Former State Rep. Farney quietly builds steam for public school advocacy group

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By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

A class at a public high school in Georgetown built a functioning airplane. Another in Beaumont used a 3D-printer to create a prosthetic arm for a 16-year-old in Scotland. One student from Fort Bend ISD won over $120,000 in scholarships for college. Florence ISD was recently recognized by the United States Department of Agriculture for its strides in food services.

Though these all happened in the past year, Liberty Hill’s former State Rep. Marsha Farney says the taxpayers beyond these school districts are unlikely to have heard about them. Her organization aims to change that.

Through social media, press releases, direct outreach, and “any way we can”, TX Public School Proud is on a mission to spotlight the success stories coming out of Texas’ public schools.

The two-term Texas House member, who was unseated in the Republican Primary in March 2016, has in the last few months visited dozens of schools across the state to quietly build momentum for the organization. She plans to launch it officially in October with a round of press releases.

“I’ve felt so blessed to see firsthand all these wonderful stories, and these are stories that need to be shared, because nobody seems to know about them,” Farney said. “The taxpayers need to know, the legislators need to know, the state representatives, the senators.”

So far, roughly 50 or so school districts have partnered with TX Public School Proud.

As part of her tour, last month Farney visited Liberty Hill ISD Superintendent Rob Hart.

“It was a great meeting, and I told her to send me some more literature,” Hart said, “We’re very interested in the website part of it.”

Visitors to the website will be able to find articles about participating districts once the organization is fully operational. The site already features an interactive map that makes it easy to find basic information and accountability ratings for every district in Texas.

Hart said he’s particularly interested in TX Public School Proud because it promises to highlight the district’s academic achievements and “won’t have anything to do with football.”

As an example he offered that the high school recently began its first robotics class. Last year, Liberty Hill High School and Junior High choirs won sweepstakes, the highest rating available at UIL music contests, despite never having a choir class before then. A student also earned first place in UIL’s Computer Applications contest at the state level.

“Those kind of things stay under the radar,” he said. “It’s not like football, which gets all the attention.”

Farney said that school districts tend to be inward-oriented about their accomplishments, whose news is only really spread to faculty, parents and students involved in the immediate network.

The problems arising from that tendency became apparent to her while she was serving in the Legislature. She said she realized that there was no good central catalog to find positive news coverage from all the districts in the state.

Without a loud voice for public schools, she says, “we have people carrying the narrative for public schools who are giving inaccurate reports, saying that we have an epidemic of failure. And that’s just not correct.”

She says actions by the recent legislative sessions in Texas have already given some a false impression of Texas public schools’ performance.

TX Public School Proud’s solution is based on targeted messaging to counteract the perceived bias. Farney says that they can use Twitter, emails, or whatever means a school district thinks will be most effective. Recently a district in northern Texas told her that they wanted their city’s council representatives and mayor to be messaged directly.

As an example of what the organization might do more generally, Farney said that if Liberty Hill were to join, the first thing they would do is contact the realtor associations for Williamson County and the Austin area, and “let them know that there’s more to the school district than the simplistic, singularly test-based A-F rating.”

The Independent has previously reported that the performance of Liberty Hill’s school district is often the top cited reason given to local realtors by families moving into the area.

Though Liberty Hill ISD has for many years passed state accountability ratings, and continues to do so, LHISD’s provisional scores under the A-F rating system ranged from B’s to D’s in the four categories or domains evaluated.

The A-F rating system was approved in 2015 as a new rubric for assessing public school performance. It evaluates districts across five domains with an ‘A’ through ‘F’ rating.

The grades, however, do not exactly correspond to how a classroom teacher might use them. A charge that they might be perceived that way, and were intended to be perceived that way, was at the heart of criticisms the system faced across the state from school district superintendents and administrators.

At a Liberty Hill ISD Board of Trustees meeting in January, Assistant Superintendent Toni Hicks pointed to the fact that Liberty Hill High School’s attendance rating of 96 percent had earned them a ‘C’ in that domain.

“How is it that 94 percent of our Texas school districts can meet standard, and now with the A-F system, they’re considered failing?” she asked.

Hart also joined in the criticism.

“I’m generally not a conspiracy theorist,” Hart said, but the new system “seems to have vouchers embedded in its intent.”

That meeting the Board approved a resolution calling on the Legislature to repeal the rating system. Hart said then that he hoped they would move toward a system that could rely more on a school’s own accountability system, though he acknowledged the value of third party assessments.

On the other side, in a reported exchange between Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a journalist from the Dallas Morning News, Patrick responded to a question about the sudden boom of schools now considered “under-performing” schools by saying that it might indicate why Texans need a voucher system.

In the last legislative session the A-F system was amended such that well-performing schools will now be able to petition for the power to build their own accountability system.

It is unclear whether Liberty Hill ISD would be in that category.

The first set of grades are set to be released in August 2018.

Beyond Farney, the advisory board for TX Public School Proud includes Dr. David Stevens, a director at the University Interscholastic League, Tom Maynard, who sits on the Texas State Board of Education in the seat previously occupied by Farney herself, and David Dunn, the Executive Director the Texas Charter School Association.

“We really do value our charters,” Farney said. “Charters are our public option. They’re much better than vouchers.”

Asked if she planned to run again for the Texas House of Representatives, Farney said, “I doubt it.”

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