Rep. Wilson could be at odds with LHISD over school choice

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District 20’s new state representative, Terry Wilson, R-Marble Falls, wants to see higher teacher pay, a loosening of regulation on public schools, and a turn away from standardized testing. But his support of school choice might put him at odds with Liberty Hill ISD administration, school trustees and other public school districts throughout the state. (Waylon Cunningham Photo)

By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

For Republican lawmakers, it’s about giving parents more choices where their children are educated. For Liberty Hill ISD Superintendent Rob Hart, and public school boards throughout the state, however, it’s a not-so-subtle measure to siphon state education from public schools to private schools.

Despite the muddled disagreement over what “school choice” really means, whenever state legislation hits the table, the sides come into sharp relief.

For Terry Wilson, the new state representative for Liberty Hill, the next moment for that might come soon. Monday saw the filing of Senate Bill 3, which would “establish the creation of two voucher-like programs that some parents could combine to subsidize the entire cost of private school tuition,” according to the Texas Tribune. A sister bill in the House is expected soon.

If the battle lines for that resemble anything like the ones drawn at last month’s LHISD board meeting, Wilson could find his own vote in conflict with school boards in his House district.

The meeting saw LHISD join a growing list of 461 other school boards in passing a resolution condemning the new A-F rating system for public schools, which Hart and other administrators see as a move in line with a broader state agenda to push “school choice.”

“It uses the same performance data as before, but now it looks totally different. What was a good, high performing school now gets a ‘C’ based on the new rubric of the same performance,” Hart said.

Wilson, who secured the office last year after defeating incumbent Marsha Farney in the Republican Primary, often emphasized school choice during his campaign. In an interview with The Independent last Friday in his Capitol office, he said that although he “has some takes on the A-F system,” he did not disclose them and hesitated when asked if he might support a legislation to change it.

More generally speaking, he said, he is in favor of school choice, but stopped short of specifying any policies in particular that school choice might take form in.

He believes “school choice” shouldn’t just mean vouchers.

If Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick came forward with legislation — “and we all know he’s gonna,” he said — then Wilson would like to see an analysis of school choice programs in other states, and to see the whittling of mandates on public schools.

“A school superintendent says they have, in their limited budget, a child with special needs. And the parent desires to go down a different direction that would enable that child with needs to learn. But the school isn’t outfitted to achieve that. So for that school it costs them between, say, $125,000 to $150,000 annually to achieve that. And that’s a good bit of money for a small school district.

“Isn’t there some room and opportunity that we enable the parent to do that?” he said.

Superintendent Rob Hart disputed the idea that private schools or a system funneling more money to them could better help children with special needs.

“Private schools don’t have to take special needs kids,” he said. “You can see websites in Austin for private schools, ‘We don’t accept special needs kids.’”

If the Legislature removes these kind of mandates, it “creates a huge unlevel playing field,” Hart said.

LHISD Assistant Superintendent Toni Hicks added that because private schools do not have the same kind of accountability system, there’s no way for parents to gauge in an “apples-to-apples” way whether a particular private school might be better suited for a particular need.

She also added that the school choice program is in itself a kind of mandate on public schools.

Hart and Hicks both emphasized that through the various forms of school choice — vouchers, savings accounts, home school programs — all serve to spread thin the funds for public education, which disproportionately hurts low-income students.

Wilson offered another potential area for common ground in his call to remove standardized testing from schools, and a move toward an accountability system that relies more on individualized assessment.

“I am for doing away with standardized testing. If you do that, we have to refine A-F. Because several of the domains rely on testing,” he said.

Wilson also added that he is concerned about how the rating system might relate to state funding.

The potential problems Wilson raised are unrelated to the criticisms discussed by Liberty Hill school board members last week, or in the resolutions passed by other school boards, who are concerned that the rating scale is misleading to parents.

In particular, one domain that does not use standardized testing, called “post-secondary readiness,” measures students’ preparation for education after high school through the average attendance rate.

Liberty Hill received a ‘C’ in this domain for its average attendance rating of 96 percent.

“96 percent is a ‘C’?” Hart wondered aloud. “Where are the other two grade levels fitting in?”

“It’s a perception,” said Hart, who suggested that the grades are misleading with the quality they suggest, giving a punishing rating while private schools have no such system.

In her presentation to the Board last month, Hicks noted that out of the 10 schools with the fewest numbers of low-income students, their average rating was a B. The 10 schools serving the highest number of low-income students had an average rating of D+.

Hart’s interpretation finds agreement across the debate’s aisle with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is publicly known to be a staunch advocate of school choice.

“That’s why we need school choice. Because no parent should be forced to send their child to a school that’s a D or an F or a C — or, quite frankly, any school that they don’t think serves their child,” Patrick said last month to a Dallas Morning News reporter.

“We finally have an accountability system, and boy, are they running for the hills,” he continued. “You’ll notice, by the way, that all these schools that got D’s and a few F’s and C’s, they’re all complaining the system’s not fair. All the schools that got A’s and B’s haven’t said a word.”

Wilson meanwhile, told The Independent that while he doesn’t “sense that schools are trying to evade accountability,” measuring schools based on numbers is flawed in the first place.

“The bottom line is, public school is the answer for the vast majority. But it’s not the answer for everyone,” Wilson said.

Wilson was endorsed during his campaign by the advocacy group Empowered Texans, also known as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. Texas Monthly recently called them “one of the most influential advocacy groups in Austin” due to the group’s “Fiscal Responsibility Index,” which grades legislators on how they vote for measures that might affect tax rates.

Farney, who Wilson defeated, was originally elected in 2012 after serving two years on the State Board of Education. She was one of 16 incumbents targeted by Empowered Texans in the 2016 election.

Wilson received a $46,000 campaign donation from the political action committee in February 2016, which represented 58 percent of Wilson’s total contributions of $78,745.

Wilson’s House district includes Burnet, Milam and 22 percent of Williamson County, including Liberty Hill.

Waylon@LHIndependent.com

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