GARLAND — Representatives from 60 independent school districts across North Texas, including Sherman, Denison and Gunter, gathered at a news conference Monday to voice their opposition to the state’s approach to public education ahead of the 85th Texas Legislative Session.


As adopters of the Legislative Priorities resolution, the school districts met at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland and called on lawmakers to increase state funding for education and do away with the state-implemented A-F accountability rating system, as well as voucher programs which the adoptive districts worry will take money away from public schools and instead give it to families as an incentive to enroll their children in private institutions. Those who took part in the news conference, either by way of speaking or standing together on the center’s steps in solidarity, represent a majority of the 80 independent school districts in Region 10.


Sunnyvale Independent School District Superintendent Doug Williams led most of the news conference and said unity among public school districts within the region is critical.


“During this upcoming legislative session, it is imperative that school districts collaborate for our common cause,” Williams said.


Perhaps the most timely and visible drive within that common cause is the push to do away with the A-F accountability rating. The accountability scores for every Texas school district and their campuses were released on Friday last week and results under the system did not reflect positively on most. Statewide, grades largely hovered in the C-F range and were assessed in four categories related to districts’ and schools’ preparatory abilities and the academic performance of students.


The Denison Independent School District was awarded a C in student achievement, a C in student progress, a B in closing performance gaps and a C in post-secondary readiness. Sherman ISD fared no better under the new system, pulling in a C in the area of student achievement, a D in student progress, a B in closing performance gaps, and another D in post-secondary readiness.


Sherman Independent School District Board President Tim Millerick expressed optimism that the news conference and the turnout of district representatives would inform legislators of the group’s desires and its strength.


“I hope the visual of this — so many districts in our region coming together around a common goal — sends a message that we are unified around these important issues,” Millerick said.


The Legislative Priorities group and the Texas Association of School Administrators have both called for a community-based accountability system to replace the current and future grading scale. Superintendents David Hicks, Henry Scott and Jill Siler of Sherman ISD, Denison ISD and Gunter ISD respectively, attended the conference Monday and said they too would support a community-based accountability system.


The grades are meant to prepare districts for the shift from the “met standard” criteria currently in place to the 2018 single A-F grade. Friday’s grades do not replace the current system and are considered unofficial and nonpunitive. The grades are based heavily on the results of the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, the state’s annual, standardized exam.


“We do welcome accountability,” Williams said on behalf of the member districts. “However, it cannot be a system that is derived 55 percent from the STAAR test. True assessment takes place over multiple occasions throughout the year, not during a one-time measure.”


Some have said the outcry of districts against the A-F grading scale is just a matter of sour grapes. The districts don’t like their grades, so they say the system is unfair. In response to such criticism, Williams said districts in the region raised red flags over the grade system in October of last year — well before the grades were released. Sunnyvale’s superintendent said timing was important in the state’s release of the grades last week and it was strategically done in relation to the upcoming legislative session, which begins Tuesday.


“I believe that was an attempt to discredit schools,” Williams said.


And virtually all of the member district representatives at Monday’s news conference agreed, raising their hands as a “yes” when asked whether they felt the A-F system and the poor grades published were a means of generating favor for charter schools.


Many state legislators have pushed for what they call “school choice.” They say the public should have, as the name implies, a choice in where families send their children to school and, if schools are failing according to the A-F system, private and charter schools should be a reasonable, feasible option. To make this so, state lawmakers have supported and offered up voucher and rebate programs to families that make private education more affordable. That money, if taken in the form of a rebate or voucher, is then subtracted from state funding to public districts.


Further justifying its point, the group highlighted the fact that private educational institutions are also less accountable to the state and their students aren’t required to take the STAAR test.


That doesn’t sit well with the Legislative Priorities group, who says the state has already cut funding for public education to unacceptable and near-unworkable levels. The state of Texas has increased funding for public education in recent years, but the influx of new students in the state’s schools has resulted overall in less spending per student.


The 85th legislative session will begin Tuesday in Austin. Multiple members of the Legislative Priorities group said they will travel to the capital and hope to have their voices heard.