SCHOOL FUNDING CRONYISM

The Texas Supreme Court recently and unanimously ruled that the state’s school funding system is constitutional. They stated: “Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements. Accordingly, we decline to usurp legislative authority by issuing diktats from on high, supplanting lawmakers’ policy WISDOM with our own.”

Having served as a public schools superintendent for the past 24 years, I will now translate that statement :

“Despite glaring school funding inadequacies and inequities, we, the Supreme Court of Texas, hereby hope our executive and legislative cronies are pleased. After all, we deferred to their WISDOM! Realizing our decision flies in the face of all common sense, we waited until we won our own Supreme Court election primaries in March and until a day when the media was distracted. We received the perfect gift on May 13, when the feds declared that boys have access to the girls’ bathrooms! Thank you, President Obama!”

The evidence for the unconstitutionality of our funding system is so overwhelming I wrongly predicted there was no chance the Supreme Court could overturn the findings of the district court. Boy, was I wrong. It took tortured language and 100 pages, but our Supreme Court found a way.

Austin legislative/judicial/executive cronies are breathing a sigh of relief and can instead issue loud cries against federal dictates about bathrooms. I see a stampede toward the nearest TV camera.

You must read with some caution my next prediction since I’m unable to fathom the incestuous relations among state cronies. But here goes: Legislators will wring their hands and tell us there is little they can do about funding. Both the sky and the price of oil are falling! However, those seeking national office will simultaneously tell us the Texas economy is the strongest and fastest-growing in the country. Though we’re near the bottom of all 50 states in school funding per pupil, we’ll be told money is not the answer.

Here’s the problem: There are seven inches of expensive state and federal regulations found in every school district’s administration offices. Who put them there? Answer: The very same legislative/judicial/executive branches telling us money is not the answer!

Do not look to either political party for salvation. These regulations have grown, not withered, during the past two decades by the so called party of “small government.” Significant deregulation of public schools allowing funding adequacy and efficiency is a pipe dream.

Meanwhile, our society has expanded the role of educator from classroom instructor to lifesaver and parent. Teachers are now like the ancient Israelites commanded by Pharaoh to increase the quota of bricks (graduates) — and find their own straw (money).

So this is the future as I see it: We’ll continue to be told the public schools aren’t doing enough, that Texas ought instead to provide additional government funding to charter and private schools. We’ll be told those less regulated environments will accomplish more. In the meantime, our own Pharaohs (including the Texas Supreme Court) will continue to add new inches of expensive special interest regulation to the state’s public schools, calling them “reforms.”

My World War II Marine Corps dad would have simply said to these Texas cronies: “Don’t shower me with spit and tell me it’s raining!”

 

The tourism lobby trumps education?

Statewide special interests undermine the common-sense decisions of locally elected leaders. For example, a few years ago the tourism industry — through the Texas legislature — decided when your child’s school year began. While new legislation now allows local officials to make some of those decisions, special interests are misleading parents and teachers into believing  vacations and working conditions will be ruined if their codified profits don’t continue. It’s not true. Allow me to give a little background:

Local Texas school board policy manuals are about four inches thick. In addition, the “Texas School Law Bulletin” consists of 1,553 thinly sliced pages. Of these seven total inches of regulations governing our schools, perhaps 2 percent can be generously attributed to decisions made by locally elected school trustees. (I won’t even include foot-long reams of federal laws and regulations.) Thus, claiming our state is the home of “small government” is like claiming Texas fits within the geographical boundaries of Rhode Island.

Even the entire Bible — consisting of  God’s commandments, man’s history and his future — is far shorter than Texas education law. It’s time to restore a little sanity.

So in 2015, the Texas Legislature took a step in the right direction by passing a law (HB 1842) titled “Districts of Innovation, allowing all but low-performing districts the opportunity to exempt themselves from a few Texas laws. Wise lawmakers realized that some of the same freedoms offered to charter and private schools might benefit public schools — and perhaps place them on a more even playing field.

Special interests are alarmed. Last week, the tourism industry asked the Texas Education Agency to curtail local control of the school calendar. They are lobbying legislators to pass new laws that further constrict local school/parental control over the calendar. And they seek to ally themselves with teacher group representatives, falsely claiming that local districts will use new powers to hurt working conditions.

