Guest Column: An SBOE That Resists the Herd Mentality

The State Board of Education has new assignments awaiting its attention. After researching and digesting the laws passed by the 82nd Legislature, new policies and rules will be debated, developed and then implemented across the state.

Probably the biggest challenge for the SBOE in its policy-making responsibilities is something that arose unexpectedly at the end of the budget process. The Texas Education Agency and its commissioner provide all administrative services for the board, its programs and policy initiatives. Budget cuts will force the TEA to abandon many grant programs that benefit local school districts. But the anticipated one-third work force reduction in the coming weeks, after a 10 percent reduction earlier this year, will make for difficult discussions and hard policy decisions.

Successful passage of Senate Bill 6, introduced by state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, was an important milestone this legislative session, solving problems posed by our archaic textbook-purchasing process. In the past, the SBOE would order new textbooks from publishers, which would develop them, seek approval for state adoption and literally print a warehouse of books in anticipation of legislative funding. The SBOE would distribute to the Legislature a more-than-adequate sum from the $25 billion Permanent School Fund (a.k.a., the Children’s Textbook Fund) to pay for textbooks in hopes that textbook funding would find its way into the budget. In recent history, textbooks were left unfunded in favor of other spending priorities. For this coming biennium, the SBOE provided an unprecedented $1.9 billion to the public education budget.

In my 15-year tenure on the SBOE, textbook proclamations (or purchase bids) have grown from $250 million to a proposed $1 billion. SB 6 properly directs nearly one-half of PSF distributions into a new, dedicated fund allotted to school districts for their purchase of instructional materials. While past expenditures were restricted primarily to traditional textbooks, the definition of instructional materials has now been expanded to include online content and technology, both software and hardware. The SBOE’s assignment will be to develop a way to monitor and assure the quality and appropriateness of new university-developed courses and online instructional materials. Review and approval of online materials must be accomplished in a relatively short period (90 days) versus traditional process for reviewing paper texts (12 months) — all the while being sensitive to the need for public input.

Prior to this legislative session, work schedules were already in motion to develop new curriculum standards — the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS — in mathematics and fine arts. The process to revise math began with SBOE-appointed committees that will be making recommendations for the math TEKS in late 2011. Review and revision of the fine arts TEKS begin this summer. Both sets head for final adoption and eventual implementation in the classroom in 2012 and 2013. 

 

Following the revisions of any subject area — like math, fine arts and even previously adopted revisions for English/language arts, science and social studies — the SBOE develops textbook adoption schedules to get updated, accurate textbooks into the classrooms in time for newly mandated end-of-course exams. This was the last year for the current Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) exams.

Other legislation gives the SBOE an opportunity to extend the charter school initiative with expansion of the cap for new schools. Financially secure charters will now be able to access bond guarantees with Permanent School Fund assets, finally putting charters on a more level playing field with other public schools by reducing the borrowing costs of brick-and-mortar building programs. 

While campaigning for governor 17 years ago, George W. Bush said Texas needed to abolish the regulatory authority of the TEA under the premise of more local control. Ironically, within that same agency today, complaints are made of federal intrusion and the usurping of state control. Having failed to convince us at the state level of the need for more federal oversight, the feds are now overtly circumventing state authority by soliciting local districts directly. Local schools are being enticed to adopt unproven federal standards and testing in return for a few pieces of silver. Texans must continue to advocate for our state’s rights to develop and maintain control over our own curriculum standards and assessments. We must resist the herd mentality of the national core curriculum movement.

Following a legislative session that sought more accountability, monitoring and oversight of Texas public education, the capacities of the SBOE and the TEA will be severely tested. The good news is that the SBOE’s 15 members, who volunteer their time and passions, and the state’s commissioner of education are all up to the task.

David Bradley, a self-employed businessman licensed in insurance and real estate sales, represents District 7 on the State Board of Education.

 

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