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Arne Duncan

Texas asks for federal funding for pre-k vouchers

Not sure how I feel about this.


Teacher groups are up in arms as Texas seeks millions from the federal government to fund a new pre-K voucher program that would begin next fall.

Last month, the Texas Education Agency applied for $30 million in prekindergarten grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education, its share of the $160 million federal Preschool Development Grants Program. If approved, officials plan to use 25 percent of that money to pay for full-day, high-quality preschool for eligible children in Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.

Currently, the state funds half-day public preschool for children from low-income, educationally disadvantaged, non-English speaking and military families. Under the proposed program, parents with eligible kids would sign up for the public or private pre-K program of their choice through a lottery system. If the program meets the grant’s quality requirements, the full cost of the child’s preschool would be paid for using the grant money. At around $8,000 a year per child, the grant could add an additional 17,900 additional pre-K slots, a 25 percent increase, to the existing system.

According to the grant application, the proposal would be one of four ways the TEA would use the $30 million to “expand” and “enhance” access to full-day, high-quality preschool in Texas. Critics of the proposal, however, said it would amount to little more than the creation of a pre-K school voucher program.


While the proposal is unpopular among educators, it could find friends in the state’s newly-elected leaders. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott campaigned on smarter and more accountable funding for pre-K programs, while Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick long has been a vouchers champion.

The idea also is likely to find favor with Early Matters, a coalition organized by the Greater Houston Partnership to seek ways to expand local pre-K and child-care programs. A previous effort failed to get off the ground in 2013, when organizers unsuccessfully sought to force a referendum on a 1-cent property tax to fund expanded pre-K programs locally.

The main critic cited in the story is the Coalition for Public Schools, which sent a letter to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on October 30 outlining their issues. The Coalition’s super-minimalist website is here, and they don’t appear to have a Facebook presence, so I have been unable to find a copy of their letter and learn what their specific beefs are. Fortunately, Lisa Falkenberg was on the job and did some digging to find out more and fill in some of the gaps.

I was initially skeptical of the criticisms. After all, the Texas Workforce Commission has administered a federal subsidy system since the 1990s that essentially provides very low-income parents a voucher to pay for private child care so they can go back to work or school. A Texas Education Agency spokeswoman said this program would serve as a model for the proposed one.

And isn’t it a bit early for complaints anyway? Shouldn’t we all still be singing “Kumbaya” about Texas applying for any program near and dear to President Barack Obama’s heart? After snubbing Common Core and Race to the Top – in part, for good reason, I might add – Texas announced in September that it would apply for the federal grant. Much of it would benefit Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.


We need money. The grant proposal, written with the help of the folks at The Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center here in Houston, offers some good ideas.

“I guess I was kind of shocked to see the article this morning with the outcry … all about the voucher system,” said April Crawford, the institute’s director of state initiatives. “Certainly, 75 percent of it is not about a voucher approach at all. Twenty-five percent, they might go to a private program, but they also might go to a school near work that they know as a high-quality program. It just gives them more flexibility to pick and choose.”

So, what’s the problem?

For starters, a little reporting revealed I was wrong in thinking Texas had been there, done that with the Workforce Commission program. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. The Workforce program is about private child care. It has nothing to do with the public education system. So, there’s no risk of a private entity siphoning off dollars intended for public schools.

Then, there’s the Greater Houston Partnership’s beef. The business group, which considers pre-K its No. 1 legislative priority, has been working with Early Matters to expand and improve pre-K in Texas. A critical part of its effort is to create partnerships between school districts and private providers with extra classroom space.

“A voucher system really complicates that and gets in the way of that partnership,” said Jim Postl, former CEO of Pennzoil-Quaker State Company who heads the Partnership’s early childhood committee and is chairman of Early Matters. “The voucher system would bypass the ISDs and potentially go directly to the private providers. So, there’s less incentive for the two groups to work together.”

And then there’s the political taint of the V-word.

“I’m always suspicious when vouchers seem to come out of nowhere,” says Anthony, of Raise Your Hand.

Indeed, no one I talked to could tell me who insisted on including the voucher component. No one could really explain the purpose of it, either.

