Sunday, July 17, 2005

School bills stoke fears of educators


Some educators are growing more and more worried that a new sign might soon hang from low-performing Texas schools in the next few years - "Under New Management."

Both the House and Senate versions of House Bill 2, a 400-plus-page doorstop of a bill dealing with everything from teacher pay to lower school property taxes to computerizing accountability exams, have provisions to overhaul campuses that don't perform well on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

The education commissioner would have the authority to turn over the operation of a low-performing campus to an outside management team after two years.

James Harris, a special education teacher with Lubbock Independent School District and regional vice president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said the bill's language opens the door to for-profit companies like Edison Schools managing Lubbock schools.

"History has proven they cannot do the job as well," he said. "In a number of places, they have been terminated for not doing the job well. They're interested more in a profit than the success of the children."

The public should be concerned, he said, because reconstituting schools under private management could lead the community to lose control of their schools.

As House and Senate negotiators worked through the weekend to hammer out an agreement to reform Texas' public schools, the privatization issue was flying under the radar although educators view it as a greater threat than other, better-publicized issues, Harris said.

The education commissioner already has the ability to dissolve low-performing school districts, but HB 2 would expand that to individual campuses.

Schools that are rated academically unacceptable or would have been rated unacceptable had the next year's accountability standards been in place this year would be assigned a team to improve the campus's performance.

The teams could be in low-performing schools as early as the coming school year. According to an analysis done by the Texas Freedom Network, intervention teams could be assigned to nine LISD campuses.

They are: Estacado High, O.L. Slaton Junior High, Arnett Elementary, Bayless Elementary, Bean Elementary, Dupre Elementary, Wright Elementary, Alderson Middle and Matthews Learning Center.

An intervention team would work with the school to create an improvement plan.

The team would have wide latitude to distribute additional funds, waive state rules and intervene with administrators and teachers to improve test scores.

If the campus remains academically unacceptable for a second year, the education commissioner would then have the option to reconstitute the campus, close the campus or turn it over to alternative management.

As part of the reconstitution process, the intervention team has the power to fire the principal or teachers.

A school that performs poorly for a third year would automatically come under alternative management.

State Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, downplayed the reconstitution provision, saying the goal is to speed up improvements at low-performing schools.

Current procedures allow too many years to pass before schools implement improvement plans, he said. Meanwhile, children entering the school system quickly fall behind their peers at other campuses.

"We're trying to get control a little more quickly," he said.

Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, said he was concerned about anything that would move Texas' public schools toward privatization.

In the past, school districts have farmed out cafeteria and bus services in the name of economic efficiency, he said.

"It's my view that privatization might produce theoretical savings," he said. "But I don't see how you can do that without reducing service for the students."

"There are some good things in the bill," Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network said. He pointed specifically to intervention teams as a positive option for low-performing campuses.

"Our problem is if an option is to turn it over to a private company," he said. "That's a terrible option. It's not a last resort; it's a disaster."

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