Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Curious Urbanite Learns about School Choice

There’s a new pro-choice movement in town. Instead of clinics and doctors, this time it’s about schools and teachers. Particularly in areas with above average high school drop our rates, like inner-city San Antonio.  The curious urbanite will be curious about what this means for any children she needs to be educating in the future…

School choice is the term used to refer to a movement that includes everything from vouchers to homeschooling, as well as public charter schools. It is based on the assertion that parents who find themselves in failing schools should be given options to look elsewhere for their children’s education.

On March 26, Texas Senate Bill 2 is scheduled for public hearing. This bill will, among other things increases support for charter schools, including those not incorporated by the school districts in which they reside, like IDEA and KIPP. It will also establish a Charter Schools Authorizing Authority.

In advance of that hearing, Texans Deserve Great Schools held a press conference on March 22 at IDEA Carver, formerly The Carver Academy, on Hackberry Street.

Speaking at the press conference was Sen. Dan Patrick, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, author of the TX SB 2, and advocate of school choice.

Perhaps the strongest argument for school choice, one made by Patrick, is that it has always existed for those wealthy enough for private school and mobile enough to shift school districts. However, for those bound by income and geography to struggling school districts, there is little that they can do, however much they might want more opportunity for their child.

Texas Senator Dan Patrick at a press conference on Policy Recommendations for Texas Education System Transformation
Texas Senator Dan Patrick at a press conference on Policy Recommendations for Texas Education System Transformation

“Just because you are poor, in the valley, or in the inner city doesn’t mean you don’t care about your child…” Patrick said. He also pointed out that it was misguided to think that one educational approach would work for 5 million students saying, “Anyone who has more than one child knows that in the same family with the same upbringing, children learn differently.”

A key element of school choice, the one addressed by TX SB 2 is the availablility of charter schools.

“There are some that resist innovation, transparency, and rigor,” he said. Which is what Texans Deserves Great Schools proposes to bring to table.

He argued that with 5 million students in public schools, the idea that charter schools represent a serious threat to public school enrollment (and funding) is simply unrealistic. Right now, with approximately 150,000 students enrolled, charter schools account for the smallest portion of the pupil share in the state.  With and 80,000/year growth rate, it is likely that 95% of all Texas students will continue to be enrolled in public schools.

Victoria Branton Rico at a press conference on Policy Recommendations for Texas Education System Transformation
Victoria Branton Rico at a press conference on Policy Recommendations for Texas Education System Transformation

Patrick, along with Victoria Branton Rico, Chairwoman of the George W. Brackenridge Foundation, made the case that adding options for families and students would not hurt existing public schools. On the contrary, they cited research showing how competition strengthens public school performance, which only bodes well for public school funding.

“Being pro-charter is not being anti-public schools,” Patrick said.

Branton Rico reiterated some of the challenges facing public schools, and celebrated advances in research that have allowed policy to move forward addressing the issues.

“A few years ago this was a policy dead end,” she said, going on to reference studies by MIT, Harvard, and others about the effectiveness of the high performing charter schools. The most compelling statistic being that students in charter schools receive an average of four more years of education than students in traditional public schools – which basically means that their drop-out rate is drastically lower. Dropping out of high school has a high statistical correlation to going to prison, Branton Rico pointed out.

Branton Rico highlighted Texans Deserve Great School’s four core principles to transform Texas schools (more in-depth explanations of the policies can be found here):

1) Implement proven education technologies and teaching innovation – these include blended learning, online classes, vocational training classes, allowing students to test for credit in classes without “seat time,” and innovation waivers for schools looking to pilot new program.

2) Make high-performing school options available to every Texas family – most notably by removing the cap on charter schools, allowing families to choose any public school they wish (while giving priority to the school’s local residents when a school reaches capacity), equitable funding and facility access for charter and traditional public schools, and increasing principals’ control over vital areas that affect campus effectiveness and efficiency.

3) Invest in the best teachers and teaching policies to improve student learning – which would increase rigor and flexibility on everything from teacher training, to pay-scales, to giving teachers full use of the grading scale (even zero) to evaluate student work.

4) Integrate an emergency, expedited fix for any failing Texas public school – the main point of which is to allow for more accessible ratings (such as an A-F scale) and swifter intervention for failing schools.

The final speaker at the press conference was Rolando Posada, executive director of San Antonio IDEA public schools.

Rolando Posada at a press conference on Policy Recommendations for Texas Education System Transformation
Rolando Posada at a press conference on Policy Recommendations for Texas Education System Transformation

He heralded a 100% increase in IDEA schools in Texas over the next five years, from 28 to 56, which proposes to increase college graduates in Central Texas and the Rio Grande Valley by 50%.

“Solving the education problem means that we are creating people who can solve the other problems our country faces,” Posada said.

IDEA embraces blended learning and the other innovative techniques promoted by Texans Deserve Great Schools. He referred to his students as young readers and mathematicians, emphasizing their potential to achieve.

“We focus on character, and acheivement remarkable and naturally follows,” Posada said.

He went on to praise the efforts of Sen. Patrick for moving past lip service and into action saying, “The time has come to replace cliche’s with actual transformation.”

For those seeking transformation on both sides of the school choice movement, TX SB 2 will be important to watch.

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The Curious Urbanite Learns about Water

From first through seventh grade I attended New Braunfels public schools. Having nothing to compare with this experience, it was not until adulthood that I realized what is so special about a New Braunfels public school education.

To this day, I can tell you that the Comal River is 72.6 degrees year round. It is fed by a spring from the Edwards Aquifer and home to the blind salamander and fountain darter, both of which are endangered. New Braunfels was home to Ferdinand Lindheimer, the “Father of Texas Botany,” as well as a progressive German settlement that made a big impression on Frederick Law Olmsted as he journeyed across Texas.

