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EduLege Tracker 4-19-18

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EduLege Update Volume VI, Number 24
April 19, 2018
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

‘Break it really good…’

State officials have been told that Texas needs to improve teacher training, provide adequate resources for students with the most severe disabilities and—most critically—provide more money so that school districts can implement an ambitious plan to overhaul the state's embattled Special Education system.

But during a public hearing in Richardson this week, witnesses weren't convinced that the Texas Education Agency's draft plan does enough to improve Special Education services in the state. And they doubt that the state will cough up the money that’s necessary to make it happen.

“What we need to do is break the system,” Liz Wetherington said. “Break it really good. Go back to the drawing board and rethink everything.”

The Richardson mother was among a few dozen parents, educators and other advocates who attended a public hearing on Texas' plan to fix a Special Education system that federal officials say broke the law.

A U.S. Department of Education investigation found in January that—for decades—TEA required local school districts to keep the number of students who were enrolled in Special Education programs artificially low, which likely means that thousands of students were denied the services they needed.

TEA promptly issued a draft plan to address the shortcomings—a plan that includes reaching out to families who should have received services, amped up training for educators on students' rights and more state monitoring of the Special Education services that districts are providing.

But the underlying concern boils down to money.

TEA has made it clear that it has little financial leeway to implement its plan, which also lays out proposals to create a monitoring team to regularly check up on school districts and to build a call center to help parents navigate the complicated process of figuring out if their kids qualify for Special Education programs.

“TEA cannot legally commit additional funds outside of those that are appropriated by the Texas Legislature and the U.S. Congress,” the draft reads. “This strategic plan has been designed so that it can be sustained with existing appropriations.”

School administrators view the plan as another unfunded mandate from the state.

“Directing districts to use existing appropriations for a plan such as this means services will be cut in other areas,” read a statement from the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education.

A very contentious name change…

“Discrimination.” “Cloaking bigotry.” "Bull.”

Those are words Marisa Perez-Diaz of the State Board of Education used to describe the decision to rename a long-sought-after course on “Mexican-American Studies” as “Ethnic Studies,” a decision that has touched off new allegations of racism.

While members of the State Board voted unanimously to create a high school elective that delves into Mexican-American studies, nine Republicans on the panel insisted on renaming the course "Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent," after Board Member David Bradley, R-Beaumont, said he rejects "hyphenated Americanism."

“Today was not a victory, but a slap in the face,” said Ms. Perez-Diaz, D-Converse, who is Mexican-American. “The time has finally come to call this what it is ... DISCRIMINATION!”

In a long statement that she posted on Facebook, Ms. Perez-Diaz called Mr. Bradley’s opposition to the hyphenated "Mexican-American" term, “BULL! … what does that even mean?”

In an editorial, the San Antonio Express-News shared Board Member Perez-Diaz’ concerns, writing, “Regrettably, this hyphen-phobia will create more divisiveness than any adjective before the word ‘American’ could have generated.”

In Texas, 52 percent of the state's 5.4 million school-aged students come from Mexican or Latino backgrounds. Population studies project that those numbers will climb to nearly 70 percent of the school-age population by 2050.

The State Board is expected to take a final vote on the new course curriculum requirements in September, when members can propose a name-change for the high school course.  

Complete with confetti…

Television talk show host Ellen DeGeneres surprised Rockport-Fulton High School students this week with news that she—and the Lowe’s Heroes program—are donating $1 million to rebuild the campus gymnasium that was destroyed during Hurricane Harvey.

The show traveled to the Gulf Coast community last week to interview the girls’ volleyball team about their struggles to recover from Harvey, and how much the school’s gymnasium, a hub of the town’s only high school, meant to them.

The gym, one of the few public places that large groups had to gather at Rockport, was destroyed in last year’s storm.

“Before Harvey, I was looking forward to my senior year, and having all those moments every senior gets, and I kind of didn’t get those moments,” says Allison Sanders, a member of the volleyball team. “But, overall I got more out of [going through Harvey] than I ever would have otherwise.”

