By Jennifer Esterline, Austin Community Foundation guest blogger
During back-to-school orientation, Jennifer Esterline’s son’s third-grade teacher asked parents to complete a questionnaire with their student’s help. One question asked about the student’s goals for the year. This made her pause to think.
I want what every parent wants for his or her student: to be and to feel successful academically and socially, to push themselves beyond their limits of comfort and to think critically and imaginatively. My sons have been given every opportunity to accomplish those goals, but what about students who haven’t had the same opportunities? How will they fare this school year?
My work in state education policy and advocacy with the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium provides me with a bigger perspective. Not only do I get to see and hear what students and parents are saying on the ground, but I also get to compare these conversations with the ones I have with legislators at the capitol. This summer, Texas concluded the 84th Texas Legislative Session. Although media coverage swirled around conversations about border security, tax cuts, and guns, there were also substantive policy conversations happening about public education. Here’s what you should know:
- The 2015 Texas legislature will certainly go down as one of the biggest sessions for quality Pre-K education, a top priority of Governor Greg Abbott. House Bill 4 sets aside $130 million over two years for school districts with quality pre-kindergarten programs, helping to bolster programs geared toward students from low-income, non-English-speaking, foster and military families.
- It was the first legislative session to examine implementation of sweeping changes to high school graduation requirements.
- The legislature also passed a change to public school ratings, replacing the current “Met Standard/Needs Improvement” measures with five weighted domains on an A-F grading system.
- Governor Abbott filled another campaign pledge with support for legislation to implement reading and math teacher training “academies” to provide effective instructional practices.
- A bill passed that removes the cap on the number of dual credit courses for high school students.
- A new law provides additional funds to help middle and high school counselors guide students on post-secondary education and career opportunities.
- A new law reduces “zero tolerance policies” by establishing a more flexible sanctioning system for student discipline.
As you can see, our elected officials definitely got stuff done. But here’s what they didn’t get done:
- We failed to make progress on school finance which means per pupil funding will continue to lag behind our massive student population growth. (A state judge ruled last year that the Texas school finance system is unconstitutional. The state is failing to ensure that kids in one part of the state have a chance to get the same quality of education as kids in other areas. Earlier this month the Texas Supreme Court began hearing the case, including testimony from attorneys for more than 600 school districts who attacked the funding system as inadequate, unfair and unconstitutional. The Court is expected to issue its ruling later this year or early next year.)
- We made no new efforts to fund our growing community college system--where an increasing number of our students, particularly first generation, minority students--are educated.
- While the increase in Pre-K funding was great news, it does not restore pre-kindergarten funding to its pre-2011 budget cut levels.
As your own kids start the school year, I invite you to ask yourself: What goals do I have for my own children? What goals do I have for all Texas students? What and who do we want these students to become? What do we envision for the future of our state?
Then let’s ask our legislators about their votes and let’s ask ourselves if we agree with those decisions. Do these decisions align with your vision for our state?
If the answer is no, fortunately there’s an election season coming up next year.
Jennifer Esterline is Senior Consultant for Frontera Strategy, a lobbying firm that serves nonprofits. She is also Project Consultant for Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium, a unique collaboration of over 30 private, corporate and community foundations across the state working to promote, protect, and improve Texas public education through advocacy and public policy. Esterline has more than 15 years of experience in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors in Texas and Mexico. With expertise in such areas as K-12 and higher education, social justice, and advocacy, Esterline has worked with nonprofit and foundation boards and executive directors on issues including mission, governance, resource development, strategic grantmaking and public policy and advocacy. She and her husband are the proud parents of three sons, ages 1-9.