By SHELLY WILKISON
With one month before she is sworn in as State Representative, Dr. Marsha Farney is spending her days preparing for a legislative session where all eyes will be on public education.
Dr. Farney, a Republican, was elected without opposition in November to represent Williamson, Burnet and Milam counties in the Texas House. A member of the State Board of Education with a credentialed background and extensive experience in Texas public schools, Dr. Farney believes she is uniquely positioned to be an advocate for school districts during an anticipated fight on school choice.
With the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, chairs of the House and Senate Public Education committees and the Commissioner of Education all supporting some form of school choice or voucher program, Dr. Farney expects the discussion to be among the top issues awaiting legislators when they convene Jan. 8, 2013.
“Of course, I’d like to see how a bill will be worded, but I don’t see any public outcry for that,” she said.
During an interview in the newsroom of The Independent this week, Dr. Farney said some school districts already offer some form of school choice by allowing non-resident students to transfer into their districts.
Liberty Hill ISD, for example, accepts transfer students without charging fees, while another school district in Milam County has a similar policy and provides transportation for those students. Because state funding is based on school enrollment, accepting transfers is a way for districts to increase their state revenue.
But for Dr. Farney, who began her career teaching third and fifth grades, the bigger threat posed by a voucher system is the possibility that it could turn public schools into “schools of last resort.”
“I’m afraid of creating a system where public schools are the schools of last resort. Where we create a system of segregation based on the size of the parents’ wallets,” she said.
Among her top concerns about a voucher program are how it would impact special needs children, who currently receive a level of care in public school that might not be offered in a private school.
How private schools handle non-English proficient students and economically disadvantaged students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals are additional concerns, Dr. Farney said.
“I also have a lot of questions about how or if transportation would be provided to these schools,” she said.
“I understand a need for greater school choice, especially in inner-city schools where safety issues are the primary concern,” she said. “But I have a lot of confidence in our public schools and don’t believe vouchers are warranted statewide.”
She said discipline issues continue to be a problem for public schools distracting students from learning and teachers from teaching.
Dr. Farney said she continues to solicit input from school superintendents in House District 20, and has already heard the concerns of LHISD Superintendent Rob Hart on the issue of school choice. Dr. Hart has expressed opposition to a voucher program.
Dr. Farney said she is also monitoring pre-session discussions on school finance and is “hopeful that this time districts will see some remedies” as opposed to cuts.
She said she is asking her superintendents to inform her of the three most burdening unfunded mandates in hopes that she can facilitate some relief.
Dr. Farney’s passion for education began developing as a young mother who discovered with the birth of her first child how much she enjoyed teaching her things.
Later, as an elementary teacher, she said she never had a classroom without a child who had been abused. As a result, she pursued additional education in counseling.
“I wish I didn’t know what a cigarette burn on a child looks like,” she said. “I had kids who would fall asleep in class because they had slept in the closet the night before trying to get away from fighting parents.”
She later pursued an interest is school administration and after earning degrees from Texas A&M Commerce, she earned a doctoral degree from The University of Texas. She also worked as an education consultant in some of the southern states during the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind, and realized then how other states were looking to Texas as a public education leader.
Because she is keenly aware of the sacrifices of public school teachers, Dr. Farney said she is especially interested in protecting the benefits of retirees.
This session, the future of public worker pensions will be a top issue as some lawmakers backed by special interest groups will attempt to change from defined benefit systems to defined contributions.
Dr. Farney said she doesn’t support the change for Texas teachers because the data is not there to warrant it.
“The defined benefit is a solid program, and I’m in favor of it remaining a defined benefit plan,” she said. “TRS (Teacher Retirement System) is viable and funded through 2050.”
She said she has also spent some time talking with state education officials about the way Texas ranks schools and districts based on student performance on standardized tests.
Currently, students are required to pass the STAAR exam (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) and school performance is based on the results.
Dr. Farney said she would like to see a system of bonus points awarded to districts that achieve in other areas beyond the test.
“I don’t like reliance on preparation for testing,” she said. “By doing this, we have created a generation of great bubblers (a reference to shading bubbles correctly on test documents).
“We have stifled teachers’ creativity and tied their hands,” she said. “I would like to see project-based learning so teachers have more control.
“Teachers, superintendents want accountability, but it needs to be balanced so that they can be rewarded for other things (not just test scores),” she continued.
She said she would like to see more opportunities for districts to partner with industry and institutions of higher learning to create courses for students looking to enter the work force after graduation rather than pursuing four-year college degrees. In communities where industry needs certain skill sets from future workers, public schools can help meet those needs. Those districts that seek out those relationships should be rewarded in their ratings, she said.
With her expertise in public education, Dr. Farney said she will request an appointment to the House Public Education Committee, but expects many freshmen legislators will make a similar request.
Speaker of the House Joe Straus is expected to announce committee assignments in February 2013.
Representing a mostly rural district, Dr Farney said she is also interested in serving on the House Committee on Natural Resources.
As a member of the State Board of Education, she said she came to learn of the challenges facing rural school districts with regards to water supply and proper infrastructure.
“I became concerned about how infrastructure issues can have a negative impact on public schools,” she said. “Water is a recurring concern.”
During freshmen orientation last week, Dr. Farney said she learned that Williamson County is the fastest growing county in the nation, and leaders in rural parts of her district are concerned about how their communities will be impacted by the growth.
“As many as 1,000 people are moving to Texas every day and most are congregating along the IH 35 corridor,” she said. “I’m concerned about what impact that will have on our resources, affordable energy, water and efficient schools.
“The truth is that rural communities may not always be as rural as they are now,” she said. “I’d like to see more opportunities for job creation in rural communities.”
Dr. Farney lives in Georgetown where her youngest child attends public school. She is active in various civic and charitable organizations throughout her three-county district.
“I want to be a true member of each community, and plan to host coffees and other events where I can listen to their concerns,” she said. “For now, I’m anxious to get the rough edges off and learn as much as I can.”