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The Q&A: John Kuhn

In this week's Q&A, we interview John Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt CISD.

John Kuhn is a Texas school administrator and a vocal advocate for public education.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

John Kuhn is a Texas school administrator and a vocal advocate for public education. He has written two books about education reform: Test-and-Punish: How the Texas Education Model Gave America Accountability without Equity (2013, Park Place Publications) and Fear and Learning in America: Bad Tests, Good Data, and the Attack on Public Education (2014, Teachers College Press). In 2011, the superintendent of Perrin-Whitt CISD became identified with the fight in the Legislature over school funding when he penned a letter in the style of William B. Travis' letter from the Alamo, this time asking for relief from "increased high-stakes testing and accountability-related bureaucracy and a cannonade of gross underfunding."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: You’ve been identified very closely with the issues of funding as well as accountability. In your district, how are the budget cuts playing out, both the large budget cuts from 2011 as well as the partial restoration last session?

John Kuhn: The budget cuts are felt very acutely in my school district and, I think, in most of my neighboring school districts as well. They were initially felt in 2010, 2011 when the state implemented $5.4 billion in cuts that hit us in my district to the tune of about $300,000 or so. And I’m in a very small district so that was a pretty good chunk of our budget. Most of our money goes toward personnel, you know, payroll. And so when those cuts hit, that’s where we have to look to get most of the savings that we’re forced to get. Restoration of partial budget amounts was helpful. But we’re still in a hole compared to where we were in 2010.

I’ll give you a key example of one of the things that’s really been hard, locally, for us. Ever since I was in high school, my school here has had a really remarkable program for gifted-and-talented education. And our students have participated in a contest called Destination Imagination, which is a creativity contest. … One of the things that happened in 2010 was that staff member — half-time staff member — retired. We were actively asking people to retire so that we could save expenditures out of payroll. She graciously did that, and so we’ve had to cobble together a program inside the classroom using classroom teachers that have gotten their gifted-and-talented training hours in.

But the fact is, the program is not the same as it was. … We’ve sent kids to the global competition on a couple of occasions. When you’re from a tiny, rural school, success like that is a big deal.

Trib+Edu: You hit on something kind of important there. Even if you get the money back, do you ever really fully recover?

Kuhn: That was not the only staffing reduction that we were forced to have. Literally, over those two years, we cut nine staff members. Some of them were half-time staff members, and some of them were full-time staff members. But when I started in 2010, I think we had 64. So nine staff members out of a staff of 64, that’s a big chunk. We have been able to add back a couple staff members since.

But there’s definitely an effect on the programming and what you’re able to do as a school. By the same token, I understand fiscal reality at the state level. … At the same time, a lot of times we ask for support, and it’s not because we’re being selfish. It’s not because we want to waste money. It’s because we’re looking at what our kids need and what our community needs, and we want to provide for those needs. That’s our mission.

Trib+Edu: Moving topics here to the accountability regime, there was landmark legislation last session dealing with that. In your estimation, does HB 5 do enough to relieve the pressure on local schools? What more should be done?

Kuhn: I’m a huge fan of House Bill 5, and if I was to have another kid, I’d probably name him Jimmie Don. I think House Bill 5 is a big step in the right direction because it did a couple things. It de-emphasized testing, which I’m afraid we’re about to re-emphasize testing by tying it to teacher evaluations, and I think that’s the wrong way to go. Of course, that’s kind of imposed from the federal government.

There’s so much more to education than a single test score on a single subject, and trying to reduce quality education to something that is quantifiable, you have to leave out a lot of really important information. House Bill 5 stepped away from that trend, which was a 30-year trend. That’s a wonderful thing. It’s a watershed moment, and I think it’s a testament to the fact that parents made their presence felt and let the Legislature know what their desire was for the education their kids would receive.

