• by María Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., and Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November – December 2000 • Dr. Albert CortezDr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.

As the Texas legislature embarks on its next biennial session starting in January of 2001, thoughts once again turn to the issues that will be at the forefront of the public policy debates. Heading up the state’s list of topics will be whether to provide state-supported health insurance coverage to teachers and other educators working in Texas public schools. The debates will be extensive as lawmakers argue over the type and extent of coverage, the extent that local school districts will assume a portion of the cost, who among the range of school staff will be covered, and how the programs will be administered.

An array of other topics will be competing for attention from state lawmakers as well. Among them will be a push to increase funding for the state public school instructional facilities funding, an issue that the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) has long advocated and that is now in its infancy in state funding policy.

While the state has finally begun to provide direct assistance to help schools pay for school buildings, the funds appropriated for this program are grossly inadequate. Schools are forced to compete with one another for limited resources. If a general consensus exists among different interests – including large urban and fast-growing suburban districts and rural schools, and low-wealth and moderate-wealth school systems – that more monies are needed for these programs, the legislature likely will feel some pressure to expand state support in this area.

There is a growing concern about the worsening shortage of certified teachers. This will lead to various proposals to expand the teaching pool. A coalition of conservative and moderate lawmakers, the Texas Education Reform Caucus, is hoping to address the teacher shortage by making it easier for individuals with other (non-education) degrees to acquire teaching credentials through the state’s alternative certification programs. According to testimony provided by the Texas Board for Educator Certification, upwards of 25 percent of all new teaching staff are products of this alternative certification process.

Some educators however have begun to express concern about the high number of new teachers produced through the alternative certification process and may be expanding efforts to conduct research on the achievement levels of pupils taught by such personnel. Other ideas include providing additional monies to schools to help them operate mentoring and other teacher development programs and providing state-funded performance incentives that recognize and reward successful teachers.

The Texas Education Reform Caucus may advocate changes in other areas, including expanding the existing accountability rating system (with its categories of “acceptable,” “recognized” and “exemplary”) to include new sub-ratings. In this expanded system, schools would get a “gold” rating for meeting both the basic rating criteria and additional criteria that could include the percentage of pupils who achieve a proficiency level score on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS); results on norm referenced national tests; numbers of students taking advanced placement classes and their scores on those exams; and other criteria deemed appropriate.

These are important issues. IDRA has chosen to direct its policy reform efforts on a set of nine issues that are focused on students and that on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis impact the short-term and long-term prospects for success. These nine priority areas include:

  • School dropouts
  • Open enrollment charter schools
  • Disciplinary alternative education programs
  • In-grade retention
  • High stakes testing and accountability
  • School facilities funding
  • Access to higher education
  • Access to comprehensible instruction for students learning English
  • Use of public money for private schooling.

A discussion of these issues and IDRA’s perspectives on policy considerations in each of these areas are outlined below.

School Dropouts

IDRA has conducted an annual attrition study since 1986 to track the number and percent of students in Texas who are lost from public school enrollment prior to graduation. According to our latest findings, the statewide attrition rate totaled 40 percent in 1999-00. Four of 10 students who were enrolled in the ninth grade in the 1996-97 school year were not enrolled in the 12th grade four years later.

In contrast, the state education agency reported a dropout rate of only 1.6 percent. Due to its methods of counting students for dropout calculation purposes, the state of Texas severely undercounts the number of student dropouts, thus masking the severity of the problem. The state dropout definition excludes students who received a General Education Development (GED); students who passed their high school course requirements but were denied a diploma due to failing a portion of the TAAS; students who were thought to have transferred to another school inside or outside of the state; and students believed to have returned to their home countries. The state definition of a “dropout” must be revised so that all students are counted.

In order for the state dropout estimates to be credible, a number of reforms need to be considered, specifically:

  • Change the definition of who is considered a school dropout to exclude GED, non-verified transfers and other non-verified leavers from high school graduation counts.
  • Require reporting of numbers of students graduating with a high school diploma to help verify reported dropout counts.
  • Include longitudinal dropout rates in the state accountability rating systems.

