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Texas Classroom Teachers Association

TEA updates its school-opening guidance

They heard the outcry.

Facing growing backlash from teachers, parents and health officials, Texas education officials Friday relaxed a previous order that would have given public schools just three weeks from the start of the fall semester to reopen their classrooms for in-person instruction.

School districts will be allowed to delay on-campus instruction for at least four weeks, and ask for waivers to continue remote instruction for up to four additional weeks in areas hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. During those second four weeks, districts must educate at least a small number of students on campus, and tell the state what public health conditions would allow them to bring more students into classrooms.

Local school boards in areas with a lot of community spread can also delay the start of the school year.

“Our objective is to get as many kids as possible on campus as long as it is safe,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on a call with school superintendents Friday afternoon.”But we know on-campus instruction is really the best instructional setting for the vast majority of our students in Texas. Please don’t feel compelled to use this transition period unless your local conditions deem it necessary.”

The revised guidance offers school districts more options on reopening their schools. Last week, the Texas Education Agency had released more stringent guidelines requiring all school districts to offer on-campus instruction daily for all students who want it, except for a transition period of three weeks at the start of the school year.

Educator associations still say Texas isn’t going far enough to protect educators and parents. The Association of Texas Professional Educators released a statement calling the revision “insufficient” and lacking in “science-based metrics,” since it still requires schools to offer in-person instruction to students who need and want it daily.

Specifically, the guidance says districts that limit in-person instruction must provide devices and WiFi hotspots to students who need them. Students who do not have reliable access to technology must be allowed to learn in school every day. And during the second four weeks of state-allowed remote learning, districts must educate at least some students on campus, though they can restrict that number as they see fit.

“We demand that Gov. Abbott issue a statewide order that all school buildings remain closed and all instruction be provided remotely until the pandemic has clearly begun to subside and it is safe to reopen school buildings under strict safety standards,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in a statement Friday.

[…]

School districts may also, with permission from the state, choose high schools where students will receive part of their instruction on campus and part remotely at home for the entire school year. Students must learn on-campus for at least 40% of the days in each grading period, usually six or nine weeks long.

That option would be best for districts “if your health conditions are such where you really need to reduce the number of people on campus at any one time,” Morath said Friday. Some districts have already proposed bringing different groups of students into classrooms on alternating days or even weeks, and otherwise educating them remotely.

See here and here. The state is going to allocate more money for school districts to buy equipment for remote learning, which is a huge barrier for a lot of kids. Some counties like Dallas have issued local health advisories that would require schools to remain closed, which the TEA guidance is allowing for at this time. The AG’s office has released an opinion saying that local governments can’t force private religious schools to close. So there’s still a lot of moving parts.

The Chron covers the local angle.

In anticipation of a change in guidance, Houston ISD announced Wednesday that it plans to remain online-only for its first grading period, which lasts six weeks. District officials also said they plan to delay the start of school by two weeks, moving the first day of classes to Sept. 8.

HISD officials hope to reopen campuses Oct. 19, but Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said public health circumstances will dictate whether that happens.

Officials in Aldine and Alief ISDs said they would start in all-virtual classes for the first three weeks, while Fort Bend ISD leaders said they will stay online-only indefinitely, with exceptions for a small percentage of students.

Several other school districts have released plans for reopening campuses that, for now, do not include online-only plans in August. However, superintendents in Conroe, Humble and Spring Branch ISDs, among others, said they are monitoring public health conditions and could decide in the coming days to keep campuses closed.

Spring Branch Superintendent Jennifer Blaine, whose district released a reopening plan Wednesday, said she plans to make a closure decision no later than the end of the month. Blaine said she first wants to see results of a survey sent to parents this week asking whether they want in-person classes or online-only instruction for their children.

“We don’t want to string this out,” Blaine said. “People are anxious and nervous. People want to know what the plans are going to be for August.”

The about-face on hybrid models in high schools, however, likely will cause some districts to re-evaluate their plans.

