Laura: The First Lady on Showtime
Claire: Now and Then Podcast
Nichole: Leave No Trace on Hulu
Laura Subrin Yeager’s experience in policy work dovetailed perfectly into her public education advocacy. She saw an issue in her son’s diminishing love of learning and pulled the thread to understand what was happening. That thread led her down the path of learning about testing in Texas public schools for herself and then she began to share that information with others. Each new piece of her advocacy work was born of a real-life issue that she wrestled with and she walks us through the implications of each. Laura motivates by explaining how to engage with public officials and how to be prepared for advocacy. She’s a force for good and we know you’ll find her just as inspiring!
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Education: Laura Subrin Yeager Enlightens Us On The History Of Public Education Accountability And Lights A Fire For How To Make The System Accountable To Us
We have a super interesting episode for you. We just got done chatting with Laura Subrin Yeager. She is an education advocate superstar. She was at the helm of starting three education advocacy groups, TAMSA, which stands for Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment. She also helped found Texas Educators Vote. Lastly, she’s the Director of Just Fund It Texas. She has a wide knowledge of many of the facets that affect public education. Nicole, what did you think of this talk?
I feel like this is something I repeat every time, but I learned so much. She had so much to share. It was all so relevant and important. I think of Laura’s particular strength. I know she actually has a presentation that she’s working on called Connect The Dots. I’m glad that she does because that best summarizes what she does. She connects the dots because she’s such an expert on all of the pieces that affect public education in Texas. She pulls all of the different pressures and data that she has studied and learned about. She is such an expert.
She has been doing so much of this work. She said she started in 2011, so she has this history of understanding what has been happening in the State. I appreciate the work she has put into it because someone needs to be an advocate for students. She is very much thinking of them at the forefront, which is wonderful. She also, in the end, talks about the importance of listening to our students and how they’re so wise. We can learn so much from them. Sadly, their voices are left out of the conversation a lot of the time. Anyway, I hope you enjoy our conversation with Laura.
Laura, we are excited to talk with you. Can you start out by sharing with us a little bit about your journey regarding education advocacy, and just a little bit about you and your background?
Thank you so much for having me, and thanks for doing this show. It’s a great idea and I think people will appreciate it. I grew up in the Washington DC area. I spent essentially the first three years of my life there and in various other cities on the Coasts and in other countries. I moved to Austin in 1998. I had a one-year-old. My husband was from Texas. I have now been here for 24 years. My background was I had done international trade policy. I was a Government major. I studied International Affairs and I did policy. I worked in the Federal government, private sector, and nonprofits. I did a little bit of all of it, but I got here and had three kids that I was raising in Texas public schools.
It didn’t dawn on me that my policy background would be relevant, but my interest started when my oldest son was starting elementary school in kindergarten. There was an issue where the PTA raised enough money to have a Spanish teacher in addition to all the other stuff they were teaching. They raised enough money and the teachers actually voted it down. This kid is now 25. This kid was in kindergarten.
The teachers voted it down because there wasn’t enough time in the day to have Spanish, twenty minutes a day, twice a week, and prepare for the TAKS test. This was before STAAR. This is when I was like, “What is that TAKS test?” Little by little, over the years, I saw this extreme focus on high-stakes standardized testing, and what it was doing to learning and the kids. As I got more involved with the kids’ schools, I saw an issue. Later, it led me into trying to figure out who did what in our policy and how to make changes to help all 5.5 million kids in Texas public schools.
Were you in Austin this whole time?
Yes. One of the three kids went through Austin ISD public schools.
What happened with that money that didn’t go to the Spanish teacher?
It got moved to the border. I’m sorry. That’s very tacky of me.
There are other billions of dollars doing that. We’ll talk about that later.
We’re talking to folks who aren’t elected officials but are in advocacy work. What’s interesting is how it’s one little incident that’s like looking under the rock and you’re like, “Whoa.” They don’t like to throw it down and walk away. They’re like, “I got to keep learning more.” It sounds like that’s what happened with you with this particular incident regarding the funds for your child’s school.
That was the first episode, but that same kid in fourth grade brought home their homework. I noticed that this was a kid who love learning. We go write books in his closet. This was a kid bursting with love for going to school and suddenly didn’t like going to school. He was in fourth grade and was bringing home either 100 or 50 on everything. I remember looking and I said, “I don’t understand. You got a 50, but all these questions are right. This was math.” He said, “No. It’s not if it’s right or wrong. If we get 50 points if you do it right, but it’s about if you circle, highlight, underline, and do the test prep the way they were doing it. Mom, it doesn’t make sense. They’re making me memorize stupid stuff. It’s not how I learn.”
Little by little, I learn more and more about it. When that kid was in ninth grade, it was when the legislation went into effect. Starting with the ninth graders who are in the class of 2015, there would be 15 under-course exams to graduate. They would be 15% in your grade, and you could not apply to a Texas school. That’s when TAMSA started. I had been building it up over the years. We can talk more about TAMSA, but all these people came together. It was just one grade. The kids that were older weren’t affected by it yet. It was just high school that had these new high stakes put on them. It was a real lesson in advocacy, democracy, and civic engagement. We learned a lot of lessons that I’ve carried through with all of the other projects I’ve undertaken in the next fifteen years.
That’s super fascinating. I went to Texas public schools and graduated from Texas public schools, but it was before the things that you’re talking about. When I taught, the highest grade level I taught was second. I avoided testing years. My relationship with all of this is pretty much on the out outskirts. It’s interesting to hear it all from your point of view because I haven’t experienced it either as a teacher or a former student.
That was fortunate.
Why don’t we go ahead and talk about TAMSA? Can you tell us about that organization, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment?
We started right after the 2011 session when the legislation had been passed previously. All these kids were from the class of 2015. I heard at a PTA meeting at Anderson High School that there was this new law. It was going to mess with the kids. The teachers were freaked out, and across the state, they didn’t know how to integrate it. What serendipitously came together was a journalist, a child psychiatrist, an attorney, a dispute resolution expert, I have a policy background, and a school board member. We came together. This was an issue that superintendents, principals, and teachers had been talking about forever at the legislature, but the parent voice had not been there.