For more information on IDRA’s research and recommendations regarding student dropouts, see the October 2000 issue of the IDRA Newsletter and the policy brief, Missing: Texas Youth – Dropout and Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools. Both are available at IDRA’s web site:
http://www.idra.org/resource-center/attrition-rates-in-texas-public-high-schools/ and http://www.idra.org/research_articles/education-policy-briefs/, respectively.

Schools need to be held accountable based on the number of students they are graduating. All students must be valued and accounted for.

Open Enrollment Charter Schools

In 1995, the Texas Legislature authorized the creation of 20 charter schools to allow for innovation and community control in a small number of settings with a minimum of state control. Despite the lack of substantive information on the effectiveness of these 20 schools, Texas lawmakers authorized the creation of 100 additional charter schools in 1997 for non at-risk students and an unlimited number of charter schools that primarily proposed to serve at-risk students. Charter schools in Texas operate under a much less stringent oversight than do other public schools.

IDRA refrained from making assessments of charter schools pending the availability of data on their performance. But recently, a consortium of Texas universities completed the third of a series of annual evaluations, Texas Open-Enrollment Charter Schools: Third Year Evaluation (July 2000). Based on three years of evaluation data, the great majority of open enrollment charter schools, despite many promises, have fallen far short of expectations, and significant state-level reforms are required.

According to the state’s own evaluation, compared to public schools, charter schools have a higher student turnover rate (55 percent compared to 23 percent in public schools); perform lower in the core subjects of reading, math and writing; on average, employ less experienced staff; and have a teacher turnover rate (55 percent) three times above the state average (15.4 percent).

Despite data showing mainly poor results, many policy-makers support increasing the number of charter schools and state funding for them. Based on the evaluation findings, IDRA believes that the state of Texas should:

  • Initiate a moratorium on approvals for new open enrollment charter schools.
  • Increase its oversight of all charter school operations.
  • Create mechanisms for accelerated action in those charter schools found to be under-performing.

A copy of IDRA’s testimony regarding open enrollment charter schools is available online at:

Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs

Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs (DAEPs) were created in 1995 as part of the Texas Safe Schools Programs. The primary intention was to create a way for teachers temporarily to remove violent and seriously disruptive pupils from classrooms. Unfortunately, there are large numbers of students who are sent to DAEPs for less serious offenses.

There are emerging concerns regarding the inequitable placements and the poor quality of these programs, yet there is little comprehensive data that is available regarding the effectiveness of DAEPs. According to IDRA’s research, a disproportionate number of students sent to DAEPs are minority (66 percent) and are considered at risk of dropping out (60 percent). Bowing to school district complaints, the state has allowed these programs to be staffed by less qualified teachers, and it has no requirements that the educational programs be comparable to those offered to students in the regular school setting.

Testimony presented at public hearings has depicted some DAEPs as being warehouses for students who have been written off by school systems, the last stop for too many pupils on their way to dropping out. IDRA recommends that the state:

  • Require that DAEPs collect and report more student and program data, including student performance on TAAS and other measures and discipline and academic achievement after students return to the regular school program.
  • Require greater communication and coordination between DAEPs and regular school programs.
  • Limit DAEP referrals to the most serious offenders (as originally intended).
  • Require greater comparability in program and staff credentials between DAEPs and regular schools.

A copy of IDRA’s policy brief, Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs in Texas – What is Known; What is Needed, is available on IDRA’s web site: http://www.idra.org/research_articles/education-policy-briefs/.

When they were first created, DAEPs were touted as special environments that would allow schools to focus on smaller groups of students with special counseling and academic needs. DAEPs have not lived up to the promises made when they were created. It is time for major changes to these programs.

In-grade Retention

Many people mistakenly believe that students who did not master material from the previous year should be retained in grade. This is based on the unsupported assumption that simply repeating the previous year’s material will lead to improved learning. In-grade retention is also touted as an alternative to “social promotion,” the practice of passing a student to the next grade despite performance in order for that student to move along the grades with his or her peer group. Some consider in-grade retention an appropriate punishment for students who are believed to have purposefully not learned what was required during the school year. Too often, policy-makers and the general public have not given consideration to the research on retention.