We’ll see what happens with HISD. One criticism that has been levied by teachers’ organizations about the TEA plan at this time – and to be fair, I think the TEA plan is still a work in progress, they have already changed it in response to public feedback – is that there isn’t yet a set of objective, scientific metrics that will govern how and when schools will reopen. I agree that this is a major oversight, but I will also point out that having metrics isn’t enough. We had a set of objective, scientific metrics that most people thought were pretty decent that were supposed to guide how and when the state reopened, and look what happened there. It’s necessary to have these metrics, but it is very much not sufficient. You have to actually follow them, and to be willing to slow down, stop, or even reverse course if the metrics aren’t being met. And given the nature of this pandemic, and the by now completely well-known lag between the case rate, the hospitalization rate, and the death rate, you have to be willing to do those things before we get into a crisis situation. You have to be willing to do them at the first sign of trouble, not at the point where things have already gotten bad ans now you need to try to catch up. If we haven’t learned that lesson by now, then we really are a bunch of idiots who will let many people suffer and die for no good reason.

Anyway. If you want a broader perspective from teachers about the upcoming school year and what we can and should be doing, give a listen to this week’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting podcast, which is usually about parenting but this week talked to four teachers from different parts of the country. As one of them puts it, if we move ahead with opening schools before we have this virus under control, some number of kids, and some number of teachers – and I would add, some number of parents – are going to die as a result. Do we really want to do that?

Lawsuits filed over teacher evaluations

This ought to be interesting.

A statewide teachers group filed a lawsuit Wednesday in an attempt to block the state from implementing a controversial system that for the first time ties assessments of educators to student performance on standardized tests.

In a lawsuit filed against Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath in Travis County District Court, the Texas State Teachers Association alleges that the new teacher evaluation system — the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System, or T-TESS — violates state law by requiring school districts to base 20 percent of each teacher’s evaluation on “student growth measures” that include standardized test scores.

Those student growth measures may include “value added measures,” or VAM, which are “typically based on a complicated formula that compares actual student test scores to the scores predicted by a mathematical target based on the standardized test scores of similar student populations,” the association explained in a statement.

“TSTA contends that state law … clearly requires a teacher appraisal system adopted by the commissioner to be based on ‘observable, job-related behavior,’” the statement said. “But a VAM model is not ‘observable’ and is not even available to teachers and others who wish to understand the basis for their evaluations.”

“Teachers are not robots, and their performance should be evaluated by an easily understood, transparent system that helps them perfect their job performance,” association President Noel Candelaria said. “Educators’ compensation and jobs are potentially on the line here, and their work must be evaluated fairly – and legally.”

The new teacher evaluation system, which the state has been piloting for over a year, is set to take effect July 1. Participating school districts will use it to make pay, employment and other consequential decisions. It replaces a nearly 20-year-old state-recommended teacher evaluation method known as Professional Development and Appraisal System, or PDAS.

The evaluation system is called T-TESS, and I wrote about it here. The Chron notes that the TSTA wasn’t the only entity to sue over this.

The other suit, brought by the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, claims the state education commissioner does not have authority to set specific evaluation criteria.

[…]

The lawsuits add to a growing list of teachers suing states over similar student test-based systems. Locally, the Houston Federation of Teachers union sued the Houston Independent School District in 2014 over its evaluation method. That case is set for jury trial in September.

HISD was one of the first large school districts in the country in 2011 to link teachers’ job ratings to their students’ test scores. Traditionally, school principals graded teachers based solely on observing them in the classroom.

The Houston school district, however, has struggled to find ways to rate all teachers in the student performance category. State exams, for example, are not offered in certain grade levels or for elective courses. Last year, 43 percent of HISD’s teachers got student performance ratings.

Even so, Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said the state should not move to a similar test-based evaluation system.

“It’s affected kids in that it has detrimentally impacted the way that instruction is delivered,” Capo said. “That’s all anyone does anymore is teach to the test, period.”

See here and here for more on that HISD lawsuit. Note that the evaluation system is being pushed by one of the never-ending supply of well-funded “education reform” groups, and the law firm representing HISD in the suit also represents that group. That still strikes me as a conflict of interest. There may be value in using this kind of metric as part of a teacher’s evaluation, if everyone is in agreement about what is being measured and what the milestones are, but as the Statesman notes, we do not have consensus on this.

Morath, who was previously a Dallas school district trustee, has advocated for the use of value-added models, which supporters say increase teacher accountability and effectiveness.

