To no one’s surprise, the Waco Independent School District board of trustees, between the proverbial rock and hard place because of struggling elementary and middle schools in poverty-stricken neighborhoods and the prospect of state-mandated closures, voted unanimously Thursday to tie the knot with the local nonprofit Prosper Waco. They will operate an in-district charter system under rules not yet finalized by the Texas Education Agency. What was surprising: Evidence of a grassroots backlash against a state leadership seemingly bent on penalizing public schools in poor neighborhoods to bolster public funding of private charter schools.
“I’m here to wake up Waco,” said Lynn Davenport of Dallas, one of several parent advocates from across Texas to speak to local trustees. One by one, they pressed the board to delay the partnership, which they say would play into the hands of a state committed to privatizing schools and eliminating public accountability by ending the governance of elected trustees. As Mindy Wilson of Houston warned: “The TEA is coming for high-poverty schools with poor children, schools that are the cornerstones of their neighborhoods. As the Houston ISD school board has given up their [faltering] schools to private entities, we have seen communities and feeder patterns [into upper grades] crumble, and you will too.”
We’re heartened to see firm believers in public education at last stepping forward. Yet Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson was correct to urge trustees to vote for the partnership with Prosper Waco, a much-respected nonprofit run by a former school superintendent, Matthew Polk. While bucking the TEA (and its deadlines) might seem politically courageous, the district must still operate under state laws and could become vulnerable in terms of crucial support. Making a stand would make headlines, maybe even make a point with state lawmakers, but it might also hasten closure of these public schools, leaving the children and parents who rely on them for an education in even more dire straits than they might now be.
That said, the evening made clear that the fate of five struggling schools in Waco Independent School District is now under vigilance across the state by concerned parents and public education advocates. It also means that many will be watching to see how the Texas Education Agency handles itself in working with Waco ISD in turning these schools into successes, not failures. It means that state leaders will finally have to show at least some accountability for decisions they have made in recent years as well as for what some describe as a level of hostility.
While Nelson was careful not to urge political activism, we sure can. If the parents in Waco, Houston, Dallas, Midland or anywhere else in Texas are outraged by shifting academic standards, test-oriented instruction, ebbing school funding from the state and what appears to be a push to funnel public money into private schools at all costs, they need to scrutinize their state lawmakers this key election year. Meanwhile, we’re confident of all motives in the partnership between Waco ISD and Prosper Waco, guided by a 2017 state law. Now, if only the TEA could issue its rules for both the law and Thursday’s promising union.