Quite the opposite. Pearland ISD seeks (through this “Districts of Innovation” law) to end the school year before Memorial Day — instead of in June. We’d also like to improve working conditions for teachers by exempting them from some unnecessary regulations. We think the laws dictating overly-long teacher contract years, the length of school days and other regulations are counter-productive. We’d like to use our teacher/parent calendar committee to draft a school year preserving the local community’s interest in traditional holidays such as Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, MLK Day, spring break, Good Friday, Memorial Day, etc. In short, we’d like to build the calendar our parents and our educators deem best. Given our most recent ranking as among the top three districts in the Houston area as well as in the top 2 percent of the state (www.niche.com), we believe we have the academic performance and client satisfaction data here to inspire confidence in such local decision making.

It sounds enticing when the tourism industry touts beginning the school year after Labor Day and ending it before Memorial Day. But there are hidden unfavorable consequences in these dictates. Among these are fewer holidays during the school year, an uneven number of days for the fall and spring semester, an even longer school day and a continuing requirement for teachers to begin and end their employment year way beyond the students — even when professional duties are completed.

I anticipate the tourism industry will soon announce a “compromise” by applauding all deregulation — except that which directly affects tourism! That’s sorta like the Texas lottery founders who sold us their profit scheme as “for the kids”!

Decisions on the school calendar are best made close to home. But frankly, public schools do not have the legislative clout that special interests have. So please remain skeptical about the propaganda now underway — and help us retain our new and tiny foothold in local control. Be wary of any legislation next session that seeks to curtail, rather than expand, “Districts of Innovation.”

 

 

 

 

NATIONAL MENTORING MONTH

rise mentoring

Last school year our district mourned the untimely death of three students — each independently despondent over personal circumstances in their lives. We grieved partially because their deaths came without warning or outcry.

We are also aware there are MANY other students within our boundaries and throughout the nation who are experiencing academic difficulties, alienation or trauma.

Our Pearland ISD Board of Trustees and administration have deliberated over new and better ways to address these needs. In early spring last year, we devoted a special board workshop/training on that topic. Many ideas came forth. Among them, the most powerful tool we can conceive is a comprehensive mentoring program to reach students whose parents, educators or peers might identify as benefiting.

Who might benefit most? Students who are performing at academic levels below their ability, those experiencing difficulties in their everyday lives, those who might desire one-on-one interaction with a caring adult, et al.

Many research findings point out that nothing is more important to the education and well-being of a child than the presence of at least one caring adult pointing him or her in the right direction.

Research links mentoring to improved academic, social and economic prospects for young people — and in turn, this strengthens communities nationwide. Mentors can help equip young people to make responsible decisions, stay focused/engaged in school and avoid risky behavior.

We asked Mandy Benedix, who already oversees our renowned K-12 Grit Initiative, to lead this effort. As a two-time District Teacher of the Year with a huge heart for children and parents alike, she is ideally suited to give compassion, significance and comprehensiveness to our fledgling effort. Our new program is called RISE Mentoring, with RISE standing for Reach, Inspire, Support and Empower.

As of January 2016, we’ve signed up and trained 101 new mentors from the community and from our own employees. Right now, our counselors and others have identified about 70 more students who  could benefit and whose parents have given permission for an assigned mentor. And we have still other students being identified on an ongoing basis.

Our children will benefit from more community volunteers. So I make this pitch in January, designated as “National Mentoring Month” in America. Our RISE Mentoring Program involves contact with the student once a week, every week, for 30 minutes — for the duration of the school year. Mandy can be reached at 281.485.3203, ext. 66504. You can also visit http://www.pearlandisd.org/Page/634 or contact Mandy at mentoring@pearlandisd.org for more information.

May God bless our collective efforts!

Honoring our Veterans!

A part of our district’s “world-class goals” is to teach our students to embrace and practice “grit.” Among others, we point to a special group that practices what we preach. Each November, we honor our community’s veterans for their grit, their courage, and their sacrifice.

My own dad was a World War II Marine private who fought and was wounded in Okinawa. He died 5 years ago in his sleep, surrounded by his family, and underneath his favorite bright red Marine Corps blanket. At the funeral thereafter, a young soldier handed my mom the American flag and expressed “the thanks of a grateful nation.” (See video below.)

Thankfully, there is now a new birth of appreciation for our military, overcoming the ingratitude of the 1960s/1970s hippies. While overdue, it is most welcome.

Each of our 23 schools finds its own way to recognize and honor these men and women on or about November 11. There are special breakfasts and lunches. There are nighttime presentations and videos. There are concerts and assemblies. Hundreds of our veterans are invited, and many come.

