Why the ‘hyphenated Americanism’ comment triggered outrage

People rally in front of the State Board of Education building last week before a preliminary vote on whether to create a statewide Mexican American studies course. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The decision by the State Board of Education to approve an elective course for Mexican-American studies in Texas high schools should have triggered triumphant celebrations among the scholars and advocates who worked for years to make the curriculum a reality. Instead, many came away feeling like they were history’s losers once more.

“Discrimination!” Marisa Perez-Diaz, a member of the board, said in a blistering statement that captured the outrage of critics.

Perez-Diaz, a Democrat from Converse who is Mexican-American, was angry that the course will not be called Mexican-American Studies, as scholars and activists had advocated. Instead, after the objections of one member, the Republican-dominated board voted to strip the name and call the course “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”

The board member who proposed the new name, Beaumont Republican David Bradley, offered this explanation: “I find hyphenated Americanism to be divisive.”

To understand why some Texans consider that statement and the name change a slap in the face is to understand the history of Texas and how it has treated Mexican-Americans as something less than American – not as equals. It is a painful and shameful history that includes loss of rightful lands after the Mexican-American War, Jim Crow laws and systematic discrimination, separate and unequal schools, lynchings, deportations of Mexican-American citizens without due process, bigotry and signs at restaurants, parks, swimming pools and public places that told Mexican Americans they most certainly were not welcome there.

“No dogs, No Negros, No Mexicans,” the signs of Jim Crow-era segregation said.

Even in death, Mexican-Americans were not equals. In some Texas towns they were buried in separate cemeteries, as were African Americans.

But you won’t read much of that sordid history in high school classrooms in Texas, if at all. The historical Mexican-American experience is whitewashed and airbrushed out of textbooks and out of young Texans’ minds.

“To say that one does not believe in hyphenated Americans is one of the reasons we need this course,” Richard Flores, a Mexican-American studies scholar at the University of Texas, told me. “Because this entire Mexican-American community was not accepted into the American way of life.”

Flores wrote the book, “Remembering the Alamo: Memory, Modernity, and the Master Symbol,” which tells a history of the famous battle that is different from the conventional narrative taught in Texas classrooms – that brave Anglos defeated savage Mexicans there. But as Flores’ book conveys, they were not alone — Tejanos, or Mexican-Americans, fought alongside those Anglos.

Throughout history, Mexican-Americans have been called all kinds of hateful epithets. Wetbacks, greasers, beaners, cockroaches, spics – these are some. The word “Mexican” also has historically been used as a slur — President Trump did in 2016 against a U.S. district judge.

To some, stripping the Mexican-American name from the high school course is another attempt to put Mexican-Americans in their place and to dictate their identity, a throwback – setback — to the 1940s and 1950s in Texas.

Angela Valenzuela, another Mexican-American studies scholar at UT who championed the new curriculum, said she would not want her name associated with it under its new name. Her mother would never forgive her, she said, because it harkens back to Jim Crow and the scars it left.

“My mother told us (an American of Mexican descent) is what I was,” she told me. “That was all we were allowed to be then because it was Americanization full throttle.”

Noting that Latinos make up 52 percent of school-age children in Texas – the vast majority Mexican American — Valenzuela said the education board sees Mexican Americans and other Latinos as a threat.

We don’t need a Mexican-American studies course only for its value in setting the historical record straight. We need it because it can highlight Mexican-American historical contributions too and affirm Mexican-Americans’ place as valued contributors to society.

“Without our stories, the message to young people is ‘We weren’t here, we weren’t important and we are not important,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, director of the Voces Oral History Project at UT, which highlights the WWII contributions of Mexican-Americans who served their country, despite facing rampant discrimination at home.

Bradley, meanwhile, was not in a conciliatory mood. He reportedly said Perez-Diaz was taking the name change personally and that opponents were “antagonizing the board,” actions that could have repercussions on the viability of the course.

Given Texas’ history, it’s easy to see how some might view that as threatening.

“We’re all Americans,” Bradley told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s a melting pot and most of the board agreed with that.”

The irony of Bradley’s statement is that in the land that was Mexico long before Texas became a state, in the face of historical bigotry and discrimination, Mexican-Americans have wanted nothing more than to stake their full and rightful claim as Americans. As equals. Though we might not see it reflected in our textbooks, history teaches us this.

 

 

 

Billy Harden (1953-2018) opened doors and shaped minds

Teacher Don Webb greets Dr. Billy Harden (center) then-head of Goodwill industries’ charter school, and Traci Berry, senior vice president of community engagement. Goodwill launched a pilot program with funds from the Texas Legislature to help students 19-50 receive their high school diplomas.
RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Billy Harden’s imprint on Austin was indelible.

Not just because he was a towering figure in the African American community. But because Billy (whom I’ve known for over 25 years) was a mover and shaker in Austin’s arts and education community.

Billy died this week of colon cancer. He was 64.

Certainly, Billy was an accomplished educator, actor, musician, producer – and loving son to his mother, Ada, and siblings; Roosevelt Harden Jr., Marilyn Harden and Anita Davis.

