School ideas may tilt governor’s race; Candidates differ on accountability system, vouchers

By Terrence Stutz and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

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Kathy Duffin, Cedar Hill mother of two, is fed up with testing.

She says educators spend so much time preparing students to pass mandated skills tests that she often becomes the real teacher.

“With all the emphasis on testing, they end up skipping some of the building blocks they need but that aren’t on the test. I feel as though I’m having to help teaching more than I should.”

With polls showing that education is voters’ top issue, Ms. Duffin’s concerns frame one of the biggest points of division in the race for governor.

Republican Rick Perry supports the current school accountability system that relies heavily on student testing. Democrats Tony Sanchez and Dan Morales say they want to create an accountability system that relies less on standardized tests.

How much weight to put on testing is one of several noticeable differences among the candidates. Another is their stance on tax-funded school vouchers. (Mr. Perry supports them; the Democrats do not.)

Mr. Perry, in his most direct confrontation with his Democratic rivals, has rejected criticism about the testing methods and said Texas schools should get a high grade for the work they’ve done.

“The forces of mediocrity are looking to turn back the clock on our progress by weakening standards and accountability,” he said, referring to Mr. Sanchez’s proposal to quit relying so heavily on standardized tests.

“In Texas, our public schools are on the right path, our test scores are rising … and the Texas education system is a model for the nation,” Mr. Perry said, giving much of the credit to the initiatives of former Gov. George W. Bush.

Mr. Sanchez, especially in his recent TV ads, has sought to highlight what he says are serious problems afflicting Texas schools. And he has rejected the governor’s suggestion that he is trying to gut the school accountability system.

The Laredo businessman wants to change the school accountability system and make standardized tests only a portion of the criteria. The system, based primarily on the scores of 1.9 million students on the state’s basic skills exam, rates the performance of all school districts and campuses in Texas.

He has suggested that other factors should be used to grade schools such as the number of certified teachers, resources in a school’s library, computer-based learning tools and whether a school’s facilities support learning.

Mr. Morales, a former Texas attorney general who got a late start in the race and is still developing his own proposals, also said he would be willing to consider other factors for judging schools besides student testing. “We need to have more flexibility in the system,” he said.

Ms. Duffin, the Cedar Hill mother of two, supports the Democrats’ approach.

“It’s certainly not the teachers’ fault because they’re under so much pressure to do well on the test.”

And so are the children, she said.

“These kids are under so much pressure today. In gym, they do TAAS learning. Physical education was not a time for TAAS learning when I was in school. It was a time to move those little bodies. We didn’t sit down on the floor and do TAAS drills.”

Patsy Vigil, PTA president at Barnett Junior High School in Arlington, agreed there is too much focus on the exam. “For three-quarters of the year, that’s all they concentrate on. Everything they do is strictly geared to the test,” she said.

Deirdre Delisi, a spokeswoman for the Perry campaign, said the Democrats would create a “toothless” accountability system if allowed to de-emphasize testing of students. Annual testing has driven many of the improvements in Texas schools, she said.

Smaller classes

Another of Mr. Sanchez’s proposals that has sparked debate with the Perry camp is his call for tougher enforcement of the state’s class-size limits for kindergarten through grade four.

Although state law specifies no more than 22 students per class in those grades, school districts can get waivers to exceed the limit if they say they have limited classroom space or can’t find enough teachers.

“We know that smaller classes improve performance,” Mr. Sanchez said. “But every year waivers are granted, forcing thousands of Texas children into overcrowded classrooms. Texas needs to reduce class sizes in the earliest grades immediately.”

Kim Luczycki, a third grade teacher at Beverly Elementary School in Plano, says small size is important in the early grades.

“You can do a lot more if you have fewer students to deal with,” she said. But she wonders if Mr. Sanchez also would lead a push for more state funds to hire the extra teachers that would be needed.

“They come up with these brilliant plans, and then they don’t provide the financial support you need to put them in place,” she said.

Ms. Delisi said Mr. Perry, his administration and state lawmakers already have taken steps to keep classes smaller. One was the $500 million in state aid distributed to school districts in recent years to pay for construction of new classrooms and other facilities.

She also noted that the number of school districts receiving class-size waivers from the state has declined in recent years.

The Texas Education Agency says the number of districts receiving exemptions has dropped, but the number of campuses has increased slightly because of waiver requests from the Dallas and Houston school districts.

Tackling vouchers

On the issue of publicly funded school vouchers, which would allow students to attend private schools at state expense, the two Democrats are opposed to the idea while Mr. Perry favors a limited voucher plan targeted to low-income students.

“I am very skeptical about vouchers or any other programs that divert public school dollars away from public schools,” Mr. Morales said.

Mr. Sanchez said vouchers would do nothing but harm the public schools of Texas. “I am opposed to school vouchers. Our schools need more money, not less,” he said.

Ignacio Salinas, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said one of the reasons his 70,000-member group supports Mr. Sanchez is his firm opposition to vouchers.

“It’s a very important issue to us,” he said, noting that his organization has been fighting voucher bills in the Legislature for several years. To date, no voucher bill has been passed.

Mr. Perry has said vouchers can help parents whose students are trapped in failing public schools.

“I believe we should provide additional education options to the parents of children at risk of failure,” he said.

On school finance, Mr. Morales said he supports elimination of the school funding system that requires some property-wealthy districts to send tax money to poorer districts.

He said he would ensure funding equity statewide by raising the business franchise tax, a move that would require legislative approval.

“That will be my top priority,” Mr. Morales said. “We need to reduce the reliance on local property taxes and shift a significant burden of the funding back to the state. We are among a very few states with such high property taxes.”

About 53 percent of funding for public schools comes from local property taxes, 43.6 percent comes from the state and 3.4 percent comes from the federal government. Total school funding last year was about $26 billion.

Mr. Sanchez also has not ruled out a tax increase but said he prefers first to look at ways to make government more efficient.

He also said it is too early to decide what should be done with the school finance system, which a special legislative committee is examining.

Mr. Perry wants to get rid of the share-the-wealth plan but has offered few details.

For the time being, the governor favors changes in the law allowing high-wealth districts to keep more of their property tax money.

A Perry spokeswoman said the governor believes the first step in looking for additional state revenue should be making sure government is running efficiently.