Now let me get out of the way and let a veteran speak. This Vietnam vet attended the event at Rustic Oak Elementary and wrote to the principal thereafter:

Dear Mrs. West:

I want to thank you and all of your staff and teachers that helped to prepare the Veterans Day program at your school. Having all of the adult females in my family teaching in either Pearland or Pasadena ISD, I know what it takes to put on such a production. I applaud you for doing this for the veterans in our community.

As a veteran of the Vietnam War (1968-1969), your program now has a special place in my heart. Hopefully, I can explain this without “tear staining” the paper. I was barely 19 years old when my draft number was called. To avoid the draft, I enlisted so that I could choose my specialty training. Following Combat Medic training, I was shipped to Dau Tieng, RVN, as a Medical Corpsman assigned to Company B, 25th Medical Battalion, 25th Infantry Division. There, I saw many unspeakable things when wounded soldiers and civilians were brought to our field hospital.

Thursday evening as the children sang “American Tears,” I began to have flashbacks of some of the senseless deaths and destruction. One was seeing a fellow medic shot in the head and killed the night before he was scheduled to return home. Another was as our base camp was overrun by NVA during a nine-hour firefight that resulted in 147 NVA and 99 American soldiers killed. It was during these flashbacks and the singing of “American Tears” by the children that I, for the first time, knew why I fought in that senseless war so many years ago. It was so that these children could sing “American Tears” while I silently cried.

That song and my tears made all of the hate, hate speech and throwing of vegetables and eggs at us as I returned from Vietnam in Oakland, CA, worth it. I would do it again without hesitations. Freedom is NOT free, but American men and women in the military will give their life for your right to be FREE!

Sincerely, and with great appreciation for all educators,
CLIFF FARLEY – PawPaw to both Madelynn and Morgan

May God bless Cliff Farley and ALL of those who served our great nation!

 

FIGHTING UNWISE LEGISLATION

I’m fighting a quixotic losing battle against Austin utopians and their  media surrogates who want to place even more mandates on HEAVILY BURDENED public schools. There are literally hundreds of proposed bills each session that try to do this — and many of them succeed. In a previous blog, I described the problems with current legislative efforts to water down truancy laws by shifting the burden to schools. I recently testified in Austin against that bill as an example of unnecessary unfunded mandates and intrusive state control. But I was astounded by the cast rounded up in support of that bad bill.

The first speaker was the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. I had the very strong impression he was asked to testify by the bill’s author(s). He believes Texas is misguided and alone in its truancy efforts because of the high volume of  truancy court referrals — and because 48 states have already “de-criminalized” truancy. I sat there with my mouth open, knowing that a national report just touted Texas as having the highest graduation rates in the country for the different ethnicities. Why would we want to imitate states less successful at keeping kids in school? What qualifies the chief justice to weigh in on how best to keep kids in school? He is understandably sympathetic to over-burdened judges and courts, but fighting truancy is all about helping kids, not lessening the workload for lawyers and judges.

After the Senate passed the bill (despite the valiant efforts of Senator Larry Taylor), it was sent to the House Committee on Juvenile Justice. A similar parade of people stepped forward to praise the bill. Among them was a representative from Appleseed, an Austin-based group (many of whom are lawyers) describing itself as “sowing the seeds of justice.”

The Appleseed woman who spoke at the hearing was intelligent, unemotional, and armed with data contending that Texas is mistreating students when referring them to truancy courts rather than making schools do more. I’ve since looked up Appleseed and found their polished report titled “Class, Not Court: Reconsidering Texas’ Criminalization of Truancy.” At first blush, their findings and recommendations might seem reasonable. But they repeatedly ignore the statistical warning that “correlation does not imply causation.”

Here’s a simple example of misusing statistics in that way: More people eat ice cream in the summer. More deaths from drowning occur in the summer. Therefore, summer drownings are caused by eating ice cream. There is a positive statistical correlation between ice cream eating and drownings, but one does NOT cause the other!

Appleseed believes that truancy courts are a “pipeline to prison” and that such coercion “dis-incentivizes”  student attendance. Isn’t it more likely that the same factors leading a child to become truant remain when they are adults? Youth truancy convictions and adult criminality are correlated. But it is a mistake to say that one causes the other. Instead, lack of parental/personal discipline and poor character are more likely causes of both truancy and adult crime.

Space prohibits addressing the additional fallacies in Appleseed’s report. Their charts and graphs lead to their pre-conceived ideology, not truth. They would impose new mandates on schools apparently believing in an unlimited supply of money and labor for their brave new world.

