Saturday, March 26, 2005

Bills That Would Create Virtual School Network, Allow Companies to Take Over Failing Schools, Pending in Legislature

Privatization efforts are very HOT this session. Folks need to express their views to legislators. Educating children and making a profit should not mix. As we consider where we are headed in this state, I quote Thomas Jefferson's famous 1820 letter to William Jarvis:

“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves and if we think [the people] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

If the link between education and democracy is foundational, as Jefferson indicates, control of education must remain in the hands of the people rather than in the corporate sector. This hardly means that lots of schools aren't in trouble, rather that market solutions to educational problems amounts to loss of citizen control of public schools, where the control should reside. -Angela

Proposed privatization and virtual classrooms among debated issues
By Jason Embry, David Kassabian
Saturday, March 26, 2005

Groups who for years have fought to limit the role of private companies in Texas public schools see some of their fiercest battles yet looming over the next nine weeks.

The major education bill passed by the Texas House and now being considered in the Senate would allow outside entities, including for-profit companies, to manage the state's worst-performing schools.

A House committee also is considering a bill that would allow public schools to contract with private companies to create virtual classes where students, including those who go to private or home schools, would take classes over the Internet.

"We know we need to find funding for our neighborhood schools," said Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network, which monitors social conservatism in government. "They're struggling to find the money they need to barely keep pace with enrollment growth and inflation. At the same time, (lawmakers) want to carve out pieces of those dollars to give to private companies."

Supporters of giving businesses a crack at reviving failing schools say school boards and administrators should not retain control of schools that have suffered on their watch. They also champion the virtual schools as a way to reach students who have dropped out or whose local schools offer a basic menu of classes.

"A lot of people are in a comfort zone with the status quo," said Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, chairman of the House Public Education Committee. "But our kids are just too important to make decisions for the purpose of protecting the status quo."

Several lawmakers also have filed bills to create voucher programs that would give students public money to attend private schools. Those bills have not yet been heard in committees, but they're likely to receive heavy consideration in the GOP-run Legislature.

House Bill 2 calls for the state education commissioner to hire an outside entity to take control of a school if, for two years in a row, it does not meet federal guidelines and lands in the bottom 5 percent of the Texas Education Agency's ratings. Both the state and federal requirements are largely based on standardized test scores.

Five percent of the campuses translates to nearly 400 of the state's 7,800 schools.

Defenders of the takeover provision point out that the commissioner could name nonprofit groups of parents or teachers, as well as local colleges and universities, to run the schools.

"If a school is not performing well, we have to be aggressive in making a change," Grusendorf said. "Two years is a long time in a kid's life."

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said she wants to include a similar provision in Senate school reforms. But instead of focusing on schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent, she would apply the provision to schools that are rated "academically unacceptable."

One percent of the schools in the state received that rating last fall, but state officials are reviewing the ratings criteria and are likely to make them more stringent by the fall of 2006.

Shapiro said the state should, after the first year, thoroughly review any group or company that takes over a school. She also said she wants the state to provide more help to schools after one year of low ratings so they never become subject to takeover.

"What happens now is we wait two or three years down the road to ever intervene," she said.

But Carolyn Boyle of the Coalition for Public Schools said school districts should continue to use scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills to see where to focus their resources, not to justify the use of for-profit companies.

"The TAKS test is helping communities to know which groups of children need more help and more tutoring, and people are working on it," Boyle said. "Plus there's no proof that if you turn over a school to a for-profit corporation the student achievement will improve."

Opponents of bringing in private companies to run the schools point to Dallas, where the school board voted in 2002 to end a contract with the for-profit Edison Schools Inc. after two years. District officials said the schools failed to match the performance of other campuses with similar student populations, according to published reports.

Also stoking privatization fears is House Bill 1445. It would allow school districts, charter schools and education service centers to hire companies to develop online education programs. The schools that administer the programs would receive money from the state for educating those students. But Miller said she worries that most of that money would be passed through to private vendors to develop the online tools needed to offer the classes.

While schools regularly buy textbooks and other materials from for-profit companies, "what schools typically contract out for is not the wholesale education of the student," Miller said.

Grusendorf, whose committee heard testimony on the bill last week but did not act on it, said he hopes the panel will send it to the full House for a vote.

GOP Rep. Jerry Madden of Richardson, the author of the bill, said students enrolled in the programs would use class materials from the Internet, computer software, video and traditional textbooks. Teachers would instruct students and answer questions over the Internet and the phone.

Students could enroll in virtual programs if they are unhappy with their local schools or if they're trying to pick up a course or two that is not offered nearby.

"This is an opportunity program for any kid to get the best teacher in this state and the best course in this state," Madden said.

Shapiro said she supports a virtual-learning program because it has worked well at her local schools, in Plano. But she said she has not studied the specifics of the Madden bill.

The Legislative Budget Board projects that more than 10,000 students from private or home schools would enroll in virtual programs, which has raised concerns among teacher groups.

"You're talking about adding a significant number of (private and home-schooled) students into an already stretched funding system," said Lindsay Gustafson, a staff attorney with the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. "We want more transparency and accountability. Really, this is a step back."


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