Is Rick Perry Abandoning School Accountability and Merit Pay?

By 10/03/2011

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Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott was in enemy territory recently, telling the folks at Massachusetts’s Pioneer Institute (including some who favor Romney, such as myself [full disclosure] )  about the virtues of the Texas education system, a topic of national significance now that Rick Perry’s chariot has leaped to lead position in the Republican presidential nomination race.

The rap against Texas is that its students trail, by a wide margin, the national average in achievement and graduation rates. That’s a false rap, because Texas faces the enormous challenges of a southern state that shares a long border with Mexico. When Texas’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress is broken out by ethnic background, its record comes close to that of Massachusetts, as Allison Sherry pointed out in her recent Ed Next article on the education policies advocated by several of the Republican candidates.

But if Texas is doing better than some have claimed, Perry can’t take much credit for that. Texas school reform was begun long before the current governor arrived on the scene.  As I discuss in my book, Saving Schools, the Texas accountability system was put into place in the 1980s at the urging of Ross Perot. It was Democratic governor Ann Richards who got things going and Governor George W. Bush who kept accountability in place during the eight years he spent in Austin.

Now, the pressures to dismantle the accountability system in Texas have risen within the state legislature, Commissioner Scott told his audience. Because accountability has become unpopular among powerful interests who have influence in the Texas legislature, Perry and Scott, borrowing a trick from President Barack Obama and U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan,  have agreed to giving 25 school districts waivers from the state accountability system, provided the districts come up with an acceptable alternative.  That number that could climb in the next few years, Scott bragged to the assembled group.

Under questioning, Scott insisted he remained committed to testing and accountability.  But special waivers for certain districts undermine the entire system.  What makes accountability work is the common assessment of all students within the state, allowing for comparisons across the board.  If the highest performing districts are dropped from the assessment, as Scott suggested would happen, then all other districts will look better when compared to the new, artificially deflated, statewide average.

Moreover, without solid, comparative information on student performance, basing teacher salaries on merit (student learning) becomes considerably more complicated, though that may not matter, as Perry has gutted merit pay as well.  Scott told the group that the fiscal crisis forced the state to drop its merit pay program, another sign the governor is giving in to special interests.

But it is the risk that the Perry Administration poses for the long-standing Texas accountability system that is most worrisome. Perry has sharply opposed national standards in education.  Now, it seems, his administration is about to undermine state standards as well.

This may be popular with teacher unions and local district officials in Texas, but the general public nationwide may think otherwise.  The 2011 Education Next poll identified overwhelming public support for student testing and school accountability.

Does Rick Perry really want to dismantle the Texas accountability system? Unless he does, he should not be using the same waiver technique the White House is using to gut No Child Left Behind.

-Paul Peterson

Comment on this article
  • Sandy Kress says:

    First, a confession. I’m a big admirer of Paul Peterson. I share the values and concerns he reflects in his post.

    As most readers of this blog know, I have been deeply involved in Texas reforms since they began to be implementated systematically in the early 90s. I have a strong and passionate commitment to keeping accountability, broadly defined, in place in our state.

    I believe Governor Perry is strongly committed to maintaining accountability in Texas, so I wanted to respond to a few of Paul’s characterizations.

    As to merit pay, which I have been deeply involved in supporting and help create in Texas, Governor Perry has been a strong and steadfast supporter. I recall his role in the early days in using some discretionary dollars to model pay for performance and then his leadership in seeking support from the legislature for our program, which became the largest in the country.

    In this last session, Governor Perry did insist that we deal with our fiscal problems without tax increases. That meant some budget cuts, and the legislature did cut deeply (too deeply, in my view) into state education initiatives. This was unfortunate, but not Governor Perry’s doing, nor within his power to prevent.

    I could spend more time than I have here to talk about the uphill politics behind creating and sustaining merit pay. But the main point I want to make is that Perry is a supporter and that our loss was in no way due to his “giving in to special interests.”

    As to the district waiver program, this initiative came out of the legislature, not from the Governor’s office. So, it’s not at all like Secretary Duncan’s waiver program, which the Executive is doing on its own without legislative authority. Further, while I worry a lot about the Administration’s watering down accountability across the country, I am convinced the Texas program will entail added accountability while under Robert Scott’s administration. That is to say, I believe he’ll look for additional and more rigorous measures for higher end performance while maintaining student specific, objective measures for students across the board.

    This is not to say that I like the bill the legislature passed. I worry about its expansion and, mostly, its administration in a post-Perry period for precisely the same reasons Paul raises.

    Finally, as to accountability generally, Governor Perry has been a stalwart supporter and defender of our accountability initiatives. Our state adopted a basic re-write of our accountability policies under HB 3 two years ago. It’s a fine model for states and has been widely designated as such by many groups around the country, including Achieve and the SREB. Make no mistake about it, it would never been as strong as it was when passed nor would it have survived this last session without being watered down but for the looming veto pen of Governor Perry.

    I know Paul has decided to support Romney and respect his decision, but the record should be clear: Governor Perry has been a strong leader on education and a fervent supporter of accountability and other policies designed to improve student academic results.

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