A live video feed of Ms. DeGeneres in a Los Angeles studio was projected on a screen to the entire Rockport-Fulton student body, which was gathered in the middle school gym, under the guise of recording a promotion for her show’s profile on the girls’ volleyball team.

When Ms. DeGeneres announced the $1 million gift—the largest that she has endowed on air to date—the students erupted in cheers, and confetti rained down.

The other side of hell…

It’s now been five years since the small Central Texas community of West, just north of Waco, was rocked by a fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15—many of them first responders—and injured hundreds more.

The town is once again thriving following the horrific accident, with much of the efforts centered around the West school district, which had to build and open a new middle school and high school and make significant repairs to the community’s only elementary school.

“We’ve gone through hell, and we’ve come out on the other side,” says West mayor Tommy Musca.

He has been mayor since 2011 and says that the West school district is largely responsible for a community rebirth that also includes new downtown businesses, a new hotel, and new residential housing.

“The city is only as good as its school district, and the school is only as good as the city,” Mayor Muska said. “Without each other, both of them would die. If the city falters and declines, your schools are going to decline. If your school excels, your city is going to excel as well.”

A mandate to pack heat…

Kansas schools that refuse to allow teachers to carry guns could be held legally responsible in the event of a tragedy under a legislative proposal now pending with that state’s legislature.

Opponents of the bill are concerned that it could effectively mandate arming teachers rather than allowing it, as Texas and several states have done.

"The further we go down this rabbit hole, the more chance there is for even more obnoxious legislation moving forward,” said Kansas representative Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, a school teacher.

Texas and eight other states currently have laws in place that give teachers the option of carrying guns in schools, but the Kansas plan goes further.

Rep. Blake Carpenter, R-Derby, who helped write the legislation that holds schools liable, said he is confident that armed and trained teachers will save lives. In smaller, rural districts, where modest funding means that school resource officers aren't hired, the bill would allow for “next best thing,” he recently told a Kansas legislative committee.

Poisonous comments…

Kentucky governor Matt Bevin has apologized for remarks that he made recently insinuating that walkouts by teachers in his state left students unsupervised and vulnerable to sexual assault.

“I apologize for those who have been hurt by the things that were said. It was not my intent whatsoever,” Governor Bevin said in a video message.

The Republican governor had come under criticism after he told a reporter that students who were left at home during the teacher walkouts could be susceptible to sexual assault, or even be poisoned.

“I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them,” the governor said.

“I guarantee you somewhere today a child was physically harmed or ingested poison because they were home alone because a single parent didn't have any money to take care of them. I'm offended by the idea that people (teachers) so cavalierly and so flippantly disregarded what's truly best for children.”

As they have in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, Kentucky teachers recently walked out of the classrooms for several days to protest low pay and poor working conditions.

* * *

Broken laptops, books held together with duct tape, and an art teacher who makes watercolors by soaking old markers.

As teacher protests spread in recent weeks, the New York Times invited America’s public school educators to send it pictures of the conditions that a decade of budget cuts has wrought in their schools.

The Times heard from 4,200 teachers.  Here is a selection of their photo submissions.

She was a pearl. No fake…

We can’t end without acknowledging the passing of former First Lady Barbara Bush. The wife of President George H.W. Bush (#41), and the mother of President George W. Bush (#43), died earlier this week in Houston at the age of 92.

She was a strong advocate for education and for literacy programs—the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy was started while she was First Lady.

She always made wearing a string of pearls look classy—even though she acknowledged they were fake—whether with an inaugural gown, a business suit, beach wear or a Houston Astros jersey.

And lordy, Mrs. Bush was definitely a Houston Astros fan, often seen keeping box score in her seat behind home plate at Minute Maid Park.

Story goes that one time when her beloved Astros were playing St. Louis in an important game, Mrs. Bush was asked whether former President Bush (#41) would be rooting for Houston or the Cardinals, because of his friendship with then-manager Tony LaRussa.

“If he wants to come home with me,” he’ll be cheering for the Astros, the tart-tonged Mrs. Bush responded.

Thanks for all you did, Mrs. Bush. Rest in Peace… 

EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.