Author: Bekah McNeel

Texas School Finance Commission: You get the teacher you pay for

A teacher at Olmos Elementary in North East ISD works with students. Photo by Robin Jerstad for Folo Media

When Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath was Dallas ISD Trustee Mike Morath, he championed a performance-based teacher salary system.

Three years in, student outcomes are up, teachers are happy, and it’s going very well, DISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa told the Texas School Finance Commission, except that it’s bleeding the district dry.

“We’ve put all our money into teachers, and (now) we don’t have any,” Hinojosa said. 

Gov. Greg Abbott’s 2017 commission to study school finance met for the third time today, with two groups on the agenda: teachers and pre-schoolers. (The pre-kinder presentations will be covered in a subsequent blog post.)

Teacher quality, pay, retention, and evaluation occupied most of the day for the commission, which seems appropriate as personnel costs account for about 42.9% of total education spending in Texas, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Practitioners, interest groups, and experts all agreed that teacher quality is essential to equitable education. They also agreed that compensation matters. 

Some go above and beyond trying to quantify the value-add (or subtract) of a good (or bad) teacher. The commission heard from Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist who made the argument that one good teacher can add $430,000 to the lifetime earnings of his or her class. Hanushek also went so far as to say that money spent incentivizing teacher performance was more effective than the total amount of money spent on education. 

“If you confine your discussion to how much you spend or how much you add, you’re not going to get very far,” he said, perhaps unintentionally echoing Craig Enoch, the first presenter of the first commission meeting.

When pressed by commission member Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), Hanushek would not say that total money spent didn’t matter at all, only that how it was spent mattered more. Like Enoch before him, Hanushek presented a scatter plot graph that, he said, demonstrated no correlation between increased spending and improved outcomes for students. States like New York and Wyoming increased their spending more than any other states between 1992 and 2011, but it was frugal Florida with the highest growth. 

From Eric Hanushek’s presentation to the Texas School Finance Commission

Commission member Rep. Paul Bettencourt (R- Houston) immediately suggested looking into what Florida is doing right.

“It’s hard to put any state in the shoes of any other state,” cautioned Hanushek, though he did note that Florida has a robust school choice program instituted under former governor Jeb Bush.

After spending a very long time discussing the minutia of Hanushek’s data, too long according to commission chair Scott Brister, the commission got back on track to talk about teachers. 

Teacher attrition in Texas was 16.5% in 2016. Environment was a major factor in attrition, presenter after presenter confirmed, as was lack of opportunity to grow in any way other than seniority or leaving the classroom to get into administration. Compensation, of course, is one way to measure professional growth.

Hinojosa, as well as representatives from Lubbock ISD and rural districts, spoke about the various systems of teacher compensation and talent development they have in place, and how that relates to both student performance and teacher retention. While the systems varied in scope and sophistication, all shared common elements: 1) pathways for teachers to promote up without leaving the classroom, such as a “master teacher” track, 2) evaluations systems that consider factors beyond state test scores, and 3) more pay for high performing teachers. 

DISD, which has the most highly developed system, the Teacher Excellence Incentive, also uses incentive pay to get the most effective teachers in front of the students with the most obstacles between themselves and their goals. These thirteen ACE (Accelerating Campus Excellence) schools where high performing teachers are paid an extra stipend, have gained considerable ground in academic and disciplinary outcomes as well as parent satisfaction, according to the district.

Commission member Todd Williams, education policy advisor to Dallas Mayor Mike Rowlings, reported that it would cost around $1,200 per student to implement the ACE model at the average Texas school.

Pay is only part of the equation, Holdsworth Center executive vice president Kate Rogers said. At the Holdsworth Center, the focus is on intrinsic motivation in talent development. Rather than “carrots and sticks” she said, they train district leadership to cultivate those inherently driven to succeed. Such people will be attracted to a system where their compensation reflects their performance, Rogers explained, but they don’t need compensation to drive their performance.

Nikki Beaty, a teacher at a high need school in Lubbock ISD, affirmed Rogers’ assessment. Lubbock ISD also uses performance pay to encourage the best teachers to stay in high-obstacle classrooms. While she would be there anyway, Beaty said, the extra pay was an encouragement to her family, who sacrificed along with her when her students needed extra time and energy from her. That support made it easier to stay, and affirmed her commitment. 

Lubbock’s system includes intensive mentoring and professional development, and Beaty said that works with the performance pay to create a collaborative professional environment.

Many teachers support the idea of differentiated pay, said representatives from the Association of Texas Professional Educators, the largest teacher representative group in Texas, as long as it is accompanied by sufficient minimum salary requirements and effective mentoring.

All of these efforts, many presenters noted, amounted to professionalizing and adding prestige to what has become a discounted career.

“It’s not that highly regarded respected position it used to be,” said Don Rogers of the Rural Texas Educators Association.

Of course, Finland and Singapore each came up several times. These countries are known for the high social capital and carried by the teaching profession. 

Dallas ISD and a growing number of other districts appear to be moving in that direction. But superintendent after superintendent confirmed that, at current funding levels, it is unsustainable. In Dallas ISD non-instructional staff has not received a cost of living wage increase in over a year. In Lubbock the program will simply end. Centerpoint ISD, could not afford pay increases, so they used days off and special mentoring lunches, paid for by the superintendent himself.

