I’ve been writing about education policy for coming up on a decade, and it never ceases to amaze me.
In so many ways, I will be the first to admit I’m over-saturated on certain (still very important!) storylines. Charter v. district. Teachers v. admin. Parents v. admin. Test scores. Hear me clearly. These topics are important, and I’m not walking away from them. But ten years is a long time on a beat that doesn’t change much, because the biggest scandals and controversies in public education are decades and decades old. In some ways I have felt myself drifting into historians’ lane.
And then there are days, like today, when I’m reminded that as long as schools have our kids—shaping them, teaching them, steering them—there will always be incredibly important stories there, and those stories merit stamina. Religion, immigration, ability, race, gender, sexuality, privilege, and poverty all show up at school. Understanding a little about policy/funding and a lot about people can help us see the story behind the story.
Context, so often, makes the story.
In some ways, it was the oldest scandal in the book, segregation, that got me committed to education reporting. The ripple effects of Plessy vs. Ferguson convinced me education was a justice beat. And then there was the Texas Legislature, which convinced me education was a political beat. And then one day, working on a pretty mundane story about social and emotional learning, I realized there was a religion corner of this beat as well.
Today two pieces ran: In The 74 Million I wrote about San Antonio ISD’s new superintendent Jaime Aquino. He is a lifelong educator, immigrant from the Dominican Republic, English-learner, and gay man. In a state where each of those pieces of his identity will inevitably intersect with some agenda from the Texas GOP, he’s also greeted by a long line of parents whose children are entitled to special education services but have been constantly underserved.
Then, for the first time ever, Baylor University granted a charter to and LGBTQ student group, and the nuances and tensions in that charter speak to conversations happening well beyond the campus. Greater shifts within Christianity—both polarizing and centripetal—are manifest in the new group, Prism, and echoed through the campus conversations in which the decision was made. I got to write about all these intersecting tensions for Texas Monthly.
Education reporting can be exhausting to me, when I feel that I am squeezing stories out of slow, if even existent, change. But in context, it is a steady lens through which to understand so many facets of society, how we construct our villages, what we place upon our kiddos. Having done the basic work of understanding how school systems function, I often use them as a magnifying glass for the many ways our world functions. And that never gets old.
Sometimes the kids are alright. Sometimes they aren’t.
When they announced that schools would be closed beyond spring break this year, I have to confess the grim thoughts that ran through my head. I pictured a return to those grueling infant years, with my hair in a non-sexy-messy bun, stress eating cookies and crying every afternoon as my kids whined and tantrumed on the floor next to me.
It took a full two weeks for me to come back to myself and remember: we’re fine. We, the McNeel family, are fine. Our kids are fine.
The middle of a pandemic is a difficult time to admit that we are actually doing fine, because the general anxiety of the moment is palpable. We are absorbing it with our senses, and you’d almost have to be a sociopath not to feel some degree of angst about our current moment. Because people really are dying. The economy really is struggling. Isolation is a mental health hazard.
But for us, the healthy McNeels in our 2,400 square foot house, internet access, safe sidewalks, and stable income…that anxiety should be sympathetic. It should be directed at needs outside ourselves. It’s the same anxiety that should be driving all of our decisions.
You should totally experience anxiety.
Anxiety is the body’s way of telling you that something is misaligned or disconnected. Something is not right. And when we look at the world around us—at things COVID-19 did not create, but has both exaggerated and laid bare—it should be obvious that something is wrong. We feel the reality that some kids are not okay. Their schools are not able and their government is not willing to support them in the ways they need to be supported. Their parents are swimming upstream against a system designed to exclude them. They do not have access to generations of accrued capital, and they do not see themselves proportionately represented among those who shape the world they live in.
We, white parents, see that world, and we feel anxiety. We should! Something is not right. We are cut off from a right way of being together.
But when we feel that anxiety, we have to quickly take the next step. We have to place ourselves. Is it MY kids who are over-disciplined by teachers? Is it MY kids who will have to hustle every day to gain entry to the middle class and even then may be sidelined? Do the systems—economic, education, and justice—of this country pose a threat to MY kids? Or do they work to their advantage? Will my kids get chance after chance to get it right, to “fail forward”?
If we (white, middle class parents) feel like our kids are threatened by the systems in our country, then we aren’t paying attention. We are mapping our anxiety onto someone else’s reality.
The Great Lie
We’ve been conditioned to believe that our kids are not going to be okay. From the moment we become pregnant, someone is trying to sell us something to keep them alive…to make them sleep/eat better (so they develop correctly)…to get smarter. We become consumers of improvement for our kids, and the best way to sell us stuff is to convince us that our kids are not going to be alright.