His reach was long, from Metropolitan AME Church in Austin where he served over the years as choir and music director, to Hollywood through his life-long friendship with actor Julius Tennon and in recent years, Tennon’s wife and partner, Academy-award winning actor Viola Davis.

Billy, Roosevelt and Tennon attended junior high together and graduated from then-Johnston High School. Last year, Billy, Roosevelt and Austin friends Winston Williams and Roy Henry joined Tennon and Davis in Los Angeles to witness Davis getting her star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

With many accolades in theater, a career in education and demand for his talents, Billy was financially and professionally set. That wasn’t enough. Grabbing the baton from the late Boyd Vance, Billy opened doors for so many African American actors, dancers and singers to a local theater community that wasn’t always welcoming to black performers.

He didn’t throw bombs or call folks out. He worked behind the scenes, building relationships and partnerships that moved African Americans from their near-invisibility in Austin stage performances to pivotal roles.

Aside from knocking down barriers and stereotypes of what a lead in theater performances needed to look like, sound like, or be shaped like, Billy’s efforts went a long way in helping black performers land paying jobs in mainstream performances, so they could carve out a living locally.

“He did that in a quiet, nonconfrontational way,” Roosevelt told me. “He did it relentlessly.”

“My brother had a knack—in a nonintimidating way — of getting people to look at themselves and when they did, they saw gaps in the community that needed to be filled. Billy did everything he could do to fill them.”

In 2013, continuing to build on Vance’s legacy, Billy co-founded Spectrum, Austin’s leading African American theater company, with stage veterans Jacqui Cross, Janis Stinson and Carla Nickerson. Tennon and Davis – members of Spectrum’s advisory board — helped get it off the ground.

As a member of the group’s governing board, I worked with Billy, who was executive director. But my history with him goes back to the days when I was a single mom earning wages as a journalist that qualified my family for food stamps.

As I recalled to Roosevelt, “We were poor. I needed affordable after school childcare,” which I was fortunate to find at an Extend-A-Care program Billy ran in East Austin.

That was the other side of Billy: The caring educator who could with a look both discipline and encourage kids, including my boys. Always emphasizing academic achievement, Billy opened children’s minds to a world of art and music, believing the two – education and the arts – could transport any child to success.

The homework and studying got done under Billy’s watch. Hungry kids were fed. Perhaps the most exciting for the kids was the story-writing and telling Billy did with our children, using several literary genres. But there was something more: Children were shaped, meaning they came out of Billy’s program better than they went in.

With too many accomplishments to list in this space, I will mention just some: He earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Mary Hardin-Baylor University; served as a former head of school at Goodwill Industries’ charter school and assistant principal at the Austin school district’s Alternative Learning Center.

The American-Statesman’s Michael Barnes noted that Billy had attracted notice on the stage by the 1980s, often playing gruff but kindly characters. Among his most memorable performances were in multiple stagings of “I’m Not Rappaport” with fellow actor Tom Parker. Other standouts included roles in “Porgy and Bess,” “Purlie,” “Spunk,” “Our Town,” “The Gospel at Colonus,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Two Trains Running,” “The Exonerated,” “Five Guys Named Moe” and many more.

I was lucky to have seen so many of those shows. I will never forget.

No doubt some of Billy rubbed off on my sons: Billy Brooks is featured in Austin’s long-running stage performance, “Esther’s Follies.” Mehcad Brooks co-stars in the television series “Supergirl.”

I’m glad Billy’s legacy will continue through the Dr. Billy F. Harden Legacy Fund that that aims to inspire and nurture another generation of talent and support today’s local actors who strive to enlighten, entertain and challenge the Austin community through the arts. You can help. Contribute at  https://www.austincreativealliance.org/BillyHarden/#!form/BillyHarden.

 

AISD’s plan to close, consolidate schools shreds public trust

AISD Superintendent, Paul Cruz during a press conference in 2016. (LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN ARCHIVES)

The move by Austin Independent School District Superintendent Paul Cruz to close and consolidate several East Austin schools soon after voters approved a billion-dollar bond package is a betrayal of public trust.

Clearly, Cruz’s decision unveiled last week is a departure from the promises school trustees made to the public months ago regarding campus closures and consolidations, promises Cruz also signed off on. This week, after fierce public pushback, Cruz is moonwalking away from that decision. But the damage is done.

In explaining those missteps, Cruz said he had good intentions, motivated by “the excitement of new schools on the eastside,” made possible by the $1.05 billion bond package voters overwhelmingly approved last month.

“I was really prioritizing eastside schools,” he told us.

That was a huge miscalculation. Cruz should have known better, given all the reassurances that he and trustees made leading up to the bond election that school closures and consolidations were not part of the bond process — and not on the ballot. They emphasized that such decisions would be made independently, through a different process yet to come.

When voters approved the billion-dollar bond package in early November, they were focused on the district’s message that those bonds were needed to modernize, rebuild and retool Austin district schools so its 82,000 students would be better prepared for technological and medical jobs in the Central Texas and global economy.

