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Dragging Dutton

Richly deserved.

Rep. Harold Dutton

Houston area political action groups, activists, and unions gathered outside the office of Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton Jr. on Tuesday to call for his resignation.

“It’s better if he goes now than in the next election,” said Alexis Melvin, president of the Houston-based nonprofit Transgender Foundation of America.

“We the Houston community are here to call for the resignation of Harold Dutton for his attacks on education but more specifically his attacks on transgender kids,” said Brandon Mack, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Houston.

The fury stems from a bill Dutton revived and voted in favor of last week, Senate Bill 29. The legislation would prohibit trans youth from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.

[…]

The Tuesday press conference and protest was organized and attended by major political groups in the Houston area, including the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, Houston Federation of Teachers, Black Lives Matter Houston, Indivisible Houston, Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, and others.

“In the labor movement, we say an injury to one is an injury to all,” said Ashira Adwoa an organizer with the Houston Federation of Teachers. “When your civil rights are under attack, we will speak out with you.”

Adwoa said Dutton should instead focus on making housing more affordable in his district, and pull funding from charter schools to finance smaller class sizes and more wraparound services in public schools.

“This school year has been traumatizing to students, and we need to help them recover from this pandemic,” Adwoa said.

Hany Khalil, executive director of Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, described Dutton’s behavior as shameful.

“Dutton didn’t vote for SB 29 when it first came up in committee because he knew it was a terrible, hateful bill,” Khalil said. “He knew it would hurt vulnerable kids. And so he used it as a cudgel to go after legislators who stood up to him and his attempt to strip democratic power from our schools.”

“Trans kids deserve to be safe and loved, just like all of our kids,” Khalil continued. “And they’re not pawns — they’re not pawns to be sacrificed in a disgusting game of legislative chess.”

See here for the background. Rep. Dutton has served for a long time, and while we have seen our share of Houston-area Democratic State Reps get bounced in primaries, mostly during the Speaker Craddick era, it’s not an easy thing to do. None of the groups present were Dutton supporters before – certainly not in 2020, when Dutton had to win in a runoff against Jerry Davis – so the work of building a sufficiently large coalition to oust him still needs to be done. The starting energy is good, and the cause is just. There remains a long way to go.

One more thing:

“I am hopeful that he doesn’t just get one primary challenger but a whole team of them,” [Houston GLBT Political Caucus President Jovon Alfon B.] Tyler said.

With all due respect, I don’t think that’s the best path to beating Dutton. Find one strong candidate that everyone at that demonstration can line up behind, and go from there. The problem with a stampede is that you’ll have too many people expending effort and resources in competing directions. There’s a real risk the same energy wouldn’t carry over into a runoff, as one would likely be needed in such a scenario. Join forces and unite behind one champion, that’s my advice.

HISD attempt to stop TEA takeover denied

Possibly only a temporary setback, however.

A federal judge on Wednesday denied Houston ISD’s request for a preliminary injunction and dismissed its lawsuit aimed at stopping the Texas Education Agency from replacing the district’s elected board, delivering a temporary victory to state officials.

However, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that HISD could still argue parts of the lawsuit in state court and did not reject a Voting Rights Act violation claim brought by the district’s largest teachers union, keeping the possibility of legal intervention alive.

In a 13-page ruling issued late Wednesday, Yeakel found that HISD officials could not legally bring federal due process and voting rights claims against the Texas Education Agency, and that allegations of First Amendment rights violations by the agency did not warrant issuing a preliminary injunction.

[…]

Yeakel, based in Austin, said claims that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath exceeded his authority on multiple occasions prior to deciding to replace HISD trustees could be heard in a Travis County court, where he remanded the case.

See here for the previous update; as promised, this was a quick ruling from Judge Yeakel. HISD could now pursue this in a state court, where I don’t think they’re any more likely to get a favorable ruling, but in for a penny and all that. In addition, Judge Yeakel wrote that his initial approval of the Houston Federation of Teachers joining the lawsuit was in error, because they have separate claims from the ones HISD was bringing. He said they should file their own separate lawsuit, which centers on Voting Rights Act claims; as the story indicates, that is what they plan to do. Again, based on the North Forest experience, I don’t think this is going to win the day, but there’s no harm in trying. So, while this was a win for the state, it’s not over yet. The Trib has more.

HFT may join lawsuit to block TEA takeover

That’s a lot of acronyms, so just read this.

Houston ISD’s largest teachers union is considering whether to join a lawsuit filed by the district’s school board that aims to stop the expected ouster of elected trustees by the Texas Education Agency.

Houston Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo said the union is expected to decide this week whether to take part in the lawsuit, which claims TEA officials do not have legal authority to replace the district’s school board and would violate the federal Voting Rights Act in doing so. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced earlier this month that he plans to temporarily strip power from HISD’s elected trustees and install an appointed board, citing three reasons: chronically low academic performance at Wheatley High School; a state investigation that substantiated several allegations of misconduct by trustees; and the continued presence of a state-appointed conservator monitoring HISD.

“We do not feel the students and teachers are anyone’s first interest at this particular point,” Capo said. “We’re having our legal specialist looking at the Voting Rights Act and a few other things, to determine whether we could actually intervene in HISD’s lawsuit. I suspect that’s the way we would go.”

[…]

Legal experts have expressed skepticism about whether the state is violating the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the administration of elections. They noted all voters in HISD — not just black and Hispanic residents — would be impacted by the ouster of their elected officials.

