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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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Associated Press/Photo by Greg Wahl-Stephens

A Head Start in Hillsboro, Ore. (Associated Press/Photo by Greg Wahl-Stephens)

  • Joshua Trujillo/ via AP

    Students rally at Summit Sierra public charter school in Seattle.
    Joshua Trujillo/ via AP


A real head start

Preschool may not be the best way for young children to learn

Kathy Lee put her first child into preschool “for literally 15 minutes, because of the social pressure.” Soon after leaving the parking lot, she turned around and fetched her son. 

“He is 3 years old,” Lee says she thought to herself. “There is nothing he cannot get at home by cooking and measuring and sorting socks.”

Lee knows this from long experience. The mother of 10 and author of The Homegrown Preschooler has taught and managed preschools, and now instructs mothers and teachers on how to nurture the little wigglers. 

New advocacy organization Save the Children Action Network has launched ads in Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping to push presidential candidates to support government programs for poor children from birth to age 4. But research suggests such programs aren’t that effective. 

One study found that watching Sesame Street was as beneficial for children’s academic progress as Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income children. The federal government spends approximately $8 billion a year on Head Start. 

Another study found that sending low-income parents three text messages a week with simple literacy activities advanced their preschoolers’ learning by two to three months. An example: “Tip: Say two words to your child that start with the same sound, like happy and healthy. Ask: can you hear the ‘hhh’ sound in happy and healthy?”

What research does find most effective for tots’ long-term success is having a married biological mother and father. Other legs up include the number of books in a child’s home and eating meals together as a family.

“Preschool teachers are trying to recreate the home,” Lee noted. “Home is the most natural place to let children discover and have a sense of wonder. If we give those children those early years, they are going to be well-adjusted adults, socially, emotionally, and cognitively.”

Charters attacked

School had been in session three days when Brenda McDonald, principal of Pride Prep in Spokane, Wash., heard the state Supreme Court had declared charter schools like hers ineligible for public funds because their boards are not elected. 

Her first reaction was “kind of disbelief,” she said. The decision came Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend, and McDonald spent the holiday calling teachers, lawyers, and parents to figure out and communicate “a plan of attack.” 

Donors quickly pledged enough money to keep Washington state’s nine charters running this academic year, so their 1,200 students haven’t missed a day. Forty-two states have legalized charters, which are public schools independent of local school districts that must accept all comers. 

On average, charter schools cost less and produce equal or better reading and math test scores than their traditional counterparts. Pride Prep offers a longer school year, more arts instruction, and smaller enrollment than local Spokane schools, where McDonald worked for 22 years. 

“[Spokane] is not Detroit or Chicago, where our traditional schools are dilapidated and kids are not getting school supplies,” McDonald said. “But even with that we could just not meet all the kids’ needs. To get kids into unique programs they had to almost fail.”

Washington’s nine charters have been urging parents and students to ask for a special legislative session that keeps the schools alive permanently. 

Charters’ biggest opponents are teachers unions, which helped bring the Washington lawsuit and are especially active in Seattle. The same week the charter decision came down, Seattle teachers union members went on strike for an 18 percent raise, leaving that city’s 50,000 kids with an extended summer vacation and their parents scrambling to find childcare. —J.P.

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