Education Top 10

AISD Superintendent Jim Fox
In a year when Austinites saddled themselves with the largest bond packages in their history, voters across the state welcomed the Christian Coalition onto school boards everywhere, and the nationwide debate on how to handle Black English hit the classrooms, it was hard to choose the ten best stories in education. Once again, in no particular order of importance, here are my picks.

1. Kids need the darnedest things. AISD voters handily passed a $369 million bond package in April. Who knew it would be so easy? To lay the praise (or blame, depending on your point of view) on community pillar Willie Kocurek and woman-on-the-rudder Elizabeth Christian makes the bond issue sound like voters were sold a pig in a poke. They weren't. Yes, bond boosters were shameless sometimes, wailing, "Do it for chill-drrenn!" so dramatically it would have made Sally Struthers blush. But bond opponents, such as they were, were comprised of some of the usual, under-informed suspects. AISD stakeholders managed to see through both sides' posturing and overwhelmingly approved bonds to build 11 new schools and substantially improve all existing campuses.

2. Making history by becoming history. By August, AISD superintendent Jim Fox took the unprecedented step of removing and reassigning a record one-third of the district's principals. Fox made good on his promise to bring new leadership to the district. But the whole phenomenon is remarkable for the fact that there was hardly a hue nor a cry on behalf of the folks who were quietly shuffled. True, most of the new people have yet to prove themselves, but could Fox be onto something here?

3. Say Ahhh. AISD trustees in September approved a three-year contract with Children's Hospital of Austin (which is managed by the Seton Health Network) to provide school health services. The program began in October with 30 schools; the 60-plus remaining campuses will come in under the umbrella by the end of the 1996-97 school year. Some of the big losers in this deal are AISD school nurses, most of whom won't have a job with the district any more after their contracts expire. It's hard to say at this point how children are being affected, though, since not all campuses are on the plan yet. But with teen sexual activity being what it is, there is justifiable concern about Seton, run by the Catholic Daughters of Charity, having anything to do with adolescent care. Still, Fox supports school-based, well-child care, and this seems to be an earnest attempt to do more for kids with less money.

4. What, you think they got eyes in the back of their head, or something? AISD was plagued by one disaster after another involving student safety and security during the fall semester. Five Austin High males, one of whom was overage and already had a felony charge pending against him, were accused in September with attempted rape of another boy in their special education class. School officials defend their ignorance of the overaged student's past record, explaining that the adult criminal justice system doesn't report arrests of adult-aged students to them. Another AISD student, a female in special education, was suspended for kicking a boy in the head as she allegedly fought off a sexual assault. A high school and a middle school boy were stabbed. Two classrooms at Casis Elementary were damaged by fire because there were no alarms to stop it. And a young man at Anderson High was the victim of a senseless accident involving a lawn aerator, which was used to maintain the football field.

5. Hopwood v. Texas -- finally, white people have a chance! In March, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the University of Texas Law School's admissions policy -- which considered the race of some of its applicants -- was unconstitutional. In July, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. Narrowly interpreted, the decision only applies to the UT Law School; in broad terms, it affects admissions policies at all public colleges and universities in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The white plaintiffs, the first of whom was Cheryl Hopwood, had bolstered their crybaby lawsuit with cries of "reverse discrimination" when minority candidates were admitted instead of them -- which was especially annoying for the fact that the plaintiffs hadn't exactly distinguished themselves in their own previous academic careers, either.

6. Sneaky, sneaky: Lake Travis school board trustees voted in November to use their own property tax revenues for tuition vouchers at private schools. The Lake Travis Independent School District has very high property wealth per student, so under the state school funding law, it shares its "excess" wealth with less well-off school districts. Although the area is experiencing some healthy growth in student enrollment, Lake Travis voters scotched a $44.5 million bond issue in October. Those folks are now in a real pickle. How providential that the board member who advanced the voucher proposal is working with a Catholic priest to get a new Catholic school going out in Lake Travis!

7. Foot shoots self. The Texas GOP got bit on the behind when they employed naughty smear tactics in two State Board of Education (SBOE) races. A pair of screeds issued from the Republican Party of Texas that bizarrely and erroneously attacked the public record of Will Davis, the Democratic, Austin area (District 10) representative on the SBOE, and a Democratic SBOE candidate from the Beaumont area (District 7), Rema Lou Brown, missed their intended targets. District 10 fliers went out to voters in District 7, and vice versa. Davis won his race; Brown lost.

8. Donahue liked the book about the kid with two mommies. But 1996 was a banner year for Texas Republicans, who are now in the majority on the 15-member State Board of Education. Six of the nine Republican members are religious conservatives, which could spell even more ugly histrionics over textbook content and selection, as well as the new, statewide K-12 curriculum (which is still in the development stages). One especially watchable new member will be Richard Neill, a Ft. Worth dentist who came to celebrity when he successfully ran the Donahue show off the air in his community. But the SBOE isn't invulnerable. One high-ranking officer with the Texas Association of School Boards believes that the Texas Legislature could reduce the SBOE's authority even further if the board doesn't behave itself.

9. Let 'em watch MTV. Texas is the fourth most active state in the Union when it comes to textbook and curriculum challenges. According to an annual report published by People For the American Way (PFAW), a civil liberties advocacy organization, Texas racked up only 22 documented incidents. One of the more interesting cases occurred in Dallas, when the principal of a gifted and talented high school objected to a student production of Angels in America, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tony Kushner. Although the script had been edited for language and content, the principal allegedly believed the homosexual and AIDS theme of the play was too mature for high schoolers. There were also many challenges to literature, including perennial targets Black Boy by Richard Wright, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. California, with 56 documented incidents, was #1 in the nation, followed by Pennsylvania (30), and Florida (26). Ohio, with 20 incidents, was #5.

10. Assorted weirdness... According to School Board News, children who are allergic to peanuts can go into anaphylactic shock even if they just touch a surface where peanuts have been. "The Reading and Burlington school systems in Massachusetts have peanut-free zones in their cafeterias," the industry paper reports... New York Gov. George Pataki signed a bill this year mandating that the 19th-century Irish potato famine be part of the state's curriculum... In Indiana, school and county authorities staged a "mock" terrorist invasion at one school, even going so far as to take hostages. The purpose of the exercise was to "gauge people's reactions in intense situations"... The American School Board Journal reports that the parents of a Brookline, MA, girl are suing the school system for emotional distress because their daughter's teacher told students she (the teacher) is a lesbian... And the parents of a West Bloomfield, MI, boy are charging their school system with breach of duty because their son carjacked a BMW. The boy stole the car immediately after he was busted for having pot at school. So much for parents' rights and responsibilities, huh?

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