Saturday, February 9, 2019


The Children Are Watching

The state of Texas is threatening to “take over” the Houston Independent School District and its schools. The threat first came because several Houston ISD schools had persistently low scores on state tests, thus triggering sanctions that included possible closing of those schools or outsourcing them to charter chains or other organizations outside the democratic governance of the elected school board. More recently, the state has threatened to “take over” the entire district, dissolving the elected school board and installing some kind of appointed manager or management team not elected by or accountable to voters.

Such a “take over” would not solve the persistent problems in the Houston school district.  In fact, there is strong evidence such a move would effectively destroy the public’s schools.

In short, the State that has starved our schools can’t be trusted to run them.

We know from cities where state neglect and predatory privatizers have instigated such ‘take overs” that dissolving or over-riding elected school boards diminishes the possibility of improved educational quality and sets in motion factors that (often by design) decrease academic quality and increase inequality within and across schools.  New Orleans, Detroit, Washington DC are but the starkest examples.

We also have clear evidence that Texas in particular – whether through the Texas Education Agency or other state or out-sourcing entity – cannot be trusted to ensure children’s well-being.  The state’s history of neglect, failed oversight, underfunding, and outright non-compliance with legal mandates proves its lack of capacity and expertise to manage, much less improve, its largest urban school district.  Even more obvious is the state’s flagrant, careless disregard for official requirements for children under its jurisdiction.

Two prominent and contemporary examples make my case: 

First, thousands of children in need of special services have been denied those services and the diagnostic examinations needed to determine those needs by state policies capping “special needs” at roughly 8% of any school district’s child population. Diligent investigative reporting uncovered this policy by following the stories of families willing to make public their struggles to find help for their children.  Many were told year after year their children’s physical disabilities, cognitive limitations or other conditions were just evidence of “slowness” or “not trying hard enough” or not the school’s responsibility. The reporting traced these stories through interviews with current and retired special education administrators, and teachers who had tried in vain to get kids tested, across a number of school districts.  What emerged was a strong directive from the state that no more than 8% of children should be classified by – and thus served by – special needs accommodations. Never mind that federal law requires that each child that needs one have an individually prepared education plan (an IEP) and that it be followed.  The state --- TEA officials – denied putting forth such a directive.    Lawsuits, courts, new pronouncements from the governor’s office, and a meek attempt at legislation add up to a sad combination of further denials, promises to do better, and some new policies which we hope will be diligently enforced.   If there has been compensation to the thousands of children who have missed out on the early interventions and sustained programs which would have helped them develop to their full potential, that hasn’t been made public.   Experts estimate that in urban districts with high poverty (and well as centralized medical facilities) as many as 12-13% percent of children have special needs that qualify for state and federal support.  These children and their families have trusted the state at their peril.  Not a good track record for taking over the education of 200,000 Houston students.

Children’s Protective Services provides further evidence of the state’s inability – or unwillingness – to act ethically on behalf of its children.    The foster care system, perennially underfunded and understaffed, “loses” children from time to time and fails to provide robust, supportive care for many of those that do have family placements.   The record is stark, is continuous, and is another  example of careless disregard for the weakest youth in our state.   Revelations of serious problems unearthed by investigative reporters were followed by promises by the governor for more funding to hire additional and better trained case managers and assurances of special legislative action.  None has been adequate.  None of the actions have matched the urgency of need.

The Houston Independent School District needs adequate funding.   It needs an experienced educator for superintendent, one with the vision of equity and educational excellence begun under the brief tenure of Superintendent Carranza.   It needs a state funding formula that does not require giving local tax dollars to other districts to compensate them for their own lack of adequate state funding.  It needs to overcome the system of management by fear and intimidation that was the pride of the last permanent superintendent.  And it needs its currently elected school board to rise above the embarrassing pettiness made public in several open school board meetings and a recently revealed informal session.  (The state is investigating whether certain actions taken by several members of this board violated the open meetings act; a stupid thing to do if true. I’m equally concerned that the board’s on-the-record talk stayed completely personal with NO MENTION –  or at least none in the newspaper account – of a commitment to an educational vision for the district as a whole, for particular schools or children, for the role of teachers.)

The answer is for parents and teachers and friends of education (and yes, students – think of the Parkland students and the leadership groups they inspired in Houston around gun safety) to demand this board put the children ahead of their own personal quarrels. 

The board needs to build common cause with its employees, especially with teachers, with parents and students, with those sectors of the business community that aren’t in the pocket of the privatizers, with the faith leaders like Pastors for Texas Children, with community groups -- to take on the state, not cede authority to it!  Why doesn’t Houston ISD lead the other urban districts in demanding this legislative session pass full funding for Texas schools?  With compensatory funding for those districts most needing to make up for past starvation-level funding for salaries and facilities?

