Category Archives: education news

Texas loses a consequential public figure

Mark White has died at the age of 77.

This man’s name might not ring as many bells as it once did, but his passing from the scene allows us to bid adieu to someone I consider to be one of Texas’s most consequential and important public servants.

White served as Texas governor for a term between 1983 and 1987. But what a term it turned out to be!

On his watch, the state enacted something that has become a blessing and a curse to educators, students and parents throughout the state. No pass-no play became law during Gov. White’s term.

Its genesis is a story all by itself.

Flash back for a moment to 1983. A Dallas billionaire, H. Ross Perot, popped off about the quality of Texas’s public education. He said the state was more interested in producing blue-chip football players than it was in producing blue-chip scholars.

That message got quickly to White’s desk, and to the governor himself. I’m just guessing about this, but my hunch is that Perot’s remarks angered the governor.

He called Perot out. He said, in effect, “OK, buster, if you think you can do a better job of crafting public education policy, then why don’t you lead a blue-ribbon commission to craft one? You can present it to the people of Texas, and then to the Legislature, and we’ll see if it works.”

Perot accepted the challenge. The Perot Commission met for weeks and came up with no pass-no play. Perot then took off on a barnstorming tour of the state to sell it. I arrived in Beaumont in the spring of 1984 and Perot came to Beaumont to make his pitch. Suffice to say that Perot could command a room in a major way.

White then summoned the Legislature to Austin for a special session and it enacted the no pass-no play legislation, known as House Bill 72. It changed fundamentally the way Texas educates its public school students.

Here’s the Texas Tribune story on White’s death.

HB 72 has taken many forms in the 30-plus years since its enactment. The framework remains essentially the same: students have to pass certain mandated tests in order to advance to the next grade and then to graduate from high school.

HB 72’s success has been a matter of intense debate ever since.

White is the last former Democratic governor to pass from the scene in Texas. “Mark’s impact on Texas will not soon be forgotten, and his legacy will live on through all that he achieved as Governor,” the current governor, Republican Greg Abbott, said in a written statement.

I’ll go along with former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, who served with Gov. White, and who described White as “one of Texas’s greatest governors.”

The very notion of enacting such a huge overhaul of the state’s public education system puts Gov. White on a pedestal he need not share with anyone.

WT making the turn in downtown Amarillo

I surely understand that much of the attention focusing on downtown Amarillo’s revival centers on that new ballpark/multipurpose event venue.

It’s a big deal, to be clear. They’re going to start busting up concrete in a few months and by April 2018, the MPEV will be open for business as the city welcomes the AA minor-league baseball franchise set to play hardball at the venue.

Oh, but wait! Something else really big is coming along in the city’s downtown district. It’s at the corner of Eight Avenue and Tyler Street. West Texas A&M University is finishing up Phase One of its new Amarillo Center.

WT purchased the old Commerce Building a couple years ago. Then Texas A&M University System regents allocated money to gut the old structure and turn it into a downtown campus.

I’ll be honest: When I first heard about WT moving its Amarillo classrooms from the Chase Tower to the Commerce Building, I envisioned a fairly quick and simple turnaround. WT would tear the guts out of the building, add some new rooms, reconfigure the floor plan a bit, hook up the electronics and then open the doors for college students.

Oh, no. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

WT has essentially rebuilt the structure. Yes, it’s the same framework. The exterior, shall we say, bears zero resemblance to the Commerce Building. Phase Two construction is going to commence soon.

Read about it here.

It’s a beautiful addition to the downtown district’s physical appearance.

Is it a totally positive development that lacks any downside? Not exactly.

You see, WT is going to vacate several floors at the 31-story Chase Tower, which already has seen a large portion of its building go dark with Excel Energy’s relocation into a new office structure on Buchanan Street. Roughly half of the Chase Tower will be vacant when WT starts classes at its Amarillo Center.

That ain’t good, man.

I did receive assurances, though, from Aaron Emerson, a partner in Gaut Whittenberg Emerson commercial real estate agents that they are shopping the Chase Tower aggressively for new tenants; moreover, Emerson told me he has great confidence that the building will be reoccupied.

I’ll hope for the best on that matter.

As for the new WT downtown Amarillo campus, I welcome the university’s increased profile in the city’s central business district.

There shouldn’t be this kind of angst at a university

I detest stories like this, reports of so-called “liberal intolerance.”

Actually, I am forced to acknowledge that such intolerance is real and it exists in the most unsuitable places: colleges and universities across the United States.

