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Texas lawmakers turning up heat on public education to a fast boil: Q&A with Bonnie Lesley of Texas Kids Can’t Wait, economist Larry Toenjes

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05102015 toon

Amid what some claim is the Texas Legislature’s ongoing war on public education, the Trib editorial board sat down last week with former teacher and school administrator Bonnie Lesley, co-founder with former Waco Mayor Linda Ethridge of the Waco-based Texas Kids Can’t Wait, to discuss legislative proposals on charter schools, so-called “voucher bills” and high-stakes testing. Lesley’s experience is as extensive as her opinions: She taught English and creative writing for 17 years; served as secondary education director for Ysleta (El Paso) Independent School District; and chief instructional officer for Waco Independent School District, Austin Independent School District, Kansas City (Kansas) Unified School District, Little Rock Public Schools and the State Department of Education in Delaware. Also participating: Larry Toenjes, a noted Houston economist.

Q    We recently published a column from Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, arguing that what many folks call the school voucher bill isn’t really a voucher bill at all. She says it actually constitutes private donations by businesses that go to help children leave poor-performing public schools and attend private or religious schools. For these private donations, businesses get a tax credit from the state. Does she have a point?

Lesley    No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t have a point. It’s Madison Avenue framing of an issue to try to convince people it’s really OK. That bill — in fact, all of these privatization bills — were drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC, a nonprofit organization of conservative orientation noted for crafting legislation for Republican-run legislatures]. One of the challenges that the states took to ALEC, or rather the people who wanted to fund private schools rather than public schools, was how they could get around prohibitions in state constitutions as well as the federal constitution regarding separation of church and state. So ALEC devised this scheme where if you weren’t making a direct appropriation with tax-collected money to a private school, then it wouldn’t be illegal. Well, that really hasn’t been tested. It certainly hasn’t been tested in federal courts and I’m not aware of any state court that has tested it. So they devised this scheme where you wouldn’t make a direct appropriation. They’re doing what we would ordinarily call money-laundering. They forgive 25 percent of a business franchise tax if that business person will make donations up to that amount of his tax to a private school.

Q    Another point the Texas Private Schools Association makes is that private schools are accountable to the public. Anytime we’ve brought up the fact these schools don’t have elected representatives accountable to the public, the response is: “Well, you can always take your kids out of that school.”

Lesley    Which, of course, you can do with the public schools too. But when we say they’re not accountable to the public paying the bills, what we mean is that they don’t have to take the test, they don’t have to post their board meetings, they don’t have to have open board meetings, they don’t have to publish minutes of board meetings, they don’t have to show their budgets and the sources of their revenue and how they expend it. Do an open records request of a private school and see what you get. You will get nothing.

Q    I would think that the tea party, which is supposed to be about making government more transparent and more accountable to the public, would be enraged.

Lesley    Well, no, because they’re full of contradictions all the time. On one hand, they advocate against big government and then they’re for a bill that prevents municipalities from banning fracking, which passed by the way.

Q    When I read the Texas Kids Can’t Wait Facebook page, it doesn’t seem anything good is happening in the Legislature on behalf of public education. Your group has talked of high-stakes testing penalizing schools and teachers, public funding of private and religious schools without much accountability, the letter-grading of school districts. What’s the worst of it this session?

Lesley    Well, you know the old story about the frog in the pot of water? I think that we are in a pot of boiling water and we’re about cooked dead as far as public schools are concerned because people are not paying attention to this charter school movement and there’s been rapid growth. We were looking at this list (of state bills) last night and there are over 30 bills that have been filed that make things nicer for charter schools — more money, more freedom from the law, more accommodations to any kind of problem they have. There are three or four bills to try to tighten them up and make them more open about open records. They like to say they’re public schools, but the moment you file an open records request, they say, “Oh, no, we’re not a public school, we’re a private school so we don’t have to give you that.” The other really disturbing thing I’m horrified about is that this school year we spent more than $2 billion in direct appropriations on charter schools and now Senate Bill 1900, which is Donna Campbell’s bill, has a potential cost of another quarter-billion because they want to give charters facilities money. [Technically, the state’s 182 open-enrollment charters get no facilities funding from the state.]

Q    The short version of this is that charter schools will be getting a lot more money.

Lesley    When you put all these bills together and group them and see the preponderance of where the Legislature’s interest is — I mean, there are probably 50 bills that promote privatization in one way or another. There are two bills that address the concerns of public school districts with low test scores. One is a proposal for a pilot for what’s called a “community school.” That’s where they bring community services to the schools such as health care and job searches, and these help engage parents a lot more. And there’s this proposal for “turnaround districts.” If you’re a low-performing school district, and Waco would probably qualify under that, there would be money available to allow you to partner with a university to do the things you need to turn your district around. Yet there are 50 bills that promote charters and vouchers. And when you look at the status of them, these privatization bills are moving through those committees and hitting the floor and several have passed. They’ve had hearings. The public school bills — the only thing you find on their status heading is “Referred to committee.”

Q    So why do we need 50 privatization bills?

Lesley    Some are redundant, but generally they address different topics. I wish Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick were stupid but he’s not. They put all their ideas together and then farmed them out so that one legislator would introduce this bill and another would introduce that bill and they were advised to get House sponsors, so that they don’t have to have conference committees. I mean, look at this list and you can see how all of this has been orchestrated. It’s just amazing. It is a full-blown attack on public education.

Q    In the minds of many Americans, public schools are pretty close to apple pie. Why then this groundswell by state leaders like Dan Patrick against public schools?

