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Almost a Miracle

from the magazine

Almost a Miracle

Texas made important educational strides beginning with Governor George W. Bush, but more needs to be done. Texas Rising 2016
Texas
Education

While President George W. Bush left office with an uncertain education legacy—his signature initiative, No Child Left Behind, has had mixed results—Governor Bush of Texas achieved genuine success as an education reformer, and the state’s schools still bear the mark of his influence. Promising to revamp the Texas education code, Bush ran for governor in 1994 on three education initiatives: charter schools, accountability, and vouchers. The first two produced significant legislative reforms, which proved contentious but successful, with solid evidence of improved outcomes. Embracing a model that pushed choice down to the local level and accountability and transparency up to the state level, the Bush reforms provided a foundation for future efforts.

Texas education reform remains incomplete, however. According to a 2005 report of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, the state faces long-term demographic trends that raise questions about the future competitiveness of its labor force. Chief among these is the large in-migration of a poor and largely uneducated population fleeing high-tax, high-regulation states like California. (Texas draws more legal and illegal immigrants from other states than from across the border.) Despite improvements in its public school graduation rates, Texas remains beset by one of the highest proportions of adults without a high school education of any state in the country. As the twenty-first-century economy increases demand for a diverse array of workforce skills, these demographic trends present a significant obstacle to the state’s economic future.

To meet these challenges, Texas should pursue a new round of reforms, including a voucher-based school-choice program, major investments in online and adaptive-learning platforms, curriculum offerings capable of meeting the needs of nontraditional students in a diversified, twenty-first-century workforce, and a repeal of its counterproductive and arguably segregationist bilingual-education mandate. What Bush set in motion in Texas had profound effects, largely positive. But Texas schools need a follow-up.

Bush’s landmark 1995 education-reform bill, given the designation Senate Bill 1 to demonstrate its priority, established charter schools in Texas. The idea was to allow schools and school districts to depart from state education regulations and foster competition among them in meeting the rigorous testing standards first established by Democratic governor Ann Richards, Bush’s predecessor. Charters are public schools that operate with more independence and flexibility than traditional public schools. They must comply with the basic legal framework for public school operation in Texas, such as accountability and data reporting, graduation requirements, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) set of milestone and related assessments, teacher certification, textbooks, and bilingual education. But they are free to experiment more broadly with educational approaches than traditional public schools can, and they can apply different hiring and compensation standards. Any charter failing to meet statewide performance standards or otherwise comply with agreed-upon terms of operation can be placed on probation—and ultimately be closed.

SB 1 created three types of charter schools. (In 2001, Texas added a fourth, giving college and university campuses the ability to form charters under their own rules.) Open-enrollment charters, which account for the great majority of Texas charter students, are approved directly by the commissioner of education. An open-enrollment charter may be granted to an institution of higher education, a governmental entity, or a nonprofit corporation; most have been granted to nonprofits. Like other charter schools, open-enrollment charters can waive significant regulatory mandates, including teacher-salary standards—charter school officials and teachers generally make less than their counterparts in regular public schools—alternative-education programs, and (for most student categories) class size. With strict statutory limits on class size in Texas (22 students per classroom from kindergarten through fourth grade), flexibility on class size is vital because it’s better to have high-quality teachers than lots of small classes.

The second type of charter is the “campus program charter” or “district charter,” which can be approved by an independent school district’s board of trustees after petition by a majority of parents and teachers at a particular school. The board may not “arbitrarily deny” such applications. Once granted, the charter remains contingent upon satisfactory performance.

Finally, SB 1 created the “home-rule” charter, under which voters of a school district could elect to take on independent governance of their schools. The charter, once awarded, would apply to all of them. Of all the categories of charters, home rule was the one that Bush emphasized most in the 1994 campaign and that holds the most potential for autonomy. Up to now, though, no Texas school districts have taken this path—unsurprisingly, as the process presents many hurdles that make successful adoption a daunting prospect. The most significant requirement is the special election, in which at least 25 percent of registered voters must participate, and a majority of those must vote in favor of adopting the home-rule charter. By comparison, the voter turnout in Texas’s March 2016 presidential primary was 21.5 percent; turnout in gubernatorial primaries runs typically in the single digits. To have a reasonable chance of success, then, a home-rule charter measure should appear on the ballot for a federal or state general election, where turnout is higher. Even then, voter awareness of the issue may be quite low. In addition, the election requirement brings the procedure within the federal Voting Rights Act, including Department of Justice preclearance. These hurdles almost certainly explain why no Texas school district has adopted home rule—yet the model could be viable in Texas, and elsewhere, if the barriers to enactment were relaxed.