The HFT likely would not have legal standing to fight the state’s authority to install an appointed board because the union cannot represent Houston ISD in court. However, the union’s lawyers could have legal standing to argue the TEA would violate the rights of voters in Houston, as long as a plaintiff resides within one of HISD’s nine single-member voting districts.

“We’re going to take care of that,” Capo said. “There will be voters. I’m making sure there’s one for every district.”

HISD trustees voted 4-1 in June to hire an outside counsel to represent the board for the purposes of the state’s investigation into potential trustee misconduct, which included allegations of Open Meetings Act violations and interfering with vendor contracts. At the time, HISD Board President Diana Dávila said trustees wanted legal clarification on aspects of the state law.

In subsequent months, the legal firm’s scope of work dramatically expanded, without another vote from trustees. The board’s lawyers now are seeing temporary and permanent injunctions that would stop state intervention. A hearing date for the temporary injunction request is scheduled for Dec. 5 in Austin.

See here for the background. There was another lawsuit filed in August as well, and at this point it’s not clear to me if these are two separate and active legal challenges, if they have been combined into one, or if the first one has been dropped or dismissed. It’s the same law firm representing HISD in this action, for what that’s worth. As I said before, I don’t expect this to be successful, but it’s not an unreasonable thing to try. I’ll be very interested to see what the HFT decides to do, and what happens at that hearing in December.

UPDATE: They have joined the lawsuit, and the state has filed a motion to dismiss.

Lawsuit filed over STAAR exams

Interesting.

A backlash against this year’s STAAR exams escalated Monday when a group of parents sued the state in an attempt to keep schools from using 2016 test scores to rate students — including deciding whether students should advance to the next grade or attend summer school.

The lawsuit, filed against the Texas Education Agency in Travis County district court, argues that this year’s scores are invalid because the exams were not administered under parameters laid out in House Bill 743. The legislation, passed last year with bipartisan support, requires the state to design STAAR exams so that a majority of elementary and middle school students can complete them within a certain period of time (two hours for third-through-fifth-graders and three hours for sixth-through eighth-graders.)

The law was set to take effect during the 2015-16 school year, but the education agency — which did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article — has taken a phased-in compliance approach. Fourth- and seventh-grade writing tests administered this spring were revamped to comply with the law, but the rest of the exams were not.

“TEA will gather data during the spring 2016 administrations to determine how to adjust the remaining grades 3-8 assessments to meet the testing time requirements of HB 743,” according to the agency’s website. “The remaining redesigned grades 3-8 assessments will be administered beginning in spring 2017.”

“Despite knowing that the assessments did not comply with statute, and despite a lead time of over nine months to comply, the TEA failed and refused to develop assessments that comply with the statute,” according to Monday’s lawsuit, filed on behalf of four parents from Houston, Wimberley, Austin and Orangefield, who are members of a grassroots group called The Committee to Stop STAAR.

“As a result, approximately 2 [million] Texas students were administered illegal assessments. The results of these illegal assessments are now being used to enact punitive measures against students, teachers and schools across the state.”

I don’t know enough about this to have a comment on it, but as a parent of two kids who both took STAAR exams this year, it is of interest to me. There were definitely some screwups related to the administration of the STAAR test this year, and it would not have been unreasonable for the TEA to declare this year a wash. Whatever happens in court, I feel confident that the Lege will do further tweaks and revisions to the standardized test system, and that a significant number of people will not be happy about whatever they do. The Observer and the Press have more.

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.

Makeup days

Sorry, kids.

Houston area schools are facing possible cuts in state funding, and a bruising in the court of public opinion, by making up days missed earlier this year because of icy roads.

With little fat built into the spring school calendar and several days of mandatory state testing, Houston schools have little choice but to make up the two days missed because of January ice scares on Good Friday, Memorial Day or at the end of the school year.

“There hadn’t been a bad weather day for so long, no one was paying attention,” said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. “Our winters are usually not the problem. It’s usually those fall hurricanes.”

The Houston Independent School District has opted to make up the two missed days on April 18 and May 26. By holding classes on Good Friday, HISD can take advantage of a little-known exception that permits Texas schools to receive state funding for absent students with a written notice that they are observing a religious holiday.

Districts making up class on April 17 could also grant excused absences for a travel day ahead of a religious holiday, according to state law.

Typically, schools are funded at a daily rate of roughly $35 per student in attendance each day, meaning low attendance on a single day could cost HISD and other districts millions of dollars, according to Texas Education Agency data.

Some folks are upset that HISD picked Good Friday and Memorial Day as the makeup days as opposed to shaving a day off of Spring Break or adding a day at the end of the year, but from a budgetary perspective these choices made the most sense. If you’re unhappy about this, I recommend you direct your displeasure at the Legislature and Rick Perry for their devastating cuts to public education in 2011 and their refusal to fully restore those cuts in 2013. I would also point out that one candidate for Governor this fall promises to fully fund public education, while the other continues to defend those budget cuts in court. You want to do something about this, that would be your best opportunity.

Two views of pensions

The Chron’s Sunday op-ed pages were filled with pension-related discussion. Here are the citizen members of the Long-Range Financial Management Task Force, fresh off of their report release, taking to the pages to lay out what the city wants from the Lege on pension issues.

