I just concluded an amazing visit to Austin.
I love going back to Texas. It’s my native state. I am a graduate of the Houston public schools. I like the sounds of Texas voices. I like the twang, the earthiness. These are the accents I grew up with.
I like meeting with racially integrated groups. I attended segregated schools in Houston. I’m proud that public education led the way in creating a racially diverse society, a society where people of all colors interact as equals.
I like the friendliness and openness, the lack of pretense and stuffiness that characterizes Texans. I have lived most of my life in New York City, but my heart belongs to this crazy state.
I arrived on Saturday and was met by Sara Stevenson, the tireless librarian at O’Henry Middle School, who has written many opinion pieces and letters to the editor in support of public education. Sara brought me to my hotel, where I met Karen Miller, a vigorous parent leader from Cypress-Fairbanks, who frequently sends me links to important news articles about corporate raiders of public education. It’s people like Sara and Karen who are the front-line combat troops defending our public schools, and they do it out of a fierce devotion to the common good, a sentiment that corporate reformers don’t understand. People like Sara and Karen are our secret weapons.
After an hour of rest (tweeting and blogging), I met two of the “fighting professors” of the University of Texas, Angela Valenzuela and Carolyn Heinrich. These scholars have been warning about the inequity of high-stakes testing for years, and their careful work will eventually turn the tide against the high-stakes mania. (By coincidence–or not–Sandy Kress, the architect of NCLB and now a lobbyist for Pearson, had an opinion piece in the local newspaper extolling the success of NCLB. He and Margaret Spellings may be the last two living defenders of that failed law.)
Saturday night, I had dinner with about forty superintendents from across the state who told me how frustrated they are with high stakes testing, how much time is wasted every year. A group of them have been working for several years on what they call their “visioning project.” Working with Phil Schlechty, they’ve been trying to dream up the kind of education they want for the children in their districts.
Last year, the Legislature passed a law allowing 20 districts to opt out of the state accountability system, which gets more onerous every year. The legislators just keep piling on more and more tests. The superintendents plan to use their autonomy to reinvent accountability and reduce the burden of testing.
Phil Schlechty gave a passionate five-minute talk about how our idea of democracy depends on the connection between the community and its public schools. He warned that if we lose public education, our democracy will be at risk. Phil also talked about his grandson, who made a video for school on “the value of doing nothing. The value of lying on your back and looking at clouds. The value of watching a caterpillar crawl on a branch. The value of counting the leaves on a tree.” Beautiful.
On Sunday morning, I spoke to a general session of the annual convention of the Texas School Boards Association and the Texas Association of School Administrators. More than 800 school boards have passed resolutions against high-stakes testing. I encouraged them to stand strong and to carry their righteous protest to the next level.
I asked, What if an entire district said to the state, we are not giving the tests this year? If the whole district says no, they can’t stop you. What if many districts opt out? If everyone does it, they can’t punish you. They-the legislators and other officials–will have to pay attention. They will have to stop and think of better ways to monitor the progress of education.
There is power in saying “no.” The more people say it, the more powerful it is. Texans have a long history of independence. Texans don’t like to be bullied. I would love to see a bunch of districts try it.
Sunday afternoon, I spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of parents and teachers at Eastside Memorial High School. The district has already promised to give the high school to a charter chain, and the community is furious. They didn’t ask for a charter, and they don’t want to lose their school. They are angry about the way the Broad-trained superintendent of the Austin Independent School District insisted on giving their local elementary school to the same charter chain, over the loud objection of the parents and local community. AISD was not responding to local demand (most of the local students abandoned the school when the charter opened last month). The locals are still angry, and they intend to hold onto the high school if they can.
Austin has several activist groups that are working to stop the encroachment of privately managed charters into the district. They are mobilized to elect school board members in November who will support community sentiment in favor of public schools.
Sunday night I went for Texas barbecue with local parent leaders.
Monday morning, I met with legislative staff to discuss the big issues in Texas. One is funding: the state cut $5.4 billion from the schools in the past two years. Another is the growth of online for-profit charter schools, which take public dollars with minimal accountability and poor results.
I ended my visit with an interview by Evan Smith before a live audience, on his PBS show “Overheard.” Wonderful audience, great questions, a good opportunity to address issues that are important to Texas and the nation.
I had a wonderful time in Austin, experienced a whirlwind of activity, and enjoyed the chance to meet so many people who care about children and our future.