Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Texas school choice

Jerry Stratton, December 17, 2014

Texas Senate Education Committee

“Did he just tell us that parents can’t be trusted with their own children?” “Ignore it and think of your after-committee martini.”

If I were to tell you that education reformers in Texas were complaining about schools that were:

  • unaccountable
  • financially mismanaged
  • and that provide no due process

I think people who have read about crazy zero-tolerance policies and teachers and school administrators going to jail would think I was talking about public schools. But no, the teacher organizations in Texas think that being able to choose your children’s schools—and remove them with no state pushback would mean that the school faces no accountability. That not having the government to bail them out would mean financial mismanagement. And that due process is even necessary when all you have to do is say “you have no authority over my child”.

I heard all of this during the Texas Senate Committee on Education’s public testimony hearing on school choice programs.

Part of the disconnect between education reform advocates and the forces of the status quo is, whose money is it, anyway? Joe Carnas the 3rd of The Texas Latino Education Coalition (4:23–4:24) thinks that parents should have no control over where their school monies go because it isn’t their money. Allowing them to choose non-government schools has nothing to do with their choice:

Truly one of the pillars of Texas government is the institution of education. Parents should have the choice to send their children to private or parochial schools but not with public monies.

Choice, you see, is inappropriate when parents might make the wrong choice, and when it comes to giving parents a choice, every choice is a bad one:

… the debate over vouchers during previous legislative sessions has moved approaches into parallel discussions over other privatization policy issues such as tax-credit scholarships, equal opportunity scholarships, parent trigger laws, home rule charter districts, and charter school expansions. Choice, senators, is a farce when the choice is a bad one.

And the issue is one of control, as well. These groups see that government schools control parents and students, and think that somehow a private institution that has no power will exercise the same control.

[The Latino Education Task Force Agenda] rejects a diversion of public funds to schools unaccountable to publicly-elected governing boards, or to schools who do not have to meet the special needs of all students in Texas but rather can choose their own students.

The idea that the students will choose their own schools is completely over his head. When he goes to the supermarket, he buys whatever the corporations told him to buy. He has no choice in the matter. He has what David Goldhill, in Catastrophic Care: How American Health Care Killed My Father, calls “island thinking”, thinking in terms of forcing the consumer when in reality reform means that:

All a consumer has to do is choose, because in a consumer-driven economy the producers and sellers chase consumers, not the other way around.

Teresa Roberson of “Coalition SOAUS, Save Our Austin Urban Schools”, talked about the financial mismanagement that government schools save us from (4:26–4:27):

Private and religious schools are not required to provide students with the same level of educational service and support as they are guaranteed in public schools. For example, private[sic] schools follow outside laws that protect students with special needs. There is a substantial evidence from numerous long-term studies that vouchers of any kind do not raise student achievements, evidence of mismanagement has been reported in states around the country that have created tax credit tuition programs and concerns have been raised about the lack of public accountability as well as the failure of private schools to serve all students’ needs.

It’s as if they think that since local governments favor schools with lopsided administrations, that parents will, too, ignoring teacher quality, cost, and the school’s record with students.

Finally, Rhonda Stanton of The Arc of Texas (4:36–4:38) appears to have no idea what the word “choice” even means.

The Arc of Texas cannot support any school choice program that does not guarantee the student’s right to a free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. We’ve heard several people refer to this today, and I just wanted to reiterate that some of the things that you would be losing when you take public school dollars and provide them to a private school/public school choice programs would be you would lose the opportunity to have an individual education program, you would lose the opportunity to be in a least-restrictive environment, you would lose the opportunity to require transition planning and services, to provide instruction by highly-qualified teachers to ensure that students receive supplementary services or appropriate related services including transportation. And most importantly parents would lose their due process rights.

Appears to have no idea about what choice means, except that she does recognize that parents of special needs kids in the current regime of public schools have pretty much no choice at all:

We do realize that many parents in special education do have less power, I would say, than the rest of the parents in that school and that they don’t necessarily feel empowered in a systemic way to change things in their school and so there are some things that some schools do that are best practices that we could look at such as having local special-ed parent advisory committees, having parent liaisons, having local IEP facilitation, which we passed last session, parent surveys, parent training, inclusion on district and campus improvement teams, if there were representatives. So there’s a lot of things we can do to hopefully empower parents and give them more say so in what happens in their schools.

Lindsay Gustafson

“We don’t want to protect the status quo. We just don’t like new ideas.”