  • The Texas Legislature must change the current law that gives control of the pension plans to the city employees and retirees who benefit from the funds. The Legislature needs to let the city, not the beneficiaries, manage the funds, since the city has the responsibility for paying the benefits. This change will not affect the integrity of the funds’ assets.
  • The city must be given full access to the three pension funds’ detailed financial information including investments, benefit structures, individual payments and participant information, so that the city can independently calculate benefits costs. Currently, state law and the funds’ internal policies deny the city access to this information. Even the trustee appointed by the mayor is prohibited from giving financial information to the city Finance Department for analysis. The city must have such information in order to fully understand the benefits being promised and paid and in order to be able to make the appropriate changes to the benefit structures to achieve benefit levels that are sustainable. Our biggest disappointment in this process was our inability to obtain full access to the pension information. Without it, we were unable to determine, for example, whether pension reductions necessary to build a sustainable retirement system could be limited to reductions for future employees or whether roll backs to current employees will be required.
  •  Benefit schedules must be adjusted to eliminate “spiking”- the manipulation of benefits through the use of overtime and late career or temporary salary increases in the calculation of final average pay upon which the benefits are based. Eligibility to receive retirement benefits must be at reasonable ages with retirement benefits capped at a reasonable level. Incredibly, under current plans, some former classified employees retire after only 20 years of service without regard to age and others receive annual retirement benefits in excess of 100 percent of their preretirement base pay.
  •  Pension security requires that the city fully fund the Actuarial Required Contribution every year based on a reasonable assumed discount rate without exception.
  •  We must eliminate the option of granting additional retirement payments for employees who reach retirement age but continue to work.
  • In a fair and sensitive way, we must change postretirement health care benefits, which impose unreasonable costs.

None of this sounds unreasonable in the abstract. There are no numbers attached to anything in this writeup, so there’s no way to judge how it would affect any individual or group of individuals, and of course we would need to hear from those people to know what their concerns are before anything moves forward. But as a starting point, none of this raises any red flags to me. I’d also like to thank our only Governor for bringing the penultimate item to everyone’s attention.

By the way, I have not seen this reported anywhere else, but there was a minority report written as well. This report was written by the employee representatives (including HOPE) on the Task Force, who represent some 40,000 city employees. From a statement they sent out:

The report states that it agrees with the goals of the Task Force but that the overall report focuses too much on short-term goals and not enough on solutions that address core financial issues. Instead, the Minority Report suggests the following:

• Restructuring the City Debt and take advantage of the historically low interest rate levels.
• Address City Structural Challenges by thoroughly analyzing its enterprise Funds, TIRZs and Management Districts and whether they provide a real financial benefit to City taxpayers.
• Analyze the Draining Fee Structure to determine what present City related services can be funded with it and make sure that any savings are transparent and communicated to the public.
• Long-term Economic Growth strategies need to be implemented that incorporate efficient services to the citizens of Houston.
• Carefully consider proposed Public-private combination strategies, like privatizing the City’s EMS services, to determine whether true cost-efficiencies can be realized without a deterioration of city services upon which the public now relies.

The other issue taken up by the Task Force was City Pensions. Presently, there are three City of Houston Pension programs, one for the Municipal employees, one for the Police (each governed by an appointed and elected pension board), and the Statewide Fire Fighters Pension governed at the state level. The Minority Report states that there are misconceptions about the pension reform matters that have been in the news and that the City’s long-term debt has historically been rolled forward with little long-term thought given to how the debt will be funded. The three pensions are governed by independent boards and the City can engage these boards to make changes through a ‘meet and confer’ process (as was done recently for Municipal and Police). The Minority Report recommended the following for the pensions.

• Funding of Pensions: They need to be funded at actuarially required contribution levels.
• The Risk Equation: The funding risk for the pensions is spread over investment returns, employee contributions and the system’s plan design. They note that the pension funds exist for the benefit of multiple generations of workers and must focus on the long term and that the City’s pensions have matched or exceeded their target returns of 8.5% (a rate that is considered reasonable but subject to projection changes at any time).
• Defined Benefit Plans (DB’s): Suggestions have been made to convert DB’s to defined contribution (DC) plans but the report notes that if done, they are only cheaper if benefits are cut. Presently, Municipal employees average less than $22,000 a year in retirement after a lifetime of work at low wages and no extras like bonuses. It has also been found that when DB plans are closed and converted to DC plans it results in substantial increases in costs and could jeopardize attracting future City employees.
• Transparency: It has been alleged that data from the pension plans is secretive, especially the DROP accounts, but the report points out that this is not so and that information is available to actuarially determine any future costs.

Obviously, that last point contradicts what the authors of the above op-ed claim. I’d like to get some clarity on that. The full minority report can be seen here.

Over on the letters to the editor page, HFT President Gayle Fallon disputes some of the assertions made by Bill King in his latest screed about public pension systems.

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) is well managed and well funded. According to its last audit, it is solvent through 2075 and is funded at 82.7 percent – a better funding ratio than most private plans. A funding ratio of 80 percent or above is considered a sign of a healthy pension system.

There are several key points to consider as the attack on public pension funds ramps up:

  • More than half of the money in the TRS funds has been contributed by the educational employees.
  • In 1995, the state reduced its contribution from 7.31 percent to 6.0 percent, the minimum that is constitutionally guaranteed to educators, and left it there for 12 years. Employees contribute 6.4 percent.
  • Contrary to King’s statement that retirees have had no cost of living adjustment in over 10 years, retirees received a cost of living increase this year from TRS.
  • The TRS rate of return has exceeded the 8 percent rate targeted by TRS actuaries for decades. As a result, the taxpayer share of benefits paid is only 20 percent.
  • Moving workers to 401(k) plans places all of the risk on the employees. If the market drops during their retirement, they have nothing to protect them from spending their old age in abject poverty. Most workers who have a 401(k) also have Social Security. Texas teachers do not. All they have is TRS.