Studies repeatedly have shown that in-grade retention simply does not work. The research indicates that over half of retained students actually do worse the year after they are retained, one-fourth do no better, and only one-tenth actually improve. More importantly, in-grade retention has been linked to dropping out. One retention increases the probability of dropping out by 50 percent, and two retentions almost guarantees it.

In-grade retention places almost all burden of accountability on students and little on schools. Most cases of in-grade retention in Texas involve minority and economically-disadvantaged students and male students. A disproportionate number of retentions in Texas occur in the ninth grade. This issue is increasingly significant due to the passage of Senate Bill 103 in 1999. Beginning in school year 2002-03, the Texas State Board of Education will phase-in new standards that will result in children grades three through 12 being retained in grade if they fail the TAAS.

Given what is known about the impact of retention on future student success, IDRA recommends that Texas:

  • Modify the state student retention policy so that in-grade retention becomes the last option considered.
  • Eliminate the use of the TAAS as the single criteria for determining grade placement.
  • Modify grade placement committee procedures to require not a unanimous vote but a majority vote to promote students.

IDRA’s policy brief, Failing Our Children – Finding Alternatives to In-Grade Retention, summarizes the issue of in-grade retention and related research. It is available online at: http://www.idra.org/research_articles/education-policy-briefs/.

High Stakes Testing and Accountability

Testing is important because it enables the education system to be held accountable. Testing is designed to show that all students, including those who are minority or from low-income households, are getting the same benefits from education as are higher socio-economic status White children. Test data is important to help inform school decisions regarding students.

All that said, emerging data is suggesting that Texas is placing disproportionate emphasis on the results of the TAAS. Tests and other assessment tools are not always used appropriately. Though originally conceived as a means of informing instruction, the use of the TAAS was quickly expanded to include its use as the primary criterion to determine whether a student will be granted a diploma. More recently, the TAAS has become the primary criterion for determining whether a student is promoted to the next grade. Thus, it has become a “high-stakes” test.

Unfortunately, use of high stakes assessment for graduation or grade-level promotion does not consider factors such as the quality of instruction that is provided to pupils or whether schools have access to all the resources needed to prepare students to be successful on this measure. As more and more students master the TAAS, there is an emerging discussion about raising state testing standards, suggesting that the mere creation of the state test, by itself, will produce better academic outcomes.

Most recently, studies of the state testing program conducted by the Rand Corporation (Grissmer, et al., 2000) and others (Haney, 2000) suggest that Texas’ over-reliance on the TAAS has not produced comparable levels of improvement on other nationally normed tests. Haney, in fact, proposes that the state’s over-emphasis on the TAAS as a sole criterion for graduation has contributed to the increase in the statewide dropout rate, which was already excessive prior to creation of the TAAS exit-level measure.

Given the well-documented shortcoming of using a single criterion for life-altering decisions involving students, IDRA recommends that state policies be revised so that:

  • No single test is used as the single or primary basis for decisions related to students’ graduation or grade-level promotion.
  • State testing data is used as one indicator but not the single criterion for judging school effectiveness.
  • All students are included in state assessment systems, while at the same time ensuring that those instruments are directly linked to what is taught and to the language of instruction.

For more information, see “Why Better Isn’t Enough: A Closer Look at TAAS Gains” in the March 2000 issue of the IDRA Newsletter. It is also available online at: http://www.idra.org/resource-center/why-better-isnt-enough/.

School Facilities Funding

All students should have access to high-quality and equitably-funded neighborhood schools, regardless of the wealth of the district they live in. Despite continuing increases in state funding, the gap in spending between rich and poor school districts has continued to grow. Texas’ failure to provide adequate state funding for facilities threatens the constitutionality of the existing funding system. While the state has made some progress toward providing funding for school facilities, the current system remains one where not all school districts that need state assistance receive it. In recent months, school districts have appealed to the state to expand schools’ limited access to those facilities resources, going so far as pursuing litigation to force the state to provide greater opportunities for some districts to apply for state aid for instructional facilities.

