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Failing Texas Schools Facing Tougher State Intervention

Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Tuesday outlined plans to crack down harder on chronically low-performing schools, saying he wants to cut in half the number of them that end up on the state’s failing list over the next five years.

State Education Commissioner Mike Morath testifies Tuesday Aug 16, 2016 before the Senate Education Committee at the Texas Capitol.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Tuesday outlined plans to crack down harder on chronically low-performing schools, saying he wants to cut in half the number of schools that end up on the state’s failing list over the next five years.

Addressing the 11-member state Senate Education Committee at a hearing on improving school board governance, Morath said the Texas Education Agency is “aggressively working to build capacity” to focus on district-level interventions at chronically low-performing schools, per a 2015 law. House Bill 1842 triggered a shift from a campus-level approach, he explained, adding that the agency’s interpretation of the law “can be boiled down to a simple phrase: Leadership matters.”

“This is important because I don’t think we can sit back and sort of armchair quarterback and complain about underperforming teachers at an individual campus when in fact it’s the leadership [at] the district level that sets the stage for whether they can succeed or not,” Morath said, adding that harsher interventions — and sanctions — are often more effective than weaker ones.

"If the medicine tastes particularly bad, you're less likely to take it," said Morath, who has been on the job for eight months.

His comments came a day after the education agency released 2016 accountability ratings showing a slight decrease in the number of failing campuses and a slight increase in the number of failing school districts in the state.

Last year, 55 school districts and charters — or 4.5 percent were in the failing, or “improvement required” category; this year, it’s 66, or 5.5 percent. At the same time, the number of individual campuses labeled as failing fell to 467 in 2016, from 603 last year.

Under the state’s dual accountability system, schools are labeled either “improvement required” or “met standard.” State law already allows for sanctions for chronically failing schools, including closure and state takeover, but state officials on Tuesday appeared to agree they are not employed often enough. 

Nearly 55 percent of schools labeled “improvement required” during the 2010-11 school year are either still failing or have relapsed, Morath told senators Tuesday. He said the agency is studying schools that have made long-lasting performance improvements to see if there are any common threads in the various approaches.

“We should have access to all the medicine that can have an impact on the population and make sure that we’re prescribing the best medicine,” he said.

The education agency will be able to better monitor shifts in academic performance under a new accountability system, taking effect next year, in which districts and campuses will be given A-through-F letter grades based on academic performance, he said.  

While senators expressed bipartisan support Tuesday for swifter and more intense state intervention into failing schools, some cautioned against the unintended consequences of a one-size-fits-all approach. And, as is common, there was less agreement on additional solutions than there was that a problem exists.

Specific recommendations experts and school officials made to the committee Tuesday to improve school board governance, including having accountability elections and at-large representation, faced skepticism and resistance.

Even some school officials told the committee there should be more ways to remove rogue school boards. 

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he would like to see the state require failing districts to employ specific turnaround strategies, although he said it should give districts the option to receive a waiver. Several GOP committee members appeared receptive to the idea, including Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood.

But Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said the state should make sure to provide the resources to carry those out.

During the hearing, which is expected to last until late Tuesday, Houston senators Sylvia Garcia — a Democrat — and Paul Bettencourt — a Republican — both expressed horror that Houston’s Kashmere High School was still on the failing list after seven years.

We’ve got to do something. We can’t sit around waiting,” said Garcia, although she later said she worried about the side effects of any “medicine” the state prescribes.

“Sometimes the side effects are worse than the pain,” she said.

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Public education Larry Taylor Royce West State Board of Education Texas Education Agency