Lesley    It’s the biggest chunk of the state budget. If they could get rid of public education, they could reduce taxes a lot and so part of the strategy is you introduce the most austere budgets you possibly can and that undermines schools’ ability to deliver anything meaningful. Class size went up, all kinds of bad things resulted from those 2011 budget cuts [totalling $5.4 billion; Waco ISD closed several neighborhood schools in 2012 as a result] that we haven’t yet recovered from. So you reduce the cost to the state a lot and Texas is already 47th in the nation in education funding — and if they cut that $4 billion (in taxes this session), there’s not going to be any money for public education. And they also have constitutional amendments embedded in the Texas Constitution so that future legislatures cannot put it back. We have a prohibition against a state income tax, we have a prohibition against a statewide property tax and there’s a whole bunch of bills that have already moved that will make it virtually impossible for any subdivision of government to pass a bond issue. I was talking to a school district attorney the other day who said, “I can’t see how you will ever have another bond issue if these bills pass.”

Q    I do not understand why teachers and their spouses, if they see their professions and public education under attack, do not go to the polls and change all this. They certainly have strength in numbers.

Lesley    I was a teacher for 17 years. A lot of teachers — certainly the majority of teachers in my experience — don’t like to think of themselves as government workers. They see themselves as employees of a local school board and they know those guys. So it’s not somebody in Austin or somebody in Washington. They see themselves as local employees and they don’t like to think of their work as being political. A lot of them also don’t want to be bothered.

Q    My experience is some teachers complain but blame it on the school district or school board. Frankly, a lot of them strike me as uninformed about what’s happening in Austin.

Lesley    That’s because they choose to be.

Toenjes    Well, you know some people don’t think teachers need to be certified. Someone who has been involved in this movement involving testing and charter schools is of the opinion that teaching is just like a blue-collar profession. All you have to do is follow the script. You don’t need to certify someone. You don’t need someone who has been to college to teach. And they really believe that.

Q    But don’t you think a lot of this anger directed toward public schools is because a lot of them don’t have such good track records? I mean, I hear some frustration here in Waco about it.

Toenjes    Yes, and if you look at the relationship between poverty — kids on the free and reduced lunch in schools program — there’s an extremely strong negative correlation. Where I live, down in Galveston County, Friendswood ISD has the highest performance rate in the Houston area — and they have only 3 or 2 percent free-lunch kids.

Lesley    And Waco has 90 percent.

Q    If charter schools are so evil, why does everyone want to get into one?

Lesley    Everybody doesn’t. I think parents are subject to framing and advertising and promotion in the same way that they are about cars or any other kind of economic decision they make. And I don’t talk about this much, but I have seen some things through my career. I started teaching in 1962, so it’s been a long time. I sort of by accident became a national expert on desegregation. When I came to Waco, one of my big jobs in Waco was to get us out of a court order (to conclude integration).

When I went to Austin, they had just exited a court order but we were implementing the court’s plan and we still had to report to the court. Then I went to Delaware and the state of Delaware was under court order and they filed a petition to exit the court order and so I did all the curriculum aspects of that plan. My job in Kansas City was solely to get us out of the court order and for five years I worked days and nights and weekends and holidays on that, and then I went to Little Rock, the queen of school districts under court orders, and we exited the court order there. And I have seen in these districts — particularly districts with high percentages of black kids—

Q    What do you consider high?

Lesley    Anything more than 30 percent. And the research says when the percentage gets to be about 30 percent, whites start fleeing. A big part of what’s in the minds of these parents — not the minds of the legislators — is that it’s another scheme to avoid integration and you can be with people like you in a charter school or a private school. And you don’t have to go to schools with the “unwashed.”

Q    This ranking of schools from A to F — if you talk to a typical fellow in the street, he’s likely to say, “Oh, that doesn’t sound so bad.”

Lesley    It’s overly punitive. I’ll try to make this a very short dissertation on cognitive psychology: In recent years, there has been a great deal of research done on the brain and how we learn and remember. There’s an almost universal opinion now, based on very careful research over a long period of time, that when you introduce fear or anxiety or isolation or threats or if a kid comes to school from a high-stress home — somebody got killed in the housing project last night or there was a gang fight where somebody got knifed — any kind of stress or fear or anxiety not only impedes learning, it actually stops learning. People like William Glasser, a famous cognitive psychiatrist who is dead now, advocated strongly and with great passion that schools need to do everything they can to remove any element of fear from the school setting.

People do their best work when they are free from fear. Teachers do better when they’re not scared to death and teachers are scared to death right now. And not only fear and threats that arise out of discipline situations but grades themselves are criticism and a threat to kids. Teacher evaluations are threatening to teachers. Self-evaluation may be the best possible way to motivate people because we all are probably harder on ourselves than our bosses are and we want to do better. Schools have increasingly become places of high stress and fear for everyone involved, including principals, and that is not motivational and inspirational.

It’s taken the joy out of learning — and learning is supposed to be a joyful thing and empowering. Kids sometimes asked, “Is this going to be on the test?” But now that’s all they think about. And teachers don’t teach anything that won’t be on the test and kids won’t study anything that won’t be on the test. So when you grade a school and you give a school an F — let’s say University High School gets an F — what purpose does that serve? Does that make the school get better? It’s all about undermining the credibility of the school so they can privatize.

Q    Let’s assume you head key education committees in the Legislature. Name two things you would do to put us on the road to seriously fixing our public schools?

Lesley    My two things would be to adequately and equitably fund the schools so they have the resources to deliver opportunities to learn to every kid. The other would be that we would test but the tests would be diagnostic or formative assessment and would not be used in any public way to humiliate kids or teachers or schools. And so we would end the high-stakes nature of testing and that would remove that element of fear or dread. It would also allow teachers to teach what is meaningful rather than what is going to be on the test. I mean, you can still have standardized tests. You just wouldn’t use them to punish people with.

Q    It seems public education advocates got themselves outmaneuvered 20 years ago.

Lesley    We’re in the damned pot of boiling water.

Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.