We ended up starting this group. We’re very thoughtful about the name. We were not against testing. We are for meaningful and engaging learning, and diagnostic testing that would be of value to teachers, parents and students. There are some lessons we learned that we could talk about and spend on other things. We did our research. First of all, we went to the school board and they said, “We can’t do anything.” We said, “Who does?” The attorney went and talked to TEA. That got things bustling a little bit, and then we said, “The legislature makes these laws.”
We then did our research about what happens in other states across the country, what the requirements were federally, and where these decisions were made. We went and did white papers and presentations. We met with parents across the state who sighed this collective relief that somebody was helping them understand what was required and what we were doing in the context of what other states were doing.
We were so much farther above and beyond in high-stakes standardized testing. It all started in Texas and we were leading. We still are a little bit, and then we educated people. We engaged them and then we empowered them to advocate. People came to the Capitol. They called and called so Governor Perry would not veto the legislation that brought it from 15 under course exams down to 5, which took it out of the grades. Everyone told us it would take decades, and in that one session, we got it done. Subsequently, there has been a little bit more we’ve done each time in the individual graduation committees.
It’s a tough road and people make a lot of money off that. It was not easy, but it was one time when democracy feels triumphed. When House Bill 5 passed, which incorporated those changes, everyone in the aisle from Wendy Davis to Dan Patrick, all wanted to be in the picture with us when that bill was signed. I’m not sure they all would still, but it was interesting.
One thing I will add in terms of tying it back. Growing up in DC, I was surrounded by people who were civil servants, experts in their field, and willing. My dad was a labor lawyer. My mom did PR for hotels. We didn’t do political stuff. I stayed away from Capitol Hill. It seemed unseemly I didn’t want to deal with that, but those people make decisions so you can know your stuff all there is. Unless you have any interaction with the people who are making the decisions, it’s hard to get big changes. I learned that lesson coming to Texas.
As you were talking, you were making me think. Can you catch us up to speed a little bit on the history? Was it in 2011 that the high-stakes testing kicked into gear and that’s when you all started to push back against it or was it a different time?
It started around 2000 when No Child Left Behind started. It was started by George Bush here. They ratcheted it up. It started with basic tests. There were basic tests with stakes attached, and then it became more of an accountability system. I have a chart I can show you that it got more invasive and is being used for more things. The high stakes on students, I would have to go back and look, but that fifteen and in your grades is insane. They went too far and it woke people up.
Once people’s parents started making noise, we got some feedback like, “We’ll give you the 15%. We’ll take it out of grades,” but the giant had been awakened. Parents were like, “We’ve looked and this whole thing is messed up. We need it. We need to change things.” For the high stakes, I will give you an example. There are requirements. It’s no longer No Child Left Behind. It’s the Every Student Succeeds Act. As of now, it oversees accountability. There are requirements every year from 3rd to 8th grade. You need to read an English and a Math test. No requirement. Everyone pass. It’s a reporting requirement, and then once English, Math, and Science in high school, and then Science once in elementary and once in middle. We have more tests than required by Federal law.You don't have to make any school fail you. The goal of an accountability system is for everyone to thrive. It goes against the scarcity model, where some do well and some do badly. Click To Tweet
When TAMSA started, there were probably 27 states, and we had a whole handout on this that required tests to be passed for kids to graduate. It is down to ten, but we still have them. It’s clearly moving away from that. It’s the same as colleges are seeing that there is racial and economic bias in standardized tests. There is a value. There was a reason. I’m going to give people the benefit of the doubt. We weren’t shining light and seeing where there were kids being left behind. I see a point in this aggregating data and looking and seeing what the issues were, but the problem is I think the goal was to shine a light and provide resources.
We’ve flipped it on its head. We’ve used this as a punishable offense. We take away resources and close schools to kids who have some of the greatest needs. How kids do on these tests does follow along with economic income often. They lose recess and electives and get more tutoring. That’s not what makes kids want to go to school. There’s lots of data showing it’s fueling the school-to-prison pipeline, so it’s a valuable diagnostic test. For me, I think it’s all about meaningful engaging learning for kids. There was a hearing and it was disappointing because pretty much every single person invited was from the test and punish approach.
What’s the logic behind that approach?
For people who are a little unclear, what do you mean by test and punish?
I’m going to answer Claire’s question first. What’s hard is I feel like in a lot of “education reform,” a lot of people think you can get to equity just through testing. There’s a strong component of that from people in the business community. I think it’s miss guided. I believe our public schools were created as a public good to enrich, engage, and raise human beings to be who they were meant to be and nourish their gifts.
A business model looks at carrots and sticks. It’s the same model that said we should pay the teachers more if they can get the kids back to school. As if teachers weren’t trying to get kids back to school. It’s the same model that says we should have outcomes-based funding and pay more if kids do better on tests. It’s the same model that thinks people are motivated only by money, which is not why teachers teach and which is not what gets kids excited to learn. It’s also part of a long-term plan to privatize public schools. I’m going to come out there and say it.
You’re not the only one. We’ve been having these conversations.
This is a recurring theme. That’s for sure.
It seems that’s the throughline. That’s the end goal we’re hearing some people have with public education in Texas. I’m not sure how it is with other states. Are other states doing it differently like not this carrot stick model and doing it well?
None of the groups that I’m a part of is partisan or political, and public education should be apolitical. In Texas, we’ve avoided a lot of the privatization schemes that have come in other more conservative states because Rural Republicans and Urban Democrats have worked together. Public schools are the center of communities, especially in small rural communities, the football game and they’re the number one employer.
