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Notebook Education

Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay

A rally in support of school choice, in Austin, Texas. (Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay)


Accounts receivable?

An education battle in Texas could play out across the country

PORTER, Texas—Seth Franklin, 12, pointed to the shiny pin on the collar of his baby-blue Civil Air Patrol uniform shirt and listed some of what he had to do to earn it: sprints, push-ups, sit-ups. He received the pin at an after-school ceremony, with his proud parents and his siblings, a younger brother and two sisters, watching from the audience—a rare moment of family celebration.

Seth dreams of being a rocket scientist, but he has to make it through college first. Some days, his parents aren’t sure he’ll even make it out of high school. Since receiving an autism diagnosis when he was 7 years old, Seth has struggled at school. Despite his doctor’s diagnosis, administrators with New Caney Independent School District, about 27 miles north of Houston, have resisted giving him the extra help and therapy he needs. His parents even hired an advocate to argue his case, but they haven’t won many concessions because the school district classifies Seth as emotionally disturbed, not autistic.

Like parents of special-needs kids across the country, the Franklins know their child needs more help than he’s getting, but private schooling is too expensive. The plight of children like Seth has come to the attention of legislators and school choice advocates who are pushing education savings accounts (ESAs) as a way to help parents provide the specialized services their kids need. Supporters say ESAs are especially helpful for families like the Franklins because they allow parents to use funds provided by the state for a variety of educational expenses, including tutoring, homeschool curriculum, and therapies for students with special needs.

As ESA bills work their way through legislatures in 19 states, they face stiff opposition. Some comes from traditional school choice enemies, like teachers unions. But opposition is also coming from less-expected quarters, like homeschoolers who fear opening the door to state regulation. In Texas, the ESA measure also faces opposition from rural lawmakers. Whether bills in Texas and other states become law will depend on advocates convincing skeptics the plans won’t hurt them and are necessary to provide kids like Seth Franklin an adequate education.

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Showdown in Cowtown

Transgender student guidelines galvanize Fort Worth

FORT WORTH, Texas—Alison Kelley, yoga teacher, mother of four, and Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD) taxpayer, spent much of this spring firing off emails to board members and district officials, hosting meetings in her home, and organizing others to do the same via social media. She wasn’t alone. Community members opposed to a controversial set of “transgender student guidelines” created Stand for Fort Worth, an organization with a Facebook group now boasting more than 3,500 members.

At an FWISD board meeting on April 26, Superintendent Kent Scribner had unceremoniously announced new transgender student guidelines to ensure that students are protected from bullying and discrimination. According to district procedures, since they were labeled “guidelines” and not “policy,” they could be implemented without debate, discussion, or vote.

The guidelines expand on a 2011 district anti-discrimination statement, adding that students may use restrooms and locker rooms based on their own, self-perceived gender identity, without “medical or mental health diagnosis.” The district also now supports self-designated-gender participation in athletics, and encourages teachers to use inclusive terms like “students” or “scholars” rather than “boys and girls.” Teachers must use the pronoun and name preferred by the student, regardless of the student’s legal name or parents’ permission, and they are not to tell parents about their children’s gender confusion.

“The school’s responsibility is to educate students. It’s not to parent,” Kelley said. “We care deeply about all students, especially vulnerable ones like transgender [students]. But these children don’t deserve to be a political pawn through this process.”

District officials have publicly stated they believe seven to 10 transgender students are in the FWISD, out of about 86,000 students districtwide. The U.S. Department of Education’s Title IX requires that schools provide “separate toilet, locker room, and shower facilities on the basis of sex.” All 146 FWISD schools currently have alternate restrooms available, whether a single-stall restroom or a nurse’s restroom.

Kelley and others created a furor that led to six public forums. Responding to Stand for Fort Worth, supporters of Superintendent Scribner and his transgender provisions created their own Stand with Scribner Facebook page, which gained more than 1,800 members. Advocates for the guidelines repeatedly noted incidences of bullying and suicide among transgender teens.