I don’t know if the testing regimen still allows for it, but the local history and ecology taught to New Braunfels ISD 3rd graders at Herman Seele Elementary in 1992-93 was the stuff of naturalist fantasies. I learned to see myself as a part of the unique civic and natural history of a spring fed town.

Understanding where water comes from is essential for urban living. We run a high risk of seeing it as an inexhaustible resource, generated by nozzles, knobs, and hoses. In the area served by the Edwards Aquifer (and the Trinity Aquifer beneath it), the conversation is peppered with words like “recharge zone” and a random number somewhere in the 600’s that tells us when we can and cannot water our lawns.

Local news and conversation is flooded with juicy information about latest water politics and crises, so the dynamic nature of water issues does not require specialized knowledge once you are able to interpret the language. A basic understanding of historic geopolitics is helpful as well.

Sounds like a quest for the Curious Urbanite.

San Antonio River

San Antonio River

The Curious Urbanite’s Water Issue Primer

“J-17”– Every night on the news, the weather man announces the aquifer level.  The record high was in 1992 at 703 and the record low was 612 in 1956. This number is the primary determinate for water usage restrictions in the city of San Antonio. So how do they get that number?

They get it from one artesian well near the cemetery at Fort Sam Houston, J-17. Like all artesian wells, the water in J-17 is being pushed up toward the surface by underground water flowing from higher altitudes is the north and west (the contributing and recharge zones..more on that later). However, unlike Comal Springs or San Marcos Springs, J-17 does not bubble up above the surface. The water simply rises and falls within the natural well, depending on how much water pressure is acting upon it from the aquifer.

If the water in J-17 reaches 640 feet above sea level…the weatherman says that aquifer level is 640. Which, I believe, is Stage 4 water restriction and you can kiss your grass goodbye. If it reaches 680 we all run around naked in our sprinklers…which is stupid because if we conserved water at 680 the way we do at 640 then we would never see 640.

Zones– Three zones comprise the Edwards Aquifer. Contributing zone, recharge zone, and artesian zone. The contributing zone is not as helpful as it sounds. It is the high, dense land where rainfall runs into streams and rivers which travel downhill. It’s where water collects, but it doesn’t enter the aquifer until it reaches the recharge zone. The recharge zone is area that is shaken and cracked so that water can fall down into the aquifer from the surface, and the abundant Trinity Aquifer can share water with the Edwards.

The thing about the recharge zone is that it is small and delicate. And in high demand for development. But every piece of ground covered with a house or a shopping center is no longer cracked and porous. And every contaminate that runs off of a recharge zone parking lot into the cracks and pores around it goes straight into the same aquifer we drink out of.

The third zone is the artesian zone. That’s us, the big city with our 100 gallons per person, per day. It’s also, though, the natural springs in New Braunfels and San Marcos. When I was a kid, we used to go to Comal Springs and drink from the ground, claiming that it was the purest water in the world because it was coming straight from the aquifer.

Fun fact: it can take up to 200 years for water to make it from the furthest point in the contributing zone to the Comal Springs. Had we known that we might have been more squeamish about drinking “the world’s purest water.”

Water Quality– right now, the Edwards Aquifer Authority (established in 1993 to keep the Federal Government from seizing control of the Aquifer under the Endangered Species Act) has the unenviable job of regulating how much water can be pumped from our limestone sponge. While this is a vast improvement over the wild west style “rule of capture” law, which basically said that ground water belonged to whomever could access it (as opposed to surface water, which was tightly regulated to keep people from using rivers as their personal water tanks), it does little to address the compromising elements to our water quality.

EAA is take valiant stabs at water quality management, but they face geopolitical hurdles on both the quality and the quantity fronts.Because the aquifer works as a filtering agent, the quality issues are not quite as dire as the quantity issue, which seems to be in perpetual DEFCON 3. So until we start dying of cholera, we’re going to have to live with some asphalt sealant in the runoff.

Agriculture in the west and development in the north are greatly inconvenienced by restrictions that will keep springs flowing and drinking water clean in San Antonio, New Braunfels, and San Marcos. More to the point: Texans have a hard time being told that what is on their land is not strictly their own.

Forgive me if I rant a little…

If the 3rd graders at Seele Elementary were told that their precious Comal Springs would soon be toxic because the recharge zone was all paved over,  they would be so confused. They would wonder if the culprits had known what they were doing. Did they know that they were hurting people on the other end of the water table? They would wonder why no one stopped them. If the water bubbling out of Comal Springs belongs to all of us, how can it belong to one person when it’s under the ground in Bandera?

For the large populations dependent on the Edwards Aquifer for water (and thus, life), a new understanding of geography and land ownership is necessary. It was not a mayor or a governor who decided that water would flow from Bandera and the Hill Country to San Antonio and the north eastern springs. The flow under the surface are beyond taxes and districts. What a farmer does in Uvalde matters to a family in San Antonio, not because the government wants to tell you what to do with your land, but because this is how the water works. It flows from one to another without stopping to ask “who do I belong to?”

For this Curious Urbanite, knowing how the aquifer works made the litigious grabbiness of many of my fellow Texans seem absurd and immoral. The more I learned about the resources we share, the more I stood in amazement at those who consider it their right to screw the rest of us. And, for one more moment on my little urban soap box, I say that it is ironic that we smile upon mission agencies trying to bring clean water to Sub Saharan Africa while we are so busy dying on the hill of “keeping the government out of my business” that we are compromising that very resource for our own neighbors.