We’ve resisted a lot of more conservative states. Have vouchers, which they’re going to push again in this session. Our charters have grown enormously. I looked at some data to show that the amount of money we’re spending on those is triple what it was. We can come back to some of the data, and I can send you a lot of things. This is a nationwide push. If you go back and look and see Brown vs Board of Education took place in 1954. In 1955, Milton Friedman floated the first idea of vouchers. It is not unrelated.
It makes me think of this book I have over here, Democracy in Chains. Have you read it? It explains public education in the United States. I was like, “It’s connecting the dots.”
I am working on a connecting the dots presentation that ties all of this together. The way you privatized is under-fund, you make things not work, and you make people mad. Little by little, you sell stuff off. I would say we will talk about under-funding, which we are at the bottom of the barrel in funding our schools through the testing and accountability system. We’re making things not work. Teachers don’t want to teach that way. Kids don’t want to learn that way. We’re putting a scarlet letter on them with our A through F system, and then we’re ramping up the charters. We got some strong incumbents and candidates pushing for vouchers.
If you’re looking at a broken system, you want to give that final little push and tear it down. Here comes somebody with a rescue plan that looks different.
It’s a lot of money.
Let’s get a little step back. I’m curious because TAMSA stands for Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment. When I hear assessment and accountability, I sometimes put them together. Can you separate them for us and tell us the difference between assessment and accountability?
They should be different. We have conflated them in Texas because our accountability system is all based on assessment. Assessment is testing. Teachers do assessments all day all the time. There are local assessments and different kinds of assessments. I’m not going to get into testing. Accountability, I think is we’re doing it backwards. Accountability is making sure you get what you want when you give someone something. That’s my very lame interpretation.
I feel like the taxpayers look at the legislature and say, “We’re giving you all this money. Are you giving us what we want?” It’s not how it’s happening. The state is saying, “We’re spending billions of dollars on public schools. You need to show us your report card and what you’re doing with that money. The way we’re going to look at it is stuff that’s countable, which is standardized testing.”
There are different models of accountability, and Texas opened it up. They encouraged states to have accountability systems that were not just test-focused. What Texas did was they took the opportunity then to say, “We’ll have the Federal accountability match with what we’re already doing at the state.” Our accountability system is the A through F system, which has been pushed predominantly in conservative states. It had passed in Virginia once, and the realtor saw what it was doing to their home values and they got rid of it.
I’m a real estate agent. I do a lot of real estates. The school rating is so integral to the price of your home. I live out here in Del Valley, which historically was not rated well. People were like, “It’s not a good district.” I’m like, “Based on what? Have you gone to school? Have you talked to the teachers? Have you talked to the administrators? Have you toured? They’re wonderful. I love them.” It’s just a part.
That’s one thing that is interesting. Our accountability system in K through 8 is just based on STAAR. High school has got a few other measures. Most of them are still STAAR-related. It’s slicing and dicing things differently, but you could throw in the SAT scores and do a little other stuff, but it’s predominantly that. To give an example. You don’t have to make any schools fail. To me, the goal of an accountability system is to say, “We want everyone to thrive. We want kids, schools and districts to do well,” but they’re pushing this scarcity model that some have to do good and some have to do bad.
When they tried at one point, and I’m on the APAC or the Accountability Policy Advisory Committee for the state, where we advise the commissioner on how to interpret the accountability laws. He doesn’t have to listen to us. I’ll leave it at that. They said, “What if in the lower grades, we included in other measures?” This is to give you an example. They said, “Let’s do attendance,” so they looked at the attendance numbers. In elementary schools, kids generally go to school. The averages were from let’s say 95% to 100%.
What they did was instead of saying, “Everyone gets bumped up,” they made 95 and F, and they made 100 and A, so 97 was a C. All the elementary schools got bad ratings. To me, that is not seeing how we’re doing. That is pulling numbers on a number line, which is what we do with standardized tests because we want winners and losers, and the Federal government does need you to report the lowest 5%. The lowest 5% could be a B if they’re all doing well. We think that that means we need to make the lowest 5% enough or more. There’s a lot of power in what TEA can do and how they interpret the laws. That grows every time. That one example shows you that this is about norming things and making winners and losers, which then feeds that system.
This is reminding me, Nicole, of our conversation with Dr. Tielle. She was talking about the way that the ratings come out. It’s not about lifting all the kids up. It’s about having kids perform high instead of everyone just being where they should be grade-level-wise. I’m probably not explaining it well but the system is about scarcity, winners and losers. It’s not let’s make sure all our children are being educated and thriving.Psychometricians don't include questions in tests if more than 80% of the kids can get them right. They are not actually testing to see if students understand the material. Click To Tweet
It’s a good part of the Dr. Tielle episode. It also reminds me of the unintended consequences conversation that she seems to have made it her mission to point out these unintended consequences. I’m going to assume the best of what you did learn earlier, which is to give grace. It is that if you aren’t aware of the systems that you set up, and when you set it up that way, what the consequences are, then you’re going to keep moving forward with that same model.
Can I give one other example of that? That’s accountability, but with the tests, for example, I learned this from John Tanner, who’s brilliant. You might want to have it on at some point too. He is an expert on accountability. The way he explained it was like, “I think of a test like a teacher.” Let’s say it’s Physics. I was bad at Physics, but I might get the first question right. Let’s say it’s on a chapter, maybe the first half of the chapter, I would understand. Maybe I would get a 50 on my test.
What they do is they put out the sample questions, and they do the field testing. The questions were 70% or 80% of kids. If there’s a question that 70% or 80% of kids are going to get right, they won’t put it on the test. If there’s a question that 70% or 80% of the kids are going to get wrong, they won’t put it on the test. They want questions that are going to be half and half, so they will spread more over your number line.
They’re not actually testing to see if you understand the material. They’re looking again to sort. This is all about sorting. I get it if you want a sort for your accountability system and see which ones are doing the best and the worst, but to tell kids they can graduate or not graduate based on stuff that’s pulling out things that maybe you understand the vast proportion of the material, that’s not fair. It’s not honest to parents and teachers about what we’re testing.
