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Op-Ed: Educational reform in Texas calls for different solutions

The Houston Chronicle
April 22, 2013

By Rod Paige, Chase Untermeyer, Massey Villarreal & Fred Zeidman

Fewer than three in 10 Texas fourth graders scored proficient or advanced for reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, according to the Education Trust. Nobody in Texas believes this is acceptable and debates are raging in the state Capitol every day over how we should transform our schools and improve education for all our children.

The problem is systemic. Texas schools, like most schools in America, were designed for the industrial age, not the global information economy.

Texans for Education Reform is a recently formed organization of business and community leaders from across the state - Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives - who are united in our belief that we must make a number of critical shifts in our education system to better prepare our students for the competitive, technology-driven world that awaits them.

After extensive research and review, we have concluded that no single solution will solve the problem. The reforms we support focus on three broad concepts: expedited intervention in failing public schools (traditional and charter), increased parental involvement and control and the use of innovative practices in education, such as blended learning and credit-by-exam for student advancement.

Texans for Education Reform is supporting a package of nine bills based on these principles. Collectively, this legislation will transform meaningfully K-12 educational outcomes for the 5.3 million school children in Texas. It will enable broader use of online technology (SB 1298/HB 1926) and allow students to receive credit for a course if the student is able to "test out" of the subject (SB 1365/HB 3228 & 2694).

We are convinced that if we employ an A-F school rating system (SB 1408) that does not have the ambiguity of the current rating system, it will give parents and students the usable information they need to make all-important personal education decisions.

We also support allowing parents to more actively engage in their children's education by creating an avenue where they can petition the Commissioner of Education to require real change at habitually failing schools through a meaningful parent-trigger law (SB 1263/HB 2976) that allows a majority of parents to intervene after two years instead of the current five consecutive years of being rated as failing.

Another essential tool is an Achievement School District (SB 1718/HB 1957) (similar to ones created in Louisiana and Tennessee) that brings expert management to consistently failing schools faster and in a more predictable fashion than current law allows. ASD can reconstitute a school's leadership and staff if needed.

We believe allowing the establishment of more high-performing charter schools in Texas (SB 2) must be a priority while also creating a vigorous statutory and regulatory mechanism to close down those charter schools that are failing. We also support allowing an independent school district to gain the flexibility of a charter in order to improve educational outcomes by converting to a home-rule district (SB 1571/HB 3611).

We support the inclusion of student achievement in teacher evaluations (SB 1403/HB 2977), and we believe that every student should be able to transfer to any public school in their own school district or another school district (SB 1775/HB 2980) if capacity exists because our children deserve to attend the best schools available to them.

Texans for Education Reform's goal in backing these legislative changes is to make high performing public schools available to all Texas students. We know from best practices in Texas and throughout the United States that success for our students is an achievable goal. These reforms not only provide students with the greatest chance for their personal educational success, but they are also an investment in the continued strength and vitality of our state.

Rod Paige is a former US Education Secretary and former Superintendent of Houston ISD. Chase Untermeyer, a former US Ambassador, served on the Texas State Board of Education.  Massey Villarreal chairs the Hispanic Alliance for Prosperity Institute and is a member of the Greater Houston Partnership. Fred Zeidman is Chairman Emeritus of the University of Texas Health Science System Houston and is on the Board of the University of Saint Thomas and Houston Community College. All four are on the Board of Texans for Education Reform.