That was a persuasive argument with voters, who approved them with 72 percent in favor.

Much of that goodwill evaporated last week as Cruz’s plans for East Austin schools came to light. Intentional or not, Cruz signaled that the election was a green light for closures and consolidations.

“The successful passage of the recent bond showed taxpayers entrusted AISD with reinventing the urban school experience, including necessary steps, which would be irresponsible to ignore,” Cruz said Friday.

A “continuing trend of declining enrollment in some areas of Austin ISD has created challenges that must be addressed with clear, intentional solutions — including community input to provide modernized learning spaces our students deserve.”

Cruz’s plan put six elementary schools on a fast track for consolidation, meaning some would be closed in mergers. They are: Brooke, Norman, Sims, Metz, Sanchez and Zavala. All have low enrollments, which qualifies them for closure under a district facilities plan.

But closures are by no means automatic. Plans adopted by the school board give schools an opportunity to avoid closure or consolidation by increasing their enrollments to certain levels, either by offering stronger academics or other programs that attract students. Schools are supposed to receive help from district staff and community leaders to meet those enrollment targets.

With the winds of victory from the bond election at his back, Cruz veered from that process.

The Statesman’s Melissa B. Taboada reported that Cruz’s plan calls for one of two East Austin elementary schools — Norman or Sims — to close and consolidate with the other campus. A planning team would have until Jan. 16 to determine which school would survive and which would shut down. The remaining school would be rebuilt for $25 million and open in 2020.

Similarly, Brooke Elementary is on the closure list, with its students moving to Ortega, Linder/Uphaus or Govalle, one of which would be rebuilt into a 522-student, $32.5 million campus opening in August 2020.

Zavala, Sanchez and Metz elementary schools also would be consolidated, district documents show, and that planning team would have until June 7 to decide which would be rebuilt, with the other two schools folding into it. The district timeline was unclear about when the other two campuses would be closed, but the $25 million rebuilt campus is slated to open in August 2021.

Given such contradictions, it’s no wonder many feel duped. Board President Kendall Pace, said she, too, was caught off guard as was her colleague, trustee Ted Gordon, whose District 1 includes Norman and Sims.

“The timeline took us by surprise,” Pace told us. “I asked (Cruz) what does this mean?”

Cruz confirmed that the board was not briefed on the plan, though they did receive an email about it. That is another misstep. Something that significant should not have been conveyed in email. That was a moment that required personal communication as closures and consolidations have proved to be among the most controversial topics in the Austin district. And for good reason.

Allan Elementary never recovered from its closure in 2012 orchestrated by then-Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who turned the campus over to IDEA charter schools to establish its charter program in the district. IDEA operated the school for just a year before it and the school district parted ways in a bitter breakup.

But the cynicism and bruised relations precede that.

East Austin has borne the burden historically of a segregated system in which schools with minority students were shut down to accommodate court-ordered integration that favored white schools in West Austin. Those political and racial ghosts still lurk in eastside communities that understandably distrust AISD officials when it comes to decisions regarding closures and consolidations.

Trust is fragile. What is almost incomprehensible is why Cruz, knowing that history, further strained that trust with premature plans calling for closures and consolidations without meaningful public input.

Backpedaling with statements that he will slow things down and gather public input won’t heal the damage. Cruz should concede he erred, hit the rewind button and start over with a process that respects what trustees pledged to do: Implement an independent process that takes bold steps to help schools stay open — before moving to shut them down.

 

 

Latinos had income gains, but not all the news is rosy

Bladimira Martinez takes notes while her daughter and business associate, Yessenia Ramirez, conducts business in Pflugerville last month. Martinez recently started her own cleaning company after years of working for others at or near minimum wage. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The headlines have been heartening lately for Latinos in Austin and across the country, at least when it comes to narrowing the income and education gaps that have dogged the nation’s largest minority group for years.

Recently, we learned that Latinos in the Austin-Round Rock metro area saw a hefty 17 percent increase in median household income from 2015 to 2016 — rising from $48,160 to $56,306, according to new census data.

RELATED: Why Austin-area Latinos saw a big boost in household incomes

Encouraging, yes, but it’s not time to get carried away just yet. It’s true that household incomes rose for Austin-area Latinos, but they still trail whites by a large margin.

Still, closing the income gap offers hope for anyone who believes in the old cliché that a rising tide lifts all boats. And for some time now in Austin, Latinos and African Americans have lagged behind whites in terms of quality of life barometers like income and educational attainment.

Attempts to close gaps led the city to launch Hispanic Quality of Life and African American Quality of Life initiatives, which I covered many years ago. The reviews were mixed. Some minority residents said they didn’t accomplish nearly enough. Some Austinites said the city should help all residents, not just certain minority groups. Regardless where you stood, many of the issues the initiatives sought to address back then are still around.

But back to the good news. Another reason to be encouraged is that there’s plenty of demographic evidence around to believe that if the Austin region will continue to prosper, the future will depend to a large part on the young and fast-growing Hispanic population.