About 86 percent of Texas children are enrolled in traditional public schools, with the remainder roughly evenly split among home school, charters, and private school—but those proportions are likely to change. Some 230,000 Texas students are enrolled in charter schools, about 4 percent of the state total, with more than 100,000 more on wait lists. With such high demand, the cap on charters continues to be raised. About 195 charters have been awarded so far, covering more than 600 campuses, with the cap set to rise to 305 charters by September 2019.

The 1995 law also instituted crucial changes to school governance. Traditionally, the State Board of Education (SBOE) had been the power center, in control of hiring and firing all senior school officials and making the major decisions regarding school status and performance. SB 1 replaced this model with a more corporate structure, in which the education commissioner reports to the governor, with the SBOE retaining some decision-making power but otherwise stripped of most managerial and regulatory authority. The governor assumed control of appointments to the SBOE and the choice of the education commissioner. Bush streamlined the unwieldy Texas education code, reducing it by a third. The new structure made the Texas Education Agency more resistant to special interests and more capable of long-range planning and execution.

SB 1 also established one of the country’s first statewide accountability systems for public schools. If the charter school bill pushed authority down to the local level among schools and school districts, the accountability measures helped ensure competition in the system. And the state created benchmarks to measure student knowledge and skill levels: TEKS. Students, schools, and districts were regularly assessed against these benchmarks.

Statewide assessments themselves were not new when Bush became governor, but earlier systems lacked rigor. Traditionally, school districts had been accredited with highly subjective, qualitative methods that involved extensive reports and classroom visits. Starting in the Ann Richards era, Texas began moving to a more data-driven approach to accountability. Bush made it known that he planned to build on Richards’s accountability reforms, which helped assure bipartisan support.

The current testing system, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR), evaluates students in math and reading from grades three through eight, in writing in grades four and seven, in science in fifth and seventh, and in social studies in eighth. In high school, students must pass the STAAR for Algebra I, English I, English II, biology, and U.S. history. Bush ended “social promotion,” the practice of graduating students to the next grade regardless of failing the prior one. High school students cannot graduate if they fail the STAAR.

Likewise, to maintain accreditation, schools and districts must demonstrate performance on the STAAR, as well as satisfy other basic measures—including dropout rates, attendance, and average student scores on standardized college-entrance examinations (the SAT and the ACT). Performance of minority students is a particularly important metric, which highlights a vital aspect of the Bush reforms: schools can no longer hide poor minority-student outcomes in a mass of aggregate data. Teacher and administrator pay and bonuses are tied to school performance, and schools are regularly—and publicly—rated.

Assessment of the Texas education reforms was already politicized by the time Bush ran for president. The public debate was somewhat cooled by Bush’s embrace of a massive increase in education spending, which rose more than 50 percent during his six years in office, and by national bipartisan acceptance, at least early on, of No Child Left Behind, modeled on the Texas reforms. But education-policy research manages somehow to be even more contentious than education policymaking. During the 2000 campaign, a controversy arose over a RAND study showing “soaring” student achievement during Bush’s tenure. The study gave Bush a powerful talking point, but it was soon undermined by another RAND study that questioned the Texas system of assessment, suggesting that “high-stakes testing” leads to “teaching to the tests.” Where the earlier study seemed to show clear benefits for minority students from the Bush reforms, the new study disputed these gains. (Subsequent analysis, in turn, cast doubt on the second study, particularly because of its small sample size.) The matter was never definitively resolved.

What is also clear is that educational outcomes overall have continued to improve in Texas. In a straight comparison, charter schools slightly underperform traditional public schools. But they also have to rely on a lower level of funding per student than do traditional public schools, since they don’t receive local tax dollars or state facilities funds. Charter schools are also more economically and ethnically diverse than traditional schools, and their results show a much wider range of performance, with “high-performing charters” achieving far higher scores than traditional schools, particularly for minority students. About 38 percent of all charter students in Texas attend schools considered “high-performing”: Kipp Academies, Harmony schools, Idea public schools, Uplift Education Network, and Yes prep schools.