When you say they, do you mean the test takers or TEA? Who are the they?
There’s a whole career called Psychometrician. They’re test makers. Every district has psychometricians as well. TEA is full of psychometricians. That’s how you make a standardized test. That’s how you differentiate one kid from another. I get it, but we’re seeing, are they doing well, and it’s not. Are you doing better or worse than someone else? It may be that someone is doing better than someone else, but if they’re all doing well, yay us. Yay teachers, especially given how little funding we have. I feel like it’s being set up to give a narrative that we’re failing, which I’ve been pushing since the Reagan era.
The other emphasis that jumps out is that the emphasis seems to be on being a skilled test taker and not at all looking at the quality of the questions. Are they measuring what kids have been taught and what we hope they are learning? It is about the question itself or the question design, which isn’t like, “We don’t need to test the effectiveness of the question.” It’s not coming out right. My brain knows what I’m thinking. I feel like what you’re talking about is they’re measuring the psychometricians that you talked about. Can they design a question that’s a little bit tricky or are we testing kids, what they are learning, and how it moves them forward as a learner?
That totally makes sense. What it does on top of it is if you want to talk about equity, almost every one of these tests is testing reading. They’re testing language and reading. When we look at the test of the high school level, there are five that you have to pass to graduate when there are only three required to be given in high school to start with. There are these individual graduation committees that we and others pushed that are there that maybe you can use if you failed two, but the two that failed the most are English 2 and Social Studies. The kids that fail the most are suffering from dyslexia for English language learners, or we should say emerging bilinguals. These are kids that may be brilliant in subjects.
There are kids in dual language who are so much better equipped to be members of our society and brilliant in the workforce. When you test them in third grade, for example, they are only 2/3 of the way in English and in whatever other language they speak, and they do badly on the reading test. They then get pulled out of dual language because it’s all about the test scores. It’s not fueling good practice. At those APAC meetings, I raised my hand and say, “You’re pushing policies that are forcing educators to make decisions that are not in the best interest of children.” I feel like that’s my job to raise my hand and say that.
We’re thankful you do that because we need voices like that.
It’s not getting us that far, but I’ll say it over and over.
At least there’s that voice in the room because I’m sure if there’s not, they assume we’re all good.
Two things are jumping out at me at this moment. There are a thousand things overall, but we’re so grateful that you were that voice in the room. Also, you’re shining a light on these issues. The way that you’ve described how questions are chosen and the attendant thing was mind-blowing. I can see how those particular things could become so accepted that nobody would even think to stop and question. For shining a light and being a voice, thank you. I know this is going to take a long time to let it soak in.
I don’t know why I keep thinking about this. I keep thinking about the idea of form and function. The form of the test isn’t enhancing the function of assessing children, it sounds like. Why are our forms so messed up? That bothers me a lot.
I have raised this with Commissioner Morath and others. There’s a consortium. It’s called New York Performance Standards Consortium. It’s a group of maybe 20 or 30 schools. It started in Brooklyn and one of the other boroughs in New York City where they got an exemption from the State Regents Exams. They still have to do some, but they got an exemption. It is a meaningful and engaging project-based learning portfolio method.
Kids are doing projects that bring in Science and Social Studies. Their writing and reading. There’s a Math element and they’re working with their communities. They were partnering with businesses and nonprofits. These are kids in communities that often were not having college-going kids or success in post-graduate or post-high school work. They’re doing fantastic. I’ve said, “Why can’t we do that?” That’s one of the few things that the commissioner and I agree on. He was like, “That’s the ideal, but that costs a lot.” They talk about money. Do you want me to tell you how I got from the TAMSA to these other groups?
That would be great. Was it TAMSA first and then you ended up getting into the other groups?
I had three little kids. I got involved. I was involved with their schools. I was working part-time, and I accidentally got involved in education policy. It’s a different topic, but I learned how it worked, and then I went and worked for an association called TAKS ironically. That represented the superintendents and all the small school districts.
I was on their government relations team, but I basically listened to all the hearings, the Senate and the House education hearings, and reported back to the 970 superintendents of the small school districts. That’s when I was like, “The assessment and the accountability. That’s related to the funding and some of the teacher issues.” All this stuff fit together to me because I was watching not just the assessment hearings.
After the 2015 session, I worked with them for a couple of sessions. I went and listened to Harvey Kromberg from the Quorum Report. He talked about voting and he said that Texas was, at that point, last in voter turnout, and Texas always is last in political discussion. I went back to work and I said, “What if we focus on getting people to vote? Let’s try to create a culture of voting so that when these kids grow up, Texas isn’t last in voting because I’m all about democracy.” That’s when I started Texas Educators Vote, which now has 30 or 31 partners, where I generate messages about, “This is how you register, research and vote, and model that for kids.” That was the next thing. I run that still.
In 2018, the oldest was finishing college and the next one was off in college. The youngest was a junior at McCallum High School here. She came home and said, “Mom, people are freaking out. Kids are crying in the hall. Parents are up in arms.” Austin ISD is at a budget deficit of $30 million. There were these budget stabilization task force meetings where they were trying to figure out what to do when everything was on the table. One of the things on the table was maybe getting rid of the Fine Arts Academy, which is a greatly beloved institution here in Austin ISD and fantastic warm nurture. It’s an awesome place. I love McCallum.
That’s when I put together Alison Alter, who was a City Council member, and Janis Bookout, who was head of Earth Day Austin. We all had kids at McCallum. To me, I was pulling on my TAMSA model like, “Let’s do the research for the people. Let’s educate and engage them.” We had an off-shoot meeting at McCallum where 200 parents showed up. We said, “This is how school funding works. We’re heading into the 2018 legislative session and the 2019 session.” We had an election. People voted. Educators voted like never before.
There was a big issue with school funding. We said, “You can be mad at AISD for plenty of reasons, but this is about the state.” We educated them on how school funding works. Ultimately, I worked with different partners that I knew through my public education advocacy to grow this into a statewide organization of parents and students advocating for funding for our schools. That’s where the funding came from.