Ann Coulter, a fiery conservative columnist and TV pundit, was supposed to speak to students at the University of California-Berkeley. Then the school canceled her appearance, citing “security concerns.” UC-Berkeley took back the cancellation and then rescheduled Coulter for another date.

Coulter might not speak after all. She contends she has scheduling difficulties that will keep her otherwise occupied.

When did universities become so exclusive?

Students who want to hear from Coulter now are threatening to sue the school.

Good grief, folks!

All of this is a symptom of the intolerance that grips colleges and universities. There can be little doubt about that, in my view.

Coulter is provocative. That is her shtick. She likes to stir people’s emotions and she’s quite good at it. Coulter also is a darling of the conservative media in America and is no friend of liberals, many of whom run our nation’s major university systems — such as the University of California.

This kind of uproar shouldn’t exist at these institutions of higher learning. Security concerns? Are they real or imagined?

Universities should be a place where all points of view from across the broad political spectrum are welcome. Should every student, faculty member or college administrator embrace every point of view expressed? Of course not. But neither should they reject them outright because they might be, oh, politically incorrect.

All this hubbub about “security concerns” regarding Ann Coulter looks and sounds like a dodge that masks the real motivation, which is to silence a leading conservative voice.

We can argue until we all run out of breath about whether Coulter deserves the standing she enjoys among conservatives. The fact is that she is part of a political movement that isn’t to my particular liking. She still deserves to be heard.

After she speaks, then let the students and their professors argue among themselves about what she has said. Who knows? They might learn something from each other.

Reunion No. 50: The dilemma deepens

I just got word that the planners who are organizing the 50-year reunion of my high school graduating class have set a date and a location.

It will take place this October at a hotel near Portland (Ore.) International Airport. Ironically, it also will occur not terribly far from where my classmates and I graduated from Parkrose High School.

The old building was torn down years ago and was replaced by a shiny new structure that doubles as a community center.

My dilemma is deepening about whether to attend this event.

The 30-year high school reunion sucked for me. I went back to Portland seeking to rekindle relationships I had with some of the folks with whom I graduated. Much to my surprise — and chagrin — I found that there was nothing to rekindle. You can’t ignite something that doesn’t exist.

I vowed not to go back.

No. 40 came and went. Without me. I stayed true to my personal pact.

Now it’s No. 50 looming out there.

I cannot tell if my waffling means I want to go but I’m looking for reasons to stay away; or whether it means I don’t want to go but I’m seeking a reason to go.

Maybe I need to reset my expectation if I do return to this event.

I hate these dilemmas. I think I’ll pray for some discernment.

Amarillo? We have a homeless student problem

Here’s a number for you to roll around for a moment.

2,131.

What does it represent? It’s the number of homeless students enrolled in the Amarillo Independent School District.

It came to the fore today during a lunch meeting of the Rotary Club of Amarillo. Kimber Thompson, who works with homeless students for AISD, delivered the figure today during the lunch program. I didn’t poll everyone in the room, but my sense is that it caught most of Rotary Club members by surprise.

Here’s a little more perspective and context for you to ponder.

AISD enrolls about 30,000 students at all grades, which means that a little less than 10 percent of its students are considered “homeless.”

I’ve got one more to thing to think about, and this comes from Thompson.

Amarillo’s student homeless population is the fifth-largest of any school district in the state. That’s not a per capita figure, according to Thompson in response to a question from one of the Rotary Club members. The number represents a raw number of total students.

Fifth-largest number! Of any district in the state. I don’t suppose I need to tell you that AISD is far from the fifth-largest public school district in Texas.

Why am I writing about this? It seems to me that we have been handed a fascinating campaign issue for the city’s council candidates and those who are running for the AISD Board of Trustees to discuss as they campaign for votes.

Is there a joint solution to be found here to deal with this problem? Must there be such a large number of students who are considered homeless?

Thompson took time today to explain how AISD determines a student’s homeless status. Children might actually live in their family vehicle; or they might be camping out somewhere in tents; or they might be sharing a house with other extended family members or with friends; they might belong to families in transition.

They all qualify as “homeless.”

Thompson said AISD doesn’t want to transfer students from school to school, as so many homeless students have been shuttled between and among schools too often already. Such rapid and frequent change disrupts them emotionally, not to mention impairs the lessons they are supposed to be learning in the classroom.

I’ll acknowledge that before today I had no idea of the number of homeless students in the Panhandle’s largest public school district.

It was a stunning revelation, one that in my view is tailor-made for some candidates running for municipal and school district public offices to offer some recommendations — if not outright solutions.