I basically agree with Falkenberg, and that leaves me back where I started. The v-word, as she puts it, is automatically suspicious, and in this case has a mysterious origin. Until that has been explained, and the concerns raised in her column have been addressed, I will be suspicious. There’s plenty of reason to not give any benefit of the doubt here. As we saw during the gubernatorial campaign, Greg Abbott isn’t interested in fully funding pre-k, so for better or worse we should continue to push for it locally.

Don’t count on that federal testing waiver

It could happen, but don’t expect your high-scoring kid to spend less time taking tests going forward.

A plan to reduce testing for higher-performing elementary and middle school students was one of the feel-good bills of the 2013 legislative session. But several experts believe it will never see the light of day in Texas schools.

The measure was passed with much fanfare, as parent groups and school districts urged lawmakers to scale back high-stakes testing across the board.

Legislators responded by sharply reducing the number of tests high school students must pass to graduate, from 15 to five exams. That measure will take effect.

But a follow-up bill, to exempt high achievers in lower grades from math and reading tests in grades four, six and seven, needs a sign-off from the federal government.

That’s unlikely, based on the federal agency’s record in enforcing the No Child Left Behind Act. The law requires annual testing in reading and writing of all public school students in grades three through eight.

But no state has been able to get that requirement eased, even as dozens have gotten waivers from other parts of the law since former President George W. Bush signed it in 2001.

“I have not seen a waiver granted on that particular requirement,” said Elaine Quisenberry, a spokeswoman for the education department, referring to the testing mandate.

Diane Rentner, deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, agreed.

“That has never been done, to my knowledge,” she said. “It would seem to violate the mandate that all students in those grades are to be tested every year under No Child Left Behind.”


In addition to the fact that no state has been exempted from the testing requirement, Texas is also handicapped by its record of resistance to the Education Department’s initiatives under Duncan.

And the law could have a major unintended consequence. If high-performing students could skip the STAAR in three grades, some fear their schools’ state and federal annual performance ratings could suffer.

See here for the background. Amused as I am by the irony of it all, this is one place where I’d support pushing back against the federal requirement. Exempting the students who are near-certainties to pass makes sense, and would allow schools to focus more time and effort on the students that need the most help. That needs to be a debate in Washington, but there’s no reason it can’t start someplace else. Too bad Texas doesn’t have much credibility on that score. We’ll see how the feds respond and we’ll go from there.

HISD approves tougher teacher evaluation plan

I have some concerns about this.

Teachers in the Houston Independent School District next year will face tougher job evaluations that grade them on their students’ test scores under a nationally watched plan that trustees approved Thursday.

The 7-2 vote did not shift from last month when the board gave initial approval to the evaluation system, thrusting HISD into the national debate over the best way to rate teachers as a way to improve public schools.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has pushed for the use of test scores to hold teachers more accountable, applauded the nation’s seventh-largest district for its plan.

“The new system uses multiple measures and incorporates student academic growth in a thoughtful and balanced way,” Duncan said. “Houston is providing a model for the state and other districts to follow.”

HISD’s two main teacher groups oppose parts of the plan, particularly the use of certain test data and the fast rollout.

I would have preferred to see a smaller rollout of this first, to get a better understanding of what the issues are before subjecting everyone to it. There’s also the fact that academic research on the effectiveness of these methods is mixed. Chron reporter Ericka Mellon does a great job rounding up some of the results from various studies here. One thing caught my eye:

[I]f you have 12 minutes, Jonah Rockoff, a business professor at Columbia University, gives a good explanation of value added and sums up the debate. His position: Value-added, a method about as reliable as batting averages in baseball, is fair to use as one part of teachers’ job evaluations.

There’s a video embedded with that explanation, which I have not yet had the time to watch. The irony, if that’s a direct quote, is that as any baseball stathead knows, batting average is actually quite unreliable in the sense that it tends to fluctuate from year to year. You remember what Crash Davis said in Bull Durham about the difference between a .250 hitter and a .300 hitter is one seeing-eye grounder a week? It’s absolutely true, and the research there shows that the year-to-year correlation for batting average is considerably lower than things like isolated power and walk rate. I’ll have to watch the video to see how Professor Rockoff meant that statement, but if that’s what we’re relying on then folks have a reason to be skeptical. School Zone and Hair Balls have more.

Federal education funds officially on their way

That’s $830 million that the Senate was counting on for education funds that it will now officially have.