In Travis County alone, 47 percent of the child population is Hispanic, researchers with the Community Advancement Network (CAN) found.

“When I speak to groups, I tell them, ‘That’s our future right there. That’s what the community is going to look like in 20 or 30 years,’” Raul Alvarez, who heads (CAN), told me.

Latinos already make up about 32 percent of the roughly 2 million overall population in the Austin-Round Rock metro area, according to 2016 census data. That’s no secret. What many people don’t know, however, is that demographic experts expect that the Latino population will become the largest portion of the Central Texas workforce sometime in about the next 15 years.

Such projections, however, increasingly lead to worries that Latinos will be left behind because as skill requirements for some careers rise, comparative lack of education could leave a growing share of the local Latino workforce stuck in low-wage jobs.

RELATED: The promise and the challenge of the Latino job puzzle

But there’s good news on that front, too. According to experts, one of the logical explanations behind the Latino income increase is that Latinos are reaching higher education levels.

The percentage of Texas Latinos ages 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree increased between 2015 and 2016, the American-Statesman reported recently.

A new report by the Pew Research Center also found that among Hispanics nationwide, the high school dropout rate is at a new low – 10 percent, continuing a decline spanning several decades. Moreover, as the Hispanic dropout rate plummeted, the share of Hispanic high school graduates who enter college rose, Pew reported.

CASTILLO: A new giving network answers why Latinos need a hand

While encouraging, the new income and education benchmarks aren’t all rosy, and pronounced disparities between minorities and whites persist.

Those figures showing the U.S. Hispanic high school dropout rate is at a new low of 10 percent? They don’t tell the full story: the Hispanic dropout rate was higher than for any other racial and ethnic group.

And though Austin Hispanics may have closed the gaps when it comes to income, they still lag far behind whites, whose median household income in 2016 was close to $74,000 – 31 percent higher than that of Latinos ($56,306) and 48 percent higher than that of African Americans (49,871).

And when income is measured another way – per capita –Hispanics in Central Texas make less than half of what Anglos on average make per year, according to the Austin Community Foundation.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that though Hispanics comprise only about a third of the overall Travis County population, they make up 55 percent of all Travis residents living in poverty, according to CAN, which keeps an annual Dashboard on its website that measures socioeconomic indicators.

It’s even worse for children. CAN researchers found that Hispanic children, although comprising 47 percent of the child population, make up 74 percent of all Travis County children living in poverty.

For Alvarez, that figure may be more troubling than anything else.

“That’s important because it says Hispanics are overrepresented in terms of family and poverty, and they’re going to face challenges that other populations are not going to face,” Alvarez told me.

In other words, there’s good news for area Latinos, but there’s much work to be done.

 

Lack of offensive content can’t be the only measure for newly proposed Mexican-American textbook

In 2016, Texas State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez, Jr. speaks out against the error-prone Mexican-American Heritage textbook voted down.
RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

After rejecting a proposed Mexican American studies textbook that critics blasted as a racist portrayal of Latinos, members of the Texas State Board of Education have two months to review another book. If adopted in November, the new book will be added to a list of recommended textbooks available for use by Texas students next school year.

On Wednesday, the board was presented with the latest proposal, “The Mexican American Studies Toolkit,” written by Tony Diaz, a Mexican-American studies professor at Lone Star College and a Houston-area activist.

Diaz’s book, which was written in less than a year, is the second Mexican American studies textbook the board has considered since last September. Board members should proceed carefully with their review given how quickly the project was produced. Most academic textbooks take more than a year to write — sometimes longer — experts say. Last November, board members rejected another textbook that critics said was an error-riddled racist portrayal of Mexican Americans.

Last year, about 100 people filled the Texas State Board of Education meeting room to protest “Mexican American Heritage,” which referred to Mexicans as “lazy” and contained about 140 factual errors, according to Mexican American history experts.

“The Mexican American Studies Toolkit,” focuses on identity, race, culture and political issues facing Mexican Americans today.

In its preface, Diaz writes:

“Most media outlets can provide short answers to deep questions but there are not enough places where we can engage in deep discussion about identity, race, culture and other issues that not only influence one group of Americans but all of us. … This book is part of the answer.”

Diaz also writes that the book is intended to “dispel the illusion that Mexican American history and culture is foreign.”

Board Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, and Vice Chairman Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, said they are optimistic they can adopt Diaz’s book in November, but the board still needs to ensure that the contents are error free and meet state requirements, the American-Statesman reported.

That’s encouraging. But the board should also ensure that the book shines a light on how the inspiring achievements of Mexican Americans are woven into the fabric of American history. That’s what experts and the Mexican American community expect. Board members should give serious consideration to feedback from those who have reviewed the book. When Diaz presented the book last week, he was the only person to comment on the book before the Texas School Board of Education.

A Mexican-American studies professor, Diaz has credentials to create a worthy book for Texas students.

“I haven’t seen anything or heard from anybody that leads me to think there is an area of concern. That’s good news,” board secretary Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville, said Wednesday. Cortez was among many who were critical of the first proposed textbook.