I will say again, as I contribute to the problem today, I think we are devoting too much time and attention to the pension issue as it relates to city finances and not enough to other issues. King is talking about more than just the city of Houston’s pension systems, and despite his assurances about his intentions I don’t have a particularly high level of trust in what he’s saying. Part of this is simply a distaste for advocacy of austerity, sacrifice, and change that don’t affect the person doing the advocating. We’ve already had plenty of that, thanks. There likely will need to be some changes made to public pension systems, in Houston and in Texas, to ensure their long term viability and to be fair to the taxpayers. All I’m saying is that it’s only one piece of the puzzle, and we need to spend more time on all the other pieces.

Teacher evaluations

HISD is gearing up to implement a new teacher evaluation system, but not without a fight first.

The Houston Federation of Teachers has launched what is expected to be a protracted battle to void the new evaluation. It starts with a hearing Wednesday before an attorney, who will hear evidence from the union and the district administration.

Union president Gayle Fallon said she anticipates losing but vows to appeal to the Texas education commissioner. The case could set a state precedent for districts that tinker with how they rate teachers.

“We have some really good arguments,” said the union’s attorney, Martha Owen. “I’m hesitant to predict (the outcomes). The commissioner hasn’t ruled in cases like this.”

[…]

Fallon contends that the Houston Independent School District violated state law in designing the evaluation. Among other problems, she argues, the district didn’t sufficiently take teacher input into account.

Texas law says districts may deviate from the state appraisal if the replacement is “developed by” district and school committees made up of teachers and community members. At least 87 percent of districts use the state model, according to the Texas Education Agency.

HISD officials and their consultants at The New Teacher Project have said they involved 2,600 teachers and 1,500 administrators, parents and community members in designing the appraisal. District- and school-level committees met and teachers could fill out online surveys.

I know I discussed the challenges of evaluating teachers when I interviewed Gayle Fallon last year. I don’t think we really have a handle on what the “best” way to do this is. I guess the way I look at this is this: How much faith do you have in the employee evaluation system they have where you work? Obviously, there has to be some way to do this, but if the people who are being evaluated by it don’t have faith in it, isn’t that a problem?

HISD adopts its budget

No tax increase, at least not at this time.

Students in the Houston Independent School District can expect to see larger class sizes and fewer teachers, librarians and elective courses next year under the spending plan that trustees approved Thursday.

The $1.6 billion budget reflects a state funding shortfall affecting districts across Texas, although for HISD, the financial picture ended up better than predicted.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier and board president Paula Harris had suggested over the last several months that raising the property tax rate was a possibility to balance the district’s budget.

But in the end, district officials decided to leave the tax rate alone and not dip into savings despite pleas from the district’s largest teachers association that more revenue could save hundreds of jobs and programs.

“We have an option to get more money. We’ve chosen not to do it,” Andy Dewey, the vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said.

Due to the way the Legislature will be distributing the budget cuts to school districts, HISD will take a bigger hit for the school year starting in 2012 than it will for this year. As such, the trustees voted to bank the extra money they now have from cutting more than they needed to this year until then. As I said before, I think that’s a reasonable position to take, though I certainly won’t criticize anyone who thinks we should be spending it now to keep more people employed. I would suggest that if we are going to hold on to this cash and lay off more people than perhaps we really needed to, the goal for the next year should be to balance the budget without any further job losses. If that means a tax rate hike, then so be it. Hair Balls has more.

CEP gets a good grade

As reported by Hair Balls, the Texas A&M consultant that was brought in by HISD and Superintendent Terry Grier to evaluate Community Education Partners (CEP), its provider for the disciplinary alternate education program, has now issued his long-awaited report. You can read it here, but the short answer is that CEP was given a fine evaluation. Here’s the executive summary of the report:

Observations of CEP schools indicated that both CEP campuses were well‐organized to effectively manage behavior and deliver instruction with clear goals. CEP referrals also reportedly have a positive impact on the behavioral and learning climate of home schools. Importantly, CEP exceeded the standards for most quantitative contract indicators. For example, results indicate that CEP exceeded performance expectations relative to the state assessment (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills), pre and post‐assessment, middle school promotion rates, and leaver status. Where standards were not met, specifically for disciplinary action rates and attendance, two facts should be observed. First, for both disciplinary action rates and attendance, the contract called for examining the performance of students who attended CEP for 120 days or more, thus focusing these analyses on less than 10% of the student population served by CEP; CEP would have met these standards had the entire population of students served been considered. Second, the contract provides CEP with an opportunity to remedy any performance issues noted in its evaluation. In sum, the vast majority of data gathered and analyzed for this evaluation indicates that CEP performed well relative to expectations.

The whole report is worth reading for the feedback it got from principals, which suggested a few places for improvement. The Chron story about the report has an interesting tidbit:

The analysis of dropout data showed that CEP lost 9 percent of its students in the 2008-09 school year. Records showed that many left for schools outside Texas, to be home-schooled or to go to their home country. But 158 students — of the 2,913 enrolled — could not be accounted for.

The researchers did not look at the number of students who were referred to CEP but dropped out rather than enroll. That has been a concern for critics of CEP, including former HISD administrator Bob Kimball, who has done his own studies of CEP, and advocates with the League of United Latin American Citizens, Council 402.

As we know, keeping track of dropouts is a big problem in this state.

Anyway. Grier had made an effort to get HISD out of its contract with CEP, for which the cost of the program was cited as a concern, but in the end that contract was maintained, with some changes. It’s hard to read this report as anything but a validation of Gayle Fallon and the HFT, who were staunch opponents of cutting ties with CEP and had vouched for its effectiveness all along. See here for all previous blogging on this topic.