Rather than empower parents by letting them choose their school, or even choose to band together to create their own custom school, the Arc of Texas recommends more committees and meetings.

Public schools have a very tough time with special needs kids, precisely because they are a one-size-fits-all system. The school must fit everyone. And the reason that public schools must be a one-size-fits-all is that all students are required to go to them unless they opt-out. That private schools don’t have to cater to a one-size-fits-all scheme is an advantage for parents: they can choose the school that best fits their children.

Choice also means that when scandals happen at a school, parents can choose to send their children to a different school. They don’t need to penetrate layers of administrative shields to transfer their children.

Most of the problems with the single-government-school model stem from them being the only choice for most people, due to people having to pay taxes to fund the school and then only being able to use those taxes in one place. The reason public schools need something like the legal system’s due process is that they are the only choice. A private school isn’t going to suspend your child for pointing his fingers at another classmate because they need that customer. If they kick that child out they also lose that money. Public schools can apply crazy zero tolerance rules because it doesn’t cost them anything.

And if a private school does start going crazy, you can take your child out immediately. A private school isn’t going to send law enforcement to your home to force you to send your child back.

When it comes to holding public schools accountable, organizations against choice are against that, too. They don’t even like testing public schools. Immediately following Stanton’s testimony, Matt Prewett of the Texas Parents Union (4:41–4:43) declared that standardized testing should never be used to hold schools accountable, only students. That is, the data should not be used in aggregate, but rather only to apply to each individual. Individual student, of course, not individual teacher.

Let me be very clear here. Standardized test scores should be used for assessing students, not public schools. Standardized test scores should be used primarily to empower parents, students, and administrators.

Number three.[sic—there was no “Number one” or “Number two”.] If annual standardized testing doesn’t directly benefit the students taking the test, then the classes and the test need to be redesigned. Semester-long classes, for example, or using competency-based testing to assess the students.

If students don’t do well on the test, then it’s the test’s fault. Tests should make no judgements or criticisms. They should only give happy, empowering thoughts.

There was also some discussion about ways to improve the choices parents have even under one-government-school systems, such as “parent trigger”, where, if a school does poorly the parents can force a change in administration.

That’s not a good idea, either, as Lindsay Gustafson (Texas Classroom Teachers Association, 4:53) laughingly explained:

The Texas Classroom Teachers Association does not want to protect the status quo. That is not our job, and it is not what we aim for. We do care about the children and all that goes with it. But I wanted to mention—I’m specifically going to talk about Parent Trigger today.

“We don’t want to protect the status quo. But allowing parents to change the status quo is a bad idea.”

Finally, I’d like to quote one of the pro-choice advocates, Allan Parker, President of the Texas Justice Foundation (4:48):

It’s a little bit sad to see some of the same, old, tired arguments made against school choice that were made against charter schools. That they’ll cream the best students, and in fact they haven’t. And neither would private schools. The students that tend to leave a public school are the ones that are unhappy there. Either because they’re not doing well academically, or they’re being bullied or threatened or something like that, that destroys their ability to learn.

It’s not which system is better. We’re not here arguing for the teams, I’m for school choice for all. I applaud the public school choice programs. There are some great magnet schools. Sometimes the public schools say “we have to educate everyone”. Well, they don’t do it all the same way. They have magnet schools, they have alternative education programs, they have disability, they have gifted and talented, they’ve recognized that one size doesn’t fit all. They just can’t do a good job of educating every student. We have half the campuses that are failing academically acceptable. Do we call for closing public schools? We have an El Paso superintendent who’s in jail for financial mismanagement and fraudulently falsifying the test scores because when you put pressure from the top down you get pressure to falsify documents, to look good for the state.

So what I’m here to argue for is consumer empowerment. Parent empowerment. When you give the parent control over where their share of state funding is going, public or private, you change the incentive system of the entire structure.

There is that sense in which Matt Prewett is correct. Having government use test scores to pressure schools from the top down means that administrators (who are, after all, administering the tests) can pass on corruption by administrators, who need to pass those tests to get paid. When the government pressures itself to do better, far too often what you get is corruption. The pressure we need is from the bottom up. It’s a lot harder to falsify student achievement to the parent who sees that student every day. That alone is a good reason for allowing parents to choose how they spend their share of school money.

In response to Texas 2014: News and Stuff about Texas and the Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Area in 2014.

  1. <- TXU bets against deregulation