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List of worst schools in Texas surges

Dallas Morning News
December 19, 2014

By Terrence Stutz 

AUSTIN — The number of campuses on the annual list of the worst public schools in Texas soared again this year as the 2-year-old rating system pulled hundreds of schools below minimum achievement levels.

The Texas Education Agency reported Friday that 1,199 schools — including 71 in the Dallas Independent School District — have been identified as low performers because of poor test scores or unacceptable ratings under the state’s Public Education Grant program.

More than 736,000 students attend those schools, and all have the right to transfer to another campus either in their home district or any neighboring district that agrees to accept them. The Legislature is expected to review the PEG program in its regular session that begins in January.

The total number of schools was up more than a third from last year (892) and was 21/2 times the number of campuses (456) singled out for low performance in 2012 under different criteria.

Jon Dahlander, a DISD spokesman, said the district is continuing to “work aggressively to make improvements at all schools, beginning with having an effective teacher in every classroom.”

In addition to Dallas, 15 other districts in the area have schools on the list. That includes 39 in Fort Worth, 15 in Irving, 10 in Duncanville and nine in Arlington.

“We didn’t see a lot of change in student performance [on the statewide STAAR exam] this year, and that compounded the number of schools on the list,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman.

“It is taking schools longer to adjust to the revised curriculum standards and the new test than we originally projected,” she said, referring to a more challenging curriculum and a more rigorous STAAR implemented over the past few years.

Schools on the list had to have 50 percent or more of their students fail the state exam in two of the last three years. They also made the list with an “improvement required” rating in either of the last two years.

Only a small number of the students eligible to transfer from campuses on the list are expected to do so because the state provides no funding for transportation. Last school year, just 1,694 students from PEG schools transferred to other campuses. But that number was up from previous years.

Ratcliffe said transportation is definitely a roadblock for parents who would like to consider moving their children to another school.

“The lack of transportation has always taken the transfer option off the table for some families,” she noted. But she also pointed to the reluctance of many parents to give up on their neighborhood schools, especially at the elementary grade level.

One influential education lobbying group, Texans for Education Reform, recently announced plans to seek state funding from the Legislature for transportation of PEG-eligible students.

The Texas Senate last year approved a bill by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, that would have for the first time provided transportation funding for the program. The measure, which easily passed on a 29-2 vote, would have appropriated $2.2 million for student transfers.

But the legislation, opposed by school districts, which have never liked the program, died in the House.

“I am not down on public schools, but hopefully this program will give these low-achievement campuses more incentive to provide a quality education so their students won’t leave,” West said at the time. He has indicated he will file the bill again in the 2015 session.

The measure is seen by some as a way to counter arguments for other school choice options such as private school vouchers and tax credits.

Another obstacle has been the ability of school districts to refuse to accept students from other districts. Although the state provides an extra 10 percent in per-pupil funding for districts that enroll PEG students, many districts decline to accept them. They often cite lack of space or teachers.

A decision by the Legislature to provide transportation and require school districts to accept transfers from neighboring districts probably would boost participation. Texans for Education Reform also has said it will seek passage of a bill requiring neighboring districts to accept PEG students unless they can show they lack classroom space or teachers.

The names of schools on the list are being released now because most districts consider transfer requests several months before the start of each school year. Parents must be notified of the option by Feb. 1, with students allowed to enroll at a new school next fall.

The list would be longer if independent charter schools were included, but students attend those campuses voluntarily and may transfer back to their home school district at any time.

Ratcliffe pointed out that students and parents unhappy with their neighborhood school already have other choices, such as magnet schools or charter schools. In addition, some districts, like Garland, have open enrollment and allow students to attend any school in the district.

“When the PEG program was created in the 1990s, most students were assigned to neighborhood schools and didn’t have much flexibility to go elsewhere,” she said. “But since that time, we have seen students and parents given more options, and many have taken advantage of those alternatives.”

AT A GLANCE: Area school districts

Here is a list of area school districts and the number of low-performing schools:

Arlington: 9

Carrollton-Farmers Branch: 1

Cedar Hill: 5

Dallas: 71

DeSoto: 6

Duncanville: 10

Fort Worth: 39

Garland: 2

Grand Prairie: 6

Grapevine-Colleyville: 1

Irving: 15

Keller: 3

Lancaster: 3

Lewisville: 6

Mesquite: 1

Richardson: 2

SOURCE: Texas Education Agency