By Nick Braune
(I continue reviewing a 2012 book by Gail Collins, As Texas Goes. Part I was posted on Texas Civil Rights Review on July 16, 2012)
When Rick Perry was fairly new in the Texas governor’s mansion and George W. Bush was early in his first presidential term, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) passed in Congress. Perry immediately issued a press release bragging that the successful “Texas model” of testing and accountability had been used to create NCLB. But a decade later, when Perry was running his odd presidential campaign, he denounced NCLB as a “federal takeover of public schools” and pledged to shut it down. Perry even refused to participate with other governors in bi-partisan efforts to modify NCLB and said he would eliminate the Department of Education if elected.
(Although every candidate was against NCLB, Perry’s campaign was looking pretty weird to Americans in 2011, and even Bush steered clear. And of course Perry was not just going to shut down the Department of Education but two other departments; although, when asked on national TV which departments were so hopeless that he would just shut them, he famously could not remember which ones. Perry’s vote-for-me book back in 2010 had clearly implied that he would also rid America of Social Security, but he stammered daily, denying it during his campaign.)
Let me be clear, I surely do not fault Perry for finally opposing NCLB. NCLB is hopeless, deadening. My real interest is Perry’s bragging that the “Texas model” of accountability and teaching-for-tests had worked so well that America had adopted it. Collins cites a Rand Corporation study showing that the Texas — we test ‘em, we like accountability — model had failed even before NCLB arrived nationally. True, Texas education had improved between 1985 and 2000…but for other reasons.
Education was a very low priority in Texas for most of the twentieth century. Back when WWII started, says Collins, the U.S. military would always disqualify some young draftees or recruits for being too badly educated to serve, but the Texas percentage of rejections was “twice the national average.” And some state legislators (continuing long after WWII) would say that high school graduation and “book learning” were unnecessary for success in Texas if you have spunk.
In the early 1980s, Collins says, public education was still “close to the bottom of the barrel,” and beginning school teachers were paid $4,100 a year; however, “administrative costs were high, in part because Texas had 1,031 independent school districts, nearly 400 of which had fewer than 500 students. Funding was wildly inequitable. The wealthiest district in the state had more than $14 million in assessed property value to tax for each child in the local public schools, while the poorest district had $20,000.”
Texas education did improve between 1985 and 2000, but this “miracle” surely wasn’t due to testing initiated during Bush’s gubernatorial term but due to some structural changes and state money coming in.
What really improved Texas education? The improvements, according to Collins, were initiated by Democrat Mark White in the mid-1980s, followed by heavy lobbying in the early 1990s by “one of the better right-wing billionaires, Ross Perot,” who told legislators to grow up, spend some money and make changes other states had already made. By 1994 a better budget was passed, with commitments to smaller classes, better teacher training, and more state money going to poor districts. Simple, sensible improvements. If there was a minor “miracle” at all by the year 2001, it was not because of incessant testing and “accountability” for teachers and districts.
[This review first appeared in “Reflection and Change,” Mid-Valley Town Crier, July 17, 2012]