Regarding funding, Mike Morath was like, “We could have these amazing models, but we don’t have the money.” Why don’t we have more money? Why don’t we put more money into public education? Do we put enough money in? I guess we should start with asking. I’m assuming though. Can you talk to us about funding in general and why we don’t have enough money for the nice things that the students and the communities want? What’s happening?Public education costs a lot, and it is never fully funded. The children are the future of the state, and they should be funded as the humans they are who deserve to be invested. Click To Tweet
We do spend a lot on public ed, but we have 11% of the country’s children. There are 5.5 million kids. I looked at the data. The Quality Count Survey that Education Week does. The most recent school funding when they did last June, it ranks us a few years ago to 43rd. Maybe we’re 42nd or 41st. This data looks at inflation and averages the cost of living in different places. If you actually look at spending, we’re 49th per kid. The only ones lower are Utah and Arizona. The national average is $4,300 more per kid than Texas spending.
The national average, we went into 2019 and before House Bill 3 when they added $6 billion. They added maybe $5 billion in property tax to relief, but in funding the schools, they added some, but the national average went up, and all the other states did too. We almost dug ourselves out of the cuts we had made in 2011. I appreciate that the state, without a lawsuit or a judge ruling that they had to put more in, did put more in, but we’re still at the bottom of the barrel. We are still at 68% of the national average.
We’re doing well in all the measures, given that we so poorly fund them. The only thing that costs more is healthcare, which has surpassed public ed, but it costs something. There’s a good article that Ray Perryman, the Texas economist, wrote saying that it is the single best investment in public education. It comes back 50-fold. There’s no other that comes back 50-fold. It does make you wonder about the hesitancy of our elected leaders. I think it’s political.
I think Vikki Goodwin, who you interviewed before, said it very diplomatically to say we have a conservative legislature that does not like to spend, but I will add that the comptroller spoke to the legislature, both the Senate and the House Finance and Probation Committees and said, “We are rolling in the dough. We have $27 billion extra dollars.” It is like Christmas every day. We should invest in infrastructure. Public education is part of the infrastructure. Sadly, what I saw from the Senate Finance Committee was a horror. People will get used to having things.
What are they saving this money for? You can’t take it with you when you’re gone. If you’re in that position, spend the money if there’s money and if someone is telling you.
I don’t know. I’m not going to go somewhere you can go. If you want to look at who is in our public schools, I don’t know. People need to vote. I’m going to keep my big mouth closed on some assumptions.
What we’re here to do is lay the groundwork and let people draw their own conclusions, so the groundwork is being laid.
I want to circle back because we’ve heard a lot about this in our discussions in our education series about the basic allotment. How is this even determined for students?
The basic allotment is the very bottom building block that every kid gets. I don’t even know. It’s like 6 or 7. Right now, if you look, the average per kid is $9,369 in Texas, and nationwide is $13,679. The basic allotment is this basic amount. There are other people you can talk to who are school finance experts. On top of that, you get a certain amount. If you are an English language learner. You get an extra amount if you were an at-risk student. They added dyslexia. That was new. There’s a special extra amount.
Some of those funds do come from the Federal government. Ninety-two percent of funding is state and local put together. A very small portion of that is Federal dollars, and that comes through title one. There are formulas that have not been updated since 1980 something. Each kid carries a different weight. The basic allotment is the very basic building block. It’s lower than the average amount because kids get added on for different things. That may not be super clear.
Claire, I don’t know if I’m reading your mind, but I feel like maybe what’s underneath or what you’re asking is, how in the world did they come to that number and why is that the one we’re using is the basis? It seems like maybe we just arrived here.
What’s hard is the legislature is hesitant to add a bunch because it’s a two-year thing. They can put something in, but they could take it back out. They always say, “We don’t want to make decisions that are going to affect future legislatures when we’re not here.” If you want to talk about how the local property taxes funnel in, I would think what would be a great thing to do, which they did 20 or 30 years ago was the cost of education. If we wanted to be the gold standard or even the silver, bronze or whatever, but if we wanted to provide what we thought kids needed to have a great education and be one of the best, that would be a cost of education study.
They haven’t done it because they’re going to find it’s going to cost a lot more than they’re spending. When you even look at Texas likes to be number one, when I say we’re 43rd, 41st or 49th, to be at the national average, just to give you an example, it would cost $47 billion this biennium to be 25th. They don’t have that, but we do need to continually get closer. What I was going to say is maybe 30 years ago, they did this study. What they did then was they didn’t put that much in. At that time, they said, “This is the cost to educate.” I don’t know if they gave a quarter or a third. They gave some fraction of it.
We never had fully funded it. It costs a lot. If you do look and see that our kids are the future of the state, even if you don’t discount it as they are humans who deserve to be invested in. If you just want to look at it as what you’re going to get back, we should be funding it. We do have the money, I will say. I will add that we got a lot of money in Federal money. One thing that fund did last time was we had to fight to get a penny of that money. $15 billion ended up going to our public schools. We had to work with some people in Congress to understand what taxes were doing with the money because the people in charge did not want to pass that money along to our school districts. We were not getting a full story of what was happening with the first couple of rounds of COVID relief dollars.
That’s when you talk to advocates, listen to the people in charge, but look outside, see what other places are doing, and get more information because sometimes it benefits people not to tell you when they are in power, they have all the power, and they don’t want to do what you think is right. I’m going to give a personal shout-out to Lloyd Doggett’s office for helping us understand what was going on with Federal dollars in other states and our own.
The thing I keep thinking is it’s incredible what Texas is doing considering how little they have like, “Are we resourceful?” Also, if we have all this money, what do we do with the money? You spend it and invest. If some voices are saying, “This is not the thing we want to put our money in,” I’m like, “Well then, for what? What’s better to you than education and investing in our students?” As a mother and community member, I can’t think of what would be a more noble thing than education. For me, this is a little challenging like come on, guys. This is the thing.