Stimulus fight

As we know, HISD is reducing its workforce, including teachers, due to budget shortfalls. The Houston Federation of Teachers says that this is happening while there are a lot of unspent stimulus funds.

Houston Federation of Teachers leader Gayle Fallon pointed to Texas Education Agency spread sheets showing federal stimulus dollars and annual formula dollars, which are based on enrollment.

“We’re looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in unspent federal funds,” she said.

She’s talking about roughly $300 million, the majority of it consisting of federal stimulus dollars. The issue is being highlighted in The Houston Federation of Teachers’ next newsletter, which raised the question: Why is so much money left on the table when so many teachers might lose their jobs?

HISD Spokesman Norm Uhl said he has the answer.

“You can’t use it to offset general fund shortfalls,” Uhl said. “Federal funds have very specific rules you can use it for “A” but you can’t use it for “B.”

Fallon sent me a copy of her document, which you can see here. I emailed Uhl for a response, and this is what he sent to me:

The simple explanation is that some of those funds are for this year (through summer school) and will be spent this year. Some of the stimulus dollars we are spending half this year and half next year and there are some two-year funds that are part of next year’s budget. All of this money is already plugged into either this year’s budget or next year’s budget. It is NOT new money that can be used to cover general fund shortfalls. Federal funds have very specific rules or strings attached. You can spend it on “a” but not on “B” and you cannot supplant using federal dollars. In other words you cannot cover General Fund expenditures with certain federal funds. It’s called supplanting and it’s illegal.

I have to say, I’m still trying to figure all of this out. Not just this argument over stimulus funds, the whole debate over what Superintendent Grier is doing and whether or not it will be successful, where “successful” means better student performance and better graduation rates. I don’t know how I feel just yet about a lot of the stuff that’s going on in HISD. When I get it all straight in my head, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’m going to present whatever information I can. I hope it’s helpful to you as well.

Everybody’s talking about Terry

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, that is. A few things I’ve noticed lately:

From Rick Casey:

For all his controversies in previous districts, Grier earned a reputation for improving the performance of all children, but especially of low-income and minority children.

I have room for only one example, from the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record in 2003, where Grier had been superintendent for three years:

“District students have reached all-time highs on state tests during Grier’s tenure. Black students, who traditionally score lower on standardized tests than their white peers, have made particularly strong progress. At some grade levels, black students have improved by 20 percentage points since the 1999-2000 school year. White students also continue to make gains.

“Dropout rates have improved and the number of students taking Advanced Placement high school courses has nearly doubled in the last three years.”

From Lisa Falkenberg:

Lee isn’t your typical failing school. In one campus, its students seem to personify every major socio-economic problem and demographic challenge facing urban schools today. At the same time, it’s a petri dish for academic innovation, full of Stand and Deliver-type successes.

It’s a place you have to see to believe, which is why it’s so unbelievable that HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has chosen to make major decisions about Lee without setting foot on campus since he started in September.

From a Texas Tribune interview with Houston Mayor Annise Parker, as helpfully transcribed by Houston Tomorrow:

“I’m not satisfied with the quality of public education in Houston. My youngest child … goes to a public high school. Unlike a lot of other cities and states, I have no authority over the school system, although I feel like I have a lot of responsibility just as a citizen.

“We have a brand new superintendent [of the Houston Independent School District], Terry Grier, who’s been there just a few months longer than I’ve been in office. If he does not do a good job, I will not be successful as mayor.”

From an email sent by Gayle Fallon, President of the Houston Federation of Teachers:

HISD LAYS OFF HOUSTON TEACHERS WHILE THEY RECRUIT NEW TEACHERS IN CALIFORNIA
OPPOSE THE LAYOFFS
ATTEND THE APRIL 8 BOARD MEETING at 5:00

At the Board meeting on April 8, Terry Grier will ask the Board to lay off teachers from schools that are closing or losing positions. This includes special ed teachers, diagnosticians, elementary and secondary core subject teachers, counselors, and nurses.

Before Grier, HISD kept these employees and they were placed in other teaching positions.

At the same time, HISD is recruiting new teachers to fill the anticipated 1200 vacancies for 2010-11.

HISD needs to treat its employees decently and place these employees in open positions!

HFT needs you to attend the Board meeting to let the Board know that laying off Houston teachers so they can hire from California is not acceptable.

It may not be you this time but he is not through changing and closing programs and laying off HISD teachers.

Sign up to speak to Items E4-E7 regarding teacher layoffs. Forms to address the Board are on the HISD website.

Houston Federation of Teachers

See here for some background on that last item, and here for Grier’s response to HFT; see also today’s Chron for more about the layoffs at HISD and FBISD. Maybe it’s just because I’m paying more attention now that I have a kid in HISD, but I don’t remember previous Superintendents being such a focal point. Dr. Grier’s tenure here will not be boring, that’s for sure.

Interview with Gayle Fallon

As you know, I’ve been following the news in HISD lately, in particular the political struggle going on between new HISD Superintendent Terry Grier and the Houston Federation of Teachers, over things like the proposal to dump CEP as the disciplinary alternate education provider, and the teacher dismissal plan. In a recent post, I noted that some of the claims Superintendent Grier was making about CEP were completely at odds with claims being made by HFT President Gayle Fallon. That led to Fallon leaving a comment on that post and sending me some data about HISD’s disciplinary statistics, and ultimately to this interview I conducted with Fallon:

Download the MP3 file

It’s clear that Fallon and Grier don’t see eye to eye on a number of issues. I thought she made a pretty strong case for the HFT’s positions; I’d be interested to know what you think. I am working on arranging an interview with Grier and hope to have that done and posted within the week.

