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SPECIAL REPORT: States of Debate: Lone Star

In education, Texas has been a source of both controversy and innovation. The First of a Three State Series.

"Every state is different and unique in its education system," says Don McAdams, founder and president of the Houston-based school-board training and consulting firm Center for the Reform of School Systems. "But Texas is one state that is really different and unique." The state's tumultuous history, huge size, high poverty rate and English language learner population have created "an overall sense of urgency" when it comes to education, McAdams explains.

Texas schools today are in the "top tier" of student achievement nationally, he says, "but the work to get here has been long, hard and complicated, and with disagreements, disputes and compromises throughout."

Tumultuous Education History

The land that was to become known as Texas became part of the new country of Mexico after its war for independence from Spain in 1821. But, Texans took up arms against Mexico in a war for independence in 1835, feeling that the government had become an oppressive dictatorship.

The Alamo remains an enduring image of the state's fierce independence.

Several famous battles ensued, including at the famous Alamo outpost, where a small group of Texans fought to the death against thousands of Mexican troops rather than surrender or compromise—an enduring image in the state to this day.

In 1836, Texas became an independent, self-governed republic, the only U.S. state besides Hawaii that was a sovereign nation at one time. Education was part of the motivation for the revolution. The 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence lists among the grievances against the Mexican government that "it has failed to establish any public system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources."

The early years of the republic saw ambitious work begun in education, but as University of Texas professor and state education historian Frederick Eby described it, "there were many discordant views" in the 1840s, particularly concerning school authority, standardization and funding between proponents of private Christian schools, locally operated municipal schools, Masonic-run state schools, homeschooling, or a state public education system supported by tax dollars.

Nine years after gaining independence, Texas agreed to become the 28th U.S. state. Just 16 years after joining the union, however, Texas again seceded from its federal government by joining the Confederacy in the Civil War.

After the war and continuing through to the present day, the belief that the federal government was overstepping its authority in the state, particularly in education, has been a prevalent cultural and political sentiment.

In his 1954 study, the First Century of Texas Education, Eby couldn't hide his disdain when describing the education reforms enacted during Reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s. These included the creation of the office of state superintendent of public instruction and the mandating of free, compulsory public education, dramatically centralizing what was a more autonomous and locally operated system.

"A drastic and financially ruinous system of free public schools was suddenly and arbitrarily imposed upon Texas people in a manner no other American state has ever known - based on a philosophy of government utterly obnoxious and foreign to most Texans." Describing compulsory education supported by tax dollars as "repugnant," Eby concluded, "This radical system of education practicing the philosophy of stateism [sic] was the ultimate of tyranny."

Eby's viewpoints aren't just the stuff of distant history; his writings are included in the Texas Public Schools Sesquicentennial Handbook, created in 2004 and distributed by the Texas Education Agency, and intended for use by educators and schools today as a resource for learning about state education history.

Much of this history includes ongoing debates over the extent of state and federal authority, the limits of state and local school control, and whether education officials should be elected or appointed, and by whom.

Texans called the state constitution of 1869 that established those hated education reforms the "Carpetbag Constitution"—because Northerners established it after the Civil War—and so they abolished it in 1876. This eliminated the office of state superintendent of public instruction, but the office was reestablished in 1884 as an elected position, abolished again in 1949 in favor of a commissioner appointed by the state board of education, and then in 1991 the position became appointed by the governor.

The composition of the state board of education has changed many times as well, from being comprised of the governor, commissioner of education and comptroller in 1869 to being comprised of nine citizens appointed by the governor in 1923, to 21 elected members in 1949, to 15 temporarily appointed members in 1984, to 15 elected members in 1987, an arrangement that has continued to the present day.

A New Era of Accountability

It is out of these and other controversies about the extent of state, federal and local control, school funding and authority that the state's most enduring influence on the nation's education policies emerged: an emphasis on accountability.