While facilities funding, like all state aid should be based on wealth and degree of need, it should not be limited by a reluctance to allocate the monies needed to support all schools found to be eligible for assistance. Texas facilities funding has suffered from lack of state support and more recently from significant under-funding when examined against the legitimate facilities needs that have been identified. This lack of state support has saddled Texas communities with significant long-term debt and has, in turn, placed excessive tax burdens on local property tax payers. Texas policy-makers should continue the reforms initiated in the preceding two sessions and:

  • Significantly expand state support for all types of school facilities.
  • Make the application process less dependent on limited state support and more dependent on local property tax wealth and degree of need.

Not a single child’s education should be dependent on his or her school’s ranking for monies available to fund school facilities.

Access to Higher Education

Despite the growing proportion of state enrollments, Latino and other minority and low-income pupils are still vastly under-represented in Texas higher education. Of the limited number who do enroll, many enroll in two-year colleges and never make their way into four-year institutions. While studies on college enrollment cite the importance of students’ awareness of course requirements and financial aid opportunities, too many students are still not provided critical information.

According to research conducted by Steve H. Murdock, a demographer with Texas A&M University, if minority enrollment is not increased significantly in the next decade, states in general, and Texas in particular, will not be able to meet the job skill needs of the future economy.

Simply increasing the number of minority and low-income pupils who are admitted into college however will not suffice. Even when minority pupils are accepted and attend colleges, research on student persistence indicates that less that one-half of those admitted ever get a degree. While Texas has made some progress, IDRA recommends that state leaders:

  • Study the impact of recent reforms in higher education, including the “10 Percent Plan,” and provide additional state-funded scholarships for low-wealth pupils.
  • Explore the creation of new initiatives that will strengthen coordination and alignment between K-12 grade education and higher education.
  • Create processes to more effectively link data collected at the K-12 and higher education levels to facilitate student tracking and information exchange.
  • Accelerate the creation of a system of higher education accountability that gives significant weight to undergraduate and graduate student recruitment, persistence and graduation.

We must ensure that all students have access to enter and complete college.

Access to Comprehensive Instruction for Students Learning English

Research has shown that students learn better when taught in a language that they understand best. Research also suggests that effective implementation of bilingual education and English as a second language (ESL) programs is hampered by the lack of adequately prepared teachers and is compounded by inadequate funding. Despite limitations, students in bilingual programs outperform students served in all-English classes. In contrast to other shortsighted states, Texas citizens have historically supported providing comprehensible instruction to students while at the same time developing their English language skills.

More recently, a growing number of Texans have expressed support for state-funded programs that provide all young students the opportunity to master more than one language. While providing enrichment programs through dual language instruction is a worthy goal, policy-makers should consider that creation of these new programs has implications for new and existing programs. Given this observation, IDRA recommends that state policy-makers:

  • Assess the implications of providing opportunities for expanded access to dual language instruction that would include all interested pupils.
  • Support the creation of pilot dual language programs so the state can gauge the level of interest in such programs and the impact of these options on teacher training needs and state funding formulae.
  • Make distinctions between required and optional programs and ensure state compliance with existing state bilingual and ESL statutes.

For more information on dual language programs, see “Two-way Bilingual Programs: The Demand for a Multilingual Workforce” in the IDRA Newsletter. It is available online at: http://www.idra.org/resource-center/two-way-bilingual-programs-the-demand-for-a-multilingual-workforce/. See also the article in this issue.

Use of Public Money for Private Schooling

In recent years, a handful of special interest groups have tried to shift the country away from the promise of public schooling available to all children, regardless of income or life circumstance. These groups present various compelling – sometimes contradictory – rationales, but their bottom-line goal is the same: to take public money from public schools and divert it to private schools.

With high-profile personalities and deep pockets, these groups have managed to lead some state policy-makers and concerned individuals to believe there is strong public support for such a radical change. They are mistaken. Voters have repeatedly opposed proposals to support private and religious schools with tax money. Most recently, voters rejected voucher proposals in California and Michigan.

