE governs the creation and revocation of open-enrollment charter schools, CoalitionSAUS asked the candidates if they would consider raising the allowable number of charter schools in the state. Texas did not take “Race to the Top” monies and thus, does not have a federal mandate to raise the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state. Texas currently has 206 open-enrollment charters, 4 college & university charters and 14 in-district campus charters, and rapidly approaches the upper limit allowed by current Texas law. Charter school proponents currently push to raise the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state.
Not surprisingly, the Libertarian candidate felt the state should not impose any limit on the number of charter schools that operate in the state. Basically, he believes increased competition will only serve to better the quality of charter and “government” schools available as a choice for parents overall. Neither Republican candidate committed unequivocally to raising or not raising the allowable limit on charter schools operating in the state. Both agreed the state needed to enhance its oversight of the existing charter schools in operation to determine firm procedures for closing a non-performing charter school. Both conceded this should happen before determining if the situation warrants approving an increase in the number of charter schools allowed in Texas. Oddly enough, not one of the candidates knew the exact total of charter schools licenses state law currently allows.
Fifth Lesson We Learned: Even Candidates Do Not Necessarily Have Access to Accurate Information or Know All the Facts behind the Situation which They Will Govern If Elected.
Ultimately, CoalitionSAUS’ SBOE candidates forum continued for well over two and a half hours. Parents asked a wide variety of questions. The candidates responded to multiple questions and follow-up questions about high-stakes testing, the SBOE’s power in setting educational policy priorities, its relationship with the state legislative committees that oversee education and school financing, their view of the role of parents in the process and their personal philosophies in representing a constituency.
Sixth Lesson We Learned: Candidates Generously Give of Their Time When Running for Office.
The Republican (District #5) felt schools should no longer invest in textbooks, but rather give each student an I-pad and transform classrooms into the digital age. The Republican (District #10) felt students should begin to transition into digital materials, but still saw the need for some published materials. The Libertarian candidate felt that Texas paid far too much for books, based on constituting the largest textbook market in the country, and would negotiate much lower prices that would allow every student to keep their books at the end of each school year. He said he would have to think about how much schools should rely on digital materials. All candidates acknowledged that high stakes testing has gotten out of hand to varying degrees and for different reasons. None of them suggested totally eliminating testing. All candidates recognized that Texas has a structural deficit in its state education budget and agreed the legislature must address it soon as it only grows worse. No candidate offered a plan for how the legislature should address it. None of the candidates committed to a single philosophy for representing their constituents, whether they would listen to an overwhelming public opinion or stick to their personal beliefs in voting on any given issue. The Republican candidate (District #5) cautiously reminded us that most school board elections get decided by a mere handful of votes. CoalitionSAUS parents noted that only one of the eight SBOE candidates actually lives in Austin, the largest (by a long shot) school district in SBOE districts #5 & #10 combined. In the end, each candidate presented a mixed bag of beliefs with some of their positions unacceptable, some tolerable and some laudable. None perfect.
Seventh Lesson We Learned: Knowing the Candidates Better Does Not Make the Choice Easier.
The new re-districting map drawn by state Republicans has rendered Austin Independent School District’s (overwhelmingly) Democratic constituency in half. AISD has an annual budget in excess of $830 million dollars and serves over 84,000 students. The two new SBOE districts encompassing Austin reach far beyond AustinISD and CoalitionSAUS communities to include multiple rural school districts and many overwhelmingly Republican counties. No matter who wins the State Board of Education elections, Austin will have less of a voice in the state on all things education.
Eighth Lesson We Learned: Politics Trumps Everything in an Election Year Steeped in Partisanship!