Amarillo, I believe we have a crisis on our hands. And we need to talk about it openly — and with extreme candor.

Stick to energy issues, Secretary Perry

Count me as one of those who is astonished at comments from Energy Secretary Rick “Oops” Perry.

What got the new energy boss’s dander up? Get a load of this.

He’s angry that Texas A&M University’s Student Government Association has elected its first openly gay president.

Wow! Um, Secretary Perry, you have a full plate of national security and energy issues that deserve your attention. I get that you’re a dedicated Aggie grad, a former yell leader at A&M and former Texas governor.

But holy crap, dude!

Perry said Bobby Brooks’ election was “stolen” from another candidate who was disqualified on technical grounds.

Gig ’em, Rick?

“The desire of the electorate is overturned, and thousands of student votes are disqualified, because of free glow sticks that appeared for eleven seconds of a months-long campaign,” Perry wrote to the Houston Chronicle. “Apparently glow sticks merit the same punishment as voter intimidation.”

I am not going to get into the details of a student body government election. I have no dog in that fight. Nor do I have any particular interest in it.

It astounds me, though, that Secretary Perry would even decide to weigh in on this matter. Of all the things that should occupy the secretary’s attention now that he has a new job in the Trump administration, one would think that a Texas A&M University SGA election would barely appear on his radar screen.

According to the Houston Chronicle: “Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor who has watched Perry political career rise and fall for years, said he, too, was surprised by Perry’s intervention into the A&M election.

“‘This must be his inner Aggie speaking, because this is certainly not something you expect a cabinet secretary to weigh in on – actually, probably not even a governor,’ Jones said. ‘It’s strange. Of all the things he could have an opinion on, this is probably not the smartest move for a cabinet secretary. He must really be upset about it.'”

Yep. He’s mad and he’s going to throw the weight of his office behind some real or feigned outrage over Bobby Brooks’ election as student body president.

C’mon, Mr. Secretary. Let the new SGA boss do his job … whatever the heck it is. Brooks’ first priority, after all, ought to focus on his studies.

I think it’s reasonable to ask: Would the energy secretary be as hopped up over this if Bobby Brooks weren’t gay?

‘Plague’ in inappropriate student-teacher relationships?

Texas legislators are seeking to do something that, to be honest, I am surprised hasn’t been done already.

They want to make it illegal for school administrators to fail to report incidents of improper student-teacher relationships. Really? It’s not illegal already? I guess not.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt has collected the support of all 30 of his Senate colleagues in proposing legislation that would make failure to report such hideous behavior a Class A misdemeanor. To be honest, the level of criminality seems light.

As the Texas Tribune reports: “Bettencourt said that many of the teachers involved in such conduct are able to be rehired in other districts, a phenomenon known as ‘pass the trash,’ because districts fail to report them to the Texas Education Agency. The bill seeks to end that practice by slapping a Class A misdemeanor on administrators who fail to report such relationships, and if it is an intentional cover-up, administrators could be charged with a state jail felony.”

Has this circumstance reached “plague” status? I am not qualified to answer that question. Yes, we’ve read about such ghastly behavior in some of our Texas Panhandle school systems. Teachers have been fired; they have faced criminal charges. What isn’t generally reported here is whether administrators have kept their eyes closed to it, or if they have deliberately covered it up.

An administrator who purposely protects a teacher who has been romancing a student ought to lose his or her job and should be prosecuted and, if convicted, thrown in prison for contributing to the sexual abuse of children.

No more “passing the trash,” legislators.

PAC weighs in on possible vet school for Amarillo

Meanwhile, back home on the High Plains …

While much of the rest of the nation is swirling over news about Russia and other things related to the new president, a political action committee formed to push the interests of the Texas Panhandle has kicked into gear.

Amarillo Matters has decided to pressure the Texas Legislature to approve money for a proposed school of veterinary medicine that would be set up in Amarillo.

The Texas Tech University Board of Regents recently voted to cease the search for money to pay for the vet school in Amarillo, citing tight state money and other priorities that the Texas Tech University should fund first.

I happen to believe the Tech regents made a mistake. I also happen to believe that a veterinary school of medicine in Amarillo is the right ticket not only for Tech, but for the farming and ranching community that is so important to this region’s economic health and well-being.

As the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported: “‘We as a region and as a city need to be standing up for ourselves in Austin and make sure we get a fair share of the pie,’ PAC member and President of Pantera Energy Co. Jason Herrick said.”

