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School Choice: Students vs. Education Reformers

“Julian you are precocious” were the words that I heard that morning from Mrs. Wutke, one of my instructors in high school. Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 8.32.35 AMThat comment sent me scurrying for the dictionary. Nowadays, you turn to dictionary.com— which tells me that I was “flowering or fruiting earlier than usual.” Sadly, Mrs. Wutke was killed in a tragic car accident a few years after I graduated from high school. I have never forgotten her words. Regardless how precocious I was in high school, I was never anywhere near filing an amicus brief in a Supreme Court case. I bring this up because in the Houston Independent School District (HISD), my former employer, there are some precocious students making waves.
About 10 HISD Student Congress members spent the summer researching and writing an amicus brief in support of more funding for Texas schools. This from Laura Isensee at Houston Public Media KUHF.

What’s at stake is the future of school funding for 5 million Texas students. And these teenagers from the HISD Student Congress sided with the majority of school districts. They argue the current funding system is outdated and shortchanges students, especially ones with high needs.

More from Houston Public Media KUHF.

On a recent afternoon, senior Amy Fan read a new legal brief at the library at Bellaire High School.

“By the time we graduate, we will have spent approximately 16,000 hours inside the classroom,” Fan read. “We have witnessed the highs and lows, the ins and outs of a Texas education.”

This isn’t from the army of attorneys involved in the latest school finance battle. It’s from Fan and other students.

They wrote it themselves and submitted it to the Texas Supreme Court as an amicus brief in the ongoing case. An amicus brief is filed by a group or individual with an interest in the outcome.

“We urge the court to consider our voices. The stakes are simply too high,” Fan read.

Listen to the KUHF story by clicking on the link in the Tweet below.

Our education “consumers” are very well aware that they are getting bargain shelf education (Yes, that’s a pot shot at market-based education thinkers). Here is more from the students in the KUHF story,

“We felt like all the other briefs filed in the case were written by administrators, superintendents, kind of lawyers – people who’ve never sat in a classroom for any extended period of time before they wrote these briefs,” said Fan, who is the current speaker for the grassroots student group.

Zaakir Tameez, who graduated from Carnegie Vanguard High in 2015, said they wanted the justices to remember that students are more than numbers.  “We’ve been through the door,” he said.

Juliana Dunn, who also graduated from Carnegie Vanguard, visited Lee High School in Southwest Houston. “It’s a place where a lot of immigrants come to Houston and a lot of English language learners end up here at Lee,” she said.

The school’s principal Jonathan Trinh shared in the KUHF story

“I have a kid that cannot read or write in his own language that I have to get ready to graduate high school in America four years from now,” Trinh said. “And then somehow make that one dollar fit that one child.”

Texas hasn’t updated the funding for English language learners in decades.

“It’s not fair. It’s not – no matter how you sit back and say, ‘Well, you know, you get the same money; the other kid doesn’t get any more.’ It’s not the same problem,” Trinh said.

He has to schedule two or three language arts classes in a row so that students get enough intensive English training. Many are immigrants from Central America, Syria and other places.

Trinh relates to their situation because he was a refugee. He came to the United States from Vietnam when he was 12 years old. If he had more funding for his students, he’d make classes smaller.

“If I can get the class size down to about 20, 21, ideally that’s perfect to learn,” he explained.

Considering the context of Houston schools, HISD student congress team members tried to answer two questions in the Supreme Court amicus brief.

  • What is it like to educate English language learner students?
  • What would Lee do with more funding?

What did the lawyers think about all this? again from the KUHF article,

“Courts come up with the exact same things that these kids are saying,” said Wendy Lecker, senior attorney at the Education Law Center. It’s worked on school finance cases in New York, New Jersey and Nevada…

Lecker said that in all her experience she’s “never, never” seen an amicus brief written and submitted by students before.

“I think it was very powerful not only because they’re high school students that did this great job, but they are really giving us a window into what really goes on in schools,” she said.

Other attorneys in Texas complimented the students’ work.

“Some of the other briefs filed on behalf of these policy-wonks and in support of the intervenors – I would definitely say that this brief even exceeds those briefs that have been authored by some lawyers,” said David Hinojosa, who is national policy director at the Intercultural Development Research Association and former senior attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF.

David Thompson, who is representing the Houston Independent School District and other school districts, said that he hopes the justices give the students’ 35-page brief a good read.

What’s brilliant about the HISD student congress brief is that it focuses on what students would CHOOSE and how THEY would allot additional funding from the state.

  1. Decrease class size
  2. Improve teacher quality
  3. Expand enrichment programs
  4. Provide more college and preparatory resources

THIS IS WHAT SCHOOL CHOICE LOOKS LIKE. THIS IS WHAT STUDENTS WANT TO CHOOSE IN THEIR SCHOOLS. Charters, vouchers, parent trigger and all of the other top down, private control policies are not what students desire. They are not looking for cheap education reform that “moves around the chairs on the deck of the Titanic“— they are asking society to invest in reforms that have decades of research supporting them— but have a price tag.

What will the Texas Supreme Court decide? What will the courts and legislatures in your locality decide? Will they give the children their choices instead of the ideological priorities of the top-down, private control reformers?

See the student’s press release here. See the full text of the brief here. See Wendy Lecker’s, senior attorney for the Education Law Center in NY,  Stamford Advocate column about the Houston students here.

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Twitter: @ProfessorJVH

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p.s. Thanks to Karen from Houston for the heads up on this story.

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About Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig (685 Articles)
Julian Vasquez Heilig is an award-winning researcher and teacher. He is currently a Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and the Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership at California State Sacramento.

1 Comment on School Choice: Students vs. Education Reformers

  1. This is such a powerful story! I am SO PROUD of the students in the HISD Student Congress. They are outlining a quality education and I hope that the Texas Supreme Court has the courage and wisdom to see that crucial funding is absent and therefore, the right to a quality education has been denied. I also hope that the entire community has the courage and wisdom to stand with the Houston Student Congress. This means so much more than standing with them at a rally but perhaps ultimately paying higher taxes. I would not label these students as precocious. I see them as true Americans, advocating for their right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Some of the students may not be old enough to vote but I believe children, and in this case young adults, have such a strong sense of justice. I am thankful they are challenging their immediate system and by doing so, challenging us all to be courageous, not precocious, when called upon to advocate for our rights.

    Like

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