November 29, 2022

From upcoming school voucher fights to the need to bridge communities across political divisions, current and former Texas superintendents shared their thoughts on the biggest pressures facing public education.

In a candid conversation Wednesday, the leaders shared their perspective with The Dallas Morning News to discuss the political pressure cooker that the superintendent post has become and how school leaders can navigate the challenges.

The panelists included the new Fort Worth Superintendent Angelica Ramsey — who faced backlash before she even started the position — and Mesquite Superintendent Angel Rivera along with Jeannie Stone, who recently retired from Richardson, and Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators.

Here are some of the main takeaways from the conversation.

Help wanted: Texas’ superintendent posts becoming political pressure cooker

‘School vouchers are criminal’

Public education leaders are looking ahead to the upcoming legislative session, including gearing up for an expected fight over voucher-like programs.

Though previous pushes for vouchers — which allow families to use public dollars to send their children to private schools — have been unsuccessful in Texas, many speculate that some lawmakers will capitalize on families’ increased disappointment with public schools, clashes over culture wars and the desire for more autonomy this session.

“Vouchers are criminal,” Ramsey said, adding that they take the inequities that already exist in a “systemic system” and only make it worse by funneling resources away from students most in need of support.

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Rivera and Stone said public dollars belong in public schools in order to close achievement gaps across the state — especially as inflation increases expenses.

“We do a lot less with the same amount of money … [it’s] just costing that much more to educate children,” Rivera said.

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The school leaders argued that Texas — which already has a significant budget surplus — should be funneling more money into public schools, not out of them.

Funding for pre-K and early childhood education, teacher pensions and testing reforms are also likely to show up in legislative decisions this year, the panelists said — or at least they hope.

“Texas has about $27 billion in reserves, the most money by far the state’s ever had,” Brown said. “We need to prioritize education.”

Struggling to hire teachers

One of the challenges that has harbored most of Rivera’s time is hiring educators. His district struggled to fill more than 100 vacancies as kids started classes. Even now, more than two months into the school year, Mesquite ISD still has about 40 vacancies.

“We’re still searching for highly qualified staff to teach our children,” Rivera said.

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Recent polls show that many teachers are exhausted and overwhelmed after two years of the pandemic. Heated debates over what and how educators can teach only pile onto the struggle of recruitment, the leaders noted.

School leaders are seeing more and more teachers who don’t feel valued, Ramsey said. That plays into the process of retaining educators who may already feel burnt out from pandemic struggles.

“Right now, teachers need champions who are fighting for them and who are fighting for their rights,” Rivera said. “We need people who are passionate and want to make a difference in our public schools.”

Stone, who now works as The Commit Partnership’s superintendent-in-residence to provide guidance to other school leaders, said communities need to come together to support public education. (Commit’s CEO Todd Williams supports the Education Lab through his family’s foundation.)

Teachers “are still the heroes,” Stone added.

Despite the divide between some schools and families caused by political beliefs or COVID-19, parents also should make an effort to develop a sense of partnership with teachers, Brown said.

“The parent has to walk into a conversation recognizing that we’re in this together. We’re in this to help the child,” he said.

Political fights have worsened — and are disruptive

Superintendents “have to continuously evolve because you’re now dealing not only with generational changes in the workforce, but now political entities are affecting the climate of the organization,” Rivera said.

Ramsey, who recently started her position at FWISD after leading Midland since 2021, said that when navigating the district through the pandemic, she quickly understood that “any decision we made, you were angering what felt like half of the population.”

As the state approaches election day, Ramsey noted that these kinds of “pressures that go all the way down into a school system” only become stronger, such as debates around what books to allow in schools or how teachers should talk about race, sexuality or gender.

It’s imperative, however, that school leaders don’t allow politics to distract them from putting the students first, she said.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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