State stiffens school ratings; Many more will be ‘unacceptable’; bill could spur privatization

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The number of schools the state considers failing will skyrocket next year under a tougher accountability system approved by state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley.

And a new Senate proposal could pave the way to dozens or hundreds of those failing schools being taken over by private companies.

“I’m not concerned about how many schools become ‘unacceptable,'” said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chairwoman of the Senate education committee. “I’m more concerned about what happens in the classroom that makes them unacceptable.”

The confluence of two distinct shifts in the Texas education world has some wondering whether schools are being set up for failure.

“There are people out there promoting the idea that public schools are bad,” said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. “You’d almost forget that we have a president who ran on the idea that he had fixed the schools in Texas.”

Dr. Neeley formally approved the new system Monday after more than a month of consideration by Texas Education Agency committees and staff members. Starting next year, the passing rate schools have to reach to be “academically acceptable” will increase by 10 percentage points in reading, writing, social studies and science. In math, the required passing rate will increase 5 points.

That – combined with other changes in the accountability system – will make it much harder for schools to stay out of the ratings gutter. Last year, 92 Texas schools were labeled unacceptable. If the new standards had been in place, 1,213 schools would have received the tag. Texas has about 7,700 public schools.

“Our goal is to bring our schools up to a really good standard,” TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said.

It’s unlikely that the number of failing schools would reach 1,213. Scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test generally improve every year as teachers figure out how best to teach to the test. Those improvements will probably reduce the number of unacceptable campuses by several hundred.

But if Ms. Shapiro’s bill becomes law, many of those schools would be managed by private – perhaps for-profit – companies. Under her proposal, any school that is rated unacceptable for two years must be removed from the control of the local school board and handed off to “alternative management.”

The most likely candidates for such management would be school management companies.

The best-known is Edison, a for-profit company that has managed public schools in Dallas and elsewhere. It’s received mixed reviews; many of the districts that’ve worked with Edison, such as Dallas, have severed ties to the company.

For-profit fears

Ms. Shapiro emphasized that “alternative management” does not necessarily mean a for-profit company. “It could be a group of parents that wants to do a better job,” she said. “It could be UT-Austin or UT-Dallas or a school with a college of education. I think we’re focusing too much on the potential of a for-profit management team.”

But her bill includes language that appears to favor established companies over upstarts. The bill requires anyone wishing to take over a school to have “documented success in whole school interventions that increased the educational and performance levels of students in low-performing campuses.”

Her bill is a Senate substitute to House Bill 2, the school finance bill passed last month by the Legislature’s lower chamber. The House bill contained a similar private-management provision. But instead of tying takeovers to the “unacceptable” label, it targeted schools whose test scores ranked in the bottom 5 percent of the state.

That change makes Dr. Neeley’s change to the definition of “unacceptable” more important. Under current law, schools rated unacceptable for several years can be subject to dissolution by the commissioner. But that tool has been used rarely.

Ms. Shapiro’s proposal removes much of the commissioner’s leeway in determining whether intervention is appropriate.

“I just think we need a stronger plan,” Ms. Shapiro said. “We’ve talked about low-performing schools for an awfully long time and said that, over a period of time, they would change. And they haven’t.”

Whether her assertions are correct come down to what, exactly, it means to be “unacceptable.” Texas has had a school-rating system since 1993, but what it takes to earn the state’s lowest label has changed in most years since then. Nearly every school in the state has seen dramatic increases in state test scores over that time, and the state’s standards have increased to match them.

Over the last decade, the rating system has kept the number of failing schools relatively low – generally 50 to 150.

But prominent players in education policy – led by former Bush education adviser Sandy Kress – believe that number is too low. Mr. Kress, a former Dallas school board president, has said the state’s system should identify about 10 percent of schools as poor performers.

“This is a bigger jump than anyone was looking for,” said Whit Johnstone, Irving’s director of testing and research, who served on a statewide committee that recommended a smaller increase in standards than what Dr. Neeley chose. “Resources are finite, and you can’t spend as much money as you want to move everything along at the same time,” he said.

Challenges ahead

He said dealing with the increases would be difficult for districts such as his. Irving would have had several schools slip to unacceptable status had the standards been in place last year.

“A 10-percentage-point increase in the passing rate is pretty significant,” he said. “It’s not going to be a simple thing for any school district.”

Some educators said there’s little evidence that removing schools from the control of school districts increases their quality.

“If charter schools are to serve as an example of the effectiveness of the private sector, I think the results have been very mixed,” said Maria Whitsett, executive director for accountability in the Austin school district. “I don’t believe we can assume privatization is a blanket solution.”

Staff writer Russell Rian contributed to this report.