We take that foolish mentality with us when we start consuming opportunity. The best schools, the best lessons, the best coaches; all because we believe that they are starting from scratch with ruin nipping at their heels. If we were to look over our shoulder we would see that it’s not a precipice, but wholeness in our rearview mirror. We left equity and solidarity behind us and now we are running a lonely race that will never end, chased by a boogey man of our own making.
Hear me right: I’m not saying that white people don’t fall off economic ledges, or into addiction, or that being white and middle class means no one has to work hard. Only that we have to start disentangling hard work and hoarding. Those are different things. One runs on the belief that our kids are alright and up to the challenge. The other runs on the fear that they won’t be and they aren’t.
And that hoarding option is so ubiquitous, so persistent that we cannot imagine not doing it. It defines parenting in 2020. I don’t know anyone who would say that it’s healthy to give kids everything they want, but what about everything we want for them? Are we willing to admit that there are advantages and opportunities that they don’t need?
In this climate, the most radical thing that white middle class parents can say is: my kids are alright.
The Great Irony
The great irony, of course, is that believing that they are not okay has in some ways made them not okay, but not in the way that you think. The mental wellness of middle class kids is, according to experts, not good. Suicides, bullying, self-harm, depression…all can be linked to parental pressure to compete academically, socially, and economically. They are never enough to make us less afraid. Their performance is never enough to ease our anxiety over their future. In reality, our kids need us to be there for them, not to hoard for them.
Our family’s pivotal moment came this fall, within the first few weeks of school at our integrated elementary school.
After a happy first week, my daughter’s teacher stopped me at pick up to report that my daughter was acting up. She wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t sit still.
I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. So I took it out on my daughter. I immediately saw her future drizzling away, bleeding into the school to prison pipeline, never to be recommended for advanced courses, never to get into a competitive marine biology program, dooming her to bounce between unstable jobs while other kids, those who listened better in class, explored the Mariana Trench.
Never mind that I knew this was irrational. At the first sign of trouble, I mapped my anxiety onto real inequities. Inequities that do not actually disadvantage us.
Her little face, which had bounced up to me with a grin, fell, as I gave her a blistering reprimand in front of everyone.
Within two weeks, my sunny, exuberant daughter was “on red” day after day. Her clip on the behavior chart was perpetually falling, and her face when I came to pick her up was disconsolate, knowing she was in for an afternoon of icy discipline from mom.
Meanwhile, armed with my expert opinions and research, I went into full “that mom” mode. I tried to get the behavior chart—which clearly wasn’t changing my daughter’s behavior—replaced with something more “restorative.” I wrote letters to the teacher trying to explain my daughter. I began to consider more drastic measures to ensure that my daughter was as successful on paper as she was in my dreams for her.
At home, we were miserable. Every day we grew more alienated as she “jeopardized her future.”
Finally I woke up.
The Great Opportunity
It was true, the behavior chart did not motivate her nearly as much as the pleasure she takes in entertaining her classmates. But when it comes to the actual determining factors of a child’s future success…she’s alright. The biggest threat to her well-being was the shrill panic monster I was becoming.
I decided to let school be school. She and her teacher would work it out. I knew the teacher was kind and engaged, and wanting to see each kid thrive. As long as home was supportive and structured, my kid would adjust to kindergarten.
When I stopped making a big deal, my daughter revealed that she actually had a very productive mindset when it came to the behavior chart. One day she hopped in the car and told me, sounding victorious, “Mom, I got on red today, but guess what! By the end of the day, I had pulled it up to orange.”
Another day she told me, “Guess what Mom. Today I stayed on green all day, even though (classmate) told a poop joke. I did not laugh, even though I really wanted to, so I stayed on green.”
I congratulated her.
By the end of the year, she was getting onto blue and purple (the reward colors). She had grown, because I’d backed off and started supporting her growth instead of panicking about her future.
Hear me right again: I’m not saying we turn our kids over to the system never to check back in. I’m not saying that we don’t advocate or protect them when someone is harming them. But we need to know the difference between harm and challenge.
We have to stop treating every challenge, every “B”, every missed opportunity like it’s a death sentence. Sure, that “B” might mean they don’t get into the college of their dreams, and thus will not be set on an easy path to the career of their dreams. But dreams and success are not the same thing. Having everything we want, winning all the things…that’s not even really good for us. But if we constantly think that the opposite of best is death, we’re going to destroy our kids and everyone else’s in the process.
There’s real inequity in the world. Anxiety is merited, because injustice destroys the Shalom we desperately need. There are kids who are not alright, and we cannot be alright with that. But in order to see that clearly, we also have to be able to see when our kids are doing just fine.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”