2015: An agenda for education reform

Photo by Jeff Heimsath

The momentum is in place to make 2015 a banner year for meaningful education reform in Texas. Across the state, parents, community and business leaders, and lawmakers from both parties are united in their conviction that no Texas child should be forced to attend a failing public school.

According to the Texas Education Agency, 297 campuses currently operating in the state — serving almost 148,000 Texas children — have been failing for two or more consecutive years. This is unacceptable.

My organization, Texans for Education Reform, is advocating several common-sense initiatives in this year's legislative session to directly confront this problem. To begin with, parents need to know how their child’s school is performing, so easy-to-understand A-F ratings for every campus are essential. Parents should also have the ability to transfer to the campus in their district that is best suited for their child, and districts need the transportation resources to facilitate those transfers.

Research shows that effective teachers are the most essential component in the classroom to improve student outcomes, so we support strengthening teacher evaluation, professional development and compensation practices to attract and retain the most effective educators. And local communities know best how to educate their unique student populations, so we support changes to existing law that will enable more communities to enhance programs at the local level and exercise greater local control. 

We also believe parents should be empowered to intervene in their child’s chronically failing school after two years rather than five years as required under current state law, and that a turnaround district should be established to ensure there is intervention in the most chronically failing campuses. An Opportunity School District, with the authority and resources to intervene in poor-performing public schools, will finally end the cycle of failure year after year.   

These proposals do not require massive funding shifts or a complete redesign of our education system, and polls show they are favored by most Texans.

However, some or all of these proposals may face stiff challenges in the 84th Legislature from narrow but entrenched forces of adult interests in the education system who are strongly committed to maintaining the status quo.

During the last legislative session, these forces attempted to block even seemingly noncontroversial reforms such as expanding access to online courses and increasing the number of successful public charter schools.

You have undoubtedly heard the attacks on the motives and principles of education reformers who are committed to fixing failing schools. Instead of welcoming the growing consensus that we can no longer tolerate schools that are failing our students, advocates of the status quo charge that those of us who want change are opposed to public education, anti-teacher or even, somehow, in it for the money.

Reform opponents also try to run out the clock by turning the debate away from failing schools to other issues that may be important but do not address the most urgent problems.

For instance, expanding pre-kindergarten in Texas is an important debate, and pre-K may prove to be an essential component of our education system. But it will require huge investments that will be lost if we send students who have completed pre-K to failing or underperforming elementary schools. We simply must address the systemic problems facing our current K-12 public school system.

For opponents of education reform, it always seems to come down to a belief that the only answer to our failing schools is more funding, but we know this is not true. In comparison after comparison, it has been shown that money spent is not a reliable predictor of improved academic outcomes for our children.

For just one example, consider that Washington, D.C., which spends the most per student nationally and outspends Texas by almost 3-to-1, gets decidedly lower math and reading educational outcomes. In fact, D.C. students’ math and reading results are dead last when comparing eighth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress scores nationwide.

Denunciation of reformers and diversion strategies blocked several important reforms in the last legislative session, but they are not as likely to be successful this year. The statewide education reform coalition is diverse and growing.

Communities plagued by failing schools are committed to change, and they are galvanized and working in collaboration with parents and business and community leaders across the state to take action. It is unlikely that any issue in the last decade has had such broad support or such urgency.

We have a good foundation to build on. There are some stunning innovations and success stories in Texas schools. I am optimistic that in partnership with the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and legislators, 2015 will be the year of education reform and will usher in long-needed, transformational changes in Texas public schools to ensure that every Texas student is prepared for success in work and life.

Disclosure: Texans for Education Reform was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Julie Linn

President of Texans for Education Reform