That Diaz’s book has not produced any serious reasons for objection may be a good sign.

Texas students deserve an honest and complete representation of the role Mexican Americans have had in shaping our state and nation. Here’s hoping Diaz has delivered on what his book promises.

Payroll deduction ban would silence teachers, not save taxpayers money

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott describes the items he wants addressed by a special legislative session during a press conference at the State Capitol on June 6, 2017. (TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott officially invited Texas legislators to head back to the pink dome July 18 for a 30-day special session to pass legislation that will keep five state agencies – including the Texas Department of Transportation and Texas Medical Board – open.

Once those agencies are taken care of, Abbott wants lawmakers to turn their attention to several items that failed during the 140-day regular legislative session and others that weren’t a part of it.

While limits on local control – including a bill banning transgender-friendly bathroom policies – are among the most talked about issues on Abbott’s 19-point conservative agenda for the special session, Abbott also proposes lawmakers push for some troublesome public education measures.

Members of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, including executive director Gary Godsey, shared their concerns Monday with the American-Statesman’s editorial board about the upcoming special session.

For instance, while the ATPE supports Abbott’s call for improving the state’s school finance system, the organization – like many other public education advocates – hoped for real solutions during the regular session. Abbott wants lawmakers to establish a commission to study school finance reform.

“Our public schools deserve more than another interim study and local taxpayers deserve a reprieve from shouldering so much of the state’s obligation to fund public education,” ATPE said in a statement.

Two other items that worry the folks at ATPE and other pro-public education organizations are Abbott’s unfunded teacher raise mandate – an item that was not a part of the regular session – and a proposed ban on union due payroll deductions.

Yes, ATPE advocates for increased teacher salaries. As they see it, pay raises make sense. Not only do they help recruit and retain good teachers, but in some school districts, a pay raise could also help a teacher offset the high cost of healthcare, Kate Kuhlmann, an ATPE lobbyist told us.

If the state is going to mandate $1,000 raises for all Texas public schoolteachers, then the Legislature needs to help pay for the raises, Godsey said. Most school districts have strapped budgets. Demanding that struggling school districts comply with a state mandate could mean cuts to areas that can’t afford them – like teacher retirement plans or educational programs.

Godsey is right. We should all support teacher pay raises, but not like this.

Another point of concern for many public education advocates is a legislative push to ban union fees deductions from payrolls, a measure that some – including ATPE – say aims to silence teacher voices.

During the regular session, Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) introduced “anti-union” bills designated as priority items by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to get Texas out of the business of collecting union dues. Similar bills by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) and Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) are expected to be filed for the special session. Huffman’s bill proposed to deny some public employees – with teachers comprising the largest group – the ability to deduct membership fees to organizations from their paychecks. However, the bills exempted unions representing law enforcement, firefighters and first responders.

Why are police, firefighters and EMS union dues excluded from such bills, you ask? Some argue that it is because the exempted are public servants, Godsey told us. Under that rationale, educators belong as part of the exempted group. Teachers are the front line of public service.

The bill’s authors along with Abbott and Patrick have said such deductions costs taxpayer money. Groups who oppose such measures say taxpayers don’t pay to administer deductions because state statutes require organizations to pay that expense. (The deduction process is no different than when a state employee requests a payroll deduction for donations to nonprofit organizations like United Way).

Godsey shared with us that he’s asked lawmakers who support the measure: If payroll deductions are so bad, then why not cut them across the board and ban all state employees, not just some. The question merits an answer.

In short: There’s no need for such a measure other than politics.

“Educators have long fought to protect class sizes, strengthen school services, and reduce the emphasis on standardized testing,” Godsey wrote in an online-commentary in March. “By making membership in educator associations as burdensome as possible, these bills are designed to hurt teachers and students.”

Oh, and public schoolteachers also have fought against school vouchers.

Flaws in AISD’s bond decisions show need for an independent committee

TA Brown Elementary on Friday, November 4, 2016. Unstable floor leads to cancellation of classes at Brown Elementary. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Ideally, a bond package for schools would bring together diverse communities across Austin whose residents share a strong support of Austin public schools. Yet the bond package currently being considered, whose price tag is about $1 billion, has divided much of the Austin community, tearing open old wounds of classism and racism and raising new questions regarding transparency, accountability and leadership.

Clearly, the process is broken and in need of drastic change.

To that point, the Austin school district would benefit greatly from an independent bond commission made up of both supporters and skeptics to hash out the complex and often contentious priorities of a large urban district. That commission should reflect the community it serves – economically, racially, ethnically and geographically. It’s one way to move beyond the bitter politics that is driving decisions regarding the current bond package that seems headed to a November election.

In the end, whatever decisions are made still would have to go to the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees for a vote. But right now, matters have turned toxic with a board and superintendent who have bent over backwards to accommodate well-heeled, influential Austin parents and neighborhoods at the expense of many low-income families and people of color.

That can be seen in an emerging, lopsided bond package, which supplanted some key recommendations by an advisory committee to make the bond package more geographically and equitably balanced.