The other thing House Bill 5 did that is a little more controversial — but I’m a huge supporter of as a rural school official — is the flexibility in graduation programs and graduation plans. We absolutely would love for every child in the state of Texas to go to college and come out a doctor. I understand that idealism. But idealism can sometimes be destructive in that it bars reality from being considered. The reality is that we do have the need for non-college occupations. We need people to fill positions that are not college degree positions. We kind of pretended that wasn’t the case for several years.

The one disappointment I have that has been a burr under my saddle ever since I was a high school principal, honestly, was the fact that our school accountability mechanisms are separate and apart from our funding mechanisms. And what I mean by that is that we’re divorcing the context of whether or not a school is a quality school from the funding component.

We have a target revenue system that we know funds school districts at grossly disparate levels. We know that one school may get 85 percent of the per-pupil funding of another school. But at the end of the day, our accountability regime looks at a uniform test score standard as though all things are equal. When the reality is, in terms of funding, all things are not equal. And in terms of the social reality that students face in different districts around the state, things are not equal. So how can the required outcome be equal? I get and I stay very frustrated with what I see as injustice in that setup.

Trib+Edu: You’re pointing directly to the issue before a court right now. What is your sense as to what the court might be doing?

Kuhn: I don’t know what the next verdict is going to be. I know what the first verdict was. And I know it’s still in Judge Dietz’s courtroom. Obviously, I’m hopeful the second verdict will be similar to the first. I really don’t think the situation has changed a whole lot, although there was some test relief given. But in the big picture scheme of things, the funding reality has changed a little. And the level of rigor and expectation has changed a little.

The question really is, is there a breakdown between how much support we’re giving schools and what we’re asking schools to accomplish? And I think the answer to that, from my perspective, is a resounding yes, absolutely. I also understand that whatever the result is in Judge Dietz’s courtroom, it will be appealed to the Supreme Court, and there’s no telling what the decision will be at that level. I won’t pretend to predict, but I will always think that if you’re not going to fund schools evenly, then you’re wrong to ask for equal results. You can’t have disparate inputs and expect the same outputs. It’s unreasonable, it’s unjust, it’s unfair and I think it’s immoral.

Trib+Edu: You mentioned before that you liked the path that HB 5 put the state on but that you were worried about how some of that might get pulled back and the reason would be because of federal standards.

Kuhn: There are definite limitations on what the lawmakers can do as long as they’re taking federal money and subject to the federal No Child Left Behind waiver. The specific thing I mentioned earlier was the teacher evaluation piece that the federal government is saying you have to tie teacher evaluations to standardized test scores. I personally think that’s a big mistake because you’re going to re-emphasize teaching to the test and making the test the center of the universe again. And so I think that’s a huge mistake.

But I am heartened by the fact that just recently the federal government relented on taking away Washington state’s waiver over this exact same issue. … I don’t how much real persuasive power the U.S. Department of Education really has because, like in the case of Washington state, the worst thing they can do to you is make you live under No Child Left Behind, which Arne Duncan himself has said is a broken law. The question in the end comes down to, will they really do that? And in the case of Washington state, they didn’t.

Trib+Edu: How has your life been different since 2011?

Kuhn: Not a whole lot different in terms of my day-to-day life. I still basically do what I’ve always done for a living, and that is work in a rural public school and try to serve my community to the very best of my ability. I’ve been invited to give some speeches here and there, and I’ve written a couple of books. … I think speaking out like I did put me in a situation to where I’ve been educated in the political reality that affects local schools.

Previously, I just kind of accepted whatever rolled down from Washington, D.C., and whatever rolled down from Austin. I kind of thought the role of a teacher and educator was just to live with dumb policies. And I don’t think that anymore. I think now that I have a moral obligation to speak up and say, “Hey, this policy is dumb. It doesn’t work, and this is what we’re seeing on the front lines.”

I’m a fan of public education. I grew up in a little, rural Texas town where the public school was the center of what we did in town. There was no mayor’s office. It’s an unincorporated town, and the school was the heart of the community. And I think, politically, we’ve kind of forgotten how important public schooling is in Texas.

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