Just two weeks after a bipartisan federal budget deal ended an eight-month impasse over $830 million in federal education funding, the U.S. Department of Education agreed Friday to send Texas the money that previously had been in dispute.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan quietly made the announcement on Good Friday. But Texas Republicans immediately declared victory in a two-front political war that had been waged for months.

“Today our schoolchildren and teachers received the funding they should have never been denied,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, who led Texas House Republican efforts to secure the aid. “This $830 million will give our schoolchildren, teachers and communities additional funding during this financial crisis. Today is indeed Good Friday.”

Burgess said he received word of the aid reversal during a conversation with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had condemned the attempt by Texas congressional Democrats to attach strings to the federal school funding.

Texas Democrats, led by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, had required the state to pledge that it would not divert the federal education funding to other uses as the Legislature attempts to plug a state budget shortfall.

Republicans will celebrate the political win, which resulted from the budget deal that avoided a federal government shutdown, and everyone in Texas is no doubt glad to have these funds, but Doggett was right to do what he did. In the end, this money will be used for education and not for plugging other holes in our own budget, so as far as that goes Doggett got some of what he wanted as well. What happens in 2013 will be up to that Legislature.

House repeals Doggett Amendment

This may be a partial answer to my earlier question about the status of the $830 million in federal education funds that await Texas if Governor Perry will attest that they will be actually spent on education.

In the latest round of the political feud over $830 million in federal funding, House Republicans, led by U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, passed a bill Saturday that blocks the enforcement of the Texas-specific Education Jobs amendment.

Republicans do not like the amendment, introduced by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, last summer, because it requires Texas — and only Texas — to guarantee that it will maintain state funding for education throughout 2013. Democrats support the amendment because it requires the state to use the federal money to supplement, rather than supplant, its public education funding.


“There is a clear path to get this money,” Doggett said. “All the governor needs to do is sign a three-page application, like the one he signed to get the $3.25 billion of aid he kept for purposes other than education.” That $3.25 billion would be the federal stimulus money— marked for education — Perry accepted in 2009 and used to offset spending in other areas of the budget.

In a statement, Burgess said, “The schoolchildren and teachers in Texas will finally have the opportunity to receive the $830 million they should have had in the first place. This money should have never been denied when the original bill passed, and it is a shame that Mr. Doggett put education funding at risk.”

The legislation still has to make it through the Democratically-controlled Senate, where U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn have sponsored a companion bill.

Two points. One, if this thing makes it through the Senate I have a hard time seeing it get Presidential approval, given that Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently warned Texas to fish or cut bait. What possible reason could President Obama have to fold on this and give Rick Perry an unqualified propaganda victory?

And two, I seem to have lost the ability to determine when it is that federal funds for Texas are evil and fascistic and must be resisted lest they pollute our precious bodily fluids, and when they are good and wholesome and must be fought for. Is there, like, a Wikipedia page or something I could use as a guide to aid me in these matters? Thanks.

State sues over education stimulus funds

So much for a peaceful resolution.

Texas went to federal court [Thursday] to pry loose $830 million in federal aid intended to help avert teacher layoffs.

The funds — Texas’ share of a $10 billion jobs package Congress approved last month — have been caught in a crossfire between Gov. Rick Perry and his Democratic critics in Congress, who inserted a provision requiring Texas to promise that its share of education spending won’t be cut before 2013.

Perry says the state constitution precludes him from making such a promise. Two weeks ago, the Education Department rejected his application for the funds – enough to protect 14,500 jobs in schools statewide – saying it had to abide by the congressional mandate, which applies only to Texas.


[Rep. Lloyd] Doggett called the lawsuit an “act of political theater” and noted, tauntingly, that the state’s legal filing was far shorter than Perry’s news release about it.

He blamed the funding delay on Perry’s refusal — legally baseless, in his view — to certify that he won’t cut state funding for schools.

“The bottom line is this: Federal aid to education should actually aid education in our local Texas schools. It is almost as if the governor felt he was entitled to his own blank check federal bailout and now he has the lawsuit to prove it,” Doggett said.

Amazing the lengths Rick Perry will go to in order to get his hands on evil, filthy federal dollars when he really needs them, isn’t it? And just when Education Secretary Arne Duncan was predicting that everything would turn out all right. Can’t we all just get along? A statement from Bill White is beneath the fold.