High-performing charter schools are the best-performing schools in Texas. The most iconic is Kipp Academy, which started as a small institution in Houston in 1995, with a specialized fifth-grade school. It then launched a pair of middle schools in Houston and New York, and now has more than 50 schools in Texas and nearly 200 nationwide. The Kipp model is based on its Five Pillars: High Expectations, Choice and Commitment, More Time, Power to Lead, and Focus on Results. Like other Texas charter schools, Kipp can pick its own teachers and set its own curriculum in conformity with TEKS. Kipp is known for taking advantage of the flexibility, with unusual teachers and nontraditional courses. Perhaps Kipp’s greatest achievement, with a student population disproportionately disadvantaged, has been virtually to match the performance of traditional Texas public schools.

In 2013, Texas’s Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate stood at 88 percent—among the best graduation rates in the country.

Another benefit of charter schools is the competitive pressure that they put on traditional schools. Traditional schools that have lost a large number of students (and funding) to new charters have responded with charter-style offerings: early-college academies; academies focused on languages, sciences, or the arts; and specialized vocational schools. With most Texas students still enrolled in traditional public schools, reforming and improving those schools must remain a primary goal of all reform efforts.

The Bush accountability reforms also remain popular, and legislators continue to refine them. In 2013, Texas’s Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (a new uniform national measure developed by the Department of Education) stood at 88 percent—among the best graduation rates in the country, behind only Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. The graduation rates for black and Hispanic students in Texas (84 percent and 86 percent, respectively) in 2013 were significantly higher than the national average for all students.

Reform critics have argued that since the inception of state assessments in the mid-1990s, heavily minority schools have become virtual test-preparation academies. Supporters counter that that’s the whole idea: if students are failing to learn essential skills, then this is precisely where schools need to focus. Other critics are skeptical of the numbers themselves, pointing to investigations that school officials have manipulated statistics. In the El Paso school district alone, more than a dozen educators have been disciplined by the state—and several indicted by the FBI—for trying to cheat the state accountability system.

Dropout rates are another area of dispute. The rates are notoriously difficult to calculate—without “longitudinal” tracking of every student, no good way exists to account for students who have not dropped out but changed school districts, moved out of state, or opted for home schooling. Some Texas schools and districts have manipulated the results, leading critics to cast doubt on the entire system, but greater transparency is both desirable and attainable. And there is no doubt that Texas’s graduation rate is much improved.

A decade ago, it was not uncommon to hear that Texas schools had the worst dropout rates in the country. This assertion was based on a simple analysis of census data, which ranked Texas worst among all 50 states in the percentage of its residents over 25 with a high school degree. Other indicators looked somewhat better—and virtually all indicators have consistently improved since then.

Texas still has among the highest proportion of adult-age high school dropouts in the nation. The reason: the heavy current migration to the state of people at the bottom of the income and education ladders. The image of hipsters and techies moving to Austin, true as it is, can obscure this larger trend. Poor people, including many immigrants from Latin America, are coming to Texas in huge numbers from states like California and New York. When presented with a choice between extensive social services or robust opportunity for personal advancement, they are choosing opportunity. The problem for Texas is that this influx of a deeply uneducated population coincides with rapidly increasing demand for skilled labor. Capital moves where the workforce is, and if capital can’t find the skills that it needs in Texas, it will move elsewhere. Indeed, declining workforce skills, along with Texas’s clogged transportation infrastructure, are major threats to the continued success of the Texas model.

Texas can and should address this looming challenge with specific reforms—starting with a repeal of the bilingual-education mandate. In Texas, elementary school students whose primary language is something other than English are segregated by law into native-language “content instruction” from an early age. While the dropout rate has improved for blacks and Hispanics overall (to 10.1 percent and 8 percent, respectively, for the class of 2012), it remains abysmal for English-language learners (25 percent). Finding teachers who can teach various subjects in Spanish is notoriously difficult, and many schools wind up with grossly underqualified instructors. Worse, English-language learners need to learn English as quickly as possible—as I did, starting at age six—but the bilingual mandate effectively prevents it.

