Ask a regular Joe what frustrates him about public education and stand back. It’s the complexity of school finance (including property taxes), state testing results for Joe’s kids and, finally, the state-ordained protocol for closing down failing schools. The situation is compounded by the fact state protocols and accountability standards seem to change from one legislative session to the next.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has made significant strides in one area. This year he and his Texas Education Agency staffers produced a State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness report card that not only better communicates to time-pressed parents how their children did on much-hated STAAR testing but also how parents can help them strategically improve.
On the other hand, if you really want to test the IQ of your state legislator, ask him or her to explain school finance, including the meaning of “golden pennies” and “copper pennies.”
But the most pressing priority for Waco Independent School District is improving two low-performing middle schools and three elementary schools which otherwise face closure. If students there next spring reverse several years of failing scores, they could eliminate the possibility the state will come in and close down these local campuses. But on the possibility of another year of failure, Waco ISD officials are exploring options buying time for these troubled schools to turn matters around.
And this is where we get into uncharted territory.
Waco ISD officials are being guided by TEA officials and two critical pieces of legislation. One of the latter is House Bill 1842, passed into law by the Texas Legislature in 2015. It says if a campus is “considered to have an unacceptable performance rating for three consecutive school years after the campus is ordered to submit a campus-turnaround plan,” the TEA commissioner will replace the elected school board with a board of managers or close the troubled campus.
That’s why Waco ISD officials are trying to make community leaders and parents aware of just how dire matters are. Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School have failed academic standards for five years or more.
Then there’s Senate Bill 1882, passed into law this spring. Expanding on models in larger cities, it allows troubled school districts to temporarily stop the countdown for campus closures if the local school board partners with a charter school’s governing body or a nonprofit eligible for a district-authorized charter. How all this would actually work is unclear. TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson tells Trib education reporter Shelly Conlon the TEA is still crafting rules on how SB 1882 would function. However, the law seems to suggest Waco ISD could partner with a nonprofit — say, a local foundation — and technically turn failing campuses into “in-district charter schools” with restructuring or “re-purposing.” Among ideas mentioned by new Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson: taking the two middle schools and making them single-gender campuses (the boys at one school, girls at the other) and realigning by grade level the elementary schools. Each in-district charter school would also have its own board of managers.
Clear as mud? Don’t feel bad. While some legislators these days seem to have it in for public schools judging by their rhetoric and push for public funding of private schools, TEA officials shrewdly recognize closing troubled schools or replacing school boards can end up making matters worse. Hence, they’re likely to interpret state law broadly enough to give districts such as Waco ISD all the breaks possible. That said, the Waco ISD superintendent accurately acknowledged the anxiety and uncertainty in all this during a staff meeting last week: “We’re building this plane while it’s up in the air.”
During a Waco ISD community meeting on the crisis last Monday night, Nelson told parents, educators and community leaders: “All the answers to our problems are already here.” He’s probably right. A lot of forces are just now coming into play in terms of leaving local schools better poised for academic success — everything from a reinvigorated reading program in primary grades to a new superintendent who clearly resonates with staff. Playing for time may be a wise strategy at this juncture. A lot now depends on how students do in another round of high-stakes testing come spring.