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Local Research On Texas Pre-k Grants Provides Lessons for Lawmakers, Texans Care for Children, By Mary Jalonick and Adrianna Cuellar-Rojas

Local Research On Texas Pre-k Grants Provides Lessons for Lawmakers, Texans Care for Children, By Mary Jalonick and Adrianna Cuellar-Rojas

As Texas began its new HB 4 pre-k grant program in the 2016-2017 school year, the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium (TEGAC) sponsored a research project to explore local demand and provide a preliminary analysis to policymakers.

In September 2016, our team here at Texans Care for Children published the first report, “Ensuring the Success of HB 4 and Texas Students: A Preliminary Analysis of the Texas High-Quality Pre-k Grant Program.” Our report found a high level of demand, with grants provided to 573 districts serving 86 percent of the state’s pre-k students, including school districts across the economic spectrum. The report noted that the relatively low level of per-student funding ($734, or about half of the $1,500 originally envisioned for the program) would make it difficult for districts to support all of the critical pre-k quality improvements high on their priority list.

Between November 2016 and January 2017, additional reports were published on HB 4 implementation in the following regions by the following organizations:

The reports found strong local support for the pre-k grant program. Most participating school districts used the grants for teacher training, curriculum, instructional materials, technology, and parent engagement. A smaller number of districts used the grants to expand full-day pre-k options. Among the school districts contacted for this research, there was broad agreement that funding to boost pre-k quality needs to be more stable and predictable.

As the Legislature considers next steps on HB 4, it should take into account these local experiences and recommendations, particularly the need for adequate and stable funding.

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“They Quit on Me”: The Toll on Students of Weak Teacher Preparation, By Laura Laywell, Teach Plus

“They Quit on Me”: The Toll on Students of Weak Teacher Preparation, By Laura Laywell

To have successful students, we need teachers prepared to help them succeed. No story better illustrates this connection than that of Htoo Eh. I met Htoo Eh four years ago through volunteering with an afterschool program in his neighborhood. A political refugee from Burma, Htoo Eh began his U.S. education as a fifth grader and quickly experienced the consequences of having underprepared teachers. Since fifth grade—and Htoo Eh is now in high school―he has had at least one teacher leave mid-year, every year. His story is not unique. In 2013 alone, 20 percent of teachers in Dallas Independent School District left the classroom. Overwhelmingly, teachers cited stress as a key factor in their decision. Consider the impact of this 20 percent on students like Htoo Eh, who feel abandoned without a consistent teacher.

 

Key Texas leaders are paying attention. Educate Texas convened a Teacher Preparation Collaborative led by former Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson, and the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium published a report in order to advocate for critical changes to the Texas system of preparing new teachers. Policy makers have indicated a willingness to take action.

In middle school, I read with Htoo Eh after school to try and help him maintain a passion for learning. Htoo Eh had liked his reading class in school, but his reading teacher left in the middle of the year. Our time together was always soured by the homework he brought home from substitutes, which was frequently confusing to him since he had not been taught the content. He was angry and frustrated, and began to despise school and the teachers who left him. He had huge gaps in his learning.

Today, many teacher preparation programs require teachers to complete a semester of student teaching before entering the classroom. For others, teaching candidates’ first day in front of a classroom is often their first day as a full-time teacher of record. This minimal classroom experience is a good start, but prospective teachers need more time in classrooms if they are to have a realistic picture of teaching, and understand if teaching is truly what they want to do. The only way for this to happen is for new teachers to spend the majority of their training inside of a classroom for extended amounts of time.

New teachers often walk into a classroom without any experience of the community they will teach in. This has huge ramifications for both the teacher and the students. Htoo Eh’s neighborhood has high poverty and crime rates but also a high population of refugee and immigrant students with its striking mix of different languages and cultures. For Htoo Eh, who dreamed of returning to Burma to fight for his people, the Karen, a gang offered a connection to his pride in his culture. His behavior escalated after he became involved with a gang in high school, and resulted in suspensions, multiple truancy court cases, and failing grades. In one meeting, I sat with Htoo Eh as his assistant principal explained that he needed to come to school. Htoo Eh said that he skipped the class because his teacher had quit. A first year teacher, she started the year off with high expectations. By November, she was telling her students how frustrated she was because of the gaps in their learning. She left the classroom in December. “They quit on me,” he said. “I don’t care anymore.”

If we can prepare new teachers to understand the communities they will be in, we can equip them to respond to students who appear as “bad kids” or “classroom disruptions” with effective and appropriate relationship building strategies, rather than textbook management techniques which may completely clash with a student’s background. Preparing new teachers to be culturally responsive in their classrooms, to anticipate what students face outside of it, will help prevent a teacher from feeling disconnected and frustrated with students. Relationships allow learning to happen. When a relationship is lacking, so is learning.

Htoo Eh dropped out of high school shortly after that particular meeting with the assistant principal. My husband and I continued to meet with him, and encouraged him to go back to class, or to come over and read with us. But he appeared to have lost hope, and his mom cried when she told us she wished she had never brought her family to the United States if she had known school would be this way. After some time, we were able to persuade Htoo Eh to enroll in a career preparation program for students who had similar experiences to him. There is now a particular teacher that he respects and is engaged in his class. Htoo Eh said to me that this teacher, “gets me, Miss. He knows my life. He gets me.”