Prime examples of how things have gone off the rails include the last-minute proposal for the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, whose student body is mostly white and affluent, and the elimination of a highly recommended middle school that would serve many students of color who are lower-income.

RELATED: Alberta Phillips: How Austin ISD botched decision to move an acclaimed academy.

LASA would move from the LBJ High School campus to the Eastside Memorial High School campus, displacing mostly minority and low-income students there. Eastside students would move to a new campus at the original L.C. Anderson site. In all, that would cost about $100 million.

Never mind that the LASA proposal would increase segregation, as noted by Trustee Edmund “Ted” Gordon, by increasing to 3 the number of high schools with student bodies that are “over 90 percent black and brown.”

“In each one of those high schools, we’re well over 80 percent and heading into 90 percent in terms of socioeconomically underprivileged,” said Gordon, who represents Northeast Austin.

But the dysfunction doesn’t stop there. Trustees continue to lean toward a single bond proposition, offering the lame excuse that if they gave voters, say two choices, voters might approve the less-urgent proposition and vote down the proposition that contains the district’s vital needs. In other words, voters are too dumb to discern the district’s true needs from the fluff.

We all owe gratitude to the 18 people who serve on the district’s Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee. FABPAC members did their job, holding dozens of community meetings and combing through mounds of reports and information to craft a facilities master plan to be used as a blueprint for bond packages. They went about that task for 18 months, prioritizing which schools were most in need of repair, replacement and upgrades, and neighborhoods that needed new schools.

That kind of work is best done by those with a passion for public schools. But the next steps in deciding the scope, shape and timing of a bond package should be done by an independent group, which can impartially assess the district’s most urgent priorities, while at the same time gauge what taxpayers can afford.

That would be a healthy, trusted process that provides more checks and balances.

FABPAC members will tell you that in doing their work, they began with a foregone conclusion: There would be bonds. And soon. That was not debatable. The rest they have left to trustees, such as the bond package’s price tag, number of propositions and the date they appear on a ballot. Trustees are scheduled to fill in all of those blanks on Monday.

Unfortunately, that process invites the kind of manipulation of the process we’ve witnessed from Superintendent Paul Cruz and others. It was Cruz who fast-tracked LASA’s expansion and move.

RELATED: Community reactions mixed over proposed LASA move to Eastside site.

Obviously, the FABPAC did not believe LASA’s expansion rose to the level of needs at T.A. Brown Elementary School, with significant structural deficiencies. That was signaled by the FABPAC’s recommendation to insert LASA, along with a middle school for the Mueller development, in its second-tier priorities.

Yet, trustees elevated LASA, but not Mueller’s middle school. That did not sit well with Gordon, who referred to such eleventh-hour maneuvering as the “Eastside switcheroo.”

“If reinventing the urban school system means abandoning the urban areas of the city, then we’re in trouble,” Gordon said. “It can’t mean that. It has to mean a way in which the east and west can come together to create a school district which is diverse, which is equitable, and which provides all our kids with a quality education – not some kids an elite quality education, and other kids no education – all our kids a quality education.”

To achieve that goal, the Austin district needs a new business model for bond planning.

 

 

Build bigger, better LBJ high by keeping high-performing academy on its campus

At a press conference at Travis High School on May 13, 2016, AISD Superintendent, Paul Cruz reacts to the Texas Supreme Court ruling that the way Texas finances public schools is constitutional. The Austin area school districts were hoping to get more money from the state but they will not be getting more. LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

If history is any guide, the Austin school district’s Lyndon Baines Johnson High School might well be in for a rough future in attracting students if Austin school trustees strip its crown jewel – the nationally-ranked Liberal Arts and Science Academy – from its campus.

That is a distinct possibility, given the recommendations under consideration tonight by the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees regarding its facilities master plan.

Moving LASA is estimated to cost at least $90 million and as much as $122 million in capital costs, which the district would have to ask taxpayers to finance through bonds. That could become a racially-charged issue for trustees and the public, signaling that school officials are willing to invest in moving the elite, predominantly white academy from its host campus, the predominantly minority and lower-income LBJ.

RELATED READ: 5 things to know about the $4.6 billion AISD facilities plan

The reasoning behind moving LASA to a central location is well-intentioned, as the demand for seats in the academy far exceeds the supply and there is no similar advanced academy south of Lake Lady Bird. It’s unfortunate that trustees bypassed an opportunity to establish a second LASA at Crockett High School in South Austin.

It’s worth noting that the proposal to move LASA to a central location was forwarded by the district’s Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee, a group charged with coming up with proposals to modernize and expand the district’s facilities to meet academic and growth needs as the district looks to offer instruction relevant for the 21st century.

But there are other, better solutions to address LASA’s growth issues without impairing LBJ, as the district did to then-Johnston High School, when it moved the Language Arts Academy from its campus in East Austin.

