News on Pensions, Vouchers, and El Paso ISD Takeover

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State Takeover of El Paso ISD Raises Questions:  Texas commissioner of education Michael Williams today announced the state takeover of the El Paso Independent School District, declaring the move justified because the community has lost confidence in the school board there in the wake of a cheating scandal. The scandal implicated administrators who manipulated student grade levels to improve passing rates on accountability exams. In part because of that scheme to circumvent accountability standards, the former EPISD superintendent is now in prison.

The El Paso school board has not been accused of involvement in the scheme but rather of failing to act promptly on allegations of wrongdoing by administrators. (There have been no allegations of teacher involvement in this scandal.) The Texas Education Agency over which the commissioner presides has come in for the same criticism-so much so that the commissioner wants an independent audit of his own agency's response to the El Paso scandal.

While vocal critics have called for the local board's ouster, the commissioner's takeover of EPISD may not be exactly what they had in mind.  The commissioner's action initially puts in a Texas Education Agency conservator as the district's overseer, with extensive veto power over decisions of the local board. Commissioner Williams also took a more extreme step, naming a board of managers that will take over the district eventually, if his move wins the okay of the U.S. Justice Department. The Justice Department must judge whether his action suspending the elected school board and handing its powers over to the commissioner's appointees runs afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act.

By the time the Justice Department decides that issue a few months hence, El Paso ISD will be nearing the filing deadline for a regularly scheduled school-board election, which would give El Paso voters a chance to decide for themselves who should govern their schools. Commissioner Williams says this May election will proceed as scheduled, even though the trustees elected then could find themselves without power for the duration-up to two years-of Williams' appointed board of managers. All this raises a question:  Is the commissioner's takeover of the district the fastest way to move forward toward a new day for El Paso ISD? Or would the students and community of EPISD be better served if the democratic process were to run its course in local elections where the community could work its will?  

Good News from Next Door on Vouchers:  A statewide voucher program for private and religious schools has been declared unconstitutional in Louisiana. The case, decided on the basis of state constitutional language mandating the funding of public schools, is of more than passing interest at a time when some Texas politicians are bent on enacting a voucher scheme here. Louisiana's AFT affiliate, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, hailed the state court's decision.  LFT President Steve Monaghan said, “Not only was the voucher program patently unconstitutional, but it placed children into schools without adequate oversight and with no assurance of quality instruction.”



Comptroller Says State Retirement Systems in “Good Shape”
:  Texas comptroller Susan Combs this week said the state Employees Retirement System and the Teacher Retirement System are in “pretty doggone good shape.” Her assessment, based on a new report from her agency, does not provide much aid or comfort to private interests that want to kill off these defined-benefit plans and to replace them with privately managed individual retirement accounts–so-called defined-contribution pension plans offering retirees no guaranteed level of benefits.

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