A 1979 state bill greatly increased state funding to districts but also mandated that all students take the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills (TABS) exam to analyze performance in writing, reading and mathematics in the third, fifth and ninth grades. This test was replaced by the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills (TEAMS) exam in 1985, which students were required to pass in order to graduate high school. This was replaced by the more challenging Texas Assessment of Academic Skills exam (TAAS) in 1991, under Democratic Gov. Ann Richards and Education Commissioner Lionel Meno.

The results of these exams, combined with attendance records, determined school and district rankings in the state. Texas was unique, and ahead of other states, in that its testing took student groups into account—white, black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged—therefore forcing districts to focus on closing their achievement gaps.

When Republican George W. Bush came into office as Texas governor in 1995, he surprised many by not only supporting the accountability measures of his Democratic predecessor, but actually strengthening them by increasing state funding, requiring teacher testing and evaluation by principals to maintain their licensing, and forcing high schools to increase the number of college-preparatory courses offered and the number of students taking the SAT.

"Texas has a very good accountability system that began to develop thanks to others who preceded me," Bush said in an interview with The New York Times in 1999 as he left office to begin his presidential campaign. "I have worked hard to strengthen it, to continue to raise the bar.''

Student achievement climbed steadily and significantly over the decade, particularly in minority and low-income student groups. Seventy-nine percent of all Texas students met minimum expectations for the TAAS in 2000, up from just 53 percent in 1994, and the percentage of African- American, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students meeting expectations nearly doubled in the same period (TAAS has since been replaced by TAKS, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills).

No Child Left Behind

President George W. Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings were inspired by the success of their Texas school accountability measures in crafting the federal No Child Left Behind act.

The apparent success of these accountability measures motivated Bush to continue his emphasis on school accountability when he became president in 2001, most clearly in his signature education policy, the No Child Left Behind act.

Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served as Bush's senior advisor when he was Texas governor, made clear that it was their experience in Texas that informed the development of the historic and sweeping federal policy, which requires that schools meet adequate yearly progress or face federal sanctions.

"When I was governor of Texas, I didn't like it one bit when I'd go to schools in my state and realize that children were not learning," Bush said in his final policy speech as president in January 2009 at the General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia. "The system was satisfied with just shuffling kids through. We said such a system is unacceptable to the future of our state. And that's the spirit we brought to Washington D.C.," Bush said.

He described the legislation as having made possible "the first time that all 50 states and the District of Columbia have had accountability plans in place." Although Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the Obama administration have announced plans to significantly overhaul NCLB, this accountability will nevertheless remain a key component, extending Texas' influence on federal education policy into the future. "We have to fix accountability and get it right," Duncan said in March, calling for a new system of accountability that builds upon NCLB but one that is more "rigorous and fair."

Still Against a "Federal Takeover"

Today, Texas still has a strong culture of fierce independence. The official state tourism department's motto is "Texas: It's like a whole other country." Politically, the state's leaders are still often pitted against the federal government in education policy decisions, but ironically enough, now it is against a culture of federal accountability that Texas' innovations and influence helped to create with President Bush's NCLB.

Texas was one of 10 states that did not apply for the Obama administration's signature education initiative, the Race to the Top grant program, and one of only two states that have refused to participate in developing the Common Core State Standards Initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and an effort supported by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration.

Gov. Rick Perry characterized the Race to the Top fund as an attempt at "a federal takeover of our schools," and participation as "foolish and irresponsible."

Republican Gov. Rick Perry's language opposing Race to the Top echoes state historian Eby's 1954 denunciation of federal intervention in Texas education some 140 years ago, tapping into the still vibrant independent streak of many state voters, particularly his Republican supporters. "We would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children's future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington," Perry said in a press conference announcing his decision not to apply. "This smacks of a federal takeover of our schools."

Disagreements Continue

Perry doesn't speak for everyone in Texas education, however. While independence from Washington's authority remains a strong cultural and political idea in the state, as in the past, education is still a contentious issue in Texas, with a variety of viewpoints.

Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa: "I have a different view than the governor on Race to the Top. I think we should have applied for it."

