The Thinking Behind Texas Families First

This post is from a guest blogger, Leo Linbeck III. Thanks to Leo and the educators and business leaders who huddled up with him to think beyond Z about our upcoming legislative session!

Texas Families First is a different kind of education reform.

I can hear the collective groans after reading this sentence. “Yeah, sure, a different kind of reform. Great. That’s what we need, is another ‘reform’ that confuses everyone, makes teachers’ jobs harder, and ends up hurting kids.”

If that’s the kind of skeptical response you have to YEARP “yet another education reform proposal,” it’s with good reason: the past 40 years, the state has lurched from one major reform to another, but never solving the underlying problem. Through it all, the state has driven the process, trying to fix a system that they, by and large, were responsible for breaking.

TFF took a different approach. The core team behind TFF is comprised of educators and parent advocates – people who have spent many years working in schools (both districts and charter), educating children and educators, and advising families on how to find the best school for their kids. The approach was informed by real-world experience in the challenging world of P-12 education.

And this “bottom-up” perspective resulted in an agenda unlike any other that has been proposed in recent memory.

How is it different?

First, TFF was developed with an understanding that the shortcomings of the current system of public education in Texas are systemic. The problem does not have a single cause, and therefore cannot be solved by a single change to the system. Often, education reform proposals have tried to find a “silver bullet,” the one change that would magically fix everything for every kid. These “silver bullet” approaches have come in many different forms:

  • Accountability. For a number of years, we’ve been told that the problem is that schools are not held accountable for the performance of their students. To fix education, therefore, all we need to do is create a system of tests that measure how schools are doing, and the underperforming schools will be forced to change their ways.
  • Vouchers. Proponents of this reform have pointed out that since most schools are run by monopoly districts, they are not subject to the forces of competition. The solution, then, is to give money to families and let them attend private schools. The resulting competition for resources will drive innovation and improvement across the entire system.
  • Expand charters. Similar to vouchers, charters are often held up as the solution. Add more charters, create more competition, force traditional districts to compete for students, and the market will take care of everything else.
  • Merit pay. Since teachers are the most important factor in the performance of schools, we were told that creating incentives – and in particular tying pay to performance – were the way to fix the system.
  • Parent trigger. One of the latest innovative ideas in education reform is the “parent trigger,” which allows parents to petition for a change in the management of their school. This innovation has gotten a lot of attention lately due to a the movie “Won’t Back Down,” which chronicles the efforts of a Los Angeles mom to change the leadership at her child’s public school.

Now, all of these ideas have merit – after all, who can argue against accountability, choice, parent control, and rewarding great teaching? And this is just a partial list – there have been many more attempts to find that elusive “silver bullet.”

There is one common element of all of these reforms: they were all state-wide reforms. They were designed, debated, passed, and administered at the state level. Passing those reforms resulted in a transfer of power and authority from local entities and families to a centralized state bureaucracy. Those who were actually responsible for their implementation – school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, and families – ended up being subject to more control out of Austin.

The cumulative effect of these reforms, then, resulted in an educational system that was more bureaucratic, less responsive, and larger scale. We evolved from a distributed, localized system to a system of central control.

This reality leaves us in a situation where incremental reforms cannot address the underlying problem. The existing system is so complex and interconnected that attempts to make change at the margin are bound to be ineffective. As I said above, the problem is systemic, so a systemic solution is what is needed.

The Texas Families First Coalition therefore set out to create a systemic solution. We worked to develop an alternative system of regulating public education in Texas. This system is built around the two principles of local control and family empowerment. These two principles, in turn, create a sort of balance or creative tension. Both are needed, and in their proper proportion.

A reform program that only provided local control would fail, because we would only be substituting one state-wide monopoly for many local ones. Many of the state regulations that have accumulated over the years have been in response to the dysfunction that has occurred within some of these local monopolies. Freeing a monopoly to behave like a monopoly would not improve the system. That is why family empowerment must be coupled with local control – families must have the rights and privileges needed to hold local districts accountable for their performance. It is only when families are empowered that local jurisdictions can be trusted with local control.

A reform program that only provided family empowerment would fail, because the vast majority of the capacity in is the public school system, and without freeing that capacity to respond to the needs and wants of families, the result would simply be anger and frustration. For families to have a real choice, they must have options, and that requires freeing districts from burdensome state regulations. That is why local control must be coupled with family empowerment – districts must have the freedom and flexibility to respond to families. It is only when local districts are free to respond and innovate that families will enjoy the benefits of choice.

There is more to say on this topic, which I will do in a future blog post.


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