Bill Hammond, the CEO of the Texas Association of Business, recently stated, “Texas local school bureaucrats are not graduating enough of our students ready for college or career.” He goes on to say this is “shameful and unacceptable.” He adds, “And they complain constantly that they need more money.” I’m guessing Mr. Hammond is referring to superintendents and other administrators in our Texas schools, of which I’m one.
While I agree that college test results are far below what our society is capable of, I disagree with both the origin of the problem — and the solutions needed. I attended, several months ago, a meeting of Harris County superintendents at which Mr. Hammond was the invitee. We were first given an introductory page, apparently written by his office, in which he is described as among the 25 most powerful people in Texas. Thus, he might have some influence over Texas education — perhaps in concert with the other 24 — and it would be helpful for him to have an accurate picture.
The superintendents spoke to him about unfunded mandates, over-testing, and inadequate school funding. His response, in part, was that if superintendents could agree on a better accountability system, we could send it to him and he might advocate for it. I remain a bit cynical. First, 1,000 different Texas school districts are not likely to agree universally — other than to join millions of parents who cry out for less standardized testing and better funding. Second, if “local school bureaucrats” did universally agree, he has just finished dismissing us as having caused the problem! So Mr. Hammond’s strategy appears to be: Divide and conquer. Encourage local school districts to fight among themselves, then use that as a pretext to talk about the necessity for greater state oversight. History records many examples of leaders who provoke local crises, then proclaim greater state control as the answer. I say instead that local control is far superior when the state has become too powerful. Our local school boards have a much better handle on what is important — and are less likely to be sidetracked by every special interest group.
Anyone who has studied Texas school laws knows there are thousands of regulations requiring school district funding — some of which are far afield of our central mission to educate young people for college and the workforce. Any cursory look at the six-inch binder of required local policies or the two-volume set of Texas Education Law and Administrative Code can see the problem. The state and federal legislators, generally aided and abetted by our court system, have multiplied that burden with each passing year. The huge number of mandatory state tests is a giant example. Now I think standardized testing is necessary, and I believe the SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement exams, and some of the Texas tests are good examples. But Texas has gone way overboard by instituting, for example, 15 additional standardized tests that must be passed by high school students before graduation. The state overkilled and underfunded.
This is my 21st year as a superintendent. I’m proud to live in a state better off than the rest of the nation. During almost all of that time, the Republican Party has been in control of Texas law. Republicans constantly talk about the necessity for “small government.” I agree. But both Republicans and Democrats have added voluminous state mandates without the funding necessary for compliance. And the best excuse each political party can give? It would be worse if the other party was in power.
I submit that there is a legitimate reason for calling us “local bureaucrats” as Mr. Hammond believes. Texas educators have increasingly become the tools of the state, attempting to comply with mandate after mandate — foisted on us by the very people who now call the result a bureaucracy.
Thus, just like the situation endured by the Israelites under Pharaoh, our teachers and staff are asked to do more and more and more — while being given less and less to do it with. Like Pharaoh, Mr. Hammond essentially says, “Why are you local bureaucrats taking the people away from their labor? Get back to your work. Require the teachers to produce better results with fewer resources. You are just lazy. Your test scores must increase, and you can find your own resources to make it happen!” Bricks without straw.
Pearland ISD just received a five-star rating from the Texas Comptroller’s Office for the third year in a row. Essentially, we are recognized as a district combining strong student achievement and low spending per pupil. That makes us one of only 15 districts (out of over 1,000) to achieve that three-year distinction. So I think our district earns some say about the current state of affairs. What have we said? Last year Pearland ISD joined an army of other Texas school districts suing the state over unconstitutional, inadequate, and inequitable school funding laws. And we passed a unanimous declaration against the over-use of state-imposed and under-funded standardized testing.
I wish Mr. Hammond was forced to teach for one full year in a Texas public school. And that we could make sure he complied with each and every state mandate imposed upon him as a teacher. Assuming he is a man of integrity, I believe he would no longer blame “local school bureaucrats.” He would seek, as we do, a combination of local control and state funding commensurate with the burden imposed. He might even make mandate reform more important than pointing fingers at local school districts. Such solutions would help lead to the world-class results we seek in Pearland ISD.
In short, the message from Texas school districts to Mr. Hammond and the other 24 most powerful people in Texas is simply this: “Let our people go.”