Meet “Lone Star Governance,” the Model Austin ISD Must Now Operate Under

Testing, Testing, Testing

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Those who understand the agreement that Austin ISD struck with the Texas Education Agency in September know that it puts the district in a very difficult position. The deal has many exacting requirements and AISD must satisfy all of them to keep TEA out of the district. Some believe the agency is setting AISD up to fail. But the district has no choice but to play the game. If it refuses to do so, TEA has promised to immediately take over the district's provision of special education services.

That threat makes it extremely important for the district's board of trustees to satisfy TEA's demands to the letter, including its requirement that it adopt a model of school board management created by the agency in 2016 that it calls Lone Star Governance.

The Lone Star Governance model teaches that school trustees should focus on only one primary goal: student outcomes. In this context, the term "student outcomes" is commonly understood to mean how students perform on assessments, or tests. Those cannot be teacher-designed or district-defined measures – the approved assessments are standardized tests like STAAR and MAP.

But what does focusing on test scores mean for the district? Even the trustees are still figuring that out. To help them do so, AISD hired Ashley Paz in September to coach its board members on Lone Star Governance. She also consults with Houston ISD following that district's takeover by TEA in March.

Paz was trained by one of the people most involved in the formation of LSG – a former TEA deputy commissioner, A.J. Crabill. The agency's boss, Mike Morath, hired Crabill in 2016 to help create and administer Lone Star Governance. He was an LSG coach for years, and in 2020 he became a conservator sent by the TEA to deal with the DeSoto school district, south of Dallas.

“It felt like we were guinea pigs in some kind of grand experiment.”   – Lindsey Pollock, provost at Sarasota University

Paz is also an LSG coach and works as an independent contractor. Her presence helps to satisfy the terms of AISD's deal with TEA, which requires the hiring of such a coach. She recently conducted a two-day LSG training session for the AISD Board members and the superintendent – another requirement of the agreement between the board and the agency. None of the board members have commented publicly on the training session, but similar sessions have been described by the Texas Observer's Josephine Lee as uncomfortable for people in Houston, where over 200 underwent the training in the wake of TEA's takeover. Among other things, Lee reported that trainers in the LSG sessions asked participants to cite examples of how their behaviors made it more difficult for children to achieve success.

"I'm still traumatized by it," said Lindsey Pollock, the provost of the college of education at Sarasota University. "It felt like we were guinea pigs in some kind of grand experiment."

Pollock told the Chronicle that during the training session Paz coached her and two dozen others to admit that they had failed students. "How did we let down the children of Houston ISD – they made us go around and tell how we let children down. And you're in the room hearing everyone repeat this self-flagellating mantra. It was the weirdest thing and it was promoted as, 'This is what we do with school boards all across Texas.' And I thought, 'Oh my gosh, we're in some big trouble if this is what's happening everywhere in Texas.'"

Pollock suspects that TEA's ultimate goal in Houston is to lay the groundwork for the privatization of the district's public schools. She and others draw a connection between TEA's intervention and Gov. Greg Abbott's yearlong push for vouchers, a scheme that would allow parents to take money from public schools to use for private school expenses.

"The prevailing sentiment in Texas is that people don't want vouchers, but, somehow, the person in charge is pushing for it," said Laura Yeager, director of the public school advocacy group Just Fund It TX. A UT-Austin poll in March found that less than half of Texans support any form of vouchers. "And also, the prevailing sentiment in Texas is that people don't want to put their faith in high-stakes standardized testing. But again, Morath, who is appointed by the governor – it's the same thing. These are very specific pushes that are not supported by public sentiment."

Austin ISD's monitorship is supposed to last for two years. But recent experience just north of us proves that ending a monitorship can be messy. In 2021, a monitor was appointed to oversee Round Rock ISD for a 12-month term. The monitorship dragged on for nearly two years. RRISD Board President Amber Landrum spent the final five months asking TEA what standards the agency uses to remove a monitor. "That's when I started saying, 'I want next steps. I want to know exactly what the next steps are. I want to know how I end this monitorship.' And that's when it became really, really difficult to get that information from TEA," Landrum told us in July. Finally, TEA withdrew the monitor one day after RRISD posted an agenda item "to discuss legal options and next steps available to the District regarding status of TEA monitor placement."

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Lone Star Governance, Texas Education Agency, Austin ISD, Ashley Paz, A.J. Crabill

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