I am gratified to see a group formed to apply pressure where it believes it is needed among legislators who control the purse strings for projects such as this one.

I need not remind Amarillo Matters that one of our region’s own — state Sen. Kel Seliger — chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee. Oops! I just did!

Amarillo Matters’ formation piqued my curiosity a few weeks ago. I asked in this blog what it was and wondered for what it stood. Now I think I get it.

Here is what I wrote.

Texas Tech got some push back from Texas A&M University, which has a top-drawer veterinary medicine program, when it first pitched the idea of building a vet school in Amarillo. I presume the Aggies thought Tech would be perhaps too competitive. My own view is that, hey, A&M doesn’t have a veterinary medicine school anywhere near Amarillo … so what’s the problem?

The A-J reports further: “The PAC believes a new school is vital to the state — which experts and lawmakers say is suffering from a lack of veterinarians in rural areas — and is crucial to Texas Panhandle industry, Herrick said. ‘I don’t know that urban and downstate folks understand what a strong cattle and dairy industry we have here in the Panhandle,’ Herrick said.”

This is precisely what PACs do. They “educate” others to the concerns of the regions they serve. I wish Amarillo Matters well in this endeavor.

Tech pulls plug on vet school in Amarillo

I was disappointed to hear the other day that the Texas Tech University Board of Regents has decided against seeking money to create a school of veterinary medicine in Amarillo.

The money would have come from the Texas Legislature, which I am quite certain has gotten its share of pressure from Texas A&M University to spend the money on, um, other priorities.

Tech had floated the notion of creating a veterinary school in Amarillo as a way to create a pool of medical professionals who would serve the cattle and horse industries that are so prevalent in this part of the world.

Tech, though, got some immediate push back from A&M, which has a first-rate veterinary medicine program already — but none in Amarillo or elsewhere in the Texas Panhandle.

The systems happen to be run by two men with extensive legislative experience, I hasten to add. Tech’s chancellor is former state Sen. Bob Duncan, the Lubbock Republican who gave up his Senate seat to take the chancellorship at his alma mater; the A&M chancellor happens to be John Sharp, a former Democratic state senator from Victoria who’s also held elected posts as a Texas railroad commissioner and comptroller of public accounts.

I don’t know what kind of relationship these men have, but they no doubt now are rivals for a depleted source of revenue that would pay for the establishment of a veterinary medicine school.

Let’s also acknowledge the presence of a third state senator with something to say about this notion. That would be Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who happens to chair the Senate’s Higher Education Committee. Didn’t the chairman see a need to fight for Tech’s veterinary school — which would serve his sprawling West Texas Senate district?

I believe a Texas Tech veterinary school would be good for the state, good for Amarillo and the region and good for the university system. A&M officials seemed intent on torpedoing the idea from the get-go, suggesting that there is insufficient demand for a veterinary medicine school to justify an Amarillo campus run by a competing university system.

So, Texas Tech’s regents say they won’t seek money this legislative session to finance development of a veterinary school in Amarillo. They have other pressing needs … they said.

Fine. I just don’t want this idea to get buried under a pile of manure.

Educator has it right: Come visit us, Mme. Education Secretary

I want to give a full-throated cheer to a former colleague of mine who has gone on to do some great work in public education classrooms.

Shanna Peeples, who was named 2015 National Teacher of the Year, these days works in the administration of the Amarillo Independent School District. Until this school year, she taught English at Palo Duro High School. She was named National Teacher of the Year and was feted in a White House ceremony hosted by President Barack Obama. We worked for a time together many years ago for the same newspaper, the Amarillo Globe-News.

What has Peeples done to earn praise from yours truly? She has invited the current education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to visit Amarillo. Come see what’s going on here, Shanna has told DeVos.

Lord knows the education secretary could use some on-site experience visiting public schools, talking to educators who work for public school districts and to public school students.

Peeples made her invitation known on social media. She has said she’ll bring the “coffee and donuts” to a meeting with Secretary DeVos.

I want to join the one-time National Teacher of the Year in inviting DeVos to Amarillo.

Look at it this way, Mme. Secretary: Amarillo sits in the middle of the Texas Panhandle, which voted overwhelmingly for the guy who nominated you, Donald J. Trump. This is ostensibly friendly territory. Amarillo ain’t Berkeley, if you get my drift.

DeVos, though, has zero experience with public education. Not as a student, or the mother of students. She ought to come here and take a look at the work being done by those who work for the very public to which the secretary also answers.

Nice going, Shanna. I hope the secretary accepts your invitation.