For many, the horrific murder of George Floyd brought to light the issues of police brutality and systemic racism that this country continues to face. The problem is not new, but we find ourselves at a moment when millions of Americans are finally willing to address it. While some have taken to the streets to protest, others continue to fight for better policies around policing and racial justice. It is important that we lean into these conversations, even as we examine our educational system. We cannot forget that long-standing institutional barriers and lowered expectations plague our schools and have left far too many black and Hispanic students with limited options after high school. We cannot forget that many children, especially black boys, become targets of negative disciplinary policies and forced interactions with the criminal justice system at a young age. We cannot forget that undocumented students are put at a heightened risk when law enforcement gets involved in school disciplinary matters. Racism does indeed pervade every part of the system.
As the national discussion about the role of law enforcement in society continues, it is important for us to examine the policies and practices of policing in public schools. What are students experiencing in their interactions with both Houston ISD police and city/county officers? How are we balancing physical safety with socio-emotional safety? Does our budget reflect our values with regard to punitive versus restorative practices? These are the types of questions that administrators, elected officials, and community members need to be asking. At a moment when so many agree that the status quo is unacceptable, we cannot neglect the opportunity to develop a system that better serves our children.
Now that we are adjusting to the concepts of remote learning and virtual gathering spaces, many school and district leaders are looking to the future. What will the learning environment look, sound, and feel like if/when we return in the fall? This is the type of question that we must address now in order to ensure that the “new normal” look forward to is actually better than the old one we were forced to abandon.
One thing is certain: the status quo has failed far too many children. And the demands of virtual classrooms and online learning have only exacerbated the gaps that we have tolerated for far too long. The stark difference between families and households with abundant resources and those without will continue to manifest itself in what kids know and what they are able to do if we don’t take this opportunity to insist on dramatic changes in public education.
As we continue to grapple with the difficulties of getting the right resources to students all over the city over the next few weeks, we must also shift our attention to how we can fundamentally improve the system in the months and years to come. Decision-makers at the local, state, and federal level should be insisting that more money be invested in public education. If nothing else, we have seen over the last couple of months that schools – despite ever decreasing budgets – have long provided basic needs for children and their families. Unfortunately, the next few years will probably involve people needing more from our schools, not less. Funding must be a top priority.
At the same time, we should anticipate children coming back into classrooms with even greater academic needs in the fall. The 3-month “summer slide” will look more like a 6-month “pandemic slide,” for most kids. Many children will return to school from places that were not physically or emotionally safe, and all of them will be dealing with the trauma of living through a global pandemic. Teaching our children in the aftermath of COVID-19 will be no small task. We must ensure that we have well-compensated, well-trained, highly-skilled, effective educators at the helm. Now is precisely the time when we should examine how we recruit, train, and evaluate teachers and do everything we can to ensure the highest quality instruction for all kids.
Finally, all needs will not be the same. As mentioned, the last few months have repeatedly shown us stark differences in the resources that children and families can access. As we begin preparing for a new school year, we must recognize that all needs will not be the same and demand an equitable allocation of resources. Grappling with these issues while still in the midst of a global crisis is no small task, but our children deserve it.
The purpose of public education is to ensure a common foundation of knowledge and skills for all Americans, regardless of their background, neighborhood, or socio-economic status. While we, as a society, have fallen short of this ideal for a very long time – many would argue that we have never actually realized it – few things bring to light just how far we are from providing our children with an equitable, functional education system like a major public health emergency.
As school districts across the country attempt to continue serving students and families during the COVID-19 crisis, district leaders find themselves not only taking on the task of finding new ways to facilitate teaching and learning but also managing logistics for food distribution, counseling, and a number of other social services. While schools have always been a primary gathering place within communities, this global pandemic has revealed that we have allowed schools to bear an outsized share of our collective obligation to meet the basic needs of millions of children. The cuts in state funding to public education were damaging enough within the normal educational context, but in a time when educators are charged with reaching families from a safe distance, the lack of funding, foresight, and infrastructure – not just in the education system but in many parts of the social safety net – is disturbing.
Although the current strain is evident in areas other than public education, few segments of society will suffer the long-term consequences that under-served and marginalized children will. As the system struggles to meet the basic needs of food, shelter, and healthcare, things like instruction and learning are put on the back burner. And while this is a necessary shift in mindset for the time being, the longer-term ramifications will inevitably lead to even wider gaps in achievement and opportunity for years to come.
As the nation begins to forge a pathway forward after the peak of the global pandemic, we must make sure that public education is not just functionally better, but that it is well-resourced and only one part of a robust support system which reflects our deeply-held desire to provide all children with the foundation they need to thrive.
