Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Marlin Independent School District is not likely to close anytime soon, despite its five years of failing academic standards and two abatement agreements with the state placing conditions on its continued operations.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Tribune-Herald on Friday, Morath spoke about leadership and the state of the struggling district, pushed back against public perceptions about funding for public schools and plugged a new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness report card he is touring the state to promote.

“In terms of closure, I don’t view that as a likely possibility,” Morath said about Marlin. “In terms of exiting state oversight, I’m not too sure about that either. It’s going to be somewhere in between.”

Marlin ISD is one of four school districts operating under the state’s control. Morath appointed a board of managers in February to take over duties of the elected school board.

The district signed its second abatement agreement with the Texas Education Agency in March, again stating it could be closed if it fails academic or financial standards. The agreement gives Morath broad authority over the fate of the district.

Since staring as commissioner in January, Morath has told the Senate Education Committee he has a goal of cutting the number of failing schools in the state in half by using stronger intervention methods to improve outcomes.

He and TEA officials are working with the district to provide governance training, build strategic goals and bring in additional resources to the administration, he said.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck activity top to bottom, from the board level down to the teacher,” Morath said. “We’re trying to be as strategic as possible in arranging resources to support the students in Marlin.

“We want to see significant improvement and we want to see it as fast as possible. It is challenging though. Recruiting talent in Marlin is different than recruiting talent in downtown Austin at the teacher level. Ensuring we can provide financial supports and human capital in just talented people to support the folks in Marlin, that’s what we’re focused on.”

Asked about advice for Marlin leadership, he chuckled and said there is “none I could give through the newspaper.” He said the state frequently gives advice and recommendations directly to the district.

“The job of public education is quite difficult,” Morath said. “I ran a software company for a decade, and I can tell you it’s a lot easier writing lines of code than it is running a system that helps educate human beings.”

State funding

Despite the public perception, state funding for public education doesn’t have a target on its back, Morath said.

He said he has encountered a perception that there is an extra emphasis at the state level on charter schools, private schools and religious schools, but student outcomes in public education are the strongest they have ever been in Texas.

“The attitude of halcyon days of old, and that somehow it was better back in my day, is actually just not mathematically correct,” Morath said. “The graduation rate in Texas is now as high as it’s ever been, and it puts us in the top five in the United States. . . . But public education is hard. Roughly 60 percent of our kids in the state of Texas are eligible for a free or reduced lunch.

“It doesn’t mean you can’t get great outcomes if you chose the wrong parents. That’s not true. We have enough evidence that shows demography is not destiny. But it shows the job is difficult, and I have never bought into the sort of narrative that public education is under attack.”

During the 85th Legislative session, lawmakers debated school funding reform but failed to pass a bill that would have directed more money to public schools and simplified outdated funding formulas.

But Morath said the reality is state officials have been attentive to the needs of public schools for years, and funding for public education isn’t being cut, as perceived. In fact, the state adds 80,000 fully funded new students every year, he said.

“We have a vastly more equitable distribution of funds than most states, given what I see. . . . To my knowledge, (cutting funding for education) has only happened once in the state of Texas,” Morath said. “It happened in 2011, during the Great Recession. But public education funding has increased both in the aggregate and on a per pupil basis.

“Basically, it’s happened every single year in the history of the state, with that exception, and since then, it’s gone up and up and up. School finance is extraordinarily complicated because it’s a mix of local property tax collections and what the state allocation is, but we spend a little north of $60 billion a year on public education in Texas. But if you look at the state budget, you’d think we spend $60 billion every other year.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has called for a special session, which starts July 18 and includes private school choice and school finance. Morath said lawmakers should be working on school-related policies “with an outcome lens in mind,” and that he’s 100 percent aligned with Abbott, and knows Abbott is pushing for what’s best in public education.

STAAR report card

Parents will soon have access to a new STAAR report card that will help them find resources for students struggling to take on state assessments.

The revamped information will give parents access to resources that specifically highlight ways to help their child improve, including college preparation tips, parent-teacher conference suggestions, and reading and math tools to help boost academic understanding, Morath said.

And for the first time in Texas, parents will also be able to see questions from the year’s STAAR test and how their child answered, along with a description of why the answer was wrong, available online.

“This is such a key tool to help our parents truly understand what’s expected of their students at each grade level,” said Kim Ellis, Waco ISD’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “One of the challenges we have is looking at student work as it compares to the rigor of the test. This will help us, not only with teachers, but with parents, dialogue about the expectations the state has set forth.”

While those conversations were happening before, the dialogue couldn’t be as specific as the new system will allow, because test results were usually released later in the year. Now, parents will have results sooner, and the report card will allow for more individualized learning experiences between teachers, parents and children, Morath said.

“Our job is to differentiate instruction in a way that every kid gets what they deserve,” Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson said. “That’s for our most profound, autistic kid all the way up to the best and brightest Ivy League-bound kid we have. They all need to get a specialized education, and I believe this report card really allows us to drill down on kids’ strengths and non-strengths so teachers can focus their interventions on prescriptions that help kids get better.”

High school STAAR reports were released June 13, and grades three through eight will be available June 30.

For more information about the report cards, visit tea.texas.gov.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times as the Texas Community College Jour

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