Yet in 1999, Texas legislators considered such proposals, mostly in the form of vouchers that would be given to families to supplement the tuition of a private school for their children. Due to strong vocal opposition from Texas communities, the proposals were not successful. But proponents are likely to try again.

Public schools are institutions that are accountable to the public and to communities. Texas is among a growing number of states that already provide education alternatives in the form of specialty schools, charter schools and public school transfer programs. We must continue to use public money for public schooling, and public schooling must be reformed so that it works for all students. The answer is not to put public money into private schools where it will go to children who already have more options and leave minority and low-income pupils in public schools worse off than they are today. Vouchers would jeopardize equity for all children in public schools by diverting funds to private institutions. Vouchers take money away from neighborhood public schools and the community. Neighborhood public schools would be left only with those students who were not accepted to private schools, becoming places where the forgotten children remain behind with diminished resources and diminished public support. Furthermore, local taxes would be increased to make up for lost tax dollars to schools.

Emerging research clearly indicates that public schools are not improved by diverting public tax money to finance private schooling. IDRA recommends:

  • Public tax money should be limited to use for public schools.
  • Public schools should continue to be held to high standards and made accountable for student outcomes, including not only achievement, but also high school graduation.

A copy of IDRA’s policy brief, Students for Sale – The Use of Public Money for Private Schooling, is available online at: http://www.idra.org/research_articles/education-policy-briefs/. IDRA, educators and community organizations understand clearly that the best way to strengthen public schools is to strengthen public schools.


In recent months, Texas has been cited as a place where much reform has taken place and where education miracles have occurred. While this state has undertaken some major reforms over the last two decades, it is wise to remember that in many cases the reforms were forced upon the state – including providing comprehensible instruction to children in the early stages of learning the English language, providing access to public education for recent immigrant pupils, and, more recently, creating a more equitable system of school funding. Other reforms have been adopted reluctantly, in part due to their cost, such as reducing class sizes. Other reforms have been adopted after long and bitter battles, including the creation of the state accountability system. Many of these reforms have helped to improve the quality of Texas public education.

Despite improvements, the “lame still do not indeed walk, nor do the blind yet see,” for Texas’ education improvements are not so miraculous that we can declare that the system has been cured of all its ills. Today in Texas, many students are still failed by our school systems; too many students continue to drop out prior to graduation; and the gap in achievements between rich and poor and between White and minority pupils still exists. Today in Texas, many teachers are ill-prepared to teach their pupils, and too many communities are burdened with schools that can do well for some but not all of their students. While we should recognize what has been achieved, we must also acknowledge that we still have far to go before it can be said that, in Texas, all children are truly valued – and that all are successful.


Center for Public Policy, University of Houston; Center for the Study of Educational Reform, University of North Texas; School of Urban Affairs, University of Texas at Arlington; Texas Center for Educational Research. Texas Open-Enrollment Charter Schools: Third Year Evaluation (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, July 2000).

Cortez, A. “Why Better Isn’t Enough: A Closer Look at TAAS Gains,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 2000).

Cortez, A. and M. Robledo Montecel. Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs in Texas – What is Known; What is Needed (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).

Cortez, A. and J.D. Supik, A.A. Romero, C.L. Goodman. Students for Sale – The Use of Public Money for Private Schooling (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).

Grissmer, D.W. and A. Flanagan, J. Kawata, S. Williamson. Improving Student Achievement: What NAEP State Test Scores Tell Us (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corporation, 2000).

Haney, W. “The Myths of the Texas Miracle in Education,” Education Policy Analysis Archives (August 19, 2000) Vol. 8, No. 41.

Johnson, R. “Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools: 1999-00 Study Results,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 2000).

McCollum, P. and A. Cortez, O. Maroney, F. Montes. Failing Our Children – Finding Alternatives to In-Grade Retention (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).

Robledo Montecel, M. Testimony on Texas Open Enrollment Charter Schools, submitted to the Texas House of Representatives Interim Committee on Public Education (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 2000).

Supik, J.D. and R.L. Johnson. Missing: Texas Youth – Dropout and Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).

Maria “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is the IDRA executive director. Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the division director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2000, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November – December 2000 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]