During a visit to Waco on Wednesday, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath held up Waco ISD’s in-district charter Transformation Waco as a solution to some of the many troubles facing public school districts in the state.

The state is focused on turning around underperforming campuses through in-district charter school districts, like Transformation Waco, Morath said during a State of Public Education lunch sponsored by the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce and nonprofit Prosper Waco.

“Change is possible but it takes bold leadership, support of the community, and sometimes this stuff is controversial,” he said. “Whatever works for kids, we should be relentless in our pursuit of it.”

He said 40 percent of kindergarten students are 6 months to 2 years behind when they start school, fewer than half of third-grade students are testing at grade level in reading and math, and fewer than a fifth of high school seniors test “college ready” on their SAT or ACT exams.

Most public school students come from low-income families and therefore pose additional challenges for educators, he said.

“Sometimes we get caught up on this idea of poverty in this country, but we’ve got a good social safety net in the United States,” Morath said. “We’re not like India where people die from hunger. We are blessed. … But there are still poverty mindsets.”

Morath praised educators multiple times during the event. At one point, he compared a teacher’s job to be more difficult than that of a brain surgeon because teachers must shape and mold 20 brains every day.

The commissioner’s strategic plan to fix the state’s public education woes centers on increased community partnerships, policy changes at the state level, enhanced accountability and possibly tying teacher pay raises to student standardized test performance.

Citing Gov. Greg Abbott’s pre-election pledge to pay educators six-figure salaries, Morath said Texas’ incremental annual pay raise system needs to be reformed so it does not reward “saints and sinners alike, high performers and low performers.”

“The way you (a teacher) get ahead is because your kids are getting ahead, and we will support you professionally for that,” he said.

He said he would like to see increased rigor at the high school level.

“How do we engineer the high school experience so you’re not just coasting through your senior year going to prom and playoffs, but you are sweating your tail off being prepared to be launched into society? There should not be a more difficult time of your life than your senior year of high school,” he said.

Morath said he envisions a shift from traditional high schools to innovative high schools that offer trade certificates and associates degrees. On average, six percent of students who graduate from an Early College High School in Texas do so with an associate degree, he said.

In a timed panel discussion during the event Wednesday, Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson, Midway ISD Superintendent George Kazanas and La Vega ISD Superintendent Sharon Shields shared the challenges they face as school districts with limited resources.

“From time to time you’ll hear someone say that throwing more money at it (public education) won’t solve the problem, and typically the people that have that type of disposition are the people that have the money, have the authority and they have the resources,” Shields said. “Money does matter.”

After a fire that killed two children in Waco on Friday, an 11-year-old and his uncle arrived at the steps of an elementary school with no food, no clothes and unable to bury the two children, Nelson said.

“It’s our responsibility to wrap around that 11-year-old and make sure they get food, coats and make sure those children get buried,” Nelson said. “… We have a group of haves and have-nots in this city, and there’s only a few of us focused on making sure those who are not as fortunate have the same opportunities as those who have been blessed with home atmosphere and opportunities. This is our work every day, and we’re very proud of the work we’re offering the city.”

In response to concerns about limited resources, Morath said the amount the state spends per student has increased over the years.

“Our system is remarkably efficient because it is still pretty cheap compared to other systems around the country,” Morath said.

State public education funding has decreased $1,110 per student in the past decade, when adjusted for inflation, according to Missy Bender, Founder of Taxparency Texas and president of the Plano ISD school board who spoke to at the Waco Chamber’s school finance forum on Halloween.

“Our educators are working their tail off doing more and as much as they can with the resources they have,” Morath said.

He said he is comforted by the work of the Texas Education Agency’s Commission on Public School Finance and hopeful funding questions will be addressed in the state legislative session that starts in January.

“The American dream is not for the faint of heart. … Our vision is that all of our kids coming out of that system are prepared for the American Dream, but that’s just not where we are right now,” he said.

Lauren Dodd has covered education for the Tribune-Herald since May 2018. A native of Beaumont, Dodd attended Rhodes College and joined the Tribune-Herald in 2018. She previously worked as a reporter at the Seguin Gazette and the Killeen Daily Herald.

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