Archive for April, 2013

POLITICAL RHETORIC VS. PUBLIC EDUCATION REALITIES

Listening to the news these days, you would think the entire solution to public school problems revolves around “vouchers,” “Charter Schools,” “funding,” and “testing.”  I submit that politicians are “straining out gnats while swallowing camels.”

First let me admit my peculiar background.  I served four years in the Air Force, two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer (biology teacher) in Africa, 3 years as a Graduate Assistant at Texas A&M, 4 years as the Principal of a Texas private Christian college prep high school, and (most recently) 21 years as a public school superintendent.  Therefore, it is possible my perspective is outside of the mainstream…

Here is what I believe:

  • The Republican party is supposed to be the party of small government. But the escalating cost to educate students is brought to you courtesy of that same party! They’ve been in charge of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of our state government for most of the past 20 years.   I’ve witnessed massive over-regulation of public schools resulting in mounds of unfunded and under-funded mandates. Most such mandates are of little value. The state ought to set the standard for student achievement and then get out of the way — except to intervene only when there is clear evidence of misappropriation or abysmal student achievement. That intervention should be targeted at the offending school district — not a “one size fits all” solution for all of Texas.  Right now, local school boards have almost no power; the state regulates virtually everything they do.
  • The new rhetoric by the party of small government is to emphasize vouchers, tax credits, and Charter Schools. Why are those possibilities enticing? The idea behind them is that private schools and Charter schools enjoy regulatory freedom! Wouldn’t it be far more powerful to de-regulate the public schools than to give government money to MORE schools?  And how is giving more government money to private interests compatible with the idea of smaller government?  And why would private schools eschewing the “Godless,” over-regulated public schools be simultaneously eager to accept secular government money — realizing there are ALWAYS strings attached?
  • Government abhors a vacuum.  When one abuse happens somewhere in Texas with regard to any school matter, the state inevitably attempts to pass a law prescribing new regulations for all.  Thus, when a few Charter Schools misused the government’s money, all Charter Schools received greater state regulation.  When Texas school children benefited from a more challenging state testing regimen, the legislature decided a deluge of even more tests was even better.  Now, Texas high school students must take 15 state tests to graduate — in addition to the SAT, ACT, AP, PSAT, THEA and other nationally-normed tests already available and useful for college admissions.  With the current 15 tests, we have nearly 3 times as many as any other (noting Florida has 6).  It’s like the guy who thinks one teaspoon of sugar makes his coffee taste better — and then adds a whole cup.  Somehow the result didn’t match the expectation.  Due to massive parent/educator protests, the legislature is now swiftly acting to curb its previous testing enthusiasm.  It is predicted the number of state tests will drop from 15 to 5. Let’s not stop there.  Let’s de-regulate and simplify on every page of Texas education law!

Why is this difficult?  It takes far more courage for politicians to de-regulate than to simply add new beneficiaries to the government teat!  Special interest groups push regulations that line the pockets of their constituents — and simultaneously empty taxpayer pockets.  This is evident in every area of Texas public education law.  School funding can be far more affordable if special interest regulation was thrown out!

Politicians do not champion beleaguered taxpayers by expanding government largesse to private entities.  And the party of small government should not pretend to push “local control” while simultaneously piling on unfunded state mandates.  State government should attack the root of the problem IT created.  Otherwise, it is like the boy who murders his parents, then calls upon the court to have mercy on him because “After all, I’m now an orphan!”

Music and Drama Excellence Rewarded!

I want to share the wonder of a recent high school achievement.  Choir/Theatre Students at Pearland High School were declared the very best in the Greater Houston area during last Tuesday’s Tommy Tune Awards.

Being relatively new to my position here, I am just becoming acquainted with Houston’s prominent place in world-class fine art performances.  Thus, when I was told that Pearland High School was nominated for a record 10 Tommy Tune Awards, I didn’t really understand the significance.  I knew that Houston attracted the best Broadway shows along with international stars from places as far away as Europe and China.  But I didn’t grasp the collaboration now existing between this world-class venue and Houston-area high schools.

Don’t get me wrong.  Though I have absolutely no acting or musical talent, I have a great appreciation for those who perform.  In fact, I comfort myself with the notion that I’m able to appreciate fine arts more than many simply because it is so far above my talent level — as to render excellent performances as magical and other-worldly.

A month ago, I was invited by our people to attend the April 16 Tommy Tune awards ceremony at the Hobby Center — at which winners would be announced.  Since I receive a large volume of such invitations, I really wasn’t sure whether this was significant.  So I didn’t request a ticket, though I’d been told it would likely sell out.  A day before the actual event, I noted it was on my calendar as a “maybe,” so I asked if there were any tickets left.  Apparently not.  But when the Choir Booster Club was told of my interest, they spread the word, and before the day was out, I was presented with two tickets.  I decided that since that kindness was shown, I needed to go.

My wife and I arrived at the Hobby Center and were a little awed by the venue. I ran into one of my peer superintendents on the ground floor.  He oversees a much bigger district in the Houston area.  He asked me if I’d ever been to this before and told me I’d be wowed by what I saw. He was right.

My wife and I made our way to the 5th floor (unofficially designated by our Choir parents as the nosebleed section) and sat down among a group of pretty excited Pearland parents.  As I looked down and around, there was the dizzying sight of thousands of people waiting for the event to begin.  The acoustics were superb; a video montage of past year’s winners was shown, and big name Houston/Hollywood celebrities began introducing themselves.  Mr. Tommy Tune himself, the accomplished winner of 9 Tony Awards and the National Medal of Arts, stepped to the podium and gave a short history of this event.  This year, a record 45 different high schools received nominations — including magnet schools for the fine arts, private schools, large public high schools, and a few smaller high schools well known for lots of money.

My immediate thought was:  It is quite prestigious to be a part of this group and even nicer to be nominated in 10 areas.  I can’t expect we’ll win competing against such behemoths, but perhaps people will take notice of our many nominations.

Then to my astonishment, we won one of the first big categories in the competition.   People around me started hootin’ and hollerin’.  I thought, “This is serious.”  As the evening progressed, 8 of 10 major awards were announced, and Pearland High had won 3 of them.  This was more than ANY other high school.  Nathan Agnew won “Best Supporting Actor, our production won “Best Choreography” and then “Best Crew and Technical Execution”.

What followed was a final performance in which they had all of the nominees for best leading actress perform a medley together.  Once again, I was astounded by the talent.  Near the end of that medley, our own nominee (Allison Anderson) stepped forward for her solo turn.  I told my wife that our Pearland girl carried herself with exceptional modesty and grace — while clearly displaying an amazing talent.  The best actress winner for this year’s high school musicals was then announced, and Allison’s name rang out!  That meant we now garnered 4 of the top 9 awards with one award left to go.  The people around me were high fiving, yelling, and no longer sitting down.

Tommy Tune then walks to the podium, a hush comes over the crowd, and he announces that the final award of the night for Best Musical is the most prestigious and highest honor.  He tears open the envelope and announces, “Pearland High School!”

We won 5 of the top 10 awards.  In the midst of all these accolades that night, our students had a poise, confidence and humility that shone more brightly than any stage spotlight.  I’m proud to just bask in their reflected glory.  My thanks to teachers Derrick Bready (Choir) and Scott Fults (Drama) whose hard work and collaboration made these results possible.

And I especially congratulate all of the students acting and staging this stunning achievement.  As pointed out this night by the Hollywood celebs who began their acting careers in Houston area high schools:  There’s obviously a short distance between stellar Houston High School Fine Arts achievements — and world-wide acknowledgement!