This kind of inconsistency keeps teachers from enthusiastic buy in, ATPE executive director Gary Godsey said.

With that testimony before them and around them, those going before the commission to say that money doesn’t matter appear to be increasingly in the minority.

To be continued…

Post Script

The night before the commission meeting Bernal sat on a panel for an “Ed Chat” hosted by Communities in Schools of San Antonio. To Bernal’s right, co-panelist Raúl Rodríguez Barocio lamented the lack of competitive spirit in the city, and the drain that put on the middle class. (It should be noted that Hanushek made the same comment about Texas as a whole.)

On Bernal’s left, sat part of the solution. Panelist Mohammed Choudhury, chief innovation officer at San Antonio ISD, was part of the team that designed the DISD system, and there’s no reason he can’t do the same in San Antonio except that,“it’s expensive.”  He noted that SAISD had to raise its tax rate to pay for the district’s new master teacher initiative. The district also received a $46 million federal grant for teacher incentives.

Texas School Finance Commission: Rough Equity


The Texas School Finance Commission meets for the third time on Thursday, Feb 22 to hear from more experts on how to to improve the state’s infamous school funding system. You can and should watch.  Below are my notes from the first meeting on Jan 23. The second meeting was on Feb 8.

People who would like to see school finance reform know two things about the Gov Greg Abbott’s 2017 commission to study the issue.

First, it is Texas’ only active chance of seeing changes made to the universally reviled funding system currently in place.

Second, it’s a slim, slim chance.

During the last legislative session, the passing of House Bill 21 created the Texas Commission on School Finance after the Texas Supreme Court passed the school finance overhaul ball to lawmakers. By declaring the current system constitutional in 2016, “the court has all but closed the door on future court interference,” former associate Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch said in his testimony before the commission on Jan 23. The court will likely give “high deference” to whatever the Legislative designs. 

The court would override a new system only if it failed to achieve “rough equity” between districts Enoch said. But short of that, Enoch explained, the lege has a ton of wiggle room.

Furthermore, Enoch said, there is no reason that education funding needs to be tied to property taxes, as it currently is. The commission is free to “think outside the box,” he said.

There’s a lot of freedom, and a full toolbox for the 13-person commission, which will take its recommendation to the legislature by Dec 31 in preparation for next year’s session.

So why the pessimism? They have the power, the time, the flexibility, the data.

The commission met for the first time on Jan 23 in Austin, and by the end it was clear why the chance of reform is so slim: it will require the Legislature to admit that not only does poverty matter, but that something can be done about it.

“I want you to understand,” Enoch said, “Scholars and educational experts disagree on whether there is a demonstrable correlation between educational expenditures and student outcomes.”

Immediately Chandra Villanueva, a senior analyst at the progressive Center for Public Policy Priorities, tweeted: “Show me a low cost alternative to a high quality teacher or small class size and I’ll start to consider that money in education doesn’t make a difference.”
Of course, neither Enoch, nor anyone else on the dais saw that tweet in the moment.

Equal outcomes should guide the school finance system, Enoch argued, not equal funding. Rather than ensuring that every district get the same amount of money, the Legislature should ensure that each district has what it needs to reach the desired outcomes, he said.

He went on to present a graph that showed districts spending very little money, but performing very well, while other spend plenty of money and performed poorly.

Enoch’s graph presented to Texas School Finance Commission.

“There is a pattern here, but it’s not finance,” Enoch said. 

This is a trend in the Legislature, commission member State Rep Diego Bernal D-San Antonio told me. “There’s a will to prove that there’s already enough money and that it’s inefficient spending that’s the problem.”

Pflugerville ISD superintendent Doug Killian, a commission member, asked Enoch if the spending estimates on his chart included transportation costs, new facilities costs, and other costs that some districts include and some do not include when calculating per pupil expenditures.

“I don’t have an answer to your questions,” Enoch acknowledged, the variables in accounting made it very difficult to compare district expenditures. He also clarified that he wasn’t saying money didn’t matter. “The experts are saying that it’s dangerous to say that only money matters in the education system.”

His graph, he insisted, demonstrated that.

“The devil is in the details,” Killian said, warning that such data might lead the commission to an erroneous conclusion.

Enoch acknowledged that he could not guarantee that the data was consistent, but stood by the conclusion that spending does not determine outcomes. He called on the TEA to determine what really makes a difference.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, the third presenter of the day, already had the answer.

Morath’s own graphs show a correlation between student poverty and student performance. Wealth makes the difference – not how much a district spends, but how much a family has.

From TEA Commissioner Mike Morath’s presentation to the Texas School Finance Commission.

Morath’s presentation seemed to support the money-doesn’t-matter narrative, in a way. “It’s not as simple as dollars in a budget functional area,” Morath’s presentation read, “Instead it is programmatic choices and execution quality of that spending that matter the most.” 

Texas is among the lowest 10 states in the country for per pupil spending. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Massachusetts, which scores near the top of most education rankings, spends $14,515 per pupil (average). Texas spends $8,299 (average).  

The lawmakers on the commission offered plenty of alternative explanations for that dubious distinction. Perhaps it has to do with economies of scale, commission member Sen. Larry Taylor R-Friendswood said. Texas educates five times the number of students Massachusetts (number one in spending and outcomes) does, and yet both are run by one central administration.

