The Austin Chronicle

Schools: Under Siege

By Richard Whittaker, March 4, 2011, News

On Feb. 24, 1836, Lt. Col. William B. Travis sent an open letter from the Alamo. He wrote, "I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna." Two weeks before the 175th anniversary of that letter, written mere days before the Alamo's fall, Superintendent John Kuhn of Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District in North Texas wrote, "I am besieged, by a hundred or more of the Legislators under Rick Perry."

Everyone knows the big number – the proposed $9 billion cut in education funding that's causing a siege mentality in school districts throughout the state. There is legislation pending that may alleviate those cuts, but, like Kuhn, no one is sure whether it will ride to the rescue or cause more havoc through friendly fire.

So far, lawmakers are long on rhetoric and short on drafted bills. Unions and school districts are cautiously eying two pieces of legislation filed by Senate Educa­tion Committee Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. Senate Bills 468 and 738 are shell bills that school advocates fear will be stuffed with ways to reduce the state's obligations to students. "Those [bills] are not about giving districts local control," said Texas State Teachers Association spokesman Clay Robison, "as much as they are about passing the buck."

Some big-ticket items are already under threat: Shapiro has warned that there may not be enough cash to buy new textbooks for the updated science curriculum. But the big cost-driver remains state-mandated testing. Some groups, including administrators from San Antonio's Northside ISD, want the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness pushed back at least one year from its current start date in the 2011-12 school year. While that would save on start-up costs, it would take a change in the legislation, and neither Shapiro nor House Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, seem to support the plan. So the only other route may be cutting the volume of tests. On Feb. 15, Eissler's Vice Chair Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, filed HB 233. Currently, students are tested annually in math and reading. Hochberg's proposal would cut that down to grades three, five, and eight for most students; low-scoring students would still be tested annually.

During the recent Texas Association of School Administrators conference in Aus­tin, Coldspring-Oakhurst CISD Superintend­ent LaTonya Goffney warned that tweaks to the system will do nothing to reduce workload. More worryingly, schools may face more disruption under STAAR than they do under the current Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills because there are more hours of testing in the new system. "When you're testing one, you're testing all," she said.

It's already too late to save some jobs, since the Texas Education Agency has already given notice to around 200 staff members. In a desperate attempt to stave off redundancies, both TASA and the Texas Association of School Boards want immediate and permanent changes to teacher contract law. This would include pay cuts and revised laws for reduction in force, allowing for quicker staff cuts – a move Rob­i­son called "a reduction in due process." The big push is for annual seven-day unpaid teacher furloughs. While that might work for bigger districts with more resources, there would be no relief for rural districts running with a skeleton staff. If the state forces them to cut too deeply into basic and federally mandated programs, lawmakers fear parents and districts may sue. With a major pro-public-education demonstration scheduled for March 12 on the Capitol grounds, legislators may not have to wait for the 2012 elections to face parents fearful of cuts.

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