Half-Million Texas Children Are Eligible for School Choice

Published February 1, 2006

In mid-December, the Texas Education Agency identified 821 campuses as academically unacceptable–twice as many as in 2004–making some 538,000 students eligible for transfer to a better-performing public school of their choice.

But if history is any indicator, very few will exercise this option to transfer in the next school year, said Allan Parker, founder of The Justice Foundation, a nonprofit, public-interest litigation firm based in San Antonio.

The list of unacceptable schools, released December 15 by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), noted that each school on the state’s unacceptable list for the 2005 school year had “50 percent or less of its students passing reading, writing, mathematics, social studies or science on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test in any two of three years 2003, 2004, and 2005.”

Incrementally tougher standards used to rate schools contributed to the increase, TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliff said.

Not Motivating

The state does not require school districts to provide transportation to the new school of the parent’s choice, and neighboring schools are not required to take students from low-performing schools–both of which contribute to the low number of actual transfers, Parker said.

“The real problem here is the policy that schools continue to receive money every year, [regardless of] whether the school does a good job or a bad job of educating children,” Parker said. “Parents realize that moving from one government-monopoly school to another government-monopoly school really does not motivate the public school to do a better job.

“The way to improve schools is to give parents real options by providing parents with full school choice by allowing parents to choose another public school or a private school,” Parker said. “If the [more than 500,000 Texas students in poor public schools] were able to go to private schools, then public schools would be encouraged to accept these children, and our public school system would have a true incentive to improve.”

Federal law requires school districts to provide transportation and to notify parents of their children’s eligibility to transfer no later than the first day of school this coming fall semester. Nonetheless, transfer rates remain low, Parker said, partly because many schools are not notifying parents until two weeks before the transfer notification deadline.

Texas Science Gets ‘D’

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a research agency based in Washington, DC, confirmed the need for improvement in Texas. Weaknesses in Texas science standards were noted in a study released on December 7, “State of State Science Standards,” which concluded “Texas’ science standards are abysmal.”

Although a TEA news release issued later the same day called the Fordham study “more science fiction than science,” the foundation stood by its analysis.

“Texas science scores a ‘D’ at best,” said Michael Petrilli, Fordham’s vice president for national programs and policy. The study’s authors, who used the science standards found on the TEA Web site, ranked it even lower, giving Texas an “F.” After the Fordham study was released, the TEA stated the standards linked on the TEA site were not actually part of the science programs, Petrilli said.

Agreeing that Texas’ science standards are confusing for all, Petrilli said they “don’t have enough detail to help teachers know what is expected of students.”

Governor’s Plans

Under the Texas State Education Code, low-rated schools could face various interventions and sanctions. A framework has been developed for multiyear actions for first-, second-, third-, and fourth-year low-performing campuses, ranging from campus-specific improvement plans to school closures.

Ratcliff said the TEA would work to improve education outcomes in several ways, one of which was by implementing Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) T-STEM Initiative, announced December 15. The $71 million plan creates T-STEM academies–new schools that would take over existing campuses to help thousands of Texas students improve academic performance in science, technology, engineering, and math.

T-STEM also will establish centers to provide educators with professional development and technical assistance and will create a statewide best-practices network so successful models can be replicated across Texas.

The Texas High School Project, a partnership including the Dell Foundation, Gates Foundation, and Communities Foundation of Texas, will administer the T-STEM Initiative. Perry’s spokeswoman, Kathy Walt, said the academies will engage children from sixth grade upward in “real-world learning activities, will help spark students’ imaginations, and will inspire them to pursue a career in science-based fields.”

Educated Workforce

Walt cited the executive order Perry issued December 16–a $4 million directive to improve college readiness standards and programs at high schools across the state. The order requires schools to track the number of college students taking remedial courses, in order to identify the number of students leaving high school unprepared for college. The order also called for an electronic academic records system to improve the transfer of student transcripts between school districts and between high schools and colleges.

Texas employers are urging policymakers to improve education outcomes to produce a better-educated workforce. Increasing pay for teachers who get improved results, improving financial and academic accountability within the public education system, and developing a stronger curriculum are some ways Texas can improve student outcomes, said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business (TAB).

“TAB urged the legislature earlier in 2005 not to hand Texas schools additional funds without asking for results in return,” Hammond said, so that the schools “were not given a blank check to maintain the status quo.”

Nearly 300 school districts sued the state in December 2003, claiming inadequate funding hampered education outcomes. However, in November 2005 the Texas Supreme Court ruled overall school funding was adequate.

As the Texas legislature considered calling a special session to work on school reforms, still unscheduled at press time, Hammond said TAB, representing 140,000 small and large businesses across Texas, will continue its work to “pave the way for students to be better prepared to enter the workforce and will continue its drumbeat to ensure reforms and funding go hand-in-hand.”

“Texas students and Texas employers deserve better,” Hammond said.

Connie Sadowski ([email protected]) is director of the Education Options Resource Center at the Austin CEO Foundation.

For more information …

The complete list of Texas schools eligible for transfers, released in December 2005, can be found online at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/taa/acc120905a1.pdf.

The Texas State Education Code detailing parental choice can be found in Chapter 29.201 at http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/statutes/ed.toc.htm.

The 2005 Comprehensive Report on Texas Public Schools describing the status of Texas public education can be found at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/research/pdfs/2005_comp_annual.pdf.

“State of the State Science Standards,” released in December 2005 by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, is available online at http://www.edexcellence.net.

Answers to frequently asked questions about the No Child Left Behind Act and school choice are available at http://www.ed.gov/parents/schools/choice/choice.html.