One FWISD school board trustee, Ann Sutherland, often considered one of the more left-leaning board members, sided with the opposition to Scribner and proposed scrapping the guidelines, saying they were causing huge division within the community. Sutherland said no students had requested the right to use “opposite-gender” restrooms prior to the development of the guidelines.

During the last of the six public forums, Scribner announced the board would form an advisory committee to clarify the transgender guidelines. Opponents to the measures say a committee is not enough: Mom-of-five Julia Keyes said during the public comment period: “The only way to heal the divide you have created in our city is to repeal the policy, start the conversation with parents and taxpayers that never occurred, and put any policy to a board vote. … I’ve changed a few diapers in my time. … When your kid makes a mess … you have to start over with a brand-new diaper.”

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Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times via AP

Students in Aspen, Colo., head to their buses at the end of a school day. (Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times via AP)


Teaching on demand

A market-based pay scale could solve the ‘teacher shortage’ problem

When Chris Wagner was studying to become a history teacher, his college called together the education majors for a meeting. Professors told him, “For those of you in art or history education, get out now. You’re not going to find a job.”

“I didn’t care,” Wagner said. “I knew this was what I wanted to do.” So in 2009 he graduated, ready to teach social studies in his home state of Pennsylvania.

Five years later, he still hadn’t found a job in his field, despite expanding his search outside Pennsylvania’s borders to nearby Maryland and Delaware, then beyond. He ultimately applied to teach American history to Chinese children in Nantong, a city just north of Shanghai. This August, he finally taught in his own classroom, albeit on the other side of the planet.

Meanwhile, U.S. media were reporting teacher shortages everywhere. “Teacher Shortages Spur a Nationwide Hiring Scramble (Credentials Optional),” wrote The New York Times in August. 

Was Wagner just an outlier? The short answer is no. The United States currently has nearly twice as many teachers per student as it had in the 1950s. The 2008 recession slowed teacher employment growth, but didn’t stop it.

The longer answer is more complicated. Take one example: After Indiana lawmakers proposed sending public schools more money to address reports of teacher shortages, Ball State University economist Michael Hicks released a study on Oct. 26 demonstrating a teacher surplus. 

Hicks found Indiana has approximately 64,000 working teachers, and another 39,000 residents with teaching degrees who are working in other fields. Hicks did find a teacher shortage—but only in math, science, and special education.

Indiana’s situation mirrors the nation’s, said Carrie Murthy, a researcher who manages federal data on teacher training: “Nobody is having difficulty finding elementary teachers. But schools are having a hard time finding secondary math and science teachers, special ed teachers, some of the unique languages or bilingual teachers. There has been a very regular teacher shortage in these areas for years.”

Brian Cesare has been conducting perhaps the nation’s only experiment to find out why. Cesare runs human resources for the Douglas County School District in Colorado. Three years ago, after a series of political squabbles, the district school board dropped its union contract. That allowed the district to rethink how it paid teachers.

Union contracts typically require paying teachers solely according to credentials and longevity. This pay scale has prompted lawsuits in California and New York that claim it sends the worst teachers to the neediest students by keeping schools from paying more for high-demand positions.

Douglas County schools were inundated with elementary teacher applications but could hardly get even one for positions such as autism specialists, school psychologists, and speech therapists. 

When Cesare worked for companies such as Microsoft and General Electric, water-cooler chitchat and Labor Department data briefed him on market rates for specific positions. But in the public education sector, there was no market: The pay scale fixed prices.

So Cesare triangulated by asking principals to rate their hardest- and easiest-to-fill openings. That led to Douglas County’s current pay scale, which pays teachers according to a school’s need for their specific skills and how well the principal thinks they teach. Three years later, after some pay scale tweaking, principals can actually choose among several applicants for competitive jobs such as high-school science teacher and school nurse.

At first, some principals objected to the arrangement, since it conflicts with the culture of public education. But now that they’ve tried it—and the ones who really hated it have moved to other school districts—Cesare said principals are “very grateful” because “now they have some tools to keep the superstar.”

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