Point Austin: Who's Accountable?

State 'accountability' judgments only move downward

Point Austin
While there's already plenty of finger-pointing in progress over the pending closing or "repurposing" of Pearce Middle School, there's one inevitable result of the state's decision: It will certainly punish the victims. Shutting down a school in July – or "repurposing" it in some yet unknown way that will leave families, students, teachers, and staff uncertain of the school's actual structure until sometime in late August – does absolutely nothing to improve the educational opportunities or the teaching of those students. What the abrupt decision does do is throw students and families into weeks of uncertainty, during which they need to decide where and how the students will be attending school in the fall. Moreover, the decision also threatens to displace dozens or hundreds of already at-risk students into other schools similarly under the "accountability" gun – meaning that next spring's high-stakes test prep at those new schools will be performed under even more pressure.

Nice move, Robert Scott.

The commissioner of education announced his decision via a letter to new Austin ISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen on July 2 – her second day on the job – despite legislative revision of the state law just a few weeks ago that quite explicitly allowed another year for schools like Pearce to meet the state's rising test-score standards. Under the threat of closure, Pearce students had exceeded standards in all but one of the state's myriad "cells" of rising expectations – eighth-grade science – and had every reason to believe they had responded to the challenge sufficiently to earn another year's grace and progress. Instead, Scott dropped the hammer, announcing, "This pattern of continuing low performance [five years of 'unacceptable' ratings] is not acceptable and currently is unmatched by any other campus in the state."

Two people centrally involved in the revision of the law, state Reps. Dawnna Dukes and Donna Howard (both Pearce alums) were frankly blindsided by Scott's decision, they said at a June 10 Pearce community meeting. Howard told me she believes there's a political backstory to the decision but remained at a loss to suggest what it might be. Dukes angrily told the group that she had learned of the decision first through the media – "I was stunned" – and was still uncertain who was responsible for its abruptness. Nor did she accept Scott's argument that he had no other choice: "Their hands were untied by the legislation this year."


The Blame Storm

The community meeting was shell-shocked, filled with sadness and unfocused anger. AISD trustee Cheryl Bradley provided the sound bite of the day – "I will be damned if I allow this school to be closed!" – yet first hesitated to speak at all, since previous speakers (Dukes among them) had suggested that it was the district, not the state, that had failed Pearce and its community. Yet Bradley received a standing ovation for her defiant speech, and the demand most commonly expressed (by Dukes and others) was for a "reversal" of the TEA decision.

The only outright accusation came from the Rev. Sterling Lands, who was asked for a benediction and instead declared (without offering evidence), "The man responsible for what's happened came here 10 years ago" (i.e., retired Superintendent Pat Forgione), and he called the closure a "done deal. ... They did this over a year ago." (District officials insist such charges are false.) Despite the reiterated sentiment that the community very much wants to save its neighborhood public school, Lands exhorted the crowd (he said metaphorically), "Stop trying to make the plantation better and burn the plantation down!" (In fact, it would seem Scott has already done as Lands recommended.)

Even more mysteriously, community activist Allen Weeks, who chaired the meeting and began it near tears over the TEA decision dashing his and his neighbors' heroic efforts to improve Pearce, followed Lands by saying, "I agree with him." But if Lands is indeed right, then why bother saving Pearce or Reagan High ... or Webb Middle School, saved once dramatically by community effort and now likely the overwhelmed destination of many at-risk Pearce students?


The Commissioners' Guts

There remains only a sliver of hope that some compromise plan can be reached that will save Pearce for at least most of its students. Despite Scott's express, written order of "closure," officials have since been insisting that "closure" doesn't exactly mean that, and a repurposed Pearce in theory can accommodate most current students. But the timing of the decision is enormously disruptive, and subsequent assurances about repurposing – while agency officials condescendingly dismiss district efforts to do so – only serve to confirm suspicions that the decision, in implicit defiance of current legislative policy, is in fact an attempt by state officials (especially Rick Perry appointee Scott) to demonstrate how tough they are in dealing with the supposedly "liberal" Austin school district. That is, is it expedient that one Austin school should die for the sake of a Republican gubernatorial primary?

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, usually more circumspect in her language, didn't dispel such suspicions when she told the Statesman that perhaps Austin "didn't think we would have the guts" to close the school. What the hell does Ratcliffe think this is – a backroom poker game, with the Pearce students as the chips?

The agency and its cheerleaders – corporate education lobbyist Sandy Kress and Texas Association of Business honcho Bill Hammond – point to Pearce's "failing in eight of 10 years [of test scores]" as sufficient reason to condemn it and the school district. Do they ever note that in that same 10-year period, Pearce (and its neighborhood) has changed dramatically, from a majority African-American student population to a 70% Hispanic school, for which official-test obsession and often even English-speaking is a novelty, amidst a large majority of working-class, multijob, economically disadvantaged families, and in a state where corporate lackeys like Hammond continually block any attempt to raise the minimum wage?

Has the state of Texas stepped in with the financial and educational resources inevitably required to educate such a student population? Or has it instead spent the last two decades refusing to adequately or equitably fund public schools, indeed, mired in court fights against any such adequate or equitable spending and with its Legislature always prioritizing property-tax cuts over public education?

Rhetorical questions all. But while the state and the district mull over historical niceties, the young families in my Northeast Austin neighborhood can now add to their worries over being "accountable" – for jobs and groceries and rent and gas and utilities ... – with yet another confounding worry:

Where are the kids going to go to school next month?

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

public schoolsstate government, Pearce Middle School, Texas Education Agency, Meria Carstarphen, Austin ISD, Robert Scott, Dawnna Dukes, Donna Howard, Cheryl Bradley, Allen Weeks

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