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The fight over public school funding and Texas’ next generation: Q&A with ‘Texas Promise’ filmmaker Vanessa Roth

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Filmmaker Vanessa Roth

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Vanessa Roth’s newest film, “The Texas Promise,” focuses on the ongoing fight over funding for public schools; those state leaders pressing to redirect some taxpayer funds to private and religious schools; and the students, teachers, parents, administrators and school board members on the front lines in public education. The film will be screened at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the University High School Performing Arts Center, 3201 S. New Road. The film is being sponsored by Waco Independent School District, Pastors for Texas Children and Texas Kids Can’t Wait. Admission is free.

In an interview with the Trib, Roth discusses complexities so intricate in school finance that analysis breaks down into what are labeled “golden pennies” and “copper pennies” in the school tax rate and what they can be used for; a public increasingly uninformed about policy issues that could further impact such matters as classroom size, counseling and early childhood development; and some of the pivotal figures in the public education battles now being waged. Among them: Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, which advocates for a “free public education system”; former State District Judge John Dietz, who last summer ruled Texas’ system of school finance unconstitutional (the case has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court); and Bertie Simmons, the 80-year-old principal of Furr High School in Houston Independent School District.

Q    You’ve spent a lot of your career as a documentary filmmaker focusing on children. I see films such as “Taken In: The Lives of America’s Foster Children,” “Schools of the 21st Century,” “American Teacher” and now “The Texas Promise” in your list of credits. What keeps bringing you back to this subject?

A    It’s something instinctive in me that gravitates to kids — and if it’s not about kids, it’s about the underrepresented people, whether families or individuals. It has a lot to do with the importance of certain voices being heard and the stories from those sorts of people.

Q    Why did the controversy over public education in Texas catch your attention? It’s complicated, it’s stupefying on certain levels and, as one or two people in your film mention, a lot of folks aren’t even paying attention to the stakes involved. One school official says in the film, “We need an educated and informed citizenry.” To which I say, “Good luck!”

A    (Laughter.) Exactly. I’ve been doing films in and around education for probably the last 10 years. I’ve been doing feature films but also working with different facets of education, different foundations and different schools across the country. And I heard about what was going on in Texas with $5.4 billion in state budget cuts and all the concerns about these cuts being unconstitutional. So much that’s going on in Texas with education is happening everywhere across the country.

Q    Are you saying that what Texas is fighting over regarding public education is a kind of microcosm?

A    It’s sort of both a reflection and a warning. One of the demographers in the film actually talks about the demographics of Texas and variety of ethnicities and races and economic differences and how the population demographics of Texas are what the rest of the country will look like as the years go by. Texas just happens to be the first place that is dealing with a lot of different policy issues and different directions that our country and culture are headed. So for all those reasons, I thought it would be an interesting place to look at this ongoing discussion of public education.

Q    I assume you’re talking of Steve Murdock, who once was our state demographer. I noticed at one point in the film he says that how well minority populations do in terms of education, jobs and standard of living will determine how well Texas and the United States do in the 21st century. And, of course, much of this focuses on the rampant poverty in Texas.

A    That’s a really profound, prophetic statement he’s making. I know he believes and sees through the data. The point to me of this film and really listening to the stories of people’s lives is that we need a culture to invest in educating all kids, and I don’t just mean financially. We have to value not only the education of our own children but our neighbors’ children. We all have to live together in a society and look out for everybody. To me that’s what this film’s about — making sure people have access to opportunity and the resources they need to do good for themselves and the world around them.

Q    I wonder if anyone’s really paying attention. At one point in the film you talk with retired school administrator Bonnie Lesley and former Waco Mayor Linda Ethridge, founders of Texas Kids Can’t Wait. And they talk about how the state of Texas cut some $5.4 billion in 2011 and Bonnie goes on to say that, when Waco Independent School District was forced to close several neighborhood campuses, some people blamed the school board, not the Texas Legislature.

A    I think just in the nature of us all being human beings, we’re too often in our own busy lives. We have our kids and our lives and our friends and our jobs and sometimes it seems it takes everything out of you just to deal with all that, let alone spend time trying to understand the meaning of, say, copper pennies and golden pennies in the school finance formula or the Robin Hood philosophy in school funding redistribution. And all of this can feel very daunting. When the film opened in Austin, a group of 100 or so high school students came to see the film from Houston. And after they watched the film, they said, “The thing we were most surprised about is we thought our teachers were the ones making us take these tests and were deciding themselves which tests we take.”

Q    Really?

A    When you talk to students, from their perspective everything is being decided by the teacher. And that compares to how some parents might think that the local public school is making a lot of decisions that happen for that public school and they aren’t aware that their school boards aren’t always making these decisions but that a lot of these decisions are actually coming down from state and federal levels. My goal in this film was really creating an awareness, trying to break some of the myths and rhetoric about local public schools being to blame for so much of this. There’s been some language that makes it seem local public schools are the ones that are failing. A bigger-picture discussion has to begin with how decisions are actually made and I think we’re then all responsible for trying to pay attention as much as possible, even in our busy lives.

Q    As you note in the film, the school voucher movement has been strong. Your film focuses somewhat on state Sen. Donna Campbell, who filed another bill in 2015 to put public money into private or religious schools and without all the restrictions and mandates that the state forces on public schools. She and others say this competition could actually force the public schools to shape up. Don’t they have a point, given some of the failures we see in public schools?