Fact check on Aisle 5, please

As we know, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has proposed ending HISD’s relationship with Community Education Partners (CEP), which provides alternate schools for kids with discipline problems. Following that, the Chron editorialized in favor of Grier’s stance.

Grier contends that CEP costs too much — $22 million annually and $180 million since 1997. During that period a number of other school districts across the nation severed ties with CEP, some on grounds that it was not effective in either educating or reforming students with disciplinary problems. In Atlanta, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the city’s school district and CEP, charging that its alternative schools were functioning as curriculum-deficient warehouses for minority students. The Atlanta district subsequently ended its contract with CEP and settled the ACLU suit.

In the case of HISD, critics have long complained that middle and high school principals routinely send students with relatively minor behavioral issues to the CEP campuses.

The superintendent is proposing that a smaller alternative school for serious student offenders, including those bringing drugs or guns on campus, be established at a cost of $14 million a year. Interested groups, including CEP, could bid for a contract to run the new school.

On Wednesday, HFT President Gayle Fallon wrote a letter to the editor disputing several of the Chron’s assertions.

The Chronicle asserted that HISD teachers send students to CEP for minor infractions. That is not true. According to HISD records, it takes an average of six to seven serious disciplinary infractions before a student is sent to CEP for persistent misconduct. The state law defines “persistent misconduct” as a student who is so disruptive that a teacher cannot teach other students effectively with this child in class. Less than 2 percent of the Level 3 infractions reported to the district end up at CEP. These are the serious cases.

Grier states he can do the disciplinary program cheaper, but let’s look at his record. The cost of his internal programs in Guilford County, N.C. ($41,281/pupil) and in San Diego ($27,105/pupil) were both higher than our current cost. His programs also gave the appearance of discriminatory practices. In Guilford his alternative schools had 89 percent African-American students in a district that was 45.5 percent African-American.

What we have here is not a difference of opinion but a difference of fact. Grier and the Chron say that kids can be sent to CEP for minor infractions; Fallon says that’s not true. Grier and the Chron say that CEP is too expensive; Fallon says that Grier’s proposed alternative cost more in the places where he’s tried it before than what CEP does now. How is any interested observer, let alone an HISD Board member, supposed to decide on a preferred outcome if we can’t be sure who’s got their facts straight and who doesn’t? It cannot be the case that both Grier and Fallon are correct, though they both could be partially right. It sure would be nice if we could get a definitive, objective evaluation of what everyone is saying. Until then, I don’t know about you, but I’m confused.

Grier pushing to dump CEP

As we know, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has been pushing to get HISD away from using Community Education Partners (CEP) as a provider of alternate schools for kids with discipline issues. He has now made his recommendation to the Board of Trustees, who were somewhat skeptical.

Grier, who has been on the job six months, said CEP’s price tag — nearly $22 million this school year — is too high. He wants the school board to invite other groups to submit proposals to run a smaller, less expensive alternative school. CEP could re-apply.

“We want the best program to meet the needs of our kids,” Grier told the board at a Monday night meeting.

The new alternative school, estimated to cost $14 million, would serve only those students who commit serious offenses such as selling drugs or bringing weapons on campus that require expulsion under state law or district policy. HISD currently gives principals the option of sending students to CEP for discretionary reasons such as smoking, using profanity or chronically misbehaving.

Grier is proposing that students who commit less serious offenses get sent to another HISD campus in a swapping program. Problem students at one middle or high school would be sent to another in hopes that their behavior would improve in a different environment — away from friends but without the metal detectors and strict rules of an alternative school.

Hair Balls has more on this, in particular more on the pushback from the trustees. I don’t know enough about this to fully form a judgment, but Grier’s proposal would cost less and would be less punitive to students whose infractions are minor, and both of those things are appealing to me. There are clearly some legitimate concerns, though, and I do agree that this is another big change at a time when there’s a whole lot else already going on. I’d like for there to be a full and frank debate so that we can make a well-informed decision. As such, stuff like this isn’t helpful:

Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon, an ardent supporter of CEP whose union has exclusive bargaining rights at the Houston campuses, criticized Grier’s idea.

“That jerk is willing to throw these kids away rather than save them so he can divert a few dollars into his asinine new programs that no one wants,” she said.

I get that HFT doesn’t much care for Grier right now, and I certainly get that they have good reason to feel like they’re under siege. Fallon’s job is to protect the teachers’ interests, and I don’t expect her to be too happy about this idea. But if you hope to persuade me of the merits of your argument, that’s not the way to do it. So please, tell me why CEP is the better choice. I can’t make a good judgment if I don’t have that information.

HISD gives final approval to teacher dismissal plan

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has gotten approval from the HISD Board of Trustees to implement a plan that would allow for the dismissal of teachers whose students don’t make enough progress on standardized tests.

Data provided by HISD show that, over the last three years, 421 teachers have gotten far lower-than-expected progress from their students on standardized tests. That represents about 12 percent of the teachers the policy could affect and 3 percent of all teachers in the district.

“Don’t forget that we have approximately 13,000 teachers in HISD,” Grier said. “The vast majority are doing a good job.”

Some of the teachers may have poor scores in one subject but rate highly in another. In those cases, Grier has suggested that principals could switch teaching assignments instead of turning to termination.

[…]

The district only tracks the individual performance of teachers in grades three through 8 in the subjects of math, science, social studies and language arts. These 3,500 or so teachers would be the ones affected by HISD’s plan to include so-called value-added scores in formal job evaluations and as a potential reason for dismissal.