The American Statistical Association, however, has cautioned school systems against relying on the models, saying teachers’ performance accounts for only a small part of the variability in how students progress.

“Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality,” the group said in a 2014 statement.

Seems like a pretty big caveat to me. I can’t say I’d want my job evaluations based on something like this, either. A statement from the TSTA is here, and Trail Blazers and the Rivard Report has more.

Tax cuts >>> public education

Well, what did you expect?

BagOfMoney

Senate budget writers have enjoyed praise from conservatives for their focus on tax cuts, but they’re about to get an earful from educators who think their promises could cost Texas public school students.

The starting budgets of the state House and Senate, released last month, are similar on many fronts, but not with respect to education. Faced with $4.5 billion in additional revenue from increasing property values, the House has chosen to reinvest a portion of that in public education while the upper chamber is focusing on tax relief, a decision not sitting well with educators.

“I don’t know how you could say that budget prioritized public education,” Lonnie Hollings-worth, governmental relations director at the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said of the Senate budget. “We think the priority should be to fund our public schools and not to do tax cuts.”

A cursory glance at the Senate’s document indicates the upper chamber wants to provide billions more this biennium for public education funding. But the promises of many senators, including new Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, to provide $4 billion in tax relief leave only around $200 million available for schools.

On the House side, budget writers have pledged to funnel $2.2 billion of the property value growth revenue into public education. The money comes with strings attached, but education advocates say the decision to re-invest this money into education shows the lower chamber’s commitment to meet the needs of schools.

“We appreciate that the House leadership recognizes there is a need and is moving in that direction,” said Josh Sanderson, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, the state’s largest educator group. “We’re trying to get that same acknowledgement in the Senate.”

Good luck with that. Look, the Republicans were clear on what their priorities were. Public education was not high on the list. If there’s a few bucks left over after tax cuts and border security and roads and maybe some other tax cuts, then sure, whatever. If and when the Supreme Court forces them to spend more on education, then they’ll deal with it, as minimally as they think they can get away with. But until then, this is what we elected. EoW and Better Texas Blog have more.

Senate examines pensions

This sort of thing always makes me nervous.

Legislative proposals to shore up Texas’ two largest public pension funds could require teachers and state employees to work years longer than they must today to get full retirement benefits.

For example, a teacher who started in the classroom at age 23 may now take full retirement at age 52; that would increase to age 62 under House and Senate bills that are set for committee votes Monday.

Workers nearing retirement, such as those 50 or older, would not be subject to the new rules. But the changes would apply to about half of the active school employees, including everyone from cafeteria workers to superintendents, and about 64 percent of state employees.

Such major changes are necessary to protect the pension funds for the long term, given rumblings that taxpayers can no longer afford them, said Senate State Affairs Committee Chairman Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock.

Under Texas’ pension plans, the state and active members contribute a portion of pay to the funds, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas and the Employees Retirement System of Texas. That money is invested over time and guarantees a monthly check to a retiree until death.

“There is real hostility toward pensions. Even though we’ve done a better job in Texas, other states haven’t,” Duncan said, and that is fueling a national effort to convert public pensions to 401(k)-type retirement plans in which the employee bears all the risk of saving enough money for retirement.

New accounting rules could soon make the pensions’ funding gaps look a lot bigger, which, in turn, would expose the pensions to the political attacks that so far haven’t gotten traction in Texas.

“We can survive this if we make fundamental changes,” said Duncan, who has been an ally of public employees and carries a lot of weight on pension issues in the Capitol. “You just can’t throw money at it. You’ve got to make fundamental changes.”

But people who would be affected by those changes say the state is reneging on its promise to public servants.

“There is no excuse for defaulting on the framework of expectations that we have been working under for all these years,” said Hart Murphy, a high school social studies teacher in Austin.

Sen. Duncan’s bill is SB13. It has changed since that story was written. The TCTA has an update:

The TRS bills imposing a minimum age of 62 for full retirement on about half of current school employees passed out of committee Monday. SB 1458 passed the Senate State Affairs Committee on a vote of 6-3, and HB 1884 passed out of House Pensions on a 5-2 vote.

