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State Rep. Harold Dutton: Communities need more tools to turn around failing schools

Houston Chronicle
April 10, 2015

By State Rep. Harold Dutton

Two proposals under consideration by state lawmakers would change the way Texas deals with persistently failing schools.

There are currently 297 public school campuses in Texas that have been failing for at least two consecutive school years. And there are 147,769 children trapped in those schools. You and I don't know the names of these children but they are depending on us, nonetheless, to do something that will change their future. Their future, in most cases, is determined by their access to a quality education. If their future is dimmed, that will be largely the fault of those of us in a position to make a difference - elected officials, parents, community and education leaders. But there are two important pieces of legislation before lawmakers that can affect the fate of our state's failing schools and the students languishing in them. The proposals deserve my colleagues' support.

HB 1536 establishes an Opportunity School District to turn Texas' worst-performing schools into successes. Currently, the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency has three options to address failing Texas school campuses: He may reconstitute the campus; permit the home district to operate the campus as a charter school; or require the home district to seek technical assistance for the campus.

Placing the failing campus in the Opportunity School District would simply add to the current options. HB 1536 offers the TEA something like an "emergency room." Failing public schools will be taken to the emergency room in the OSD to assess the problem, fix the school and return an improved school to the school district.

With a statewide superintendent appointed by the Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, teachers in the OSD would be permitted to teach only in their area of certification. Placement of a public school campus in the OSD requires that the campus be low-performing for at least two consecutive school years.

Another means to improve failing schools is contained in HB 1727, which provides parents the power to negotiate changes in those failing schools. Current Texas law empowers parents to petition for corrective action in a failing school, but only after the campus has failed for five consecutive years. That is simply too long.

The length of time now required renders the law relatively useless to parents. Consider that a parent with a child who enters first grade when a campus is first designated as failing would have to wait until that child moved on to middle school before the parents could use the petition tool, presuming, of course, that the school continues to fail. Clearly, current law offers only a false promise to parents of children in failed schools.

HB 1727 changes the five-year wait to two years, giving parents a real "trigger" to effect changes in a failing school campus. Under the proposal, parents can meaningfully negotiate for a wide array of changes, including replacing the principal and contracting with a charter school to run the campus. HB 1727 will put power in the hands of parents and create new opportunities and, especially, hope for the children in these failing schools.

The status quo approach to failing schools is simply unacceptable. We must refuse to permit any child, even those whose names we may not know, to be forced to attend a consistently failing Texas public school. No child should be denied the opportunity to have a future. And in every case, that future begins with getting a quality education. That is our challenge. That is our responsibility.

Dutton, a Democrat representing Houston, is serving his 16th term in the Texas House of Representatives. He is chairman of the House Juvenile Justice & Family Committee and a member of the House Public Education Committee.