Americans for Prosperity Foundation - Texas held an education reform forum Saturday afternoon in Houston. The forum was livestreamed online and also recorded for tv. The event proved to be a ray of sunshine to counter an otherwise dreary day in your nation's fourth largest city. The takeaway from the two hour long forum is this: some among us get it. They are fighting on behalf of your children and all children to provide the best possible education, thus the best future for them and our country. The common denominator for education reform success is choice. There is simply no getting around the need for school choice.
Held at Houston Heights Learning Academy, a charter school now recognized as a TEA Exemplary School. The school's Superintendent and Principle, Yvette East, was present and introduced to the audience. On the dais were the Honorable Rod Paige, former D.C. City Councilman and Louisiana native Kevin Chauvous, and Texas State Senator Dan Patrick, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee. The panel moderator was Ben Streusand, a political commentator on radio station KSEV and Advisory Board Chairman of Americans for Prosperity – Texas.
Texas is in good hands with Senator Patrick leading the Senate side of education reform legislation. He specifically asked for Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr., a Democrat from Brownsville, to be co-chair of the committee due to his support of school choice. Democrats in support of school choice play an important role in the politics of the reform movement. Those bold enough to buck union pressure and often facing down harassment and personal attacks are to be commended.
Sen Patrick is promoting his business tax charter credit legislation. This is a way for businesses to contribute to scholarships for disadvantaged students to attend private schools. He also is out front in his push for a blend of traditional and online learning - he calls it the wave of the future. He pointed out that 72% of Texas students are of minority ethnic populations and will benefit from choices allowing them to attend a school out of their home district.
Kevin Chavous, who served on the D.C. City Council from 1993 to 2005, said we must "fly the plane at the same time we fix it", meaning reforms can happen as schools operate. 45% of students are in charter schools in D.C. and there are waiting lists for school attendance. He helped originate the popular and successful Opportunity Scholarship program there which now has a 94% graduation rate with 89% of students going on to college. "No school bureaucracy has ever reformed itself from within". Milwaukee has the most robust education choice program in the country, showing marked improvement in testing from 2003 to 2010. And, in Florida, former Governor Jeb Bush's reforms showed a proficiency rate increase from 53% to 70% in fifth graders from 1998 to 2007. In Indiana, where 10,000 students are enrolled in school choice options, public schools are now advertising on billboards that "we can educate your children, too".
Chavous went on to point out that every day 7,000 children drop out of school. Home schooling is the fastest growing choice. Of the 8500 campuses in Texas, 500 are rated as failing. That amounts to schools teaching 300,000 students.
Asked about the politicization of education reform, Chavous, a Democrat who was also an advisor to President Obama's education department during his first term, said he didn't know any "Republican or Democratic way to teach a child how to read or write." The issue must be depoliticized. He faced his heaviest opposition from Democrats and the unions to which they are beholden. He said the only yardstick to use in the argument is "will this help a chold or group of children learn?"
Former HISD Superintendent and Secretary of Education under former President George W. Bush spoke of the perils of speaking in favor of school choice in Washington, D.C. He mentioned that Kevin Chavous was run out of office on the D.C. City Council due to his leadership on the subject. "How we are working is not working", he said. Progress has not been sufficient or timely. He noted that 4th grade reading scores nationally have only moved from a gap of 30% to 26% between white students and African American students. Only a 4% improvement in 17 years.
Paige said it is imperative to raise the morale of people working in the schools so that they will make the changes necessary. This will encourage teachers to join in on reform ideas, too. He spoke of the advantages of online learning, especially to rural communities. HISD has some of the widest choices of any in the country. "Kids should be free to go to any public school in the state", he said. Public school is not a structure, it is a concept made available through public means. He said it is a re-distribution of wealth in many districts. The real conflicts come from job protection - protecting jobs above all else instead of doing what benefits the students most, and it interrupts effective use of dollars. "You've got a major problem" with unions. He said the NEA gave him the most headaches during his time serving in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Paige encouraged people "with good ideas" to run for their local school board.
As Chairman of the Education Committee on the D.C. City Council, Kevin Chavous voted for the charter school bill. After that measure passed, 15 union members visited him in his office to harass him over the vote. Due to the success of school choice in D.C., the same old arguments against school choice don't even occur. Success has been proven and the voucher system has been very popular with parents. Because of his bold leadership, he was defeated by a union member in 2005. He spoke of the leadership shown by Mayor Fenty , who hired Michelle Rhee. Rhee implemented changes in the system as Superintendent of Schools, for which she was eventually also thrown out of her position by opponents.
Chavous said school choice is in demand nationwide. "I'm going to Alaska next week, people want this stuff", he said. He noted the very legislators fighting school choice are the ones trying to get their own children in charter schools. In New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina when the charter school system was implemented, for example, he noted 10,000 families signed up for charter schools in a two week period.
Sen Patrick mentioned that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush will testify before his education committee in Austin on February 27. He also noted that in Texas, only one in three science teachers have a degree in science and the same is true for math teachers. There is a cap on charter schools of 215 in Texas. He is asking for a lift of that cap and for full funding of facilities for charter schools to start. Often that is the biggest hurdle for a new charter school to open - the lack of funding for the facility. He also noted that the Homeschooling Association doesn't want tax credits or other special measures, as they don't want the strings attached to them that would occur.
Dr. Paige said that there were 21 charter schools in HISD before state charter rule began, while he was the superintendent. He noted that KIPP schools began as HISD charter schools before moving under the state charter umbrella, which was due to increased funding and not lack of local support.
Senator Patrick spoke of his surprise that school board races now have such big money in them and the politics involved in running for school board. It is no longer a concerned mom or dad wanting to make neighborhood schools better. It is now the lobbying of textbook companies and vendors and then future runs for the state legislature in many cases.
Senator Patrick said, "There will be a special session" of the state legislature this year. Using the help of his Democratic co-chair on the Education Committee, he expects his bill - SB3 - to be passed, even if it has to be in special session. In the special session, a simple majority of 16 is needed, not the standard 22 votes. "This will happen", he said.
Mr. Chavous praised former President George W. Bush's efforts on school choice and criticized President Obama for his lack of support on vouchers. "We gotta lead the leaders", he said. "Change is organic", he said, and used the example of President Reagan challenging Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" before the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended, as though overnight.
Kudos to Americans for Prosperity Foundation - Texas for holding this forum in Houston. They are, in fact, "leading the leaders".