The relationship between a student and teacher can make or break a student’s education and future. But we must act soon or more students like Htoo Eh will become the victims of a system that doesn’t prepare teachers to succeed.

Laura Laywell is a 3rd grade ESL teacher in Dallas Independent School District and a member of the Teach Plus Texas Teacher Advisory Board.

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Texas Can No Longer Rely on Local Property Taxes to Fund Public Education, By Caroline Sabin and Janet Harman

Texas Can No Longer Rely on Local Property Taxes to Fund Public Education, By Caroline Sabin and Janet Harman

In 2011 the Texas Legislature reduced funding for public education by $5.3 billion – the largest blow ever suffered by our schools. As a result, requests for the limited resources of our family foundations grew as public-private partnerships and local community initiatives in our communities struggled to fill the gaps. Knowing that we would be unable to meet the growing demand, we joined with other philanthropists and grantmakers from across the state to form the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium (TEGAC). Together we have worked to expand and improve educational opportunities for all Texas children through smart state public education policies.

One thing philanthropy cannot do is make up for ongoing state cuts to public education. Over the past six years, Texas has failed to restore its investment in public education even to 2011 levels. In fact, the state’s share of total state/local funding will have declined from 46 percent in 2012 to 38 percent by 2019 while not even taking into account that the student population in Texas increases by more than 80,000 students every year.

This decline has forced schools to increasingly rely on local property taxes. The state estimates that school property tax collections will grow by 47 percent between 2012 and 2019. However, local schools are not benefiting from this growth in local tax revenue. What many parents and teachers do not realize is that the current finance system allows the state to use the growth in local property taxes to reduce state aid to education and use the money instead for other expenses in the state budget.

While there is no doubt that reforming school finance is a much-needed and daunting task, Texas is actually starting with a strong foundation. In fact, our state has historically been a national leader in school finance design, and our system contains many innovative elements that we should preserve and build upon. However, that system is now outdated, overly complex, and inefficient. Many of the key elements of the formulas are over 30 years old, and the system is no longer responsive to changing student needs, evolving demands for accountability, or rising costs.

As an immediate step toward improving school finance, the 39 members of the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium call on the Texas Legislature to stop diverting education dollars to other purposes. Schools – not the state budget — should benefit from rising property taxes. We also encourage the Texas Legislature to partner with stakeholder groups such as ours to create new bi-partisan forums to hold open policy discussions and find innovative solutions.

Making lasting improvements to school finance will require the Texas Legislature to come together with the business, education, and philanthropic communities to develop a school finance system based on necessary costs that is funded equally through state and local resources. Texas philanthropy stands ready to help support that process in order to ensure our children’s future.

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Why Our Community Foundation Partners With State Legislators to Improve Policies and Address Needs, By Rose Bradshaw, North Texas Community Foundation

Why Our Community Foundation Partners With State Legislators to Improve Policies and Address Needs, By Rose Bradshaw, North Texas Community Foundation

The Texas Capitol is big. The tip of its dome is almost fifteen feet taller than its counterpart in Washington, DC. Decisions made there impact almost thirty million people. When you enter the building, you can feel the seriousness, history, and purpose. For anyone who believes in democracy and representative government, it is downright awe-inspiring.

Recently, I found myself again walking its corridors, but this time was different. Our foundation was leading a policy briefing on foster care for legislative staffers from across Texas. More than 75 staffers from some of the most influential senators and representatives had gathered to learn what they could do to improve policies impacting the most vulnerable children in Texas. Our legislative sponsors were key committee chairs from both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

We were not lobbying. We were educating our state legislators about the real conditions in their districts and about solutions that have been tested with our private dollars.

The federal courts have ordered Texas to fundamentally reform its foster care system. For the past three years foundations and donors in our community have committed resources to enable ACH, a leading child welfare organization, to develop an effective, community-based approach to foster care. Now the Texas legislature is interested in implementing this community-centered approach statewide, a strategy that philanthropy has proven to work.

The conversation between our community and our state legislature is bi-directional. Local partners need the state for guidance and resources, and the state needs local partners for ideas and innovation. This two-way relationship has come about as a result of close partnership between foundations, nonprofits, and our elected officials.

We have been successful at engaging our legislative delegation because they understand the important role philanthropy plays in our community. They understand that we also have to make hard choices with limited dollars. A legislative staffer is like a program officer at a foundation. “No” is much more often the answer than “Yes.”

Along the way the North Texas Community Foundation has had its challenges. Like every foundation we pay careful attention to what we can and cannot do. We engage policymakers strategically, understanding that the most important conversations happen at home when the legislature is months from debating specific bills.

We have learned a few lessons as well. Let our work be a guidepost, not a manual for success. We have found it very beneficial to:

  1. Use local connections and power brokers. Your community has representatives in key positions on key committees. Build meaningful relationships with them and their staffs.
  2. Have a specific focus and a clear request. Every meeting and communication with a policymaker should be focused and specific. They want to help.
  3. Provide credible data and resources to key legislative staffers. Legislative staffers want access to good information about what works and how to improve policies. Philanthropy can provide objective data that nobody else can.
  4. Partner with other foundations with diverse perspectives. Foundations are a unique and different voice at state capitols. Like your community, the Texas Legislature is comprised of geographically and politically diverse communities.
  5. Do not forget implementation.

Philanthropy and policymakers can and must work together more closely. At the North Texas Community Foundation we are proving that this relationship can be objective, outcomes-focused, and a positive experience for all involved.