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A Time To Be Bold

Dallas Morning News
April 15, 2015

By Florence Shapiro and Lionel Sosa 

In February, Texans for Education Reform welcomed former New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein as our keynote speaker at a legislative luncheon focused on the challenges and opportunities facing Texas public schools.

Klein, known by many as a former Clinton appointee in the U.S. Department of Justice who made unprecedented advances in New York City’s notoriously troubled public schools, charged those of us working on education reform in Texas to “be bold!”

The most critical challenge Texas faces — and where our group is determined to be bold — is to address chronically failing schools. Even with our current opaque school rating system, we know that there are 297 public school campuses that have been failing for at least two consecutive years. Nearly 150,000 children are trapped in those schools. While failing schools are scattered throughout our state, in rural as well as urban and suburban areas, we know that the students who attend them are more likely to be Hispanic or African-American, and the gap in the performance of minority and Anglo students remains unacceptable.

Our agenda for reform begins with every parent knowing how their child’s school is performing beyond the almost meaningless “met standard” or “improvement required” ratings that are now given each public school campus. Sen. Larry Taylor’s bill to establish A-to-F ratings for every public school campus has already passed the Texas Senate. Since 1999, when A-to-F ratings were introduced in Florida, the number of schools rated A or B has increased by 38 percent.

We also support the establishment of a Texas Opportunity School District that gives the Texas commissioner of education authority to establish a statewide district to manage campuses that have failed for two or more consecutive years. Similar programs show substantial success in Tennessee and Louisiana. Last year, Tennessee’s average test scores rose 22 points across the board on the National Assessment of Education Progress.

Another way to turn around failing schools is to empower parents to negotiate needed changes in those schools. Sen. Taylor, R-Friendswood, and Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, are proposing to change Texas law that now empowers parents to petition for corrective action after a public school has failed for five consecutive years. That’s too long for any child or parent to wait, and the law should be changed to allow parents to intervene after two consecutive years of school failure.

Another bold step that we support is changing the way we evaluate and provide professional-development options to assure we are recruiting and supporting excellent teachers. Recent research shows that up to 60 percent of a student’s performance can be directly linked to teacher quality.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, have proposed legislation that would require at least annual evaluations for teachers and improve professional development by aligning it to the meaningful feedback provided in the evaluations. The legislation also would create a competitive teacher salary marketplace by giving greater local control to school districts to compensate teachers based on their contributions and local needs. Under their proposal, the current minimum base teacher salary would remain in place.

As we have seen in Dallas, the home rule laws for local school districts are complex and, ultimately, ineffective. We propose revisions that would empower districts, parents and local communities to opt out of state mandates in favor of bold, innovative solutions.

Finally, we need to expand access to online and digital courses as well as to provide parents with transfer and transportation options within their school districts, similar to the model program developed in Grand Prairie.

With these initiatives in place and a commitment to putting children first, we can truly create opportunity for the young men and women of Texas and put our state on the path to even greater economic success. That goal clearly requires a bold approach, and we are moving forward.

Florence Shapiro is chairwoman and Lionel Sosa is a member of Texans for Education Reform’s board of directors. Reach them through