Or perhaps, commission member Rep. Dan Huberty R-Humble suggested, Texas spends less because the cost of living here is less than in Massachusetts.

Morath to Huberty’s and Taylor’s points in stride. Whatever the reason, the low spending per pupil did not squelch the quality of education students were getting. When the various demographic subgroups are broken out, and when the scores are adjusted for economic disadvantage, Texas scores near the top on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, the gold standard of standardized tests. Texas does a better job educating Hispanic, black, and economically disadvantaged populations than most other states.

from Morath’s presentation to the Texas School Finance Commission.

With low per pupil spending!

But don’t look away just yet, Morath warned, because life does not adjust for poverty. Employers don’t ask what resources you had at home, or how often you moved, he explained. 

The data shows that in college readiness, graduation, and subsequent lifetime income, economically disadvantaged kids do not outperform their middle class and wealthy peers–not in Texas, not anywhere.
“I’m less concerned with Massachusetts,” Bernal said after the meeting. “We heard today that our students are increasingly unprepared for life after high school.”

It’s not enough to move kids forward, Morath said, they have to reach proficiency. Even though one student is running with crutches, and one student is running with optimum health, both students have to run the race, he said, speaking in metaphor.

When the scores are taken all together and not adjusted for poverty, Texas falls near the middle on performance. Our economically disadvantaged kids do better than other states’ economically disadvantaged kids. We just have more of them.

From Morath’s presentation to the Texas School Finance Commission.

Since 1996, the percentage of Texas students considered economically disadvantaged has grown, Morath.

Morath made recommendations with this reality in mind. He agreed with Enoch that big budget numbers were not the key indicator, but went on to show that targeted spending in certain areas with proven efficacy for all students, including those living in poverty: teacher quality summer learning opportunities, and “coherent curriculum.”
Commission member Sen. Royce West D- Dallas,  indicated that the commission might consider different funding streams to support students in poverty, such as health and human services funding. Morath added to that they might consider ways to incentivize spending in certain areas so that money, wherever it might come from, is spent in ways that have been proven to best support those populations.
For example, Morath said, we know attendance improves student outcomes, and so it’s helpful that out current finance system uses daily attendance to allocate funds. Morath would like to see more of these kinds of mechanisms. One idea he floated: higher pay for the most effective teachers at high need campuses.
Herein, Enoch’s proposition might be more expensive than the current system. Forgetting the arbitrary per student allotments assigned by past Legislatures, if Texas studied what it would cost to close the gap between economically disadvantaged kids and their wealthier peers, we may be paying more than we are now. If we paid for the programs, services, and supports that allowed economically disadvantaged kids to test like wealthy kids, how much would that cost? The commission has the power to ask.
But first, what is the real root cause of low performance, Commission member Paul Bettencourt R-Houston, asked. Is it really poverty? Or is it not speaking English as a first language? Is it high mobility rates?

“The thing that matters is poverty,” Morath said leaving no room for doubt, “Everything else is a proxy for that.”

To be continued…

 

Rumblings continue in the battle over SAISD-charter partnership

San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel President Shelly Potter addresses members of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers Support and Personnel, Stewart Elementary parents and staff at a rally outside Burnet Elementary before the school board votes on whether to move forward with a partnership between Stewart Elementary School and Democracy Prep Public Schools, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.
Photo by Alma Hernandez for Folo Media

“Whose schools?”

“Our schools!”

“Whose schools?”

“Our schools!”

That was the call and response chant on the steps of the SAISD administrative building ahead of the January 22 board meeting, in which the board voted to move forward in a charter agreement with Democracy Prep, a nonprofit organization that runs charter schools in Louisiana and the Northeast. 

Following the Jan 22 meeting SAISD authorized Democracy Prep– which had not previously been approved to operate in Texas– to effect a school turnaround at Stewart Elementary, a traditional neighborhood school currently in its fifth year of failure to meet state standards. Authorized through SAISD, Democracy Prep can open more schools in Texas. 

The 2017 law that incentivizes SAISD to contract with Democracy Prep, Senate Bill 1882, requires the school to serve every single child living in the Stewart attendance zone, if they chose to go there. What this means for special education and English language learners had not been fully worked out at the time of the January 22 meeting, but Martinez assured the board that it would be fully explored as the district hammered out a performance agreement and subsequent contract.

The Texas Education Agency had not finalized rules for SB 1882 in time for the February 20th board meeting. The district will check the terms of any partnership by those forthcoming rules before bringing the performance agreement to a vote. Final rules will be published by Feb 26, with guidance following on March 12, per the TEA website.
In the meantime, tension continues to build between the district and the union.
The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, the union representing faculty and non-administrative staff in the district, rallied ahead of the Jan 22 meeting to protest what they describe as the abdication of responsibility.
Later that night (once the decision was official) the Alliance Facebook page posted a summary of the meeting that ended with, “The district administration, in effect, admitted they do not know how to do their core mission of educating our district’s students and because of that they are bringing in a company from New York City to do the job that they are evidently not capable of doing.”

One of the Alliance’s concerns is what will happen to students who would not typically thrive on a Democracy Prep campus. Because of its history as an independent “no excuses” charter district, Democracy Prep schools have not operated under the same legal requirements to accommodate students considered part of “special populations.” 