Is there a problem with the stimulus funds?

I hope not.

The debate over whether Texas lawmakers can use federal stimulus money to boost education spending, including funding a raise for teachers, is heating up.

The Obama administration warned states Thursday it may withhold millions of dollars if they use stimulus money to plug budget holes instead of boosting aid for schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made the threat in a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, but it could have implications for Texas, Arizona and other states.

Texas state lawmakers approved a bill that included a minimum $800 raise for public school teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses and speech pathologists, but the money is contingent on approval from the Education Department to use federal stimulus funds. Legislators decided to use federal stimulus money to cover the funding the state puts into education over the next two years.


In the letter to Rendell, Duncan wrote he is displeased at a plan by Pennsylvania’s Republican-led Senate to reduce the share of the state budget for education while leaving its rainy-day surplus untouched. To do so “is a disservice to our children,” Duncan wrote.

Texas essentially did the same thing, increasing education funding for the next two years by $1.9 billion thanks to the boost from the federal government, while leaving the state’s rainy-day fund alone.

“That’s exactly the same thing Secretary Duncan said he has a problem with,” [Northside ISD Superintendent John] Folks said. House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said if it wasn’t for the stimulus money there would be no extra money for education.

“The counterargument is that if we weren’t going to get that money we weren’t going to touch rainy day anyway,” he said. “We would’ve had to cut expenditures.”

I dunno, while the situations are similar, I wouldn’t say they’re the same, mostly because of that $1.9 billion in extra funding to the schools. I know Rep. Scott Hochberg had a big role in crafting that legislation, and I know he worked at ensuring its compliance with federal requirements. If Hochberg thought it was okay, I’ll trust him. If Secretary Duncan sends a letter to Governor Perry like the one he sent to Governor Rendell, then I’ll worry.

Brown and Locke spar over education

At a Mayoral forum on Thursday, Gene Locke and Peter Brown get into it over the school system.

Gene Locke, the former city attorney, targeted Councilman Peter Brown’s recent statement to the Chronicle that Houstonians should consider forming an urban school district heavily influenced by the mayor through board appointments.

“I think that’s an awful idea,” Locke said. “It’s going to be hard enough to make sure this city is safe, to make sure the business development grows.”

Brown retorted, “We cannot punt on education like my colleague said.”

Several independent school districts, overseen by elected school boards, operate inside the city limits. Brown said Thursday he does not favor having city government take over the Houston school district in the way that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has suggested for urban areas.

Here’s an earlier Chron story with more on Brown’s position, with which Annise Parker, Roy Morales, and current Mayor Bill White say they disagree.

City Councilman Brown is pitching the formation of a new “urban school district,” perhaps spanning from downtown past the 610 Loop, that would fall under the mayor’s power.

“I would favor the creation of this urban school district that is controlled by the mayor, that has a board that is largely appointed by the mayor, so there’s accountability,” he said.

Brown added that a task force should study several ideas, including breaking the 200,000-student Houston ISD into smaller districts.

“I wouldn’t want to say, ‘I’m elected mayor, and the second week I’m elected mayor we’re going to dismantle HISD,’ ” he said.

I actually think that’s an interesting idea and would like to hear more about it. I don’t know what I think about it yet, but that’s what these debates are for, to hash stuff like this out and let the competing visions actually compete. Brown and Locke metaphorically took it outside after the event by sending out press releases touting their positions and attacking the other’s; I’ve reproduced one of each beneath the fold. If this is a sign that the heat level has been turned up a notch in the race, as you know I think that’s just fine. As long as it’s about issues and not trivialities, I say keep it up, y’all. Stace has more on this, as well as a candidate forum in Kingwood at which immigration was the hot topic.

One more thing:

Morales asserted that when he served on a grand jury, “50 percent of Hispanics who came across our court were illegals and 90 percent of them were committing crimes against their children and other children.” The figures could not be confirmed late Thursday.

Most of the candidates dodged a question about whether they would propose no annual spending increases in the city government budget. Morales, however, said he would cut the budget and that police and firefighters have told him billions of dollars are wasted in their departments. He did not cite specifics.

Sure, Roy. Whatever you say. We believe you.