If one theme surfaced in Texas Tribune founder Evan Smith’s frantic but engaging interview with Republican state Reps. Charles “Doc” Anderson and Kyle Kacal at last week’s forum at Baylor University, it was how term after legislative term has passed — especially with Doc Anderson — without critical issues such as school finance and property-tax relief being smartly resolved. Meanwhile, legislators have fiddled with thoroughly nutty right-wing priorities such as public bathroom usage by transgendered people — clearly a solution in search of a problem.
Amidst it all, one does wonder why long-suffering public school teachers, the spouses who love them and the parents who supposedly value them for educating their children haven’t demanded more of our state leaders — and why they haven’t booted legislative “furniture” from elected office for repeated failure to get down to brass tacks in a state that has the 10th largest economy in the world, yet ranks 42nd in public education nationally. The answer may well figure in priorities cited at last week’s ceremony at University High School honoring 2018-2019 outstanding teachers from throughout Waco Independent School District. Presiding over the ceremony: Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson and Republican state Sen. Brian Birdwell.
“I stay so busy coaching and teaching and starting a family, it’s really hard to keep up with what’s going on in the state,” Tennyson Middle School sixth-grade teacher Michael Jones, 30, told me. “Really I want to see a lot more communication, the routes of communication with school districts and superintendents improved.”
I asked if this was not happening already. Certainly such discussions unfold at Waco ISD trustee meetings. They figure in daily reporting by such news media as the Waco Tribune-Herald and Texas Tribune online.
“My thing is I don’t know if it’s happening,” Jones admitted sheepishly. “And that’s my naïvete. But as long as communications are open — and this is where we’ve benefited on our campus — things can become successful. And this would be like Dr. Nelson said today: It would involve the people who are decision-makers and those of us who are the rubber hitting the road. If there’s a channel for feedback and concern, just some general communication between those parties, we might be able to identify problems, I think, and guide legislation much faster and make changes to legislation much quicker.”
Jones’ response confirms what education experts such as Waco’s own Bonnie Lesley of the nonprofit Texas Kids Can’t Wait have repeatedly told me whenever I express reservations about classroom teachers as an electoral force that either fails to vote in its best interests or votes not at all: Teachers are buried in the all-consuming daily business of enforcing discipline in classrooms while ensuring young charges learn and prepare for a much-feared state test. Better teachers also encourage such skills as critical thinking and creativity. And they ensure slower students don’t fall too far behind and gifted students don’t become bored to the point of disengagement. Between that and managing families and other responsibilities, the complexities of, say, school finance get little attention.
Many teachers, to their credit, are more interested in what might help students face challenges up ahead — something that Brittany Foster-Wyatt, 30, outstanding teacher at Cesar Chavez Middle School, emphasized when pressed about legislative priorities. She focused on students, many of them economically disadvantaged: “More resources for our babies, more resources for our children to be able to do a little more hands-on activities, such as lab stations. And field trips, so our kids can go out and experience and see the world. Some of our children never get to leave the community. They need to see what’s out there.”
Greg Oubre, 56, a third-grade teacher at Highland Elementary, underlined concerns about state testing and pressures it places on entire campuses: “I would like to see a little less of it. The kids are stressed because they have to pass that test. And the teachers are stressed. I would give them multiple chances where it’s not held only one day when they might not feel good.”
Bobby Carpenter, 54, who teaches construction science at the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy, did cite a bill Doc Anderson steered to passage in 2017 allowing schools to buy accident and liability insurance to cover juniors and seniors in internships such as at construction sites. That suggests legislators such as Anderson, Birdwell and Kacal aren’t entirely aloof. But are they tackling their duties to the extent they (and we) expect of public school teachers daily?