Democracy Prep was not on the agenda at the Feb 12 board meeting either, however Alliance president Shelley Potter presented an extensive list of performance recommendations to the board during the citizens to be heard portion of the meeting. Under the title, “What Our Community Demands from Any Proposed Charter School Operator in SAISD” the two page document lists six categories of detailed assurances the Alliance would like from the district, including transparent planning, high quality curriculum (including bilingual or dual language instruction), classroom management policy, and family supports. Two sections pertain to teacher and employee concerns.

Martinez has made his position known as well. In a January 24 interview with nonprofit news site The 74 Martinez noted that while the district has many choice schools, Democracy Prep is the first time he’s gotten backlash. He attributes this to the teacher contract issue.

“For every other option, the employees have reported to us, so we’ve been able to open new models with little resistance,” Martinez told The 74, “Is it coming from parents? The short answer is “no.” I had a parent meeting last week to explain this, and it’s not coming from them. I’m proud of the trust we have built with parents. Parents want these choices. The backlash is coming from our unions and alliances in San Antonio. It’s about having charter schools that don’t have union contracts versus schools with union contracts or union right.”

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez at a school board meeting Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, where a vote was taken to move forward with a partnership with Democracy Prep Public School to takeover Stewart Elementary starting in the fall. Photo by Alma Hernandez for Folo Media.

He went on to say that the district will choose partners who treat teachers well. While the details are not yet finalized, faculty contracts were non-negotiable for Democracy Prep, Martinez said, the charter school will be the employer, not SAISD. Teachers currently have protective contracts at SAISD, Democracy Prep practices at-will hiring. This came as an abrupt surprise for the faculty of Stewart.

During the Jan 22 board meeting, members of the Alliance spoke passionately to the board. Alejandra Lopez, a teacher at Stewart, accused the district of robbing the parents and faculty of their “right to self-determination.” Given the chance, she said, the parents would have participated in a redesign and used their voice.

As a matter of policy, the board does not respond to comments during the citizens to be heard. However, before the board voted to move forward with the arrangement, Martinez spoke to the issue of parental choice.

The parents of Stewart students have been advocating for their students for years, he said. The evidence is in the rapidly declining enrollment at Stewart as students have flocked to Brooks Academy and other nearby charter schools. 

“Those parents do have a voice,” Martinez said, “They walk.”

Enrollment at Stewart has been falling for years. During the 2016-2017 school year, Stewart served 542 students. Enrollment had fallen from 560 the year before and 565 the year before that. Many of those students went to charter schools like nearby Brooks Academy.

I watched the attrition first hand when I was reporting for the Rivard Report.

In the spring of 2016, photographer Scott Ball and I followed three students at Stewart as a way to highlight the need and possibility for change under Martinez, who was then in his first year as superintendent. One of the first students we interviewed was a fourth-grader identified as a good student who needed strong supports to stay on track. His guardian told us that she had put him on the waiting list at Brooks Academy after talking to other parents who had done the same. While their chief concern was middle school, they wanted to start applying early so as not to miss their chance.

When we came back for a second interview, we were informed that the fourth-grader had left Stewart to attend Brooks Academy.

Data supports these parents’ decision. Brooks Academy may or may not be the best long-term decision, that data simply won’t exist until the school has been around longer. However, the data does support the decision to leave Stewart.

Mike Villarreal, a University of Texas at Austin researcher and former State representative, also spoke at the Jan 22 board meeting. Through a collaboration with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Texas Workforce Commission, and several local school districts, Villarreal has been able to trace graduates of various San Antonio area elementary schools into adulthood.

Long term student outcomes for Stewart were not good, Villarreal said. Even before Stewart had fallen out of compliance with state standards, it was graduating students into a future of low performance.

Stewart graduates who were in the workforce in 2016 made an average of $18,000 per year, Villarreal’s data showed. State average is $34,000. Only about five percent earned post-secondary certificates and degrees within six years of their projected high school graduation, compared to 20 percent statewide.

“I’m here to celebrate what you are already doing which is keeping your eye on student outcomes,” Villarreal said to the board.

San Antonio to Charters and ISDs: Let's get together

The common misconception that the city plays an active role in public education may stem from the fact that both are essentially financed through property tax.

San Antonio residents have watched their property taxes increase significantly since 2014, as average property value assessments climbed by seven percent in 2014, 11 percent in 2015, seven percent in 2016, and another almost nine percent in 2017.

As they climbed, many property owners consoled themselves with the thought of more revenues flowing into their neighborhood school. Imagine their disillusionment to find that not a single additional dollar went to their local school district. 

Meanwhile, their neighbors are calling city council to ask what the city can do to lower taxes.

Such is the general squeeze that Tuesday brought Bexar County superintendents, including charter representatives, to the literal table with the City of San Antonio’s Inter-governmental Relations Committee.

“The city needed to get it’s skin in the game to support our schools,” Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said, kicking off the meeting, “We have not, in a way that has been constructive, been brought into the conversation.”

The City, through its Inter-governmental Relations Committee chaired by Saldaña and comprised of Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), Councilman Manny Peláez (D8), and Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), has committed to doing its homework to understand school finance so that it can effectively advocate for school funding in Austin, especially during the 2019 Legislative Session.

