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Texas charts its own educational course

Posted by Jim Stergios  June 29, 2011 12:00 PM

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With 45 state and other jurisdictions signing on to the national standards, a few big holdouts remain, including importantly Texas, Virginia, and partially Minnesota. There are noises about other states' desire to pull out of the effort, such as in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

In this whole discussion, Texas matters most because it is, because of its size, with California a prime determinant of the content in our students' textbooks. The national standards have been pushed by a number of DC-based special interests. And Texas has made it clear that it is charting its own educational course.

The challenges in Texas are far greater than anything we see in Massachusetts. Since the early 1980s, enrollment in Texas public schools has increased by around 50 percent -- that's like seeing an additional 500,000 students in Massachusetts K-12 school schools over that period. (Instead, Massachusetts' enrollment has long been static and in fact is decreasing to the low 900,000 range over the next decade.) Fast growth means many new demands. Texas' shifting demography also turns on a fast growing Hispanic population that needs to be integrated into the social and economic mainstream. Massachusetts' success is great, but we've done it with far fewer English Language Learners, many fewer poor immigrants, and a continued predominance of K-12 students who come with some educational acculturation.

Texas has a strong education reform record. It was one of the first states in the country to undertake serious development of academic standards and assessments -- easily predating Massachusetts' attempts, which started only in 1993. It has also welcomed innovation, being ground zero for much of the work of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools network.

Over the past two and a half years, Texas has, in the face of enormous pressures from the federal government, wanted to keep going its own way. The Governor and Education Commissioner Robert Scott's message has always been that the challenges in Texas are different from much of the rest of the country, that they have a strong basis from which to build, and that state and local control makes most sense for Texas because of the fact that the federal government picks up only 10 cents on the dollar for total K-12 education costs.

They have resisted the national standards, the effort to develop national assessments, and they have this past week decided to opt out of the organization of state commissioners of education that has led the charge for nationalization of education policy. As EdWeek's Sean Cavanagh noted

Texas has withdrawn from the Council of Chief State School Officers, an influential Washington organization that is helping lead the push to create common academic standards across states, among its other efforts. The state's commissioner of education, Robert Scott, made the decision to pull out of the CCSSO, citing concerns about philosophical differences with the organization, as well as worries about membership costs, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency said. The commissioner felt that "our values don't align with each other" on education policy, said Suzanne Marchman, a spokeswoman for the agency. "We didn't see a return on investment from participating in the organization."
Commissioner Scott will be the only commissioner in the state not to participate, and Texas will save $60,000 in annual dues. Participants in the CCSSO also pay the organization for other services, so the full number of what many states pay is not limited to the annual dues amount.

(Interesting question for us in Massachusetts: How much do we pay?)

As Cavanagh reported, Scott's letter to the CCSSO was blistering on the issue of national academic standards:

"[P]lease know that your organization's advocacy for national standards and national tests is not in the best interest of the state of Texas and in my opinion, the nation," Scott wrote on June 14.

CCSSO describes its standards work as a state-led effort, not one designed to create national standards. But Scott said despite CCSSO's arguments that it has considered the needs of individual states during that process, its "actions in concert with other Washington, D.C.-based interest groups and the U.S. Department of Education demonstrate otherwise."

"It never was and still is not in the best interest of Texas to be coerced into replacing its transparent standards-adoption process and highly evolved assessment system" Scott wrote, with a process "developed largely in secret through a process led by special-interest groups who are not elected and who lack any public accountability."

Them are hurt words, and a reminder that you don't mess with Texas. With the debate over the renewal of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act continuing into the presidential primary season, politics now looms large. Already Mitt Romney noted in New Hampshire his aversion to national standards. Texas Governor Rick Perry has recently begun making the rounds in what seems to be a budding candidacy, and he is a long-time opponent.

With politics looming large (usually indicating that things get stuck) and with Congress unwilling to put new dollars behind the feds' attempt to drive the national standards process, one wonders where this all is headed. For now, the national standards are Massachusetts' academic standards of record. The volatility in all of this (will they remain the official state standards? will they get undone? when will we see assessments? etc.) must be aggravating for district school officials and more importantly principals and teachers.

Chalk this one up to: More to come.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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