Both bills continue to include these major provisions:

  • a new minimum age of 62 for full retirement benefits for those not meeting the grandfather provision
  • a grandfather provision that exempts employees who, as of Aug. 31, 2014, are at least age 50, or meet a Rule of 70, or have at least 25 years of experience
  • a requirement that the employee meet the Rule of 80/age 62 criteria in order to be eligible for levels 2 or 3 of TRS-Care health insurance (A retiree under age 62 would be eligible only for the catastrophic coverage of level 1.)
  • an increase in active member contributions to TRS to match an increased state contribution
  • a benefit increase of 3 percent for retirees who retired prior to Sept. 1, 1994, capped at $100 per month

The bills were both amended to reduce the penalty for retiring under age 62 from 5 percent per year to 2 percent. This change would apply to employees who have at least five years in the system as of Aug. 31, 2014; anyone with fewer years, and future hires, would still be subject to the 5 percent reduction.

So, for example, a person not included in the grandfather provision, but who has at least five years of service credit by Aug. 31, 2014, who met the Rule of 80 but was only age 57 at retirement, would have had their benefit reduced by 25 percent (five years times 5 percent) under the previous version; under the new version, the penalty would be 10 percent (five years times 2 percent).

The minimum age of 62 is favored by some because of the large positive actuarial impact it has on the TRS pension fund. TCTA and other groups have met extensively with the bill authors (committee chairs Robert Duncan and Bill Callegari) and other legislators, and we can report that these lawmakers are working with members of the budget conference committee to try to get a higher state TRS contribution, which would help further improve the bill (such as extending the grandfather and/or providing an increase to more retirees).

At the very least, the state can kick in more to TRS. If the employees are being asked to sacrifice, the state can give up something as well, to minimize the impact. It’s only fair. The state made a promise and it needs to do everything it can to keep that promise.

Some things are not easily replicated

I have three things to say about this.

Harmony Public Schools appears to have cracked the code.

The charter school system, with 38 campuses across Texas and more than 23,000 students, regularly produces students who excel at math, science and engineering. And they do it on a shoestring.

Harmony’s five schools in Austin spent $7,923 per student in 2010-11 on operating expenses, almost $1,600 less than the Austin school district and about $800 less than the statewide average.

Harmony’s schools have also consistently beat the rest of the state on standardized test scores even while educating about the same proportion of students considered at risk of dropping out.

Few other charter schools operate as efficiently and effectively as Harmony. But the ability of some charter schools to seemingly do more with less could become a key issue in the mammoth school finance lawsuit that is set for trial in October.

[…]

A 2011 study done for the Texas Education Agency found that charter schools spent 15 percent less on operations than did comparable schools in traditional districts. Most of that difference came from hiring less experienced teachers and paying them less.

Lindsay Gustafson of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association said paying teachers less and stripping them of job protections would drive good teachers out of the classroom. Teacher turnover was twice as high in charter schools as in traditional public schools, according to the 2011 TEA study.

“We’re interested in quality, not just what’s cheap,” Gustafson said.

[…]

Soner Tarim, Harmony’s chief executive officer, said his schools are methodical about getting the most out of every employee, giving each person multiple jobs to ensure a leaner administrative operation.

One key to Harmony’s low-budget education is hiring teachers — some of whom come from Turkey — with little experience and paying them far less. The pay difference was about $11,000 less than the state average of $48,600 in 2010, though Tarim said teachers have since received a pay raise. Although charter school teachers are not required to be certified by the state, more than 70 percent of Harmony’s teachers are certified.

Harmony’s hiring practices and its ties to Turkey have generated controversy, including an investigation by a committee in the Texas House. House General Investigating Committee Chairman Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, said the investigation has been concluded and its findings turned over to other agencies looking into charter schools.

Tarim said Harmony’s teachers are willing to work for less because of the innovative, safe and supportive environment that produces results. Other savings come from the schools’ minimal spending on athletics, transportation, guidance counseling and social work.

Harmony also must dedicate relatively little to serving students with disabilities and those learning English. Only 6 percent of its program budget went to educating students with disabilities last year compared to 21 percent for the Austin school district. Austin also committed about 17 percent of its dollars to bilingual students while Harmony spent just 1.6 percent.

1. The thought of being able to pay for his tax cuts by slashing teacher salaries is just ambrosia for Dan Patrick, isn’t it? If you listen carefully, you can actually hear him salivate.

