An Apology to Neeley
I have a confession to make. In some previous columns I have been entirely too hard on Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley.
I have not properly appreciated her self-proclaimed role as head cheerleader for our public schools.
Who else could respond to news reports indicating evidence of cheating on the all-important Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test at more than 200 schools by asking the public to "please keep in mind that no problems have been found at an additional 7,500 campuses"?
The boldness of that statement became clear when she announced at the same time that her agency was hiring an outside expert because it had no system for monitoring the administration of the test.
Now, I'm happy to say, Neeley's cheerleading efforts are going to be amplified. Last night she was in Houston to speak at a fund-raiser for a new Texas schools organization called the Friends of Texas Public Schools.
Grass roots are greener
This "grass-roots organization" was founded and is headed by Scott Milder, who used to be director of public relations for Galena Park ISD.
That's Commissioner Neeley's old district.
Now Milder works in Dallas for SHW Group Architects.
On his résumé, Milder says the firm hired him to help increase its market share in school architecture, and that the firm's revenues in that field have doubled to more than $40 million.
He says he's accomplished that by "getting involved in the world of education, to see the world through their eyes. Exhibition, sponsoring and attending sessions at educational conferences, for example have opened opportunities to meet decision makers. Involvement on educational association committees has opened doors for SHW Group as well."
Right to know
SHW Group's CEO, Gary Keep, is on the advisory board of the Friends.
According to its Web site (www.fotps.org), the organization has a noble goal that eclipses that of opening doors:
"We at Friends of Texas Public Schools believe that the people and businesses of Texas have a right to know that their money is being spent wisely in our public schools."
The media, as you know, have conspired to keep that truth from the people and businesses of Texas, and I, for one, am ashamed of my role in that conspiracy.
To right that wrong, Milder has recruited an impressive board of directors and corporate sponsors.
One of their principal goals is to raise money to conduct an advertising and public relations campaign to get out the good news about schools.
Milder told Chronicle reporter Jason Spencer he plans a campaign that includes billboards and radio and television advertising.
I'm impressed with the level of ambition, but I'm afraid Mr. Milder has not been paying attention to the latest trends in educational public relations, as pioneered by one of the all-time masters of the field, Rod Paige.
It was Paige, after all, who produced the national image of the Houston ISD as the nation's best large urban school district. He did it so well that he went from being superintendent here to, until recently, secretary of education in Washington.
In that role, Paige spawned a breakthrough in education public relations.
In selling President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" plan, Paige's Department of Education didn't waste money on expensive billboards and radio and TV advertising.
It quietly slipped $240,000 to columnist and commentator Armstrong Williams to plug the controversial program. It was a brilliant stratagem, given the credibility that columnists and talking head commentators have these days.
It did come under some criticism, most of it terribly unfair. One objection, however, had merit.
Williams himself said he was already in favor of "No Child Left Behind" even before he got the cash and spoke favorably about it from his heart. So the money was wasted.
Milder and his group can get much more bang from their buck if they can obtain the services of, say, a columnist from the state's largest newspaper whose coverage of the Texas school establishment has sometimes trampled on the rights of people and businesses to know that their tax money is well spent.
One who feels, or can be made to feel, very sorry.
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