Unmasking the Progressive Grassroots Education Lobby in Texas

Unmasking the Progressive Grassroots Education Lobby in Texas

AUSTIN, TEXAS–Texas House representative Jimmie Don Aycock  (R-Killeen ) commended curious tactics used by TAMSA (Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment) in passing House Bill 5 (HB 5) during the 83rd Legislative Session. He told an audience at this week’s SXSWedu 2014 conference held in Austin about the grassroots group’s behind-the-scenes actions praising them as savvy “political trades” and deals made to influence legislation. 

Aycock  made the comments as part of a panel titled “Votes Matter More Than Money.” Also on the panel were TAMSA President Dineen Majcher, board member Joanne Salazar, and Vice Chair of the State Board of Education (SBOE), Thomas Ratliff. 

HB 5 is now law. It introduced new high school College and Career Readiness (CCRS) standards that reduced the amount of end-of-course and exit exam standardized testing. It also lowered the credit requirements needed to graduate from high school and it modified the school accountability rating system. Aycock is listed as the lead author of HB 5.

Aycock praised TAMSA for pushing HB 5. He said that the Texas House of Representatives had resolved in the 2011 session to reduce state standardized testing but the Senate was not yet on board. 

He said, “TAMSA stepped up to the plate and things changed dramatically. It was a clear message that anybody who didn’t step forward (against standardized testing) would have to deal with wrath of God.”

Aycock meant that the groundswell behind the bill were these moms. He said that no one in their right mind was going to oppose HB 5 legislation. Although the overabundance of standardized assessments is a valid concern, the consensus on HB 5 has been mixed and remains yet to be seen.

Aycock explained how TAMSA disrupted legislative business to accomplish their goal. He said, “There were points when (TAMSA) actually made deals with people.”  Aycock admired the group’s deliberate strategy of flooding phone lines until, as he said, the elected official agreed to support HB 5 legislation. 

According to Aycock, TAMSA “literally tied up the phone lines in the governor’s office.” Board member Salazar said this was the result of what she called their “silver bullet.” TAMSA e-blasted calls-to-action to their membership throughout the state with specific instructions to call Governor Rick Perry’s office to push him in the direction to vote for HB 5 starting 8am on Monday and Tuesday of the week he signed the bill into law. 

Salazar recalled that this applied pressure was very much felt. Phone lines were being answered in the governor’s office as “is this about HB 5″ and not “hello, Governor’s office.” 

Ratliff jokingly interjected, “her real name’s Don Corleone” referencing the fictional iconic mobster in the The Godfather saga.  

Salazar then described TAMSA as a brand that was trying to educate, engage and empower people to understand they could have a voice in the legislative session. According to their website, TAMSA is a non-partisan grassroots organization of concerned Texas parents who advocated for reduced standardized testing in place of more instruction time. While well intentioned, little is known about TAMSA.

Ratliff praised TAMSA’s efforts as “organic grassroots; “although, Aycock, contradicted this when he said that many scheduled meetings took place well before the last legislative session with TAMSA. Ratliff also identified himself as a paid lobbyist and he criticized other unnamed group as being paid advocates or front organizations that “use the rank and file moms and dads as a prop.”

Breitbart Texas, however, reported on Ratliff’s history of attempting to silence that same rank and file he claims are being used by shadow organizations, the same moms and dads who are much less politically savvy than TAMSA.

TAMSA is not an ordinary group of moms according to Majcher. She likened the group to a well-organized machine drawing on a board made up of policy experts, lawyers, psychologists and engineers. This may well have explained the nuanced and savvy politics that often elude those everyday moms trying to affect change.

Aycock explained the early legislative process, how it works, and who were the interested parties that worked together to make HB 5, which he authored, law. This included lawyers and paralegals, who were brought into shape the bill’s language, unnamed consultants, business leaders, and even some HB5 opponents.  Aycock stated that TAMSA was one of the groups involved since the beginning.

Even TAMSA did not get everything they wanted in HB 5. Their original goal was to reduce the number of annual high school standardized tests to three per year. It became five. Ratliff pointed out that even TAMSA had to make a deal. 

“If you go all the way, you’re going to get nothing,” he stated about the reality of grassroots expectations in negotiations. Aycock agreed, insisting that he told TAMSA if they pushed for three tests, they would lose the deal. According to Aycock, the reason for the five tests was political.

He said, “We presently know with five tests, one in four seniors will not graduate. If that number had been less, 40-50% wouldn’t graduate.” He said that would have been politically disastrous. 

After HB 5 passed, TAMSA were called heroes by self-admitted progressive Diane Ravitch, the education historian and author who originally hails from Houston.  

TAMSA is already gearing up for the next legislative session. They want to replace the statewide STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) with nationally recognized assessments such as  the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Stanford, ReadiStep (Pre-SAT) or EXPLORE (pre-ACT). The STAAR tests are taken in grades 3-8 and for high school end of course exams. They are aligned to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum standards. 

However, the national assessments TAMSA would like to use to replace STAAR are all aligned to the Common Core State Standards, the federally led education mandate that Texas rejected in 2013.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom

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