As nearly five million Texas children return to school this month, parents may have more to think about than simply buying paper and pencils.
Houston parent and founder of My Child My Voice Wendy Gonzales-Neal advises parents to implement healthy school night bedtimes and limit distractions like smartphones and video games. She also hosts workshops teaching parents to advocate for their own children.
“It’s rush hour time for back to school,” she says. “It’s time for parents to listen, learn, guide, and speak up to make a difference in their child’s education.”
Gonzales-Neal believes it is important for parents to be involved. She suggests meeting with teachers, learning education lingo, and becoming familiar with their children’s school.
For some parents, learning more about their child’s school may include discovering the school has received a failing grade from the Texas Education Agency.
This year’s ratings included some good news: the number of school districts earning a B or better increased from 60 percent in 2018 to 82 percent in 2019.
Several struggling schools showed improvement, including Houston’s long-troubled Kashmere High School, which ended a 9-year failing streak by earning a C grade for 2018-19.
According to Education Commissioner Mike Morath, 296 “high-poverty schools” achieved an A rating. But TEA indicates that 402 schools earned an F rating, and another 703 earned a D rating.
During the 2019 legislative session, Texas lawmakers passed education legislation that increased basic funding by nearly $4.5 billion and provided additional resources for low-income and English language learners. Additionally, lawmakers expanded taxpayer-backed pre-kindergarten for qualified four-year-olds to include a full day of instruction.
The hope is that more early intervention will improve student outcomes, although some recent studies indicate pre-K has potential downsides.
A 2015 study out of Vanderbilt evaluated Tennessee’s state-funded pre-kindergarten program and found that by the end of kindergarten, kids not enrolled in the state’s pre-K program had already caught up to those who were. And by the end of the second grade, children who did not attend the state’s pre-K program were outperforming those who had in both math and general achievement.
For Texas parents unable to afford the extra costs of homeschooling or private school tuition for K-12, education options are limited to transfers within districts or to public charter schools. Despite polls showing public support for programs like tax credit scholarships, state lawmakers did not consider any new options during the 2019 session.
Earlier this year the TEA did approve a few new charter schools: public schools given greater autonomy for innovation in exchange for higher accountability standards.
The TEA reports 5.8 percent of public school students attend charter schools, but 69.9 percent of those are economically disadvantaged. As many as 140,000 students may be on charter school waiting lists, and the charter school option is mostly limited to students who were enrolled in a district public school the previous year.
In addition to training parents to advocate, My Child My Voice is also one of several organizations that informs parents on educational options and available assistance. Another Houston-based organization, Families Empowered, has expanded to Austin and San Antonio, and helps parents to determine the best school for individual children and situations.
Families Empowered has helped more than 93,000 families choose from an array of public and private schools.
For most families, district schools are still the only feasible option, and nearly 95 percent of Texas children attend public schools.
Some of the 402 schools receiving an “F” from the TEA could trigger state sanctions. Despite district improvement, Houston ISD’s Wheatley High School has failed to meet standards for seven consecutive years.
Under state law, TEA could opt to close three failing Houston schools, but may also choose to replace the elected board of trustees with a state-appointed board of managers. In light of a recent report alleging HISD board misconduct, a state takeover seems likely, but the district has filed a lawsuit to block state sanctions.
State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has been calling attention to problems in the state’s largest school district.
“There has to be changes for the betterment of the students, parents, staff, and community,” he said of Houston ISD. “It’s not partisan. It’s not ideological. It’s not where you live, or what you look like, it’s about pure competence to lead the largest school district in the state.”
Among other arguments, lawyers for the Houston ISD board say that state action should be blocked since the Education Agency primarily levies sanctions against “districts whose voters are predominantly people of color.”
If the TEA succeeds in closing chronically underperforming schools, more parents may be seeking services like those provided by My Child My Voice and Families Empowered.
Wendy Gonzales-Neal told The Texan that her organization is planning to offer K-12 grants and scholarships to low-income families in 2020. Funds could be used for extra educational costs such as tutoring and transportation, or even curricular materials for homeschooling.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.