Standardized test data is not available for teachers of lower grades or elective classes. High school teachers get rated on the performance of their entire department, such as math or science.

More here and here. The unions object to this for a variety of reasons, including a lack of clarity about how the policy is to be applied; principals, who would be responsible for recommending that a teacher be fired, are also concerned about that. I certainly agree that at the very least, the process needs to be very specific about what conditions can lead to termination, and what remediating steps can be taken and must be taken to head it off. I confess, while I agree with this idea in principle, I have problems with basing it all on standardized test scores. There is, or at least there should be, more to education and evaluating teachers than that, not to mention the fact that it seems unfair to subject only a fraction of the teacher population to this condition. Of course, moving evaluations away from standardized test scores necessarily makes them more subjective, and thus harder to quantify and codify as processes. I don’t know what if any method would be best, but I do hope we intend to evaluate the process itself on a yearly basis, to see if it actually works as intended, and I hope we have the courage to admit it and do something about it if it does not. School Zone has more, and be sure to see this FAQ posted by HISD about the “Value Added” scores.

UPDATE: Hair Balls has more.

HISD moves ahead with its teacher dismissal plan

Here we go.

The school board on Thursday gave initial approval to a policy that allows the district to dismiss teachers whose students consistently perform below expectations on standardized tests. The change represents a move to make personnel decisions based more on student learning instead of relying solely on principals’ classroom observations of teachers.

[HISD Superintendent Terry] Grier and school board members have emphasized that the district’s goal is not to fire teachers but to help them improve. Teachers’ job evaluations now will include their so-called value-added scores, a statistical measure of their effectiveness in helping students reach their potential on standardized exams.

Well, we’ll see how it goes. The teachers don’t much like this, and I can’t say I blame them. We rely an awful lot on standardized tests, and while I think they provide a good metric, they’re just one dimension. They shouldn’t be over-emphasized. I think as long as they’re just another factor in the evaluation, it’ll be all right. The more it’s used, the less comfortable I’ll be.

Do bear in mind that not all teachers teach subjects that are covered by standardized tests. That was a complaint about the merit pay program, too, since it meant some teachers were automatically excluded. Also, as noted in Hair Balls, using improvement on standardized tests as a metric isn’t so effective for Gifted and Talented teachers, whose students generally start out at a very high level on these tests and thus literally can’t improve much, and it complicates the decision of when to transition bilingual kids into English-only classes. The devil is very much in the details here.

One thing I’m curious about:

[Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle] Fallon places blame on principals who don’t identify weak teachers early in their careers. For their first three or four years on the job, public school teachers in Texas are on probationary contracts, making it easier for districts to dismiss them.

In Texas, getting rid of a teacher with more experience, however, can take up to seven months and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees.

“It’s a long process,” said attorney David Thompson, who represents HISD and other Texas districts. “You can see why educators who don’t deal with this every day find it daunting and why it can be discouraging.”

Why not place a greater burden on the principals to do a better job of weeding out the weaker teachers before they get tenure? You have to be careful to not do this in a way that would provide an incentive for principals to fire any time they’re in doubt, but if this is the best time to take action, then let’s make sure action gets taken when appropriate. Come up with a metric that shows how many teachers that were subsequently identified as underperforming a given principal allowed to get tenure, and make that a part of a principal’s evaluation. That’s not perfect – among other things, some people who start out as good performers do later become poor ones, for a variety of reasons – but I think it’s in the right direction. What do you think? School Zone has more.

Evaluating teachers

This is sure to be contentious, but I think it’s the right direction.

Teachers in Houston ISD could lose their jobs for failing to improve student test scores under a controversial proposal slated for a school board vote Thursday.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s plan to tie teachers’ job evaluations to their students’ progress on standardized tests would put Houston among a small but growing number of school districts pushing to make it easier to oust ineffective teachers.

[…]

Under the HISD proposal, teachers’ value-added marks would be included in their job appraisals starting next school year. The policy does not say how much weight would be given to the value-added data in the overall evaluation.

Teachers could lose their jobs based on the data. The proposal would allow HISD not to renew a teacher’s contract because of “insufficient academic growth as reflected by value-added scores.”

[…]

[Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon] said her concern with the proposed changes center on its use of the value-added method, which she considers flawed, too complex and not transparent.

“If you’re going to fire me, it ought to be for something that I know how you calculate it,” she said. “You can’t show me this number predicts whether I’m a good teacher.”

I think the principle that poor teachers need to be, in the words of Trustee Paula Harris, professionally developed or out of the system, is reasonably uncontroversial. That said, it’s fair to be suspicious of the methodology used to determine which teachers fall into that category. As the Trib reminds us, the much-ballyhooed merit pay program was a bust. I don’t know what the best way to do this is – for all I know, this is as good as anything – but it’s imperative to get it right. I applaud Superintendent Grier for swinging for the fences, and I hope Fallon and her cohorts keep pushing him and the board to make this as fair and transparent as possible. I’ve posted a statement from the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, as well as an email from former Trustee Natasha Kamrani, beneath the fold.

(more…)

HISD Trustee runoff overview

Here’s the Chron story on the two runoffs for HISD Trustee. It echoes a theme from that Examiner story we saw yesterday.

The outcome of the races could reshape several board debates — particularly over wages for construction workers, efforts to hold weak teachers more accountable and the role of magnet schools. Early voting runs through Tuesday, and Election Day is Dec. 12.