A    It’s really not comparing apples to apples. Traditional public schools have different mandates on them. Their funding is different, the way they’re allowed to spend money is different and the biggest thing about this voucher-charter school movement is that local traditional public schools have to take every child who comes through the door. That’s their charge, that’s what they’re there to do. And the people who are in the schools are working in most cases very hard to make sure they meet the needs of those kids. Many, many schools in Texas and across the country are called failing schools but the larger problem is more about the resources they have and how limited they are. The more limited they are in their resources, the more things crumble. If you take away after-school tutoring or English as a Second Language help or even something that brings a kid to school like art or sports, if you have to get rid of a counselor or a librarian, suddenly those kids aren’t getting the resources they need to engage in the 21st century work world. And that community is going to then have struggles and challenges. Comparing charters and traditional schools is not valid because they’re just not set up the same way.

Q    You focused a lot on then-state Sen. Dan Patrick and his battles with then-state Sen. Wendy Davis, who mounted a filibuster protesting the $5.4 billion in cuts to public education in 2011. I think of myself as fairly conservative, yet it seems at times an element of the far right has it out for public schools. So where does this attitude come from?

A    I don’t know that there’s one answer. I think that in Texas you have Donna Campbell and Dan Patrick on the far right, but there are also plenty of very progressive or liberal people who are behind some of this reform movement. And I think it has really good intentions. I don’t think all this really falls along party lines. It seems that it tends to in Texas, but it doesn’t follow that pattern across the country. Probably it has something to do with beliefs in privatization being more embedded in conservative thought, but I don’t want to make that a blanket statement because I think it’s too complex. I mean, Donna Campbell and Dan Patrick are really behind the voucher movement and from what I understand Dan Patrick is a pretty religious person. Maybe this comes from his own values and morals and that he just believes these sorts of schools will do better for kids. That’s his own belief system, not necessarily his party’s belief.

Q    Right.

A    And if I can veer off the question a little bit, we have had comments on the film from people who haven’t actually seen the film where they say, “Oh, this is some liberal piece of work and it’s just the Democrats complaining again.” And the truth about the film is you have, for instance, this principal Mark Terry [formerly of Eubanks Intermediate School in Southlake] who is very religious and very conservative and believes in public education. There are many conservatives in Texas such as him who truly believe in the public schools. Maybe we’re just not hearing from them.

Q    One of the people you interviewed drew a difference between testing and high-stakes testing. I know the Texas Legislature did try to get away from some of that by reducing the number of end-of-course tests from 15 to five in 2013. Is that enough or do we still have a problem with high-stakes testing?

A    The film, I think, begs the question: What is the measure of a student’s learning? Is a high-stakes test something that is really going to evaluate that student or teacher or school in a way that furthers the goal of everybody, which is to educate the child and help that child graduate and go on to become a productive member of society? It really gets down to the ideological difference on what you hope a test does. Is it something that shows what students learn through the year or is it being used as a punitive thing not just involving the student but to evaluate the teacher and school? From what I see in different schools, there are so many things that play into how a student does on a test.

Q    I noticed by the way that you focused on an 80-year-old principal at Furr High School in Houston Independent School District. What is she doing running an inner-city school where she must deal with gangs?

A    Bertie Simmons is fabulous. To me she is just an incredible person, someone I learned about when we were in the middle of the film. I was drawn by her and inspired by her. She was brought out of retirement to be a principal at this high school in Houston where they had been having a lot of challenges and trouble. The thing about her is that she’s very bottom line, she’s not afraid of anything or anybody, but she cares deeply about her students and her staff and is very protective of them all. She has a belief that she can help empower students to do great things. She offers a lot of different things at her school for her students to get involved in. The big thing I saw is that she really respects her kids and her staff and the parents. She’s unique. I’m not saying every school has to have a Bertie but she’s fun to watch in this film. And because she’s 80 and has been in the school system a long time, she has some great insights into what’s going on because she’s seen a lot in the schools. One thing I admire about her is that she’s not afraid to talk about education. I mean, one thing we found while doing this film is that a lot of principals and teachers were really afraid to talk to us about what they felt about education.

Q    Why are they afraid?

A    Well, they’re afraid for their jobs, that they’re going to say the wrong thing or because they don’t want the pushback or for the kids to hear it or whatever. The thing about Bertie is that she doesn’t have those fears so she says what she feels and it just happens to involve a lot of experience. And one thing that impressed me, and I don’t think we have it in the film, but she believes educators, people who work in education and have been in education, really need a pivotal place at the table when it comes to setting education policy. She says what’s happening is that so many education decisions are now being made by politicians and business people who may have really good intentions and good ideas but are still not based in years of living and working in education. That to me is really important as we move forward in education policy. We need to make sure that educators, principals and people who work at the schools have a place at the table and are respected.

Q    Was there a moment during the filming where some sort of epiphany about education hit you?

A    That’s a good question. I’ve worked in and with public schools and private schools and charters and I’ve worked at a school in India for six years and I’ve seen this topic from all different angles. And when I look at Texas, I see this plethora of issues that, like you said earlier, is stupefying it is so overwhelming. If there was an epiphany, it was some sort of clarity that making the film has given me about the idea of investing in all kids and again I don’t mean that financially, though that’s important.

Q    What’s the most memorable reaction you’ve had to the film when it’s been screened?

A    Judge Dietz came to one of the screenings in Austin and was telling me he was going to be retiring and that he was so moved by the film and people in the film. He was moved because the film takes a lot of these issues and puts them in focus. But for him the stories of the people in the film — he said it was important for him to see that and to really put a face to education policies and the legal questions he’s had to grapple with.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.