2. On a more serious note, while the story doesn’t get into how or why Harmony is successful getting students to perform well, if the secret to their success at doing it efficiently is being able to convince teachers capable of achieving that performance to do so for 25% less than the industry average salary, I don’t know how well that model can be replicated. I can’t think of too many industries where getting above average results for below average pay is a successful long-term strategy. In an era of stagnant wages and a declining middle class, it’s indecent to be talking about it as a way to keep property taxes at artificially low rates.

3. It may be that there isn’t much of anything that can be learned from Harmony’s experience and applied to the public schools. Sometimes it’s just the right combination of people that makes a place special, and you just can’t make it happen the same way anywhere else. By all means, we should study them and the other high-performing charters and try to learn from their experiences, but what works for them may not work for any other school. There’s never just one right way to do something.

Electing educators

This sounds good, but there are a couple of things missing.

More than a dozen Republicans and Democrats who have sat on school boards are running for the Texas House this year, and a backlash over spending cuts and standardized testing might help them get there.

Legislators sliced per-student spending last year, prompting schools to trim programs, increase class sizes and enact new fees. The publicity surrounding those cuts could persuade voters to change their representation in Austin, particularly if the alternative is a candidate seen as friendlier to public schools.

“We’re saying it’s time to bring in a significant number of new legislators,” said Carolyn Boyle of Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which endorses and helps candidates who it deems pro-education.

Boyle said her group plans to back an equal number of Republican and Democratic candidates in legislative races this year. A similar strategy worked in 2006, when groups representing parents, teachers and others helped at least 10 candidates defeat incumbents or win open seats in the Legislature.

It would be nice to see a list of the candidates with school board backgrounds. Other than Alief ISD Trustee Sarah Winkler (D) in HD137 and Lufkin school board president Trent Ashby (R), who is named later in the story, I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I’m far too lazy to go through a hundred or so candidates’ webpage bios to try and figure it out.

Boyle said this year’s crop of candidates with school board experience is the largest she has seen since 2006.

But this year, the education community does not appear to be as unified as it was then. A candidate who appeals to the leadership of Boyle’s PAC, for instance, may not appeal to a teachers group.

“In 2006, we had a number of former school board members who were recruited at a time when we felt like public education was under attack, and it really united all of the education groups,” said Lindsay Gustafson, director of public affairs for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

But since then, Gustafson said, “We’ve found that a lot of the former school board members that we supported weren’t necessarily going to be supportive of us on issues that were divisive in the education community between administrator groups or the school boards and educator groups.”

One of those divisions, for example, was over whether the state should loosen limits on class sizes in elementary schools. More broadly, some of the candidates who received help from Parent PAC and teachers groups in earlier races voted for the cuts in per-pupil spending.

“We’re going to have to be a little bit tougher when we’re vetting candidates,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association. “A lot of folks that we felt like we helped get there didn’t seem to know us in 2011.”

This is where it gets dicey. I support ParentPAC, and have been a fan of theirs since they burst onto the scene in 2006. But the ParentPAC-backed Republicans – Diane Patrick, Jimmie Don Aycock, Dan Huberty, Four Price, among others – voted along party lines last session, which is to say they voted to slash spending on public education and voted for measures that would put more kids in classrooms and make it easier to cut teachers’ pay. If they’re not going to stand up for what’s right under those conditions – and let’s be clear, there will be more where that came from in 2013 – then what good are they? Maybe Trent Ashby, who is challenging the teabagger Marva Beck in HD57, will be an improvement over her – not that high a bar to clear, after all – and maybe so will some of the other Republican school board members running. I share Gustafson and Kouri’s concerns about how we can be sure about that. Good intentions and a good resume only go so far. I want to know what these people plan to do about fixing the structural budget deficit, what their general philosophy is about the inevitable next overhaul of the school finance system, and I want to hear them say that they will vote for restoring education funding, and against further cuts. Then I want them to be held accountable for their votes. That isn’t so much to ask, is it?

By the way, there was another Save Texas Schools rally in Austin yesterday, and it drew another good crowd.

More than 1,000 teachers, students and administrators from schools across Texas rallied Saturday at the state Capitol to decry $5.4 billion in cuts to public education and demand that lawmakers restore some of that funding — or at least not impose another round of cuts next year.