One argument they gave was those billions of Federal dollars. They were like, “The districts are going to get them, but then they’re going to go away. They’re going to look to us to match that.” The same with this money that’s in the pot now like the ongoing costs. Their worry is people will get used to having things. The people that are electing them are not fans of paying taxes. I’m going to say a lot of people move to Texas because they don’t pay so many taxes, which I guess is good if you’re a business, but at a certain point, you want roads, educated people, and infrastructure. It’s going to come back and bite them in the butt, honestly. We do have high property taxes because we’ve chosen not to have other taxes. There are other ways to raise money that no one will discuss, at least, to who’s in charge now.
That’s such an important point because what we’re talking about, from my point of view, is completely unsustainable. At some point, this is going to burn out if we keep going in this direction and if we don’t make different choices and decisions. There is no way long-term that this model can sustain and keep this state thriving. It’s not possible.
To me then, when I look and see how few people vote in the state of Texas, I’m going to bring this to my favorite part of all of it, we pick the people who make the decisions at every single level from school board up until the President of the United States of America. I did this great little graphic. I’m going to give a plug for it. It’s on the Texas Educators Vote website. It’s called Who Does What In Public Education. You can look by elected position and issue. The model for Texas Educators Vote is we don’t tell people who to vote for. We don’t endorse candidates, parties, measures, or anything else, but figure out who does what, you research people who you can vote on, and you pick the people who align with you.
I think people don’t vote because they don’t understand how it relates to their everyday life. To me, there are two parts of engagement, picking the people, and then whether you get who you picked or didn’t, you engage with them. I had a school board candidate who I hadn’t supported. I supported someone else. The day that person was elected, I called them. I talked to them about my school. I invited them to things.
You engage in the electoral process, and then you engage with the elected officials. If you don’t like how they’re doing, you run or you get someone else to run. It’s a continuous circle. Once you connect it to your everyday life, whether it’s education or something else, that’s how we’re going to get people out and be more engaged in their democracy, which to me is by far the most important thing.
I’m glad you made that segue because I wanted to ask you, how do you think we get more diverse candidates to run? I think a lot of people don’t vote because they don’t see themselves in the candidates. I’ll speak from experience. I ran for State Representative for House District 51, and we were a little bit of an anomaly because there were seven of us running. There was quite a variety to pick from and lots of diversity. I think it was great that so many of us threw our hats in the rings. We were the biggest race, by the way, for state representatives in the state. Normally, it’s one or two. A lot of people are discouraged, “It’s not your turn, don’t run.” How do we get people to take that plunge and encourage them that you should run?
I appreciate your running. I think, for one, we have this part-time legislature. We have unpaid school board members. If you need to have a job, feed your children or have a shelter, you probably can’t go spend all your time running for something. We’ve got this five months of every two years that people are in the legislature and school board. It’s crazy the amount of money you have to raise. It’s crazy the amount of time, and it limits who can run. It also limits how good a job people can do if you’re in the legislature and you also run a business.
In my international trade policy, I did work. I covered some Central American countries. I will give an example. When I was covering Costa Rica, we were noticing that they were protecting ornamental plants. We would go and have negotiations with their foreign trade minister. I’m like, “Why are they doing that?” They had a part-time legislature and the guy who was their foreign trade minister had an ornamental plant company. I feel like we see that in our legislature sometime. If you want to have a broad range of people who can run, have them actually listen and do what’s right for the community. Don’t make money doing something else. There’s that.If you have good legislation, an army of people will come and testify to its legitimacy. Click To Tweet
On public education, I want to make a shout-out. I think the most important thing is to look and see what voices are missing. To me, the voices that are missing are the students’. No one is listening to the students. They’re wise. They’re living this. They’re hiding under their desks practicing getting slaughtered. They’re watching their friends take their lives. They’re doing stupid mind-numbing test prep. I think the number one question for any time there’s policy-making being done is, “Who is this policy going to affect, and why are they not sitting here advising us?
Should we be advocating for state representatives to make a livable wage, school board members, and SBOE? I’m blown away that some of these people make zero dollars for all the work they do. As you’re saying, they still have to fundraise and ask other people for money.
The answer to who can do that is very clear.
Excuse the age, race, and income. It perpetuates our inequities. I think it’s hard to make a change until you change that a little bit.
I can’t believe I find myself wanting to offer grace. I think what I am recognizing is that sometimes I’m so quick to jump into these things and basically breathe fire because I’m so frustrated. It occurred to me that that’s based on an old tradition. That’s a model that doesn’t fit where we are now. We need a hard look at a tradition that doesn’t fit. The tradition of who can afford to do public service. That is your duty. It’s almost like a thank you for the gifts that you’ve been given. I believe that that’s not a model that fits where we are now.
I’ll add one thing to that. Because of the nature of our legislature, not only through all of these groups we have to educate the general public. We had to educate the legislature. They don’t have time or the background to know everything about everything. We would go in whatever the topic was and say, “Thank you so much for talking about funding, but did you know that it would cost $44 billion to be average?” I had legislators come in and be like, “What?” You show them the data and they’re like, “I had no idea.” They thought they were doing something great and that it was going to be fixed.
It makes the advocate even more important, to talk to every single person, and to be a resource for staffers, legislators, associates, and everyone because time and knowledge are short. You can help people be better at their jobs, which are hard and unfunded. It’s the same at every level and school board. Engaging at every level wherever you have any expertise and be willing to provide that. That’s part of society and civic engagement.
You’re already touching on this, but what have you found that has been successful in your advocacy work? Has it been getting simple to understand one-sheets? How do you break through if you have five minutes with them to get your point across quickly?
