Column: Some educated guesses about ’07

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2B

The first prediction I can remember making came two decades ago, in 1987. My beloved New Orleans Saints, after a full generation of losing, were somehow 12-3 and in the playoffs for the first time.

Drunk on unfamiliar success, I made a bold proclamation: “The Saints will make the Super Bowl this year!”

Didn’t turn out that way. (Minnesota 44, New Orleans 10. A sad, sad day for this sixth-grader.)

But despite that unfortunate start, the opening of a new year brings out the prognosticator in all of us. Therefore, I give you my five predictions for what 2007 will bring to the world of Texas public education.

* The first real signs of pushback against testing in Austin.

The state accountability system – based first on the TAAS test and now the TAKS – has enjoyed broad political support in both parties over the years. But that support has never fully trickled down to the general public – particularly parents and educators.

Last fall, three candidates for governor railed against the test. Kinky Friedman wanted to kill it entirely. Chris Bell attacked “the tyranny of the TAKS” and said its stakes shouldn’t be so high. Even Carole Keeton Strayhorn wanted to move the test from spring to fall so it would be more a diagnostic test and less an accountability mechanism.

Of course, all three lost. But each noticed a wave of anti-testing sentiment among voters – and was eager to ride it.

The Legislature returns to Austin next week, and you’ll see a number of proposals to reduce the pressure levels in the current system – despite the steady drip of rising scores it has created.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, wants to replace the high school TAKS with a series of lower-stakes subject-area tests. She’ll probably get her wish. Others will try to judge schools on their year-to-year improvements instead of a fixed standard. Ms. Shapiro has talked about eliminating the must-pass status of some elementary school tests.

No matter what the details are at the session’s end, 2007 will probably bring the biggest reversal in the momentum of standardized testing since the early 1990s.

* No real change to No Child Left Behind.

For all the hubbub about the federal law over the past few years, it’s seen no significant changes since passage in 2001. The coming Democratic control of Congress has led some to speculate that could change.

I think that’s unlikely. The rumbles of “too much testing” at the grass roots hasn’t yet infected leaders in Washington. Plus, the law’s accountability mechanisms haven’t affected enough schools yet for any widespread revolt to bloom. (In Texas, NCLB has barely been an afterthought for the vast majority of schools, who care more about the state ratings system.)

On the big federal issues, I suspect the Democrats will punt – pushing back the law’s renewal until 2009 and leaving opposition to the law as an issue for the next presidential election. One notable exception: Congress will probably approve more federal funds for low-income schools.

* More oversight for charter schools.

Despite the notable successes of a few charter schools, nearly everyone agrees there are some truly awful charters in Texas. Many of them were birthed en masse at one strange meeting in 1998. Despite their records of financial mismanagement and academic failure, they live on, drinking down the state’s cash.

They persist because the process for shutting down a bad Texas charter school is long, laborious and fraught with political land mines. But there have been some signs that the current administration at the Texas Education Agency is interested in tightening that process and strengthening state oversight of sub-par charters.

Among the quiet backers of tighter controls: some strong supporters of the charter movement. They worry that the bad apples cast a negative light on their more competently run peers.

* Once again, no movement on vouchers.

Conservatives, led by San Antonio businessman James Leininger, have pushed the last several Legislatures to approve using taxpayer money to pay for some students’ tuition at private schools. The most-talked-about plans would give tuition vouchers to students in the worst-performing public schools.

But a small ripple of the national Democratic wave hit the Legislature in November, when several pro-voucher (and Leininger-backed) candidates lost. Despite the stated support of Gov. Rick Perry – and the coming mobilization of Catholics and other religious parents – I suspect vouchers will end up falling short at the Capitol again this year.

* A political movement against bilingual education.

Teaching Hispanic kids at least part of the day in Spanish has been a hot-to-the-touch issue in a number of Southwestern states – most memorably California, where a statewide referendum a few years back largely banned it.

But in Texas – which allows a time-restricted form of bilingual ed – it’s never gained political traction. Part of that is structural: Texas doesn’t allow voter initiatives in the same way some other states do. But part of it is also political, as both parties have hoped for Hispanic votes.

Considering the 2006 battles over immigration – and the number of Republican-authored bills on related subjects filed for the upcoming legislative session – I suspect that’ll change in 2007. We may see some version of the Battle of Farmers Branch repeated statewide.

Warning: These five predictions are probably worth what you paid for them. (Likely less, unless you’re reading this for free online.)

On the other hand, the Saints are currently division champions. Vegas is giving 2-1 odds that they’ll be in the Super Bowl next month.

So if I go 0-for-5, just wait 20 more years – maybe I’ll be right by then.