Linda Ethridge: Grading Our State Legislators on Public Education

Linda Ethridge, Board of Contributors: Grading our state legislators on public education

LINDA ETHRIDGE Board of Contributors | Updated 

In the fall of 1947 I entered first grade at Oakwood Elementary School in Knoxville, Tenn. I was lucky. I got to be in Mrs. Lane’s class. She was a wonderful teacher. She was loving, kind, organized and cheerful. She had an unshakable calm demeanor.

 We thrived under her guidance. We learned how to read, print, count, add and subtract. We sang. We drew pictures. She read stories to us. She told us of faraway places and showed us where they were on the globe. She told us of our own history and how most people came to be in Tennessee. Her classroom was a happy place full of our accomplishments and her quiet encouragement. As children return to school this fall, I hope they meet their own Mrs. Lane.

I’m grateful to live in a community determined to support public education and the children who need what schools have to give. I am grateful for the Greater Waco Community Education Alliance under the leadership of former Mayor Virginia DePuy. The alliance encourages and highlights the involvement of a rich and diverse array of citizens and organizations who support the education of our youth. They mentor and tutor. They help feed hungry children. They provide school supplies. Some work on parental involvement. Others work to provide scholarships so all children have the opportunity for college. Others work to support specific curriculum areas.

Further, local citizens have demonstrated their support for education by voting to pass bond issues which provide quality facilities for learning. Quality individuals continue to step forward to serve as school trustees, serving without pay. There is a strong understanding that good schools are a necessity to the quality of life and strength of the community. But what about the state? Is Texas doing right by our children?

After many years of steadily reducing funding to public education, culminating with a whopping $5.4 billion cut in 2011, legislators have faced a statewide drumbeat of concern from people who care about public schools. As the legislators steadily reduced funding, they were also steadily raising standards and expectations for ever higher achievement, accompanied by high-stakes testing and a steady round of drills, practice tests, more drills and then another test and on and on. Legislators got an earful from parents and school advocates fed up with all this.

Legislators also faced serious concerns over equity in education. While all students in Texas must meet the same academic standards, the amount provided by the state’s system of allocating funds means that Waco and many other districts must meet those standards with thousands of dollars less per child than wealthier districts. The equity issue is now before the courts with hundreds of school districts suing the state for relief on behalf of students.

So how did state lawmakers respond to funding shortfalls, concerns about over testing and the disparities in resources or equity? The recent trend of defunding schools finally ceased with a $1.6 billion increase to public education coffers. While this was a relatively small amount compared to some $8 billion in overall reductions, $1.6 billion is nothing to sneeze at. Education advocates appreciate this show of good faith and hope this is a first step toward more adequate funding for education.

By a landslide margin, our lawmakers reduced state-mandated tests in high school from 15 to five. Clearly more work remains in modifying middle school and elementary testing, but this was a much-appreciated action.

The equity issue remains unsolved. Frankly, many legislators are loathe to address this till they have direction from the courts and all appeals are complete. A ruling from State District Judge John Dietz was favorable to equity advocates but expectations are this issue will go to the Texas Supreme Court.

Dietz has also set a hearing in January to take into account funding improvements made this session. Children in districts such as Waco must continue to wait for the courts. But whatever the courts do, the issue will land back into the hands of lawmakers. Children lose educational opportunities every day this issue isn’t resolved.

Legislators deserve thanks for the progress they’ve made, but much remains to be done. Texas cannot remain a great state unless we make necessary investments in our children. For the children, parents and all the Mrs. Lanes out there, I hope our state legislators continue to pursue a brighter future for public education.

Former Waco Mayor Linda Ethridge, a former school board member, is co-founder of Texas Kids Can’t Wait, which advocates for public education.

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