Recently our Governor released a statement condemning public schools for their actions regarding the delivery of Special Education services to public school students in our state.

Posted by Kelly Lusk on 1/31/2018

His statement is a response to a dispute between the Texas Education Agency and the United States Department of Education regarding Special Education in Texas. It is my job as a superintendent to best explain his comments to our parents and citizens.

At the heart of the dispute is a cap, or limit, to the number of students that on average should be admitted to a SPED program. Over a decade ago, the TEA placed an artificial cap of 8.5% of the student body that should be in a SPED program. If a school went above that limit, the campus or district received a substandard rating in relation to its SPED program.

Regardless of the governor’s statement, I can say that in the three school districts in which I worked since that requirement went into effect, including Tom Bean, we never denied or attempted to deny a qualifying student placement in the Special Education Program. We put student’s first, not an artificial rating established by those in Austin.

Many speculate that the leadership in Austin are continuing an intentional attack on public schools in an effort to discredit schools to further the agenda of shifting public money into private schools and privately owned charter schools. I am not making that claim but since this cost cutting measure was mandated by the TEA, not districts, it is ironic that the governor places the blame on public school districts. The fact is the 8.5% cap placed schools in a no-win situation.

I recently read a letter written by Michael Cardona, superintendent of schools in San Marcos, Texas, that was published in the San Marcos Record. It does an excellent job of outlining some of the issues we are facing in the public school system and our frustration that our leaders in Austin seem content with pointing fingers and raising smokescreens to mislead the public while real issues are not addressed. Mr. Cardona’s letter follows below:

 

Dear Governor and Elected Officials,

I was disheartened to say the least regarding the recent statement made by our Governor:

 

The past dereliction of duty on the part of many school districts to

serve our students, and the failure of TEA to hold districts

accountable, are worthy of criticism, said Governor Abbott. TEA

must take steps now to significantly increase oversight provided

to ensure our special education students are receiving the services

they deserve. But while the problems identified in the report started

long before your arrival at TEA, our parents and students

demand significant actions be taken now to improve special

education in Texas.

 

Since our Governor expresses the right to criticize, perhaps as a public school superintendent, I have the right to express some sentiments that would help the public in their perceptions of this pernicious attack on school districts.

First, it was exactly that recommendation during the 79th Legislature (http://www.lrl.state.tx.us/scanned/interim/78/Ed84h.pdf ) that got the State of Texas in this predicament. While it may not have been our current commissioner in office, the recent fiascos with a no-bid contract and the removal of someone he hired to oversee special education is worthy of criticism and investigation.

Second, TEA, under a former commissioner, established the inconsistent mandates not school districts. As a reminder to the Governor, public school districts serve our students and will serve our students based on their disability but it was TEA who mandated pushing students into the box and not planning based on the student’s needs. As a reminder, it was this current fixation with standardized testing which forced districts to test all students on the regular STAAR or EOC regardless of what was best for the student.

If you want to criticize anyone, criticize politicians who have politicized the educational system and have continued to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the current state of the educational system. Furthermore, politicians who claim to be Christian, the moment they attack and demean an educational system they are meant to support, aren’t demonstrating the Christian values they say they live. Jesus did not feed some, he fed all. Public school systems do not exclude some, they include all. Are we perfect? No, but we try daily to meet our students needs in their educational journey.

A little about myself, I went to private Catholic school K-12, Texas A&M University, and have been a public school educator for 26 years (I am a former special education teacher). I went to a segregated system, yes, a segregated system that my parents paid for by working multiple jobs. They paid their property tax and my mother is still appalled by the notion of a voucher because she made a choice knowing her responsibility was to also pay for her property taxes yearly.

Everyone in my educational experience was like minded. If they did not conform, they were uninvited and sent to the public school in their attendance zone. In my entire 13 years of private education, I had experience with one student who would have qualified for special education services and that was in high school. He was with us for two years before he passed away his sophomore year. It was my fellow classmates and myself who would help him because he did not have an instructional assistant or nurse to help him.

You see, private schools do not have to meet those needs. In the public school district worthy of your critique, we would service that student with either an instructional assistant or for some students a nurse. Many public school districts also currently serve students who require special education services but are in home school or private school.

I digress though. A major difference and the biggest difference in my private school education was the lack of focus on standardized testing. I took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the high school entrance exam for Catholic Schools, and the SAT. At no time in my entire private educational experience was I burdened with having to pass numerous standardized tests or else I would not be deemed worthy. At no time in my journey did teachers have the burden of meeting an accountability test that does not even measure what students will experience in real life.

Politicians created the accountability system that burdens students, parents, and teachers. We Students and teachers should not be getting physically ill because of an accountability system that is incongruent with the needs of the students. Should we be held accountable? Absolutely. We have TSI, ASVAB, AP, ACT, PSAT, and SAT that provide us with the roadmap to prepare students to be career, college, or military ready. We potentially would need to look at something for elementary and middles schools perhaps at 5th and 8th grade that helps us ensure that students are on track but not a punitive system that creates an environment that frankly private school systems do not have to worry about.

The public school system you seek to critique has continued to push forward even though accountability has continued to change and is an ever continuous moving target. The weight of the accountability system, imposed by legislators and mandated by TEA is your responsibility.

As a leader, I may not have been responsible for some things that happened prior to my arriving but I own them. I accept responsibility for everything that happens in my district. For you to absolve the current commissioner and yourself by this attacking letter displays a lack of leadership.

The public needs to understand that there are many ways for a public school system to fail but only one way to succeed. At one point, high schools had numerous metrics that would result in them as being rated as not successful. I am being kind when I say numerous. There should not be a myriad of ways for a high school to be rated as improvement required and only one way for a high school to be successful.

This system is not being created by those school districts you critique but rather by this constant movement to attack, in an un-Christian manner, a system that should be supported as per the Texas Constitution. Article Seven Section 1 of the Texas Constitution sums it up fairly well, “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of

the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”

It is my hope that the public seeks to understand the complexity of the education system that has been created by politicians. All of our public school students, parents, and teachers deserve our legislators to perform their duties as stated in the Texas Constitution.

 

Professionally,

Michael A. Cardona, Superintendent of Schools

 

Cc: Governor Abbott & San Marcos Daily Record