The room was full of community stakeholders as well, philanthropists and advocates who will undoubtedly play a role in the effort.

While she did not have an official seat among the committee and superintendents, the mayor’s chief of policy, Marisa Bono, was also in attendance. Formerly with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), Bono has argued before the Texas Supreme Court on behalf of local districts suing the state over its school finance system. In her the City has a powerful in-house resource, State Rep. Diego Bernal said, and thus, “there is no city better positioned to take this on than San Antonio.”

Bernal, vice chair of the House Public Education committee and a member of the Texas Commission on School Finance joined the summit as well. Bernal has often pointed out that the most effective way to lower local property taxes is to increase the State’s share of education funding.

Every district gets a set amount of money, determined by several formulas, explained David Thompson, a school finance expert brought in to educate the committee. At the end of the day, Thompson explained, there’s a set amount each district can receive. He compared this dollar value to a bottle. The property taxes go in first, and the State kicks in to fill whatever volume of the bottle is left to fill. If the bottle runs over after property taxes, such as in Alamo Heights ISD, the State keeps the excess and contributes nothing.

Those dollars do not necessarily go to other school district as the policy known as “Robin Hood” would imply, Brown pointed out. Excess property taxes from property wealthy districts go to the State’s general revenue fund. Some are designated for State aid to property poor districts.

By the current calculations of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the state pays for 38 percent percent of all public school funding. The majority, 62 percent, comes from local sources, not including the Robin Hood dollars.

So, to Bernal’s argument, if the state committed to, say, 50% of every “bottle” the average property tax burden would decrease.

School finance reform will face an additional hurdle in the 2019 Legislative session: Gov. Greg Abbott has proposed what is effectively a cap on cities’ and counties’ ability to tax property owners. The same idea was floated during the 2017 Legislative Session. Mayors, county judges of both parties, and superintendents spoke out against what was then Senate Bill 2, the Property Tax Reform and Relief Act.  Any property tax cap would do one of two things to education funding, Thompson explained: Either the State would have to chip in more, or education spending would decrease.

Even then, while there can be a cap on the base tax rate, Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods said, districts are still responsible to pay for their bond initiatives, even if they have less money on hand. This would cause their “interest and sinking” rate, (which is essentially payment on bonds) to skyrocket, furthering the “conspiracy” to place the blame for property taxes at the feet of local entities, Woods said. Northside ISD will place a $848.91 million bond initiative on the May 5 ballot.

By convening the superintendents, the City hopes to join forces, in a manner of speaking. The prevailing strategy in the Legislature is to place blame on local governments—city, county, and school districts—for the burdensome property taxes. Their approach, Saldaña said, will likely be to divide and conquer, pitting each local government against the other for political survival.

“If this is a hill we want to climb, we go together,” Saldaña said.

SAISD has room for 15,000 more students…where will they live?

One of the quirks of Texas government is the disconnect between school districts and the cities they serve. While districts answer directly to the state, bypassing city government, decisions made a city hall directly affect the health of schools.

Take, for example, housing.

A resolution unanimously adopted by the San Antonio ISD board (with President Patti Radle and trustee Debra Guerrero absent) at its Feb 12 meeting highlights the inextricable link between quality housing and quality schools. As the city fires up its task force to pursue a “Comprehensive Housing Policy Framework”, SAISD has stake in the conversation, trustee Ed Garza told me. Currently three SAISD trustees have City Hall on their resume. Garza served on city council from 1997 to 2001, and for two terms as mayor beginning in 2001. Radle served on city council from 2003 to 2007, and Guerrero from 1997 to 2001.

“You can’t really talk about infill, affordable housing and mixed income communities in the oldest part of San Antonio without talking about neighborhood schools,” Garza said.

The resolution acknowledges the role of housing in the district’s declining student population. Since its peak in 1968, the district has lost around 26,000 students, and can currently absorb at least 15,000 more into its existing facilities, the resolution states.

The northward sprawl of the city over past decades has left substantial gaps in quality family housing near the city’s core, which is served by SAISD, the county’s third largest school district with around 50,000 students. Other districts south of downtown have felt a similar attrition of middle class families looking for new or stable housing in the $100,000-$200,000.

The average home value in SAISD is around $70,023, according to the district. The state average. In those parts of the district serving the East and West sides of San Antonio— including two of the nation’s poorest zip codes, 78207 and 78208—the situation is far more bleak.

In 78207 more than half of the population, are renters and the average home value in 2016 was $62,000. In 78208, the 2016 average home value was a bit higher, $76,000. However, the percentage of renters was higher as well, and the median income was roughly the same. The later zip code runs into recently gentrified Lower Broadway where property values are climbing.

Concentrated poverty, Garza explained, makes it almost impossible for either schools or housing to improve without one another.  Schools can become the catalyst, but if there’s not transformation of the neighborhood, Garza said, “It doesn’t allow the neighborhood to elevate or start to break the cycle of poverty.”

Without the building stock to house them, Garza explained, families migrate northward where a virtuous cycle continues to feed middle class housing and schools.

The schools are not without culpability in the decline, acknowledged Garza. In some of the neighborhoods already experiencing “regeneration” (Garza does not like the term “gentrification”), such as Dignowity Hill and Monticello Park,  “We have not seen that translate into neighborhood school attendance.”