The demonstrators, who also included parents and a number of Democratic lawmakers, marched through downtown, than gathered under the Capitol’s pink dome for nearly three hours. They chanted “Save Texas Schools!” and held up signs that read: “Cuts hurt kids,” ”You get what you vote for,” and “If you can’t read this, thank your congressman.”

[…]

When crafting its two-year budget last summer, the state Legislature voted to pump an additional $1.5 billion into the account used to fund public schools, but made slightly more than that in cuts elsewhere. Lawmakers also rewrote the school funding formula to cut an additional $4 billion, despite average public school enrollment increasing by 80,000 students per year statewide.

Another $1.4 billion in cuts was made to grant programs. All told, Texas’ per-student funding fell more than $500 as compared to the last budget cycle, the first decline in per-pupil state spending since World War II.

Four lawsuits have been filed on behalf of more than 500 school districts representing more than 3 million Texas children. The suits charge that the Legislature’s plan is not equitable in how it distributes funding to school districts — but the legal fight likely won’t begin for months.

“For the first time in 60 years, the Legislature that meets in this building behind us failed to finance the current school funding law,” John Folks, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, told the crowd Saturday. “That shows very clearly the priority that Texas has put on public education.”

Another target at the rally was the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or STAAR test. Students across the state will begin taking the new standardized test Monday.

“They say ‘STAAR,’ we say ‘No!'” the demonstrators chanted.

Every time I write about the devastating effect of the Republicans’ cuts to public education, I get a comment about how over the past decade spending on public education had grown faster in Texas than the growth in student enrollment. That’s true, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Aside from the fact that both state and federal legislation has increased costs on school districts via various accountability measures, school districts face numerous costs that are beyond their control and which are generally not given much consideration by the Lege. You may have noticed the high price of gasoline these days. School districts and their fleet of school buses certainly have. Probably the biggest factor in busting school districts’ budgets is the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, which increased by 131 percent between 1999 and 2009. What that means is that even without adding any more students or staff, school districts would be feeling the pinch. They can’t do anything about energy prices (electricity costs more now, too; thanks, utility deregulation!) and like the city of Houston they can only do so much about health insurance costs. What do you think they’re going to do when the Lege cuts their budgets? We’re seeing it now, and we’ll see more of it in the future if we don’t change direction.

School finance lawsuit #5

The plaintiffs keep on coming.

A lawsuit by a small group of parents claims Texas is not getting enough bang for its educational buck, and asks the state’s courts to address inefficiencies in how education funding is spent.

Attorneys plan to file their litigation Friday in Austin on behalf of five families who say Texas schools aren’t meeting their children’s needs, as well as Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, a new group formed by three entrepreneurs. The plaintiffs made a copy of the filing available to The Associated Press before submitting it to the court.

[…]

[Lead attorney Chris] Diamond said the latest suit had nothing to do with the Legislature’s budget. He said it is about parents who “feel as if their children are trapped in an unproductive system.”

Going to court to settle school finance questions has been a staple in Texas for more than 40 years. Diamond said that in past rulings, the state high court has issued opinions that “all-but invited” a legal challenge to the overall way Texas pays for its schools.

“We’ve been challenging this funding issue, but we need to hear about the basic, fundamental issues in the system,” he said.

Diamond said the idea would be to have the courts force the Legislature’s hand, and rule the system unconstitutional so as to compel lawmakers to overhaul school finance.

I couldn’t find a website for “Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education” when I first googled them, which is always a bit suspicious. There was just something about what they were saying in this story that gave me an odd feeling. This confirmed it.

TREE’s founder, James Jones, said in a statement that Waiting for Superman, a documentary that highly praises charter schools, inspired him to “dedicate his personal time and resources to the cause of saving children who are trapped in dysfunctional and inefficient public schools in Texas.”

“Imagine if a parent didn’t think their child’s physician was meeting their kid’s needs and the law made it nearly impossible for them to change doctors. We owe it to our kids to do better than this,” said Jones, who runs a mineral royalty firm.

The lawsuit has high-profile supporters: Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch is a co-counsel, and former House Public Education Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who left the Legislature in 2006, is the executive director of TREE.