I think the one-pager with bullets is good. I think people are quick. If there’s going to be a hearing and a vote, you go talk to people in the halls. It’s making pals with staffers and texting them during the hearing. I’ve been successful when we were hearing that Texas wasn’t sending any of the Federal dollars along. I would tweet directly and tag the legislators that were asking questions at a hearing. I would send a message. Whatever method that you think people are listening to, you get it out there because you need their attention.
Legislators are often on Twitter and also their staff. Teachers used to be more on Facebook. Now it seems a little more Instagram. It’s whatever you can do to be a resource and to know how you can get somebody’s attention politely and respectfully. What has been most successful is when we would meet with people in any of these, we say, “We come in peace. We are here to help you and provide information. If you have legislation that is good, we have an army of people who can come and testify for your legislation and provide backup for you. If you’re going to do stuff that’s bad, you’re going to hear from us too.”
Very fair. That’s the job.
Educating yourself and being knowledgeable.
Can you tell us about a moment when you were surprised by a reaction from an elected official or a staffer, someone that you thought like, “We’re not going to get this person, but here we are. Let’s try anyway.” Did you have any of those moments?
Yes. I think people are looking for common ground. I have found the House to generally be more responsive to people. They’re closer to their community and the Senate isn’t. I’m not going to give a specific name, but a senator that won an election in an extremely conservative race. From a spot that I don’t think they’re likely to support public ed. They sat with public advocates for three hours and said, “Where can we come together? Where can we save money? Where can we cut out bureaucracy?”
They’re not going to agree on all the same stuff, but there were some areas of overlap. To me, it’s the same as when there was a school board member elected who I knew I wasn’t going to agree with, but they would listen. They would listen and look for something that they could overlap with and support. We need more of that because we can’t get further apart on those things, but public ed is the one thing that has brought together sides that generally have been on opposite sides. Sadly, the public has been weaponized politically nationwide. I hope we can bridge that in the State of Texas, but it all depends on how many people are willing to participate in elections and during sessions.
I have some last thoughts, but Nicole, do you have any burning questions?
I would love for you to talk about advocacy, even a little bit more. You have such a policy background that as an average person, I find myself like, “What could I do?” I would love for you to break it down or small steps that anybody could do.
I would say it’s a couple of months before an election. You look and see who’s running for whatever it is in your area. Go to vote for one, which is the league of women voters. It’ll tell you who you vote for and listen to candidate forums, whether it’s the city council, county or the legislature. Think about what’s most important to you, reach out to them and say, “I care about whatever it is. I care about if my kid’s going to get shot at school. I care about the planet imploding.” Maybe you care about keeping your gun, whatever it is. Maybe you don’t want to pay taxes. I don’t know what it is. Whatever your issue is, you talk to all the candidates. They come to your door. Talk to them.
I’ve invited five city council candidates. I’ve had three of them come to my door. I asked them questions and say, “This is important to me. Tell me how you’re different.” Just asking and listening if there’s a forum, reading the newspaper, and looking at the groups that you like, who they support, and the groups that you disagree with, who they support. That’s the basic part of that, but then engaging wherever it is. Is it your church? Is it your temple? Is it your school board? Keep a pulse if there’s something that you care about. There’s got to be something that everybody cares about. Get involved at whatever level.
I want to throw out something else that is underlying all of this, which is the belief that you have the right to say what you care about and ask questions. I think that it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed and overlooked to think that you don’t have those rights.
I think that is the most important thing. To be more specific, you could go to a meeting, get on Zoom, send an email, make a phone call, and send a tweet. There are simple quick ways. If you don’t have the time to do it on your own, join a group that talks about whatever you care about the most. They will send you simple ways that you can send a simple email. Personal stories are what make a difference.
I saw at the legislature when a parent would come in and say, “My kid has a scholarship. They’re a brilliant physics student, but they’re dyslexic. They’re having a hard time on this reading test and they got a scholarship for this, that, or the other thing, but they can’t graduate from high school.” Stories like that are what people remember when there’s too much information coming at them. Just a kind human story and treat people with respect. Most people want to hear your stories. If they don’t, then pick somebody else.
Don’t underestimate the power of storytelling, especially if you do it in a kind way, respectful way, and from the heart. Sounds like it’s very powerful for a lot of these folks who are in positions of power. The last thing I want to ask you about is regarding public education. As we’ve touched on, there is so much to keep tabs on. There are so many different elected officials who are connected to public education. What are maybe the 1 or 2 things that you recommend parents pay attention to or that they could do to have a positive impact on their student’s educational experience?
In today’s day and age, everybody is busy. Teachers are busy. Parents are busy. As a parent, the most important thing I did was listen to my kids. The most important thing that I did was try to see who they were, what their strengths were, and what motivated them. I have three kids. They’re all motivated differently. They’re all good at different stuff. What is impacting them negatively? Be their advocate with their teacher. Be their advocate with your school and your school district. When I see the same thing working badly for all of those kids and know that my kids had every possible advantage, speaking up for not your kids, going into another part of town and seeing what is happening.The most important thing parents can do is listen to their kids. Be their advocate with their teachers and school. Click To Tweet
I know my kids were getting killed off with a stupid killing drill, but across town, they were losing recess. They were losing electives and anything meaningful. To me, it’s listening and understanding how to be their champion. To me, you could be your own kid’s champion and maybe pick one other kid to bring along because not every kid has a parent who has the time or the confidence to have dealt with that culturally. They may not be comfortable with the language. They may come from a culture where you don’t engage at that level. Kids are wise until we beat it out of them. If we could listen to them and find a way to empower kids who aren’t voters yet, but will be voters, it would make public education to be much more responsive to their needs and teachers too.
It’s making me think about a cousin of mine who graduated from UT not that long ago. When I was running, I was like, “I’m going to run.” Most people were excited about it like, “That’s so brave.” He was like, “I don’t like it. Boating is not for me. I don’t participate.” That hurt because it’s making me think maybe he felt like a kid that wasn’t listened to when he was younger in school, so why would anyone listen to him now if they’re elected? It feels like the intention may be beating them down so that they sit back and don’t worry about this, but if we can empower them and let them know that we do want to know your priorities. Giving them more power back in and letting them know that they are citizens and they should be a part of this because we need their voices because they have so much to teach us back.
