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Shapiro: When it comes to improving schools, it’s not all about money

Austin American-Statesman
November 12, 2014

By Florence Shapiro

A state district judge recently ruled that the way Texas funds its schools is “inadequate.” While school districts, teacher organizations and others who directly benefit from proposed funding increases cheered the decision, the rest of us are left to determine what is “adequate.”

What should greatly concern Texas parents isn’t that Texas’ school funding is determined to be “inadequate” but rather that the ruling isn’t tied to any meaningful education reform solutions. The ruling suggests only money will solve the problem of “inadequacy.”

Consider that Washington, D.C., which spends the most per student nationally and outspends Texas by almost three to one, gets decidedly lower math and reading educational outcomes. In fact, D.C. students’ math and reading results are dead last when comparing 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress scores nationwide. New York, which is the second biggest spender, outspends Texas by at least two to one yet scores lower than Texas on the math NAEP in almost every category (disaggregated by white, Hispanic, black, and low income student performance demographics). Florida, on the other hand, spends less than D.C., New York and Texas yet outperforms or ties with others’ reading NAEP scores.

In comparison after comparison, it has been repeatedly shown that money spent is not a reliable predictor of improved academic outcomes for our children.

The Texas Education Agency’s latest data show us a real and urgent “inadequacy” ― only 18 percent of our high school graduates are considered to be college ready as determined by the SAT or ACT. To reverse this, we must concentrate on investing our public education dollars on strategies proven to make a difference in our public schools.

The first place to start is with excellence in the classroom. All research shows that an effective teacher is the strongest factor impacting student outcomes, far outweighing other factors such as class size. Therefore, we must improve our teacher evaluation system and strengthen the quality of professional development for our teachers. It’s time to honor the commitment of teachers by providing them the feedback and resources needed to obtain mastery in their profession while improving student achievement.

We also need to give all students access to excellent public schools. One way to do that is to change state laws to allow students to attend a public school of their choice within their district. This will give parents real and immediate options for their children and will spur healthy competition among our public schools.

We can further expand excellence with public school choice by encouraging the growth of free, high-performing open-enrollment public charter schools and giving charter school students equal access to taxpayer funded public school facilities.

Increasing transparency for parents and local communities is crucial in addressing the problem of chronically failing schools. Every parent wants to know how their neighborhood and district schools are performing. We should start by rating each school district and individual campus on an A-F system that everyone can understand.

When schools are failing, we should empower parents to intervene. Local communities should also be given the freedom to craft local solutions to their local educational needs. As a final option to ensure that every Texas child — regardless of race, ethnicity or ZIP code — receives the promise of high-quality, world-class education, Texas should establish a special statewide turnaround school district to improve the state’s lowest performing schools.

There are other strategies, including access to online courses and other high-tech education innovations, that should be utilized.

It’s not all about the money. For education to be truly “adequate” in Texas, we should be investing in what works ― effective teachers in every classroom, greater public school choice, increased transparency, improving failing schools, and high-tech innovation.

Shapiro is a former Texas state senator and chair of the Senate Education Committee. She is president of Texans for Education Reform.