Yet Texas reformers almost entirely avoid tackling bilingual education. The reason can be seen in the bruising political battles over bilingual ed in California, Arizona, and other states. For national Hispanic advocacy groups, bilingual-education mandates are sacred relics of multiculturalism, and Texas’s 1972 law is their crown jewel. Authors such as Angela Valenzuela, professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin and a hero of the left-wing Hispanic advocacy groups, help ensure that research on the educational outcome of reforms, particularly those most needed among minority and disadvantaged students, remains highly biased and politicized. Because education reform in Texas has usually followed a bipartisan path, with Republicans such as Bush carefully cultivating the support of the Hispanic community, the debate in Texas has skirted even a quiet discussion of what may be the most overtly segregationist policy in American schools.

Other reforms are needed, too. Research shows that significantly improving teacher quality can make more of a difference to education outcomes than almost any other school reform, particularly in elementary school. According to McKinsey, the U.S. is notable among developed countries for drawing a significant portion of its teacher pool from the bottom half of graduating high school classes. Certification programs tied to education degrees ensure that few teachers majored in the subjects that they go on to teach. States should seek to make teaching in public schools an “elite profession,” diversifying pathways to certification, admitting significantly fewer candidates to education-degree programs, and, when fiscally necessary, trading small class size for teacher quality.

Dropout intervention and workforce-skills preparation should be pursued in tandem. Generally, the students at greatest risk of dropping out are those who fail to advance from eighth to ninth grade. Accelerated middle school programs should be augmented with adaptive-learning and online-learning summer initiatives that ensure that students who couldn’t pass eighth grade the first time are able to make up their shortfalls and rejoin their peers at the start of ninth grade. These efforts should continue with early-college high school and dual-credit programs, tailored to the needs of students whose family or other obligations may make it difficult to complete college on time. For many students, success in the twenty-first-century economy won’t require a four-year college degree, but almost all will need something more than a high school education. Teaching to specific workforce skills and making curricula in final years more adaptive to local workforce needs—particularly in areas with chronic underemployment, such as welding—are also critically important.

Finally, the political stars seem to be aligning for the third, unfulfilled plank of Bush’s 1994 educational platform: a voucher-based school-choice system. A framework for true competition between private and public institutions would foster educational gains, demonstrating that a system of free public education need not entail a loss of choice or the inequity of having to pay twice for the same service.

The reorganization of Texas schools during Bush’s tenure, along with the state’s embrace of charters, ran against the grain of the governance structure that has dominated the United States since the New Deal, in which rules set at the federal level provide the baseline that local governments must observe; they can add to, but never subtract from, the federal guidelines. This one-way ratchet favors excessive regulation and empowers special interests. By contrast, the Texas reforms exemplified what could be called “competitive subsidiarity”—which holds that nothing should be done by larger structures when smaller structures can handle the same task. And the smaller structures should compete to develop best practices.

The Bush reforms, in other words, mirror the “competitive federalism” once common to the United States, in which most decision making was left to lower levels of government, reserving for Washington only those matters that had a necessarily national character. No national government can have a single “right” answer on complex domestic-policy issues. Only time and competition among laboratories of best practices can reveal what works, and even that may depend on local preferences. Hence, practices can vary from state to state, depending on multiple factors, and thus should be left to states to determine as they see fit. Similarly, Texas established goals in the form of essential knowledge and skills, along with a system of statewide accountability, so that officials and the public could assess schools on the same basis in a competitive framework.

Two decades later, however, in Texas and elsewhere, education reform remains mired in politics and vested interests defending their turf. Politics alone virtually guarantees that the debate over George W. Bush’s education reforms in Texas will continue. But those reforms have unquestionably shown that a sure path to improving schools lies in local choice and competition, within a stable regulatory umbrella—and that choice and competition work well together. This insight should serve as a guide—not just for education reform in Texas and elsewhere but also for conservative reforms of all kinds.

Top Photo: Under Texas state law, schools are now judged on a number of criteria, including the performance of minority students. (Nick de la Torre/Houston Chronicle/AP Photo)

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