Johnston, now Eastside Memorial, never recovered from losing its high-performing magnet that helped integrate its campus and lift its reputation. In relocating Johnston’s liberal arts academy to LBJ in 2001 to join the district’s science academy, the district moved hundreds of students from Johnston, triggering a broader exodus of even students who weren’t enrolled in the liberal arts academy.

The high school has remained severely under-enrolled ever since, despite the millions of dollars the district has spent on raising its performance, reputation and enrollment.

Trustees should not make the same mistake with another, similar move that signals a divestment in another East Austin high school. A proposal by District 1 Austin School Trustee Edmund “Ted” Gordon would solve space limitations at LASA without gutting LBJ.

Gordon is proposing that the district construct facilities on LBJ’s campus that accommodate both LASA at its current 1,200 capacity and LBJ’s projected 1,000 capacity for student enrollment. Doing that would cost about the same, but send a positive message that the district is committed to diversity and inclusion.

We give Superintendent Paul Cruz and his team credit for pouring umpteen hours and resources into public meetings into developing the $4.6 billion plan. Chief financial officer Nicole Conley adds a high level of expertise in crunching numbers, forecasting and keeping focused on things that matter, such as how to stabilize the district’s enrollment and finances in changing times.

And we extend special thanks to the members of the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee, volunteers who put aside their own priorities to do the tough and sometimes thankless work of crafting a way forward regarding school district facilities.

Having said that, the committee’s recommendations also require more vetting and analysis.

Consider that the recommendations could mean closing/consolidating five elementary schools – all which are low-income with enrollments that are predominantly Latino and African American. Those campuses are; Brooke, Dawson, Joslin, Norman and Sanchez.

Schools could avoid closure if their enrollments rise so that at least 75 percent of their seats are filled.

But the plan seems to put the onus for filling seats on individual schools – and not on the superintendent, where it belongs. While it is right for the superintendent to work with campus administrators, teachers, parents and other stakeholders, the buck stops with the superintendent if a campus is failing or under-enrolled. As the CEO, he or she is the fixer.

We will continue to weigh in on the facilities master plan after trustees take it up Monday night. At a time when school property taxes are through the roof, Cruz, his team and trustees need to present a plan that is equitable, inclusive, efficient and financially sound. The absence of any one of those elements could be enough to sink a future bond package. And trustees would be wise not to ignore the lessons of history.

*This editorial has been updated to correct the name of the Liberal Arts and Science Academy.

Bahorich moving education board forward; no reason to change leadership

JULY 14, 2015 - State Board of Education chair, Donna Bahorich, Houston, asks a question from staff about GED practices during the State Board of Education meeting held in Austin, Texas, on July 14, 2015. Gov. Greg Abbott appointed her to chairmanship in June 2015. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
JULY 14, 2015 – State Board of Education chair, Donna Bahorich, Houston, asks a question from staff about GED practices during the State Board of Education meeting held in Austin, Texas, on July 14, 2015. Gov. Greg Abbott appointed her to chairmanship in June 2015. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

You might say that Donna Bahorich took an old-school approach to proving herself worthy of chairing the State Board of Education, even among some of her critics: She earned it.

That is why her confirmation by the Senate Nominations Committee on Thursday should not be in question. And why the full Senate should support Bahorich’ s reappointment as chair of the 15-member State Board of Education.

I’m not saying that state senators should not press the Houston Republican on issues, such as whether biology standards under review should be limited to the science of evolution or watered down with requirements that undermine the science.

And I’m not suggesting that senators ignore controversies the education board – that sets curriculum standards for Texas public schools and oversees the $37 billion Permanent School Fund – regularly wades into, such as its consideration of a textbook about Mexican-American history and culture. Aside from being racially-insensitive, the book contained 141 errors that scholars pointed out.

Consider this insulting passage from the book: “Stereotypically, Mexicans were viewed as lazy compared to European or American workers. Industrialists were very driven, competitive…They were used to their workers putting in a full day’s work, quietly and obediently, and respecting rules, authority, and property. In contrast, Mexican laborers were not reared to put in a full day’s work so vigorously. There was a cultural attitude of “mañana” or “tomorrow” when it came to high-gear production.”

With a deft hand, Bahorich steered the board through that and other such embarrassments, permitting the GOP social conservative bloc on the board to have its say – and at times throw tantrums. All while keeping her eye, and the board’s focus, on improving public schools and engaging more people in the process.

As we witnessed in the case of the textbook, “Mexican American Heritage,” the board landed on the right decision by voting unanimously not to place the book on its preferred adoption list, akin to denying it a Good Housing seal. As such, it’s unlikely that school districts will order or buy the text. She was recognized with a leadership medal from the League of United Latin American Citizens for the way she handled the textbook.

On that front and others, Bahorich has made transparency a key component of the education board’s textbook and curriculum standards review process.

For the first time, instructional materials are available online for public review prior to coming before the board for adoption. That permitted educators, community leaders and parents to weigh in on the Mexican American textbook.

“People can sit in their living rooms in their pajamas and get instructional materials instead of going to a (regional) service center to get them,” Bahorich told me.