Likewise, the Houston Chronicle has had editorial opinions touting the courage of those willing to “de-criminalize” truancy. Not coincidentally, there were well-timed “news reports” in that paper about alleged misuse of the truancy courts elsewhere in Texas. Social utopians and dictators have long used isolated stories of injustice to justify conquest and martial law. The same tactics are now being used to impose further state control over school districts.

Back-slapping Austin cronies huddle together with access to media outlets, lauding their own “enlightened” views. Far from the real battle, these board room generals seek one-sided hard luck stories to justify their heavy-handed intervention. They  ignore individual student/parent responsibility for truancy and cry crocodile tears over the economically disadvantaged. The result is a condescending, paternalistic, and unfunded mess. As a Peace Corps volunteer who taught the poorest in Africa, I can tell you that disadvantaged kids can make it to school on time — from miles away and usually on foot!

Instead, American society now cries loudly, “Fix the system!” I won’t go into the many systems school districts already have in place to help economically disadvantaged students in advance of truancy referrals. I won’t go into our schools’ cooperative efforts with local community agencies to provide food, clothing, tutorials, mentoring, and other services. I won’t elaborate on all the significant money and personnel used for these purposes. Even so, schools cannot do it alone.

We cannot adequately prevent truancy without the prompt backstop provided by the courts. That backstop is NOT the cause of truancy or criminality. The real solution begins and ends with individual responsibility — either self-generated or imposed. When that responsibility is not promptly exercised, the judiciary must swiftly coerce school attendance as best for the child and for America.

I say to students and their parents: Go to school. If you truly have a problem preventing attendance, our school district and others will render both aid and compassion. Don’t listen to those who call you a “victim.” And don’t let Papa Austin tell you it’s the “system’s” fault. Get some grit.

At the risk of being labeled an unenlightened religious nut, let me quote scripture: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.” Truancy court is the rod. And that’s a better answer than ill-conceived legislation punishing schools for “not doing enough.”

FROM DESPAIR TO HOPE: UNITED FOR KIDS!

Our schools receive notice every day of students suffering intense family/legal/medical crises, including drug arrests, assault charges, suicide, self-mutilation, parental/sexual abuse, teen pregnancies, etc. Though our students outperform most of Texas in terms of academics, fine arts, athletics, and other areas, these life crises touch many of our own. What is the cause? I believe our country’s moral climate is rapidly deteriorating, and many students don’t know where or from Whom real HOPE comes. Our schools and the greater community cannot remain neutral in the culture wars raging around us. Pearland has shown potential to be that “shining city on a hill” rescuing children from despair. Such work is not done in isolation.

The Maginot Line was built by France in the 1930s to protect against a resurgent German military. Trench warfare dominated World War I; thus, the idea was to build an impressive physical boundary against aggression. The long and expensive project consisted of concrete fortifications, obstacles, troops, and weapons. Unfortunately, neutral Belgium next door did not participate. So when Hitler sought to invade France in 1940, the Nazis simply sidestepped around the Maginot Line and invaded France through “neutral” Belgium. Evil found a way, using the ineffective neutrality of a neighboring country. The magnificent Maginot Line was an isolated and ineffective anachronism.

This is a warning for today. The American schools of the 21st century cannot cope, by themselves, with the onslaught of family/youth problems now plaguing our culture. Likewise, community civic organizations, churches, and individuals can’t succeed in isolation nor declare themselves “neutral.” So last school year, our community began meeting together under a “United for Kids” banner. About 50 to 60 of us meet once a month. You are invited.

Some of the participants include the Brazoria County Alliance for Children, the YMCA, United Way, Women in Leadership Society, local churches, Chamber of Commerce, Community Assistance Provider, Goodwill, Kids Hope USA, Pearland ISD administrators, PTAs, Pearland Neighborhood Association, Counseling Connections for Change, political party clubs, Pearland Police Department, city and county administrators/officials, Young Life, Adult Reading Center, Christian Helping Hands, Forgotten Angels,  our local constable, H-E-B, Lion’s Club, Rotary Club, etc. The list goes on.

Members of that group reached out with resources when a family’s home burned down and when another’s became homeless. Others needing emergency medical care were given access and funds overnight. We’ve provided gifts at Christmas to 400 needy families in 2013 and again in 2014. At each meeting, we hear presentations on services provided by community organizations so we know where to turn when kids or families are in need. At our most recent meeting, Women in Leadership and Brazoria County Alliance for Children spoke about helping single moms and abused kids. Then Pastor Hartwell from the Cross Roads Community Church in Pearland gave a detailed presentation on their own large and growing tutorial program (called #iCan) hosted at his church on Wednesday nights. This program reaches out to students at four of our Pearland ISD schools and is designed to give kids the skills, confidence, and encouragement needed to pass state mandated STAAR tests — and to face the daunting challenges of this world.