That’s changing in some neighborhoods where district efforts and housing stock have worked in concert. Lamar Elementary, located in Mahncke Park, is starting to attract its own middle class neighbors back to the school, which had seen enrollment decline for years.

The district has also launched ten “diversity by design” schools, which are not bound to an attendance zone. These schools use attractive curriculums and instruction models to appeal to families from across and outside the district. By attracting those parents, as well as families in the immediate neighborhood, SAISD chief innovation officer Mohammed Choudhury has been able to diversify the socioeconomic mix of students on these campuses.

However, open enrollment alone cannot solve the entire problem of segregation and economic isolation, Choudhury has said, housing will be critical.

Baptisms and Tragedies

Asa BaptismI’m looking through the pictures of my son’s baptism yesterday, All Saints Day. It was an Anglican service, so we were up there for a while. The time stamps on the photos range from 11:35-11:48 am. They catch my daughter misbehaving. They show my son cooperating (though concerned) with the water, the oil, the lifting, and being walked through the congregation. The pictures catch our faces, immersed in the joy of infant baptism and the realities of parenting a three-year-old sister. We were celebrating a spiritual reality that informs how we live on earth.

These were also the minutes just after the shooting had stopped 33 miles away at another church in another town. The tragedy had occurred, and so many lives were forever altered.

I already had in my head the blog post I was going to write about how baptism reminds us that God enters the chaos of parenting and community. He works inside real life, and as nice as it is to have quiet sacred moments…sometimes we bring the chaos and God brings the sacred. We often think of infants as these beatific, peaceful, receivers of baptism, and the rest of us experiencing this wholly transcendent moment…when the reality is that they are actively resisting the grace most of the time, and the rest of us are pretty distracted. And that’s a much better picture of God’s grace.

I was drafting that in my head when I got the email about Sutherland Springs. My heart broke, and my thoughts changed.

I can imagine God in my chaos…but what about THAT chaos? What about the chaos of violence and tragedy? Does his grace go there? Does our baptism mean anything in that context.

Yes. Because we were not saved, not brought into God’s family, to revel in our own comfort and placid situation. We delight in our peace with God, not to insulate ourselves and work on our own personal holiness. We were saved to be a comfort to John Holcombe and his aching community, and we were saved to do battle against sin.

I can’t speak to the lawyers, Constitutional scholars, lawmakers and the others who have to wrestle with how to actually try to prevent the next shooting. But I can speak, as a member of God’s family, to how that informs my response to mass violence.

First, we need to be at work in the world, sharing the Gospel, and helping others find peace (and sometimes medical resources) to reach their sick and sinful places. We need to be sharing the healing we have been given. Because yes, violent people will be violent, whatever their tools.

But, in the current context, I also believe we need to go further. Because those tools, and their capacity to do harm, are a problem worth talking about. The public voice of the “Christian” community played a powerful role in getting us here, so let’s see if we can be part of the solution.

God’s family does not whine about its rights. God’s family asks, “how can we serve you?”

God’s family is not afraid of a “slippery slope toward tyranny” or other talking points provided by those who are raking in the cash from our addiction to firearms. We were saved to be brave about a conversation that we need to have as churches, as families, as lawmakers, as voters, as citizens.

Around the dinner table of God’s family, the “gun conversation” is this: a Christian has no business giving a second thought to his gun hobby, his hunting pastime, and even his own rights. The Christian, living in grace, bravely enters the conversation about guns open to the idea that he or she might need to give up a hobby, a pastime, or even a right. The Christian does not hold onto rights for rights sake. The Christian is far more afraid of violating the law of God than of living peacefully under even the most tyrannical government. The Christian’s primary identity is not American, it is Christian.

Maybe we have the conversation, listen to experts, take a real look at evidence, and come back around to the position that guns are good to have. Maybe we conclude that if fewer people had assault rifles, that we’d be worse off. But right now there are powerful financial interests, and lots of “me first-isms” with a deep foothold in the Christian community and those powerful interests will not allow the conversation to happen. They deflect, they cut it off. So before you pull out the knee-jerk talking points…ask where you got them, and who is laughing his way to the bank.

One little side note on the second amendment…and I’m open to a Constitutional lawyer helping me understand the broader implications of a “well-regulated militia” but… do you honestly, HONESTLY, think your assault rifle is going to protect your from the full force of the US Military (or Russian or Chinese or ISIS)? If the citizens of the United States ever need to defend themselves against a military power in a nuclear age…what exactly are you hoping to accomplish? If the most you can come up with is “going down fighting,” you need to get over yourself. You might as well use your fists. A well-regulated militia of exactly zero use in 2017.

The founding fathers were not God. They did not foresee where these things would go. And the Constitution is not Scripture. “The constitutions tells me so” is a really lame argument for a Christian to fall back on here.

One of Asa’s baptism gifts from the church was a (decorative) arrow. His name means “healer” and our prayer has always been that he would be a flaming arrow of peace into the darkness. That arrow is our reminder that baptism brings grace, and the effect of grace is power. The power to do good. The power to do battle with sin and its havoc.

There is sin and havoc in an angry man with a weapon capable of indiscriminate killing in the space of seconds. There is sin and havoc in greed and power. There is sin and havoc in church who can’t remember where its true citizenship resides. Let our baptism be a reminder of what we were saved from, what we were saved to do, and where our citizenship resides.