From other so-called “take overs” we know the State is not always a friend of the public’s schools. Too often the state’s role is to grab power – and funding – from local elected boards and hand it over to the charter chains and “education management” companies that are not in any way accountable to voters or parents.   We know the privatizers are circling – new charter chain offices are opening in our city and their billionaire backers are writing the checks to establish their foothold.  We can’t let them have our tax dollars – or our kids.

So, no to a state take over. No to out-sourcing our kids.  Yes, to speaking out, speaking up, demanding this board get its act together until we can elect a new one.  

If you care about the future of our schools, the public's schools, and the children, then seek out kindred spirits whose informed activism needs you.  Community Voices for Public Schools invites you to their meeting coming up on February 16.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

School Blames Sick 2nd Grader for Funding Shortages

Or, Principal Sends Obscene Memo to Parents
Or, The Memo I Can't Show You

The Children Are Watching 

Well, maybe not obscene in the way you may be thinking, but definitely not up to “the moral standards of the community.” How else to describe a note to parents accusing them of costing the school money by keeping a sick child at home?

The color-coded form bears the name of the school and the ominous opening line: “To the parents of __[our second-grader]_____________.” Then, “We are sending this letter to inform you that your child has missed ______ days of school so far for the 2018-2019 school year.” Presumably something the parents of a 7-year-old would be aware of.

Then the real message: “Our average daily attendance drives our school budget….Every day your child is in school, we earn about $20 for our school budget.” Then a sentence claiming that as of mid-January of this school year, the school has “lost” tens of thousands of dollars due to student absences. “If a child is absent (excused or unexcused) we lose funding.”

That the child also loses a day of instruction seems added as an after-thought. The form is signed by the principal.

When I first saw this memo, sent to me by the child’s parent, its pre-printed format looked to be an official document of the school district, something I’d post here so you should it see for yourselves and not think I was making this up! But in checking with teachers at other schools, which I do when a school policy seems too absurd to be real, I learned that to their knowledge, the district requires no such message to parents. One elementary math teacher said it best, “We certainly don’t want sick children to come to school.” Neither does the CDC. Neither does the American Pediatric Association. Nor public health officials at all levels. Only keeping hands washed ranks above staying away from others is promoted as sound disease prevention.

What’s missing here? First, any concern or compassion and offer to help the child learn what she might have missed while she was out sick.

Even more obviously omitted is any message that parents and teachers – and this principal – need to join together to fight for full, adequate, equitable funding for the schools. The idea that school attendance “drives our budget” is ridiculous. There was a time when school funding, especially the state’s share, was based on a school’s enrollment; enrollments were set by the number of
students enrolled as of a certain arbitrarily chosen day, usually in October. Not a perfect formula, but one that stayed stable over the school year. A shift to dollars-per-daily attendance mocks the vagaries of childhood illnesses, flu season itself, and parents’ good-faith compliance with pediatric and public health directives, to say nothing of the factors like poverty, lack of transportation, or language barriers that directly impact children's ability to come to school.  Blaming the children instead of the legislature, the governor and lieutenant governor, the drastic cuts by a previous governor (you, Rick Perry) which have never been fully restored, and more recently the millions drained from the public’s schools by the charter chains – absurd, undemocratic, and anti-child. I can only imagine how a less informed parent, or a parent new to American schools,  would feel on getting this notice: “your child is costing us money! Is she really, really, really sick enough to stay home?” Would your child face punishment? Your family maybe be billed for the $20?

When will educators and parents place the blame where it belongs? When will we all join in common cause to demand the funding our schools need for all our children to learn and for all our children and families to thrive? For all our teachers to do their best work? And for administrators to say no to harsh, degrading policies that undermine their good judgment?

We're seeing this courage around the country: Families and students joined to support LA teachers who walked out in strike on their behalf. Teachers in very red states, with no union protection, walked out to demand living wages for themselves and instructionally-sound funding for their schools. Texas teachers have for too long taken scarcity for granted. And now their principals, afraid of the “accountability” calculus that punishes them for children’s absences, shift the blame to the youngest, the sickest, the least powerful: the children. We’ve seen this in the harmful effects of the testing system, with the children who don’t test well blamed for low school ratings and even school closings. Struggling learners triaged out as liabilities to their school ratings. Now the sick kids get the blame for the state’s failure to fund our schools?  The state's refusal to fund them abundantly, in proportion to the state’s incredible wealth? The state whose economy is said to be the world’s 10th largest?

You see now why I call the bright yellow memo obscene: if it does reflect our communities’ shared moral standards, we are in deep trouble. And so are the children.

Here are links to bills currently before the Texas legislature this very session TEXAS FREEDOM NETWORK and to the House and Senate legislative committees charged with funding, sustaining, and protecting our public schools. And if you’re a principal or school board member or PTO president, why not hold an information session for parents to learn how our schools are funded, and under-funded, and which state officials have the power to make changes. Do it now, while the legislature is in session!

They need to hear from you: the children are watching.