For several years in Harris County Republican circles, there has been a movement to eliminate the Harris County Department of Education. As I noted earlier, this year State Rep. Debbie Riddle has filed a bill in the state legislature to do just that.
The question is: is she right? Should the Harris County Department of Education be shuttered in September of this year and its assets turned over to the Harris County Commissioners Court for disposal by September of next year?
Over the past few months, I’ve tried to answer that question in my own mind and this is the conclusion that I’ve come to: no. There are several reasons that pushed me in that direction but two stand out: (1) the fact that this specific bill does not have any contingency plan whatsoever for the children that would be affected by it and (2) the lack of understanding about the department from some of the people that are pushing for its closure.
Decisions should be made in the best interest of the children being served
The first reason is why I put that picture above of my granddaughter in the field of bluebonnets. It really is “about the children” and we cannot forget that. My family has been blessed with her arrival, and her overall good health. But not every child is born healthy or “normal” in our society. We have chosen a path that shares the burden of educating those children in order to maximize their life potential. The Harris County Department of Education runs two schools that lightens the financial burden for taxpayers at the same time it provides the highest quality education available.
The Harris County Department of Education also runs two schools that educate those children that have disciplinary problems so severe that the local ISD’s cannot afford to allow them to disrupt classes. Some of these children are in the court system, having committed crimes ranging from theft to murder. Unlike when I was a child, we do not kick them out of school – the schools still must find a way to educate them. Again, the Harris County Department of Education has found a way to educate these wayward children in a way that lightens the financial burden for taxpayers at the same time it provides the highest quality education available.
Lack of knowledge from those pushing for closure is disturbing
This second reason is disturbing because frankly, I see it a lot in conservative circles. Some of those “on the right” limit their sources of information to their own small circles, conservative talk radio, and news outlets that share their views. I was shocked when I talked to several high ranking Republican officials that regurgitated the talking points of the loudest detractors of the Harris County Department of Education. I’m not saying I’m perfect but at least I try to get basic facts right. Several of the people that I spoke to about Rep. Riddle’s bill insisted that the Harris County Department of Education had no students and no schools.
The fact is that the Harris County Department of Education has no “zoned” students. In other words, all students are zoned to local ISD’s, not to the Harris County Department of Education. What this means is that the local ISD’s are the bodies ultimately responsible for educating the children. These local ISD’s have determined after an ARD (Admission, Review, and Dismissal) meetings that they cannot educate certain children with their current resources. If each of the 26 ISD’s that the Harris County Department of Education serves had to provide individual instruction for these children, the cost would be astronomical, forcing the local ISD to either raise their local tax rate or cut services to other children.
I happen to live in the La Porte Independent School District, so I called and talked to the Superintendent, Lloyd Graham. Mr. Graham verified the cost effectiveness of sending a child to one of the Harris County Department of Education special schools versus trying to go it alone. It is worth noting that La Porte ISD does have its own alternative schools. The children we are talking about are either so severely handicapped or are such a disciplinary problem that they cannot be served even by these schools. Mr. Graham praised the work of the Harris County Department of Education and didn’t know how the district would handle it if Rep. Riddle’s bill passes.
So, while it is true that the Harris County Department of Education has no “zoned” students, it is false and misleading to say that they have no students. In fact, I know this personally because I asked for and was granted a tour of two of the schools: the east side Academic and Behavior Center (ABC) that educates severely disabled students and the east side Highpoint (HP) campus that handles students with disciplinary problems. For privacy reasons, I didn’t take any pictures but here is a video that the Harris County Department of Education produced last year:
My visit to the ABC school was emotionally draining. The principal, Mindy Robertson, obviously has a passion for working with disabled children. In fact, the entire staff seemed to have been “called” to this work. It certainly isn’t the easiest teaching job around but every staff member I saw was compassionate and well, amazing. The staffing ratio is typically two adults to five children, they have a full time nurse on staff, and have specialized programs to transition those that have aged out of the school to live on their own. Just an amazing visit.
The visit to Highpoint was just as amazing in a different sort of way. I forget the terminology that principal David Oquin used for their techniques but it reminded me somewhat of a boot camp environment. But it was the compassion the staff exhibited that stood out. Principal Oquin and his staff seemed to truly care about the kids and their recidivism rate is extremely low. The more children we turn from a life of crime and violence, the better off society will be.
The idea that those pushing to close these schools don’t even know they exist is, as I said, disturbing.
If the bill passes, then what?
As I said, no contingency plans have been made. I spoke to several people about adding language to address these schools but they didn’t appear to be interested. Because of their reluctance to address or even acknowledge these students and schools, I think it needs to be defeated. The bill has been referred to the Public Education committee and I will be urging them to let it die there.
Is the Harris County Department of Education perfect?
No, of course not. I’ve had many discussions with the superintendent, Dr. John Sawyer, about some of his decisions, such as hiring Jerry Eversole and other lobbyists. Ridiculous waste of money. And there are other issues that need to be resolved – using taxpayer money to fund the new cloud computing project or board members taking trips to
New York Washington, D.C. to network. A bloated PR staff, albeit an award winning one. As with any bureaucracy, there are many areas of improvement that we can find.
But the good thing about the Harris County Department of Education is that they have an elected board that we can take our concerns to. Some of those in favor of closing the Harris County Department of Education want the Texas Education Agency’s Region 4 service center to take over the functions of the Harris County Department of Education. What a disaster that would be. Have you ever tried to get the TEA to change something? It is much better to have an elected board to take you concerns to. One of the pillars of conservatism is that we want government to function at the lowest possible local level – well, that is exactly what the Harris County Department of Education and the 26 local ISD’s that participate in their programs are doing.
And another pillar of conservatism is being efficient and keeping tax rates low. Certainly, the Harris County Department of Education has done both of those. The board has kept the tax rate very low and the staff has leveraged taxpayer money through grants and cooperative purchasing, allowing the local ISD’s to educate these special needs children for a fraction of the cost it would take if they had to do it individually.
I’m going to urge my State Rep. John Davis to vote against Rep. Riddle’s bill.