"I have a different view from the governor on Race to the Top. I think we should have applied for it," says Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the 161,000-student Dallas Independent School District, the state's second-largest district. "I'm also in favor of common core standards, because right now it's so hard to compare between states."

Cathy Ashby, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction at the 17,000-student Abilene Independent School District, also regrets the governor's decisions. "If Texas were leading the nation in all categories, we could ignore the call for common standards. Since we are not, we should have been a more active participant," she says.

Terry Grier, superintendent of the state's largest district, the 202,000-student Houston Independent School District, has also disagreed with the governor on Race to the Top, leading President Obama to jab back at Perry by referring to "innovative districts like the one in Texas whose reform efforts are being stymied by state decision-makers" in a policy speech. Obama was announcing his intention to expand the grant program next year and allow individual districts to apply for funds to implement reforms, not just states. Grier had lobbied the administration for the change.

Controversial Board of Education

Most state boards of education do not come under intense national scrutiny. Controversies on the Texas board, however, become national issues because for decades, as the largest textbook market (second only to California), Texas influences many publishers' content decisions. Hence the national media attention in March, when the board approved by a 10-5 vote new state standards in social studies reflecting conservative values, countering what some felt was a liberal slant.

State board of education members Don McLeroy and Gail Lowe at a 2009 meeting.

Changes included reduced emphasis on race and gender issues, and increased content on gun rights, Judeo-Christian influences on America, the virtues of free markets and the presidency of Ronald Reagan. "We're adding balance," leading socially conservative Republican board member Don McLeroy explained to The New York Times. "Academia is skewed too far to the left."

Democratic board member Mary Helen Berlanga walked out of one meeting in frustration. "They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world," she said as she left a meeting for the first time since her first election in 1982.

Controversy versus Reality

Many are concerned such controversies distort the reality of the state's education. "It's easy to misread Texas because of these political debates," says William McKenzie, who covers education as an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News.

On Race to the Top and common state standards, for example, "Perry is clearly playing politics, and is more interested in the political side than he is about the actual issues," he says. Perry is preparing to face Democrat Bill White in what could be a close November election for governor, and positioning himself as the candidate most independent from Washington.

"Common standards and Race to the Top became mired in state politics," laments Abilene ISD's Ashby.

"Like a lot of political debates, these issues aren't really what are driving the people that are actually doing the work. There are a lot of forward-looking principals and superintendents that are very serious about education in this state," says McKenzie.

McKenzie cites the Texas High School Project, a public-private partnership including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and is focused on reforming struggling, high-poverty high schools to ensure students' college and career readiness, as one example.

"To characterize over a thousand school districts [by these controversies] would not be fair to the thousands of teachers and administrators doing great work in the state," says new state board of education nominee Thomas Ratliff , a moderate Republican, who defeated McLeroy in the March Republican primary by campaigning on "taking politics out of education."

"There are a lot of progressive districts doing progressive things in Texas," says Hinojosa, whose district has its own public-private partnership called Dallas Achieves, with a stated goal of making Dallas one of the highest-achieving urban districts in the country.

Since the Broad Prize for Urban Education was established in 2002 recognizing districts making the largest improvements in student performance and in reducing achievement gaps, several finalists and three of the eight winners have been from Texas: Houston ISD in 2002, Brownsville ISD in 2008 and Aldine ISD in 2009. Two of the five 2010 finalists announced in April, Socorro ISD and Ysleta ISD, are from El Paso.

Heather Zavadsky, former project coordinator for the National Center for Education Accountability, which managed the prize from 2002 to 2006, feels that Texas districts are some of the best in the country because of the state's use of data and its pioneering accountability system.

"It's hard to argue when you have high-minority, high-poverty and high-ELL population districts like Aldine ISD, for example, do so well for so long," she says. "In education, particularly in the area of school accountability, other states today have come up to the level of Texas. Clearly the state has paved the way."

Kurt Eisele-Dyrli is products editor.