 

San Antonio’s Two-handed Justice

The week after Harvey was a big week for San Antonio. We took on evacuees and sent aid to Hurricane Harvey victims with one hand, and with the other hand voted to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School, take down a Confederate monument, and obtained an eleventh-hour injunction against the State’s new “anti-sanctuary cities” law.

I’m partial, this being my hometown, but this week, San Antonio showed the world what it means to be hospitable and generous. With both hands.

Some argued that the time was not right. That one hand didn’t know what the other was doing. That both hands should have been full with Harvey. People argued that the monument and the high school renaming were “too emotional” and “a distraction.”

I disagree.

San Antonio is engaged in the both/and of social change. The one-two punch, if you will.

Pictures of Harvey rescues have gone viral. Black firefighters carrying white kids. White guys with their private boats going into Hispanic neighborhoods to run rescue operations. Young Hispanic EMTs lifting senior citizens in wheelchairs. They went viral with the comment, “We are not Charlottesville. We are Houston.” The people who posted meant this in one of (at least) two ways, as explained in their more elaborate comments.

Some meant it as inspiration. Like when you say to your kids, “You are part of this family, and in this family, we finish what we start.” It’s aspirational, a way to help them live into the identity we hope they will embrace. I’m all for America deciding that we want to be more like the heroes of Houston.

In San Antonio, our civic leaders beat that drum all week while asking for blood, diapers, blankets, cooperation, extra space and money for our friends down the freeway. They constantly reminded us of who we are: a generous, friendly, and hospitable city.

Others who posted “We are Houston,” however, meant it as a counterpoint to Charlottesville. They meant it to say, “see, at the end of the day, we don’t have a race problem.”

I would argue that we do. That while, yes, we will rescue “the Other” from a flood, we will alienate him again when the waters recede. The heroic deeds and character of individuals does not erase the injustice of institutions.

And so, with its other hand, a hand freed up by the fact that Harvey dealt us a mere glancing blow, San Antonio went to work on those institutions that marginalize or alienate. On the Tuesday after Harvey, San Antonio’s North East ISD school board voted unanimously for the name change of Robert E. Lee High School, a change led by student petition. One alumnus suggested changing the name to Harper Lee High School, to celebrate a brighter light of Southern grace.

On Wednesday a federal judge granted an injunction on the implementation of a law that was set to go into effect on Sept 1. It would have prevented cities and counties from adopting policies to keep their officers out of immigrations enforcement. It would have penalized elected officials who criticized the law. Law enforcement around the state spoke against the law, saying it would discourage cooperation with police and cause confusion among law enforcement. San Antonio and other cities in Texas joined a lawsuit to stop the law from taking effect. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia granted an injunction stopping the most potent provisions of the law from going into effect.

On Thursday the San Antonio City Council voted 10-1 to remove a Confederate monument from one of our historic parks.

Meanwhile, we kept taking in evacuees, donating diapers, and giving blood.

San Antonio was not distracted. San Antonio was looking deeply at what it means to be hospitable and generous. It means taking in evacuees, it means sending out teams from your Fire Department and EMS department.

It also means putting flesh and blood people ahead of bronze statues. It means that black children are not sent to schools named for soldiers who fought for the right to enslave black children. It means fighting against laws that make our communities less safe and goad vigilante justice.

We have to think both short and long term. In the short term, the Harvey victims need real help, and they need it now. In the long term, we need better laws and a more equitable world. When you have two hands free, you should use them both.

The hands of justice are both open and closed. Open hands offer assistance, comfort, and aid. Closed hands hold tightly to their vulnerable neighbors, pull down monuments to injustice, and clench into fists of determination.

Obviously, our work is not done. Not in San Antonio, and not in the world. Some say the monument and memorial discussion lacks substance, that it doesn’t make life different for anyone.

Again, I disagree.

To take down a monument or change the name of the school is not to pretend it never happened. It is a public statement about what we do and do not cherish. We take down monuments because we know we have a problem, because we are Charlottesville on August 12. We also take them down because we do not want that problem to continue to corrupt our identity going forward. We want to be Houston on August 27 and the days that followed.

If we are to make good on our statements, we have to keep both hands in mind. When Harvey has passed, we must continue to take care of the poor and most vulnerable. We also must continue to confront the injustice in our institutions—be they schools, churches, businesses or City Hall. We must continue to work at being who we are.

 

 

 

 

Auto-Correct

A Conversation Between Me and Auto-Correct while I try to compose the following Text message to my colleague before a breakfast meeting: “Tom is here. Want us to grab some tacos?”

Me: Tom…

Auto-correct: Tomato, right? You are going to type “Tomato?” 

Me: No. I mean Tom. 

Auto-correct: Oh, Tom. Like the man’s name? 

Me: Yes. Is it genuinely more common for people to begin a sentence with “Tomato”?

Auto-correct: There’s no one in your contacts named Tom, so I didn’t know you knew anyone named Tom. 

Me: So you went straight to “Tomato…” 

Auto-correct: Technically it’s more likely. 

Me: Okay. Well let’s go with Tom. 

Auto-correct: Aight. But I’m gonna underline it. 

Me: It’s a common name! 