In a statement, lead attorney Chris Diamond said the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that the question of funding is secondary to the question of efficiency. He said court has “issued a wide invitation for structural, qualitative reform that extends beyond the singular question of adequate funding” which the current system has not met.

Yeah, any group that has Kent Grusendorf on board is not to be trusted. I love how the story says that Grusendorf “left” the Lege in 2006. He left by getting beaten in the primary by Rep. Diane Patrick, who was backed by Parent PAC and who successfully attacked Grusendorf for his relentless hostility to public education. Subsequent googling found this press release for TREE, which in turn contained this website link. I presume Google’s indexing hadn’t caught up when I first went looking. There’s not much there, but at least they do have a website and it does contain their intervention pleading. Any lawyers want to comment on that?

The Statesman has some reactions to this effort.

Lonnie Hollingsworth, director of legal services and governmental relations for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said there is scant evidence that charter schools are more efficient since many of them get substantial private investments to supplement the public dollars they receive.

“It’s clearly an attempt to tag a policy agenda on a school finance lawsuit,” Hollingsworth said. “These are policy issues and they’ve been rejected by the Legislature.”

The group did not file a separate lawsuit but sought to join one of the existing suits.

Lawyers representing the school districts in the original lawsuit have the right to object to including the new plaintiffs. A judge will have the final say.

David Thompson, the lead lawyer on that suit, said no decision has been made on whether to do so. He welcomed some of the group’s arguments while disputing others.

“To the extent that there are allegations that school districts are being wasteful with funds, we strongly disagree and we believe the facts will show that school districts are being good stewards of public money,” Thompson said.

Thompson added that school districts are not afraid of competition from charter schools and are offering parents and children many new options. For example, the Austin school district recently hired IDEA Public Schools, a South Texas charter operator, to run a program out of an East Austin elementary school.

“We need to remember that 90 percent of the school-aged kids of Texas are in our (traditional) public schools, and any competition must be fair and on a level playing field,” Thompson said.

HISD does some partnering with charter schools as well. Go back and listen to my interview with Chris Barbic, the founder and now-former CEO of the YES Prep schools, in which he describes the relationship between charters and school districts as both cooperative and competitive. I will be very interested to see how the existing plaintiffs react to this. I don’t see it as a friendly intervention, but perhaps there’s more to it than I’m currently perceiving. The Texas Observer has more.

Adding charter schools

There are currently 210 active charter schools, and state law limits the total number to 215. (Note that this refers to charter school networks as well, so those 210 schools translates to about 520 campuses.) There are about 56,000 students on waiting lists for charter schools in Texas. The Lege is doing the math.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands , said he believes some upward adjustment of the cap will pass this session.

“There’s a market for them,” Eissler said. “We’ve got charter schools that have long waiting lists, and it’s a very market-driven mode of education, which is promising.”

[…]

The TEA is charged with monitoring and intervention when any public school fails to meet expectations. But spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe has said more agency layoffs could come this summer, raising concerns about the agency’s ability to effectively monitor a new generation of charters.

“If a law passes to increase (the cap), then we do what we can to make it happen,” said Suzanne Marchman, another TEA representative.

Lindsay Gustafson, public affairs director for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said her organization is not unequivocally against lifting the cap but opposes the proposition at this time, given the state’s budget woes and TEA staff reductions.

“They’re already strapped, in looking at charters — oversight of charters and any time that they take to close charters is pretty significant,” Gustafson said. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”

I agree with that sentiment. Clearly, there’s a demand for more charter schools, and as I’ve said before, we should do what we can to encourage the best of them to proliferate. But there’s a lot of bad ones out there as well – the story notes that in 2010, 11.1 percent of charters received the “academically unacceptable” designation, compared with 1.4 percent of regular public school districts. The TEA has just finished laying off over 10% of its staff. How are they going to oversee these new charters, and the existing ones, under those conditions? As with everything else this session, the Lege’s reach far exceeds its grasp. If the Lege wants more charter schools, they should come up with a way to pay for proper oversight of them. I don’t think that’s asking too for too much.

UPDATE: Here’s an op-ed in today’s Chron by Chris Barbic and Joe Greenberg of YEP Prep advocating the use of Permanent School Fund monies for charter schools. I agree with giving charters access to state funds for facilities, but not the PSF. How they do that needs to be determined.