Hudson superintendent says Texas schools are in 'crisis'
A demographics expert projects that Texas schools will be 19.9 percent white by the year 2040. Probably this is why politicos have no interest in adequately financing schools.
by Gary Bass
HUDSON — An Angelina County school administrator says Texas' public schools are in a state of crisis.
After outlining problems the state's public schools will face over the long haul, Hudson ISD Superintendent Mary Ann Whiteker said the immediate future of rural districts such as hers depends on whether the Texas Legislature can come up with a new public school finance system by the June 1 deadline set by the state's Supreme Court.
"I grew up in a Texas where public education was valued," Whiteker said, speaking at a community forum hosted by Peavy Primary School's PTO. "I've testified in Austin on many occasions, and I haven't seen that to be the case in the past two sessions and five special sessions of the Texas Legislature.
"It's very important to tell your family, friends and neighbors, that we truly have a crisis when it comes to Texas' public schools."
Whiteker spoke to a group of about 40 people in the Peavy Primary cafeteria Thursday night. The crowd included a mixture of parents, teachers and school administrators, a number of them from other Angelina County school districts.
Giving some numbers, Whiteker said Texas is ranked No. 2 when it comes to total population growth. She said the state's public schools are growing at an annual rate of 80,000 students, adding that's like growing by Fort Worth ISD each year.
Based on the numbers reported for the 2003-04 school year, Whiteker said Texas' student population was 14.3 percent African American, 43.8 percent Hispanic and 38.7 percent white. Of the total population, 15 percent qualified as Limited English Proficiency and 52.8 percent were considered economically disadvantaged, meaning that they qualified for the reduced or free lunch program.
Quoting Steve Murdock, a demographics expert, Whiteker said the population projections call for the state's student population to be 8.3 percent African American, 66.3 percent Hispanic and 19.9 percent white by the year 2040. She said predictions also call for the welfare rolls to increase by 50 percent and the prison population to increase by 54 percent by that time.
Recently, state officials chose to spend $1 million on a study by Texas A&M University and a private firm that looked at how many students could be expected to succeed under the current school finance system — 55 percent.
Whiteker said, according to the study, for Texas to raise that number to 70 percent, the state would have to spend an additional $1,100 per child. To reach the 90 percent, per-child spending would have to increase by $2,300.
However, when the Texas Business Education Coalition (TEBC) was asked to rank the top nine performing states for reading, English/language arts and math standardized tests, the Lone Star State was ranked in the top five, Whiteker said.
Each subcategory of Texas students was also ranked in the top five states, she said.
The No. 1 ranked state was New Jersey, Whiteker said. That state spent an average of $12,000 per child. Although Texas was ranked high in student performance, the state was ranked 49th in per-student spending, beating only the state of Utah in that category.
Texas school districts have to deal with increasing teachers' salaries and benefits, the rising cost of utilities, insurance, technology, after-school programs, incentives, accelerated instruction and preparing students for higher education.
"These are all unfunded mandates," Whiteker said. "Basically, the state is telling us, 'This is what we want you to do, but we're not going to provide you the money to do it with.'"
She said during the 1996-97 school year, Hudson ISD officials budgeted $4.4 million for salaries. This year, they budgeted $10 million, Whiteker said, adding that HISD's teachers are at the state-mandated minimum pay scale. Although the state has increased the minimum pay scale over the years, it has been left up to the school districts to provide the money to pay for those raises.
Whiteker said their budget for employee health insurance went from $134,000 in 1996-97 to more than $500,000 this year. On average, the state provides 36 percent of school districts' funding, she said.
"The leadership in Austin has made it abundantly clear where they stand on this issue," Whiteker said. "They have created a perception that Texas' public schools are failing, and they support privatizing our schools with vouchers.
"As a result, our schools will wind up being segregated on the basis of wealth."
Texas' public schools are at a crossroads because of increased accountability to the state that the federal government's No Child Left Behind program and the "65 percent" executive order authored by Gov. Rick Perry, Whiteker said. That accountability is based on the performance of each student population on standardized tests like the TAKS and SDAA tests, she said.
"I started taking piano lessons in elementary school, and continued taking lessons through high school and college," Whiteker said. "But ... I could practice 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I'd never be able to be a concert pianist.
"God never gave me that gift. Although my mother wanted me to learn how to play, she never placed impossible expectations on me."
Whiteker said under the current state-mandated testing standards, only 1 percent of a district's students, those that are considered to have high cognitive impairment, can be exempted from the TAKS and SDAA exams. Plus, NCLB states that districts have to have at least a 95 percent participation rate on standardized tests.
On the TAKS reading tests, 90 percent of all students — African Americans, Hispanics, whites, etc. — who take the exam have to pass it for a district to earn an "exemplary" accountability rating from the Texas Education Agency. The passing rate for all student subpopulations has to be 70 percent for a school system to get a "recognized" rating. The next level is "academically acceptable."
In regard to the 2004-05 accountability ratings, only 11 of more than 1,100 public school districts in Texas earned an exemplary rating, Whiteker said. She said nine of those were traditional schools, one was a charter school and one was a charter academy.
Highland Park ISD was the only one among the nine traditional districts with a student population of more than 1,200. Seven of the school systems had less than 200 students, Whiteker said.
She added that, because of the Texas Supreme Court's ruling, the state funding to public school districts will dry up if the legislature doesn't manage to create a new finance system by June 1.
Chances are that Perry won't call another special session until after the primary elections, Whiteker said. She said, in effect, that gives state lawmakers the months of April and May to get the job done.
Whiteker urged the crowd to vote in the primary elections on the basis of who will support public schools, not whether they are Democrats or Republicans. She also stressed that the winner of the GOP primary for Texas SD 3 will be Angelina County's next state senator. The four candidates for Senate District 3 include Frank Denton, Dave Kleimann, Robert Nichols and Bob Reeves.
Gary Bass' e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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