They also don’t necessarily see everything in the binary way that we do. We were raised that this is what we have in everything. There are two parties. All the things I have learned from my children are that there is a continuum in just about everything and we are to leave it to the next generation, which is one reason why some people don’t want young people to engage. People resist change if it’s working for them. If we could get out of the way, there is wisdom that would emerge.
Can I give you one other example? I was at the farmer’s market with my youngest. There was a young man who wanted us to sign something. It was on animal rights or whatever it was. I was like, “It’s hot but fine. We’ll stop. We’ll talk to him.” He’s like, “Sign my thing. Did you know Texas is the worst? Our governor is bad on this issue.” I was like, “I’m not that surprised, but that’s fine.” I turned it around and said, “You vote, right?” He said, “No.” I said, “Are you registered to vote?” He’s like, “No.” I said, “This form you’re having people fill out, you’re going to have to hand it to someone. If you hand it to someone who agrees with you, they’re likely to turn it into a policy. If you turn it into someone who you’re already telling me does not agree with you, they’re unlikely to do anything. The power of what you’re doing is to have elected officials who agree with you.”
My daughter was like, “Mom, you’re teaching him about voting.” I said, “Right.” He said, “I voted once, but it didn’t work out for me.” I think a lot of people get that message. To me, that’s where there is a culture. You don’t win every race but you engage, then you engage with the people you disagree with and help them understand why they might be misguided. Provide them with information. We need to reach out to people the day it’s time to vote. That was upsetting, but that was a cautionary tale to me. I think there’s a lot of that.
It’s definitely relationship building, which is long-term and hard because there’s a lot of work involved, but the work is worth it. It is what I’m hearing in this conversation and in some of our other conversations.
It’s so much more sustaining. If your response is to then withdraw, and be mad and sad, that doesn’t appeal to me. I would much rather stay engaged, be hopeful, and believe that my voice matters. That’s going to sustain me over time.
I will say one positive thing because I’ve said a lot of negative things. People, more now than ever, need community. All of these are opportunities for the community. There are opportunities to connect around what is important to you, to learn from other people, and to empower yourself and others. Civic engagement and democracy are about the public square. Maybe if we can frame it that way and you can get something out of this connection, it will be more enticing.
Nicole and I are also hoping for this show to be a place for people to find community and reach out to us, and for us to continue the conversation off the show because, as you’re saying, I also very much believe that we’re starved for community. We’re either staying lonely or finding it in places that maybe aren’t as healthy, but we take that because we want those relationships. I’m glad you mentioned that. We’ll wrap up with something that is hopefully a little bit lighter and more fun. It’s our last segment called Attention Mentions, where we mentioned something that has our attention right now. It can be a book, a movie, an article, or an experience you had. Something that has been bubbling up in your mind over the last few days. Nicole, do you have anything, or do you have anything, Laura, top of mind?
I don’t have to go first, but I can go first. I’m smiling, but then I remember actually what it is. It was the Leave No Trace documentary. It was a feature-length documentary that is available on Hulu and it’s about the Boy Scouts. It was incredibly well done because they talked about the sexual abuse of boys that took place and the system that allowed it to continue for so long.
What I appreciated and I’m going to imagine that if I had been a Boy Scout, I would appreciate this about the documentary, is that they never de-emphasize the value that Boy Scouts did provide to so many people. They emphasized how they’re trying to keep the value and what it offers in terms of outdoor education, leadership, and the values that are baked into the core of the message, and separate that from the harm that has been done. Anyway, Leave No Trace on Hulu, well done.
I’ll share. Laura. I think you might like this. It’s a podcast that I’m going to recommend. It’s called Now and Then, and the two hosts are historians. It’s Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman, and their episode was titled, Does Anyone Love Taxes? They talk about the history of taxes in the United States and the idea of what are taxes for. Is it to pay for our services? Is it to feel like we’re part of our country? It is an interesting idea about the way our money is more than just paying for things, but also buy-in to our government. It’s very fascinating. These women are so smart. I love their podcasts.
I’m going to listen to that. I thought of something too. I had a few different ideas. I’ve been reading a lot of books about librarians because I think it’s tough to be a librarian these days, but I can’t remember the names of those books. What I was going to mention was there’s a show we’ve been watching. It may be on Netflix now, maybe on Showtime.
It’s the First Lady or First Ladies, but it’s a series and it highlights Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama. It shows a lot of the things that their husbands got credit for doing that they didn’t want to do. These women found a way to get it done. It’s uplifting and also irritating like everything else because I walk away saying those women should have been president because they did all these great things. It’s fascinating, especially Betty Ford, who is Michelle Pfeiffer. She’s awesome.
I didn’t know anything about Betty Ford, but it’s fascinating. We’ve got a few more episodes of that to watch. I have to space them out because I do get aggravated sometimes, but it’s good. It’s well acted and interesting. It gives even more evidence that we should have more women making important decisions at every level of government.
That’s great. I’m going to check that out.
I forgot the exact title, but it’s like The First Lady, First Ladies, or something like that.
Thank you so much for sharing all this information and all the advocacy that you do. We appreciate that you’re so dedicated to these causes because we need people to educate us and our elected representatives. As you’re saying, it’s a lot to parse through and it’s so encouraging to know that you are doing that.
Thanks for doing this and thanks for inviting me.
- Texas Educators Vote
- Just Fund It TX
- Democracy in Chains
- Dr. Tielle – Previous Episode
- Who Does What In Public Education
- Now and Then
About Laura Subrin Yeager
Laura Subrin Yeager has been in Austin since 1998 and has been advocating for public education and promoting civic engagement ever since. She was one of the original board members of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA); she founded Texas Educators Vote, and is a co-founder and Director of Just Fund It Tx. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Government from Cornell University and a Masters in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University.