That is a big deal, considering that elected members of the board represent individual districts of about 1.6 million people, twice the size of a state senate district with about 800,000 people.

Under Bahorich’s leadership, curriculum standards, such as those for English, Spanish language and reading, also are online for public review before going to the board for final approval. And she has put together major public forums, one dealing with educating a digital generation and the other on educating children in poverty. Those are relevant to public schools, including charters, that educate 5.5 million schoolchildren growing up in a digital world.

First elected in 2012 and reelected in November, Bahorich, 61, is not the enemy of public schools critics predicted she would be, citing her lack of experience with public schools. It’s true she home-schooled her three sons then turned to private, religious schools to fill out their education and extracurricular activities.

She gets good marks from critics for being a more collaborative chair than her GOP predecessors in that post, fostering respectful dialogue, expanding board discussions to include opposing or critical viewpoints, among other things. But she also gets her share of criticism, such as for her position — or lack of one — on public school vouchers.

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan watchdog group that monitors and opposes right-wing agendas in education and other areas of government, said Bahorich voted against a resolution, which would have put the education board on the record opposing vouchers.

Bahorich says she has not come to a firm conclusion on vouchers or scholarships that permit parents to use public school money to pay for private school tuition. But, she added, “Nothing should be off the table.”

“We should at least talk about them and not immediately reject (vouchers),” she said. “Having no discussion is not serving children.”

Perhaps. But as I said to Bahorich, if the state is going to establish a program or pilot in which public dollars are steered to private schools through vouchers or scholarships, it must level the playing field by erecting comparable accountability standards for both, including requirements that prevent cherry-picking or dumping — pushing voucher students back to public schools after private schools have ejected them.

It’s should not be that those receiving public education money be exempt from state accountability.

There’s also a political reality for keeping Bahorich as chair. Republicans dominate the board, just as they do state government. Gov. Greg Abbott is not about to select a Democrat to chair the board and among the Republican SBOE members, Bahorich is best suited for the chairmanship.

With her, the board might not avoid controversies, but it won’t wander aimlessly in that swamp — as it did before Bahorich.

 

Is your child feeling anxiety or fearful after the election?

SARASOTA, FL - NOVEMBER 07: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds up a rubber mask of himself during a campaign rally in the Robarts Arena at the Sarasota Fairgrounds November 7, 2016 in Sarasota, Florida. With less than 24 hours until Election Day in the United States, Trump and his opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, are campaigning in key battleground states that each must win to take the White House. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds up a rubber mask of himself during a campaign rally in the Robarts Arena at the Sarasota Fairgrounds November 7, 2016 in Sarasota, Florida. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Thursday morning, Austin Independent School District Trustee Paul Saldaña wrote an open letter to students in the district in response to the anxiety and fear many students across the district have reported feeling after hearing news of Donald Trump winning the presidential election. Election results-related anxiety is what led students at two local elementary schools — Sunset Valley and Matthews — to kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance on Wednesday in protest of Trump.

As a parent of a 9-year-old bright and curious child, I appreciate Saldaña’s gesture. I only wish I’d had it on Wednesday morning.

That’s when my 9 year-old son woke up wondering who had won the presidential election the night before. And, unlike past elections, I dreaded answering his question.

It was an especially trying and uncommon campaign season for us both. During most elections, I welcome reading and talking about candidates and the issues on the ballot. But, this election season, thanks to the hostile rhetoric that became to familiar, I did my best to shelter my 3rd grader from news of Trump or Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Yet, despite my efforts, we had plenty of conversations about the two candidates vying for presidency during our drives to and from school. Unfortunately, most of those conversations were to specifically address my son’s fears over something the Republican candidate had said should happen or promised to do as president. At times I wondered if I was doing much to help my son settle his anxiety.

So when my son asked who won the election, I froze and changed the subject. What more could I say? I had already spent weeks trying to ensure him that regardless of the winner, he — no, WE as a family and WE, as a country — would be fine. Yet, I knew, news of the winner would be a hard blow for his kind and sensitive soul. As a child of Mexican American parents, the grand-child of immigrants and whose group of friends are as diverse as the fabric of this country, my son took each insult made by Trump as a direct hit to those in his closest circles. So, I told him. Silent tears followed.

Then, the most heartbreaking question came: “Mom, where was I born?”

My son spent weeks worrying about what might happen to his friends who spoke a different language or whose skin color was much darker. Now, with a president-elect that has shown little regard for people who look like my son’s friends and family members, he wondered how he personally would be affected by this new president.

There are families across this country, in this city in fact, having similar conversations with their children. And their taking place at schools, as well. Some educators, like Mathews Elementary Principal Grace Martino-Brewster, have taken the time to personally address this anxiety they see in their students.

Saldaña takes it a step further. He reassures all students in the district that they matter, that they are heard and that they are safe. He also is working to organize a town hall meeting soon to address the issue, he said.

“I have been hearing from students, teachers and parents the last two days and several have requested a community conversation,” Saldana wrote in an email. “Parents are struggling how to broker and/or respond to their children.”

The full text of his letter: