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Concern for Texas Public Schools

By Chase Palmer
Jan. 4, 2017 at 6 a.m.

MISD trustee Chase Palmer presents Makaila Casas, fourth-grade student at Robert E. Lee Elementary, with a book after Makaila led Monday's board meeting the pledge to the Texas flag.

This letter was originally written and sent to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus.

Texas public schools

Dear Speaker Straus,

My name is Chase Palmer and I am an attorney in Marshall, Texas. I am also a two-term school board trustee for the Marshall ISD.

I sincerely believe that public education in Texas currently stands at a crossroads. I believe this legislative session to be a watershed moment for our state as relates to public education. I am writing this letter to you today asking for your help.

I grew up in Marshall, Texas and I am a graduate of Marshall High School. I left Marshall in 1992 to attend Baylor University, and subsequently, Baylor Law School. Upon graduation from law school, I returned home to practice law with my dad. My wife and I currently have three children, all of whom are now enrolled in MISD. My only intentions have always been to build a life in Marshall. I, like so many other Texans, love their hometown.

A vast majority of us never leave home or return home as quickly as possible because of the love we have for our hometowns and the people that we can surround ourselves with when we return home. Home evokes so many positive memories and many of us want nothing more than to see our hometowns thrive and grow. As I am sure you are well aware, one of the driving forces of a Texas town is the local school district.

In small towns, the local ISD is not only an education center, but it serves as an economic engine, social hub and nutrition center. The local school district also drives the ability of a town to grow and prosper or shrink and die. As a school board trustee, I have seen what negative legislation can do to a town and a school district. Like so much of the legislation passed by the Texas legislature, good intentioned statutes have led to some very unintended and negative consequences.

From state accountability ratings to special education quotas, Texas public schools are drowning in regulations that have unintended and potentially damning consequences on countless numbers of Texas communities. I write this letter to you today asking for your help in reversing this trend before it is too late.

I begin with the state accountability ratings. As a school board trustee, it has taken me the better part of two terms to even grasp the state accountability system. The system is cumbersome and confusing. The system is also ever changing, with new benchmark numbers on a yearly basis.

The system treats every child as if they were exactly the same, with little or no deviation for special needs or background. Unfortunately, the system has led to mass migrations of parents and students from deemed "bad" school districts to lauded "good" school districts, often with little understanding of what those terms may even mean. The overall result is a new system of segregation in Texas, not one based upon color of skin, but one based upon economic standing. Most parents make the decision to transfer or re-locate based upon STAAR reporting scores, which in and of themselves are misleading and not equitable.

I give you this example from Marshall ISD. Currently, 76 percent of Marshall ISD students are economically disadvantaged, which in essence means that our school district has a large number of children who live in varying degrees of poverty. While we are trying desperately to expand our early childhood program to address some of these needs, we have determined that, because of their poverty, many of our kids come to Marshall ISD without basic life skills, much less academic skills. Many of our students are from single parent households and arrive at Marshall ISD without the ability to recite ABCs or 123s.

One-third of our students are now Hispanic, many of whom arrive at Marshall ISD with limited English proficiency or none at all. The mobility rate of a vast majority of our students is also high, meaning that our students do not enjoy stable homes.

While fighting these battles, our residents only see the final STAAR scores and some have determined that our school district "is not a good school district." Marshall ISD currently has six campuses that are rated "Improvement Required." We are surrounded by school districts who have no such rating, but who also do not have the issues and challenges, which we experience. As a result of the rating system, some residents of Marshall have chosen to leave Marshall ISD for surrounding school districts.

These districts do not have the same challenges that we face at MISD. Those districts are high-performing on the STAAR testing, and quite frankly, should be. The vast majority of their students hail from stable families that are not battling poverty or language barriers. The unintended result of this accountability system, and the newly enacted A-F rating system, is and will continue to be the de-stabilization of Texas communities.

When a school dist ct is labeled by the State as a failure, the community also inherits that label. Job growth stagnates. The housing market plummets. Economic development becomes almost impossible to foster. For a school dist ct, student count decreases, resulting in less funding. Teachers become difficult to recruit. Your more affluent and mobile students re-locate, while the number of your students in poverty increases.

You can find these very issues in every community of any size in Texas. Districts, which are located in larger towns and communities are all surrounded by a "flight district," which district is usually located within a 30-minute drive of that town. Unfortunately, our current rating system does nothing to change or fix education in Texas. It only relocates the affluent students who have the means to flee to a "better school district."

This system will eventually destroy towns and communities in Texas. If we continue down this slippery slope, it will have a negative effect on many communities in this state. There is a better way and it is time that we as a State begin to move accountability in a better direction.

Lastly, there are several items which school board trustees across the State of Texas would applaud your immediate aid. I urge you, Mr. Speaker, to begin a conversation this legislative session that will reverse these items and provide local school districts more control over their school system.

First, remand and reverse the arbitrary 8.25 percent cap on special education students. It is now readily apparent that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) arbitrarily assigned a maximum student quotient of 8.25 percent of students in a school district to qualify to receive special education services. This article in the Houston Chronicle clearly identifies the situation, much more articulately than I here.

We owe it to the children of our state to "meet them where they are." If a child needs special education services, they should be provided those services, without question, and a school district should not be penalized for providing those services to its children. You have already begun this conversation and I applaud you for those efforts.

Second, remand and reverse the position of the TEA which requires that special needs children take, and pass, the STAAR test. Currently, every child in the State of Texas must take the STAAR test. A severely challenged, special needs child must take a modified version of the same test which is required of the valedictorian at the high school. When the special needs child does not pass the test, his or her score is then counted against the school district for accountability purposes.

This ruling is arbitrary and capricious and lacks basic common sense. Students with such special needs should never be forced to take a test which they could never pass. I have not met a single parent who wishes that their child be forced to take the examination. To add final insult to injury, school districts are then graded on their inability to get a special needs child to pass a test which they could never successfully pass in the first place.

Third, Allow school districts greater flexibility to discipline students. In today's structure, due process is too heavily weighted toward the student, which limits administration and teacher's ability to adequately address discipline issues.

I give you this example: school districts are required not to have a disproportionate number of minority students in OAEP. If the TEA determines that number to be "too high," the school dist ct must take corrective action -which action is to reduce those numbers. The severity of the discipline situation and/or the reason for the placement in OAEP is not considered by the TEA in making this determination.

Marshall ISD is roughly 72 percent minority. Our school district is currently 38.57 percent African American, 33.33 percent Hispanic and 24.93 percent White. Utilizing nothing more than mathematical probability, one would ascertain that more minority students would be in OAEP during any given sampling period at Marshall ISD, as that demographic makeup is the vast majority of our school district.

School districts should not be forced to determine who is receiving discipline if the discipline is warranted. In short, Texas teachers and administrators need to have more control over their classrooms. Administrators should not be forced to tolerate bad behavior because of arbitrary TEA mandates.

Fourth, stand strong against school vouchers and school choice programs. Mr. Speaker, school vouchers and school choice programs will only continue to widen the gap between "the haves" and "the have nots" in Texas.

There is not one example in the United States of a school voucher program that has been implemented which is successful. States that have shifted to vouchers or school choice programs have seen their public education system worsen, not get better.

Quite frankly, I believe we are only having this voucher discussion in the State of Texas because we are using a state accountability system that most do not understand and which does not treat each school district fairly. Vouchers will further increase the flight from school districts that are labeled as underperforming and will not solve the basic issue -- how do we make education better for all children in the State of Texas. Vouchers are being promoted as a cure that is not going to treat the underlying ailment.

I end this letter where I began. I love my hometown. I love my school district. Both have provided a great deal to me and my family. I would not be the person I am today without my upbringing in Marshall, Texas and without the many wonderful experiences I received from the Marshall Independent School District.

I now choose to serve on the school board in my hometown because I believe that every child deserves the best education that can possibly be provided. I also serve because I know that many of the kids in my hometown do not have the support system and possibilities that my own children have, to no fault of their own and oftentimes, to no fault of their parents.

It is my prayer that you will begin to foster a conversation in the Texas Legislature that will enhance public education in Texas without demonizing schools and communities that are struggling to implement those policies. There is no question that we need accountability standards in Texas, but someone in charge needs to understand this most important and basic premise: we, in Texas public schools, take all.

If your parents never taught you how to read, we take you. If you have no one to help you with your homework, we take you. If you cannot speak a single breath of the English language, we take you. If you are forced to work two jobs after school to support your family, we take you. We cannot continue to look at each child as if they were, and are, the same. They are not. Thank God, in the State of Texas, we still take you.

Our charge should be to take every child where we find them and make them better. Why can't we find an accountability system that is based solely on that fundamental idea? I believe such an accountability system can, and should, exist.

I stand ready to aid you in this discussion, as do the thousands of Texas School Board Trustees who serve children each and every day in the State of Texas. It is time that we all sit down and find an equitable solution to these problems.

I thank you for your time and consideration of this letter.

By: Chase Palmer, Marshall ISD trustee

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