One of the big questions that looms over the potential state intervention in the governance structure of Houston ISD is, “What will change under a Board of Managers?” While this is a question that none of us – not even the TEA Commissioner – can answer with complete certainty, it is still worth considering. Now, more than ever, our community needs to consider the things that can and should change in the state’s largest school district.
Among the cries of those who resist intervention from the state, there have been few if any calls for major change on behalf of underserved children. Rather than rallying around vague political ideals, we should be demanding innovative solutions and meaningful changes to a status quo that has utterly failed far too many students for decades.
Beyond the very low-hanging fruit of asking for a functional governing body, one that is committed to fostering communication and collaboration among its members, we need to start thinking about the ways that our school district can bring about transformational change in the lives of children. For too long, Houston ISD has struggled to properly identify, place, support, and compensate its most effective teachers and school leaders. This needs to change. Like many school districts across the country, HISD still has not deployed adequate resources to promote pre-K enrollment and establish a solid educational foundation for children and families. This needs to change. Until the external performance audit last year, many of the structures and programs in the district have operated inefficiently and without much oversight. This needs to change. These are just a few of the issues that should be considered, evaluated, and re-evaluated by the incoming board.
As the saying goes, “nothing changes if nothing changes.” Improvement in student outcomes will only come with improvement in the decisions and actions of the adults who run this school district, whether they are elected or appointed. Will there be major changes under a Board of Managers? We can only hope the answer is yes.
Houston ISD Board of Education seats for Districts II and IV are in runoff elections on December 14, 2019. Tomorrow, December 10, 2019 is the last day to early vote. You can see if you live in one of the districts up for election here. Your voice matters, so don’t miss the opportunity to cast your ballot.
You can find an early voting polling location here. On Runoff Election Day, you may vote at any polling location in Harris County, to find the one nearest to you, visit here.
Houston GPS has endorsed candidates in each of the district races who best represent our five core values: impact, equity, collaboration, stewardship, and leadership. You can find more information about the runoff elections and our endorsed candidates, Matt Barnes and Kathy Blueford-Daniels, here. Help us make sure we have qualified trustees in HISD who will put our children first.
As the Houston ISD school board moves forward with its lawsuit against the TEA, it continues to spend money that could be supporting students. From April through August, the district has spent $147,409.12* on attorney fees. This is almost the equivalent of two 20-year teacher salaries in HISD. In August alone, it spent over $80,000.
The private law firm that the HISD board hired to sue the TEA has represented Progreso ISD in a suit against the TEA for four years. Progreso’s claims have been dismissed and the Texas Supreme Court has denied review this month. Progreso ISD still owes attorney’s fees for this four-year ordeal. You can read the opinion of the appellate court dismissing Progreso’s claims here.
If HISD continues down the same path, at the rate it paid its attorneys for the first four months of work, it’s looking at spending upwards of $1,800,000 with a high likelihood of failure. If calculated based on the rate HISD paid in August, the district is looking at over $3,800,000. These calculations do not account for increased attorney’s fees as litigation escalates and demands more work hours.
Houston GPS believes taxpayer dollars should go to providing resources to campuses, paying teachers, and, most importantly, serving the students of HISD. Our money should not be spent defending adults from their own misconduct.
* The August invoice for O’Hanlon, Demerath, & Castillo’s services has been amended and slightly reduced, so numbers have been changed to reflect the newly revised invoice.
Houston ISD Board of Education seats for Districts II, III, IV, and VIII are up for election on November 5, 2019. Today is the last day to register to vote for these elections. To learn how you can register, visit the Harris County Clerk’s website. You can see if you live in one of the districts up for election here. Only 12% of eligible voters participated in the last HISD school board election, making your vote even more important. Your voice matters, so don’t miss the opportunity to cast your ballot.
Houston GPS has endorsed candidates in each of the district races who best represent our five core values: impact, equity, collaboration, stewardship, and leadership. You can find more information about the election and our endorsed candidates here. You can listen to interviews with two of our candidates, Judith Cruz in District VIII and Matt Barnes in District IV, to learn more about them. This November, help us make sure we have qualified trustees in HISD who will put our children first.
On Thursday, September 5, the Houston ISD school board directed the Superintendent to appeal the rating given to Phyllis Wheatley High School by the Texas Education Agency. Given the fact that trustees have not historically imposed such directives on a Superintendent and that HISD administrators were adamant that there is no current basis for an appeal, it’s likely that this vote was motivated by the potential sanctions springing from House Bill 1842. Under the law, the Commissioner of Education is compelled to either close Wheatley or replace the elected board with an appointed board of managers. Given his previous statements on HB 1842, it is likely that the Commissioner would choose the second option.