Auto-correct: You should put this “Tom” in your contacts. 

Me: I do. It’s under Thomas. 

Auto-correct: Those are not the same. 

Me: Tom is here. Want…

Auto-correct: Did you mean “Wan”? 

Me: Wan? Is that a word? 

Auto-correct: Wan: (of a person’s complexion or appearance) pale and giving the impression of illness or exhaustion.

Me: What was wrong with “Want”?

Auto-correct: Nothing. I just wanted to double check. 

Me: But you just changed it. That’s not checking, that’s correcting.

Auto-correct: I needed to catch your attention to make sure that you didn’t embarrass yourself. 

Me: By accidentally typing “want” instead of “wan?” 

Auto-correct: Would that not have been embarrassing? 

Me: Not really. 


Auto-correct: Noted. But just to make sure, the next three times you type “Want” I’m gonna change it to “wan.” 

Me: Fine. Just let me get this text typed. 

Auto-correct: proceed. 

Me: Tom is hetw…

Auto-correct: Tom is vaulting?

Me: What?

Auto-correct: “Hetw” is not a word. I thought maybe you meant “vaulting.”

Me: So I hit two wrong letters right next to the “r” and the “e” and you thought that instead of “here” I was going for “vaulting.” 

Auto-correct: Was I wrong? 

Me: Yes. I meant “here.” 

Auto-correct: The only things I change to “here” are “her” and “hear.” 

Me: Tom is here. Want us…

Auto-correct: US

Me: Ah! Why the caps?

Auto-correct: US is the AP style abbreviation for United States. 

Me: I know. I’m a journalist. 

Auto-correct: I know. I thought you would appreciate it. 

Me: us

Auto-correct: US

Me: us

Auto-correct: US

Me: I’m talking in the first person plural. Can I please use the pronoun? 

Auto-correct: Errr….no. 

Me: Seriously?

Auto-correct: American first, man. 

Me: Tom is here. Want some tacos…

Auto-correct: I HAVE AN EMOJI FOR THAT!!! LOOK AT THIS GREAT TACO EMOJI!

Me: Okay. I’ll add the emoji onto the end.

Auto-correct: I’ll replace the word tacos with the emoji. 

Me: No! I want the word too. 

Auto-correct: Why? That’s redundant.

Me: I want to make sure he gets what I’m saying. I’m trying to avoid miscommunication. 

Auto-correct: What’s confusing about a taco?

Me: Nothing. But I want the word in there too. Tacos.

Auto-correct: Okay. Now you can add the taco emoji. 

Me: Okay. 

Auto-correct: Look how cute it is if I change it!

Me: AH! No. Tacos. The word. Tacos. 

Auto-correct: Geez. Fine. Do you want to add the emoji?

Me: No. Forget the emoji. 

Tom is here. Want some tacos?

Auto-correct: Ready to send. 

Me: Yes. You aren’t going to change anything when I push send? 

Auto-correct: No. All done. 

Me: Okay, send. 

Auto-correct: Tomato is herring. Want some racism? 

Me: WHAT? What are you doing?!? 

*texts frantically* Tom is here. Want some tacos? *send*

Auto-correct: Tomorrow has hernia. Wan something macho. 

Me: AH! Stop it. I’m texting my boss and you are embarrassing me. 

Auto-correct: Oh your boss? Sorry. I had no idea. Let me go into boss-texting mode. 

Me: Thank you. I just got this job and I’m trying not to screw up. 

*texts slowly and deliberately* Tom is here. Want some tacos?

You won’t change it if I push send?

Auto-correct: Nope.

Me: *send*

Auto-correct: Hey Baby, vagina vagina. Big horny?

If Banana Republic Models Could Speak

I found another edition of my 2012 snark-fest. This time it is a trifold mailer for Banana Republic which I find entirely implausible.

I think we’re supposed to get the idea that she’s at some sort of swanky house party in LA. But no one showed up. I presume this is why she looks so grouchy. But while a realistic scenario would have her wearing sweatpants in the kitchen packaging up the dips before they go bad, this glamorous pariah decides to stay in her party duds and sulk. By the pool. Which she had cleaned for the occasion.

anthro-8

With no other guests to lift her spirits through playful banter and, let’s be honest, lots of colorful and entertaining lies, she apparently loses her mind, and like the Anthropologie models before her, gets fully clothed into the water.

anthro-7

Behind the Photo: Salute

My mom recently sorted out all the remnants of the days when you had to print the whole role of film to get the one picture worth keeping. Over the years the best photos were picked over for frames, albums, and other display pieces.

These are the left-overs. But not the throw-away left overs. The ones that tell the story of the real family behind the Christmas card photos.

My mom insists the following pictures are of me waving. She says that she somehow captured my distinctive wave at the same moment three times in a little over a year. Please note that I am using this “wave” at Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and some museum with dinosaurs. Pretty choice optics for a 3-4 year old.

My mom was giving me the benefit of the doubt, but the evidence points in a different direction. I’m trying to brand a salute for when I take over the world. Pretty sure of it.

Maybe I’ll try to bring it back. Please greet me with this hand gesture from now on.

Here I am taking my oath of office:

wave-1

And laughing maniacally as I plow over my opponents in a novelty mining cart:

wave-2

And acculturate my first subjects. A dinosaur and Annika.

wave-3