Allow me another World War II analogy. The tiny village of Le Chambon in southern France came under Nazi occupation in 1940. But under the leadership of local pastors, public school officials, and a private school principal, villagers hid and fed 5,000 Jews and other refugees right under the nose of Nazi evil. The schools grew and thrived. Small church groups met, prayed, and provided food. Sacrifices were made. Lives were saved. A little way down the road, another village called Le Mazet . . . did nothing. The distance between these two villages makes all the difference — then and now. . . .

In today’s culture, many children despair. They place their hopes in harmful and misguided attempts to escape their circumstances. An ancient book provides the ultimate answer: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him.” When we work together to save children from despair, surely His blessing is present. Lives are saved. Sacrifices are made. Hope replaces despair.

The next meeting of “United for Kids” will be on April 23, 8:30 a.m., at the Education Support Center, 1928 N. Main in Pearland. Hope to see you then. If you would like to attend, please contact Director of Communications Kim Hocott at hocottk@pearlandisd.org.

TRUANCY “DE-CRIMINALIZED”?

I am extremely concerned about a growing movement among Texas legislators this session to water down legal consequences for truancy and other offenses. In Orwellian doublespeak, proponents of this movement call it “de-criminalization.” The same legislators also use the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” as justifying their position. Truly, de-criminalization should be called “hyper-criminalization,” and the “school-to-prison pipeline” flooded if the legislation passes.

Let me explain.

Senator Whitmire, a democrat from the Houston area, is chair of the Criminal Justice Committee and is the best-known of many “de-criminalization” bill advocates in Texas. He believes students and parents are too often facing legal consequences for excessive absences from school. I’ve heard him tell a story about overwrought moms calling him with stories about how the judicial system is picking on them despite the many life challenges they face. Though schools have no legal authority over parents, he wants to place an even greater burden on the schools to track down and miraculously compel student attendance. And he calls this “local control” when, in fact, it imposes new state law preventing the local judiciary from acting! I’m sure that he and other legislators do care about students and parents, but the efforts are misguided.

In Pearland ISD, as in most  of Texas, we make mighty efforts to get truant kids in school BEFORE resorting to the courts. Despite what the de-criminalization advocates say, we do have discretion about referrals when there are valid and compassionate reasons to wait. So when we do finally refer the matter to Judge Starkenburg, it is because of a large volume of unexcused absences. The judge is straightforward, merciful, meticulous, and helpful such that the higher goal can be reached: Kids attend school, and parents face up to their responsibilities.

Consequently, we have a drop-out rate here of 1%. We have a high school completion rate north of 96%. We also have a daily attendance rate of 96%. Do we really need our legislators to change what’s working for us?

State and federal politicians combine this “de-criminalization” of truancy with a larger push to stop what they claim is  over-representation of minority students receiving discipline consequences. Democrats have joined Republican Education Commissioner Michael Williams in advocating this effort — as well as President Obama’s Department of Education. The assumption (though never stated) is that legions of racists are making disciplinary decisions — and therefore a quota system to constrain them is necessary. And if such limits are not enforced, society is widening the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The reverse is true. Does anyone seriously believe that truant students spending all day outside of school are LESS likely to commit crimes leading to a prison record? By allowing students and parents to avoid legal responsibility for truancy and other offenses, society guarantees a new “hyper-criminalized” class of students who don’t attend school, are idle all day, and are MORE likely to use drugs and commit crimes. Consequently, more economically-disadvantaged minority students are disproportionately left WITHOUT a high school diploma, WITH a serious criminal record for offenses committed, and WITHOUT a chance to achieve the American dream. In short, the  diameter of the “school-to-prison pipeline” is widened, not constricted.

After writing my first draft of this column today, I visited one of our schools. As I talked with the principal, we were interrupted by a crisis in the hallway. A young student became angry and disoriented after being caught under the influence of a drug. He began running away from the office. A school police officer was on-site and restrained him before he did further damage to himself or others. He then firmly and compassionately put his arm on the boy’s shoulder, walking him up and down the hallway until the student was calm. That is typical of our police officers and our local judiciary. They return students down the right path when they run away from school.

So let’s be realistic. Most Texans don’t believe that bad behavior is caused by requiring legal consequences for it! I implore our citizens to protest these legislative efforts underway right now in Austin. Otherwise, Texas is GUARANTEEING more drop-outs and more criminal records.

 



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