Both Lara and Collins support paying contractors higher wages based on standard federal rates. They argue that bigger paychecks will draw more-qualified workers and prevent shoddy construction.

The Harris County AFL-CIO, which endorsed Lara and Collins, pushed the board to adopt the wages this year. Marshall, who has had crucial support from unions in past campaigns, agreed with the majority of the board in rejecting the idea as too costly.

“This is insulting in a way, that as hard as times are that any organization could even make this an issue,” said Marshall, who estimated that paying the federal rates for the 2007 bond projects would cost an extra $75 million.

Lots riding on the line for several organizations in these races. I noticed that of the four runoff candidates, the Chron did not say where Anna Eastman stood on the issue of prevailing wages. So I sent her a Facebook message to ask, and this is the answer she sent me:

Thanks for asking me about this issue. It never came up in my interview with [Chron reporter Ericka Mellon]. My understanding of the recent argument between the AFL-CIO and the Board of Trustees is tied to some promises that were made by the former superintendent and HISD school bond program administrator Dick Lindsey during the 2007 bond campaign, but not agreed upon by the board.

As a board member I would hope that any negotiations of this sort would involve all parties. I believe when we are spending public dollars there should be accountability on both sides and we should be hiring licensed workers at a fair wage and insure that we are following policy guidelines for inclusion of minority contractors.

Our dollars should be spent to effectively serve and benefit the most children possible, not to fund adult interests. As a board member of a public institution charged with educating children, my decisions will be guided first and foremost by what benefits children and their education.

So there you have it.

Meet the HISD Parent Visionaries

I’ve mentioned the group HISD Parent Visionaries a couple of times in this space. Here’s an article about them from the Examiner.

Parent Visionaries was spawned after HISD’s former superintendent, Dr. Abelardo Saavedra, voiced an interest in eliminating or reducing magnet school transportation. The parent group, largely from District V, became vocal in opposition and since, has spread support to parents in other districts in HISD.

“Our goal is to have memberships from all districts,” says Mary Nesbitt, one of the group’s driving forces.

Parent Visionaries now claims a list of about 350 members who communicate in person and online.

As noted in the story, HISD Parent Visionaries was active in the Trustee elections, with two of their three endorsed candidates – Mike Lunceford in V and Anna Eastman in I – either winning or making it to the runoffl. They have now endorsed Trustee Larry Marshall in his race in IX, and in each case – Marshall versus Adrian Collins, Eastman versus Alma Lara – they are opposed by candidates who are backed by the Houston Federation of Teachers. It’ll be very interesting to see who wins this particular fight.

HISD candidate spending

After all I’ve done detailing how city candidates are spending their campaign money, I’d love to be able to tell how how candidates for HISD Trustee are spending theirs. I’d love to, but unfortunately I can’t, because that information isn’t available online, and I just don’t have the time to tromp over to HISD headquarters and request printed copies to peruse. Fortunately, Ericka Mellon did do that, and she reports on it. Not as detailed as I’d have liked, but much better than nothing. And with that, I resolve to ask every HISD candidate I’ll interview in 2011 whether they support a requirement that these reports be made available online, as it is with the city, county, state, and feds. That really shouldn’t be an issue this far into the 21st century, but there you have it.

On a related note, you should also read this article about what the Houston Federation of Teachers is doing in the HISD Trustee races.

In a letter to union leaders this month, HFT President Gayle Fallon campaigned for a “pro-employee board” that won’t push for teachers to be fired or put on improvement plans if their students perform poorly on state tests.

For the last three years, the Houston Independent School District has ranked teachers based on their students’ performance and paid bonuses to those at the top of the pack. Some trustees have been calling on the administration to focus now on those teachers ranked near the bottom.

“If our candidates win … the balance of power shifts,” Fallon wrote to her union stewards. “You get a pro-employee board and we end the threats and begin to restore some sanity to HISD.”

HFT is backing Alma Lara, whom they’ve been supporting since before Natasha Kamrani decided not to run for re-election, in District I, and Adrian Collins in District IX. They did not endorse in District V. I certainly sympathize with what the HFT is doing – it’s their purpose to protect the interests of their members, after all – but I also think there’s merit to what HISD wants to do, and by Fallon’s admission later in the article, the threat of which she warns has been overstated.

And finally, if you’re in the Alief ISD, you should read this story about a candidate forum for the Alief ISD contestants.

School board candidates who are campaigning for reform in Alief ISD had few specifics about where they would cut spending. The group includes [Sarah] Winkler’s opponent for Position 6, Baltazar Gutierrez, sales representative for an industrial casting company, along with incumbent Nghi Ho, Tammi Sturm, mother, and business owner, and Marilyn Swick, co-owner with her husband of The Houston Sleep Center.

Graduate student Gary Floyd, who is in the race for Position 7 with Swick and incumbent Gary Cook, did not participate in the forum.

Gutierrez denied he’s aligned with Improve Alief Schools Political Action Committee created by affluent homeowners, but he’s pictured on the group’s flyer, which advocates for a line-by-line budget review to trim 2 percent, about $9 million, from the current budget and give taxpayers relief.

Ho’s competition is for the Position 5 seat by Grace Parmer, 19, a Hastings High graduate currently enrolled in the Honors College at Houston Baptist University. She has aligned with Winkler, Cook, who is a hospital administrator, and retired teacher Ella Jefferson in a campaign to protect and further academic gains the district has made in the past few years. Budget cuts can’t occur without having an impact on personnel and school programs, they say.

You know how I feel about the “tax cuts above all else” philosophy, especially when it’s those who would benefit the most that are pushing it. My interview with Sarah Winkler is here.