Maybe you have heard about this. Maybe you haven’t. But here in Texas, school districts, teachers’ unions and others are suing the state for additional funding. That case will soon be decided by the state supreme court. This is a story of how districts doing poorly for children in the Lone Star State managed to do the seemingly impossible: Win support from state legislators and courts to all but end standards and accountability while obtaining more money from the state to meet requirements to improve student achievement that essentially no longer exist. Both legislators and judges seem estranged and apparently unaware of the deceptions fed to them.
Districts in the state claim that they need dramatically more money to meet challenging college-readiness requirements mandated by the legislature. In short, current funding isn’t adequate. Theoretically, if districts were fulfilling their mandate to improve student achievement, this request may be fair. But there’s one problem: Those districts, along with their allies, have steadily and successfully lobbied districts to eliminate them. After years of working the halls of Austin, they succeeded in 2013, as college-readiness requirements were tossed into the trash.
What districts in Texas are doing is duplicitous, though not uncommon anywhere when it comes to the goals of all public education systems of increasing the flow of money and lowering expectations to help all students. Districts always talk out of both sides of their mouths to get what they want.
These efforts were decades in the making. Thirty years ago, reacting to Texas high school graduates who couldn’t read their own diplomas, the state legislature wisely put in place the expectation that a student needed to demonstrate on a test at least some minimum level of knowledge to be awarded a high school diploma.
Every couple of years, legislators backed by reformers as well as by political leaders such as now-former President George W. Bush would increase the content expectations to graduate, changing the name of the tests from Basic Skills to Minimum Skills to Academic Skills. By 2007, the Legislature put in place a 10-year plan which would require that by 2017, a student would need to be assessed on whether they had learned the high level content in order to be considered college ready. They called that test Academic Readiness.
By the later part of the last decade, Texas legislators adopted a series of vigorous and bipartisan college readiness policies. Appropriately, the Legislature ensured all entering high school students would be exposed to the academic content that research demonstrates will prepare them for success in college. They also directed the Texas Education Agency to ensure that there would be consequences for those school districts and campuses which did a poor job preparing our students for the demanding world of college and high-performance work. Because of the complexity, districts and the Texas Education Agency years were allowed to phase in the “college and career readiness” components over a period of years, slowly but surely to increase student performance levels.
So what happened?
In response to poor implementation of the law, and substantial pressure from lobbyists allied with the school districts, state legislators and the Texas Education Agency have dismantled the college readiness policies, and more. By 2013, districts along with affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers successfully lobbied the Legislature to eliminate state testing of college readiness. They also eliminated the rigorous course of study that exposed the vast majority of students to a college readiness curriculum. Instead, they placed most entering high schoolers on the lowest course of study. They even eliminated the need to pass all of the few graduation tests that remained to earn a high school diploma.
Districts and their allies swore that they would use this proposed flexibility judiciously. Legislative leaders believed them. They should have known better.
This past May, it was revealed that 90 percent of those who had failed one or two previously required graduation tests were handed a diploma anyway. Even worse, it isn’t as if students were passing rigorous exams. Thanks to the efforts of districts and their allies, the Texas Education Agency lowered the passing scores to levels that can only be called objectionable. For the math graduation test, students only need to answer 37 percent of the questions correctly to pass.
Meanwhile the state’s accountability isn’t aligned with ensuring that all children achieve college-and-career readiness. This is because 90-to-95 percent of schools in are given an acceptable accountability — even though college-readiness tests such as ACT show that fewer than one-in-five Texas high school graduates score at a level deemed college-ready. This can be seen in data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board that shows that the state produced 246,500 bachelor’s and associate degrees and certificates in 2014, barely more than produced two years ago; this includes 79,700 Latino young people obtaining higher ed credentials (or just 6,000 more than in 2012), and even fewer young black adults (those numbers have only increased by 1,100 a year in the same period). Any hopes of 550,000 Texans obtaining higher ed credentials by 2030 is fantasy.
So, if the state considers nearly all schools acceptable, and if the Texas school system graduates almost 90 percent of students, where’s the need, much less a constitutional basis for, substantially more money? Beats me.
In 2015, in front of the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs complained, “Running school is hard but we can do it if you give us more money.” And, for the past few years to the Legislature, the education lobbyists complained, “Running school is too hard and we can’t do it. Make it easier.”
It’s time to wake up and call out the plaintiffs for their hypocrisy. Uttering cries of difficulty and helplessness, school districts have been playing both sides to get exactly what it wants: a lower bar, with higher funding.
If districts and their allies truly want to ensure that their students are college ready, then they should support the court’s ordering the state to restore the requirements that get kids college ready. If they don’t want higher standards, then they should own it. But then, they can’t ask for more money to reach standards they helped dismantle.
For the sake of our children and our economic future, I hope at least superintendents are willing to publicly, loudly and demonstrably choose the former. Hope springs eternal.