Repeated throughout the evening was that an appeal of the rating would demonstrate the board’s commitment to “fighting for Wheatley,” or “fighting for students.” It’s worth noting that these statements came only from the trustees themselves and not from any parents, students, alumni or staff from Wheatley High School. It’s also worth noting that there was no discussion about the fact that Wheatley began the school year with two unfilled teaching positions – both in English/Language Arts. Rather than asking why the district would put a campus in its 6th consecutive year of Improvement-Required status in a position to begin the school year short two critical content area teachers, trustees focused conversation on the typical complaints about the state accountability system, ignoring the fact that multiple metrics indicate that the district has repeatedly and systematically failed to meet the needs of many students.
In addition to costing the district time and money, this appeal keeps attention focused squarely on the politics of the school board, rather than on the work that needs to be done to support kids in the classroom. Instead of beginning a discussion about strategic support for campuses and the system-wide changes that need to be implemented, the board took action to protect itself, all while stating the usual political tropes about the accountability system, which is loved when we like the results and hated when we do not.
While I would never advise trustees to continue micromanaging district administration in this way, I should hope that if they choose to continue making directives in the future, it will be to actually meet the needs of students and not just to preserve their own positions.
The 2019-2020 school year begins in just a matter of days, and the Houston ISD School Board will hold their first official business meeting of the year on August 8, 2019. Given the continuous turmoil at the board table and the difficultly the board seems to have with focusing their public conversations on student outcome goals, we felt it would be a good idea to offer suggestions of items that the board could be discussing at this point in the year. It is our hope that trustees take note of the work they could be doing now and avoid the distractions and political rhetoric that so often claim too much of their time and energy.
- Last June, the Houston ISD Board of Education had to convene for a last-minute special meeting to pass a budget for the 2019-2020 school year. In order to prevent another last-minute budget vote next summer, the HISD Board needs collaboratively and collectively set its budget priorities so the administration can create a budget proposal based on those priorities. The HISD school board needs to map out their priorities and the process for creating the budget based on the LBB analysis of the various programs that were implemented last year.
- The HISD Board is under investigation by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) on alleged violations of the Texas Opens Meeting Act and procurement violations. In June 2019, the HISD Board decided to take legal action against the TEA and is using taxpayer’s dollars from an unassigned fund, running HISD into a deeper deficit budget, to pay for their lawyers. Trustees should cooperate with request from the TEA, stop asking for extensions, and terminate their legal actions delaying the TEA’s report of the investigation to the public. Here is a link to a petition asking the Board to do so.
The Houston ISD school board recently passed a measure to spend more meeting time discussing student outcomes. This policy measure – which has taken months to pass – is an obvious step in the right direction, but the fact that three trustees opposed it reveals how far our district still has to go. It is no secret that several trustees will oppose any policy measure that comes from the state, simply because it comes from the state. There are a range of issues that allow people of good will to disagree, but a laser-focus on kids should not be one of them in making policy for a school district. While a focus (in terms of time spent) on student outcome goals is a mandate from the state-appointed conservator, it is also a basic tenant of good governance. This should be a no-brainer for those leading the school district, but we have gotten to a place where political posturing is more important than talking about whether or not kids are learning in our schools.
Some will say they don’t like the connection between student
outcomes and the STAAR, a standardized test that has taken up too much time and
space in Texas classrooms, but it should be noted that the school board has the
authority – according to state guidelines – to use other metrics for defining
“student outcomes,” as long as those metrics are measurable and offer real
information about what our children know and are able to do. It seems that some
members of this board aren’t interested in finding out whether or not we’re
meeting the academic needs of the children in this district.
Another recent policy measure that sadly demonstrated some
trustees’ willingness to put politics before children was the vote to end the
contract with Teach for America (TFA) as a district vendor. Since 1991, Teach
for America has recruited potential teachers to apply to Houston ISD schools
through HISD’s alternative certification program. Principals pay the
organization out of their own school budgets for recruitment and ongoing
professional development, as they would for any other teacher – both traditionally
and alternatively certified. The controversy surrounding Teach for America
specifically is the result of entrenched political ideology and has very little
to do with HISD schools and students.
This decision only results in a smaller applicant pool and fewer options for principals. The district has hundreds of vacancies to fill in the next 10 weeks and sits in a state where over 50% of public school teachers enter the profession through alternative certification. Teach for America Houston has a long track record of recruiting and placing teachers in critical needs positions (Bilingual/ESL, STEM fields, etc.). To claim that the system is somehow improved by ending this option for principals – the people in the district who are most keenly aware of the needs of their schools and communities – is illogical at best. We face major problems in recruiting, developing, and properly compensating educators, and history has shown us that many of the aforementioned vacancies will remain unfilled and/or filled by teachers (likely alternatively certified) working outside their area of content expertise. Ending this long-term partnership does not help the district’s budget; it does not help school leaders, and it does not help kids.