A-to-Z Guide to Education in 1999

A is for Accountability ratings and Audits. This was the first year the Texas Education Agency rated school districts "unacceptable" for submitting unreliable student data -- and Austin Independent School District was among the first to get the paddle. State Comptroller Carole Rylander sent a team to investigate AISD's porous accounting, but new superintendent Pat Forgione couldn't wait, and hired his own experts.

B is for Bond Construction. Will AISD's quixotic attempt to build and renovate nearly 200 campuses in four years, a project now more than $50 million over budget, ever be celebrated as a triumph? This year, we accused management team BLGY/Sverdrup of driving up costs and exacerbating delays through clumsy oversight. AISD says it's satisfied the company is delivering the goods, but critics contend the district isn't building schools like it used to.

C is for Choice, Charter schools, and CEO America. Some say parents should have the freedom to choose schools as they do long distance service. The right-wing CEO America Foundation dragged public schools into the marketplace by paying students in Edgewood to attend private schools, then backed legislation this session to have the state follow its lead. Charter schools, meanwhile, showed mixed results. Austin Academy took distance learning to absurd extremes by skipping town.

D is for Dropouts. AISD has far more than they're telling us, but they're not alone. This year, TEA required school districts to give more detailed information about kids who leave their classrooms, and the news wasn't good: Record numbers of campuses were dubbed low performing based on dropout counts. AISD narrowly dodged prosecution by the county attorney for manipulating its dropout records.

E is for Every Child Can Learn. No excuses for being poor, for being ESL, for being handicapped, says the education governor. We'll teach you all, we'll test you all, we'll flunk you all. Equally.

F is for Forgione, not for Fox. One of the most watched movers and shakers in town right now, our new superintendent is cleaning data and cleaning house. Folks are sighing with relief to have a decisive leader in the superintendent's chair again, and for now, are giving Forgione acres of elbow room.

G is for Goals 2000, or 2001, or -- whenever. American education has made progress on only two of eight goals -- ranging from increased high school completion and higher literacy rates to better teacher skills -- since they were outlined at the beginning of the decade. How do we console ourselves? By doing away with the deadline.

H is for Head Start. Break up that group interaction and stop coloring on those nutrition charts! Presidential candidate George W. Bush says you tykes need a real education -- reading, writing, and arithmetic. There may be a test.

I is for Indictments. Wow, you mean a school district can be tried for criminal offenses? Travis Co. Attorney Ken Oden thought so, and brought 16 indictments against AISD for tampering with students' TAAS tests. The district wriggled out of the noose by agreeing to overhaul its dropout reporting and prevention programs. Oden is also prosecuting former deputy superintendent Kay Psencik for her alleged role in the scheme.

J is for Junk food. Kids prefer it to a hot lunch, AISD officials say. That unfortunate reality led AISD's food services into the red and helped bring an ignomious end to former interim superintendent A.C. Gonzalez's tenure at the district.

K is for Rep. Mike Krusee, the Kansas Board of Education, and other Kibitzers. Okay, so maybe it isn't as crazy to write legislation allowing the state to pay tuition for poor kids at private schools as it is to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. But as the decade closed, the cannon fire from invading special interests -- from religious conservatives to profiteers, sounded ever closer to the education realm.

L is for Leininger, James R. He's the bottomless well funding the Texas Public Policy and CEO America foundations -- pro-voucher groups who have poured millions into research documenting the failures of the public school system. The Texas Public Policy Foundation has also hired consultants to sell the state board of education on textbooks that teach more phonics and other rote learning, not just here but also in California.

M is for More Testing. State Senate Public Education Committee Chair Teel Bivins says have one more for the road -- TAAS test that is. Texas high school students will soon have to take an exit exam covering material learned through their junior years in addition to the one they take in 10th grade.

N is for Neighborhood Schools. AISD drew new school boundaries designed to put more junior high and high school students in nearby schools rather than busing them for integration. But some folks, especially in Southwest Austin, had their own ideas about which school community they properly belonged in -- the wealthier one.

O is for One Final Candidate. Sure, Virginia superintendent Mark A. Edwards was a great candidate for the AISD post, but was he so superior that the district had to send everyone else (including current superintendent Pat Forgione) packing? The decision cost the AISD board a lot of credibility, and interference from the mayor when Edwards said, "I don't." Surprisingly, Forgione wasn't offended enough to refuse a second interview.

P is for Phonics and Prayer. It wasn't just the religious right and Governor Bush advocating the use of phonics-based instruction this year -- the State Board of Education refused to buy textbooks because they didn't drill key phonemes heavily enough. And prayer made a big comeback in Texas when Leander and other school districts defied the courts and invited Jehovah to preside over football games again.

Q is for Quagmire. Lacking a permanent superintendent and governed by a board given more to pontification than leadership, the Austin school district seemed to sink deeper into informational, financial, and managerial quicksand with each step it took. Although parents recognized that AISD still offers some of the best educators in the state, a resolution from the Austin City Council of PTAs expressed unprecedented anxiety for the district's well-being. Forgione's answer is new deputies and new information technology, and so far that's buoying people's hope, at least.

R is for Read or Retain. With strong advocacy from Governor Bush, the Legislature told schools that passing third-graders who can't read on par is no longer acceptable. Money was also approved to intensify elementary teachers' literacy training, but will it be enough to prevent hordes of teens with driver's licenses from packing our middle schools?

S is for Paul Sadler, D-Henderson. A House Public Education Committee chair with less nerve than Sadler would not have pulled down the few blessings Texas' public schools received in this legislative session. Sadler stared down Bush's property tax cut until late in the session when Comptroller Rylander was finally forced to admit that the state could afford both tax cuts and teacher pay raises. Sadler saw to it that teachers, not coaches and athletic fields, got the money.

T is for Technology. Apparently, Austin's got lots of it but our schools have very little. Superintendent Forgione went for the biggest school tax rate increase he could get to buy better computers and networking systems for the district. Meanwhile, the school board balked at IBM's price tag for completing the Internet wiring in AISD school buildings and gave the job back to district staff.

U is for Unacceptable and Uncertified. The "uns" seemed to have it this year. Not only did TEA apply the first "Unacceptable: Data Quality" rating to school districts this year, but one in five Texas teachers were found to be uncertified for their courses. UT researchers said it was unclear whether teacher certification led directly to better student performance, but they did find the two tended to coincide.

V is for Vouchers. But for staunch opposition from Senators Gonzalo Barrientos and Gregory Luna (who gave orders that he be flown in from the hospital to vote against voucher legislation should it reach the Senate floor), a voucher pilot program probably would have passed this year.

W is for Wimberley. Only weeks after the school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, four Wimberley students were nabbed by the sheriff's office for planning a similar rampage. In retrospect, the kids' designs don't look so dangerous, but local parents could have done without the scare.

X is for AISD Superintendent Candidates. Who were they? They school board wouldn't tell us. They bolted from AISD vehicles and fled into elevators holding coats over their heads. It would have been comical had it not seemed so arrogant.

Y is for Yes to AISD, No to ACC. Voters didn't revolt when superintendent Forgione proposed and the AISD board approved a large tax hike for the district. Or did they? ACC officials -- when their request for a five-cent tax increase was shot down at the ballot box in November -- said the school district had poisoned the well for education funding.

Z is for Zavala. The winner of this year's space-saving award, thanks to screw-ups in the bond construction program which resulted in new classrooms being mysteriously shrunken. Here's hoping students enjoy their new bunk desks.

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