The Curriculum Question

Businessman John Privett thought he had a solution to the problems of some of Houston's troubled schools. The parents wanted to try it. The teachers wanted to try it. But HISD administrators said no.

Money, and the issue of private profit from public students, is often a sticking point when the specter of school privatization is raised. And Privett's plan did have its costs: about $300 per child per year to provide materials and fund the trainers during the start-up, an expense predicted to decline to $150 per child per year once the program was running. To get his plan up and going in two elementary schools, Privett was asking for roughly $1 million over three years. Not exactly chicken feed, but at the same time, not a large percentage of HISD's annual $850 million operating budget. Thumbing through an inch-thick copy of the district's budget, teachers union leader Fallon says, "They could have funded it out of 'miscellaneous.'"

Privett might well have agreed that had HISD been doing what it was supposed to be doing, then his proposal -- as Lott said -- would have been unnecessary. The point was, that even with the exam-ple of Lott's success, HISD had been slow to make use of the curriculum Privett was offering.

No, the real problem, Privett felt, was not money. It was that he was trying to participate in determining curriculum, an area that professional educational administrators have determined is theirs, and theirs alone. Perhaps concerned that if they opened the curriculum issue up to the public they would be invaded by hordes of people brandishing agendas for what should and should not be taught in the schools, educational professionals have tended to be protective about letting others into their curriculum game.

But as Privett notes, he wasn't concerned with what was being taught so much as how; and as he also notes, he was offering nothing that a few of HISD's own visionaries hadn't already tried. He was just offering to take their ideas and do what they had been unable to do: push aside the bureaucracy and make the curriculum widely available.

Today, John Privett has a fantasy. He would like to run a secret ballot in every elementary school in Houston. Just give every teaching staff, every principal and every PTO a choice between HISD's offerings and his program, and see who would win. And if the Texas Legislature passes significant charter school reform this session, Privett's fantasy could come true.

John Privett's interest in changing the schools has a personal component. Growing up in California, he received poor training in reading, and as a result struggled all through school. It wasn't until he was in the Air Force that he managed to overcome his reading problem, and once he left the military he went on to earn an MBA at the University of Texas.

Following graduate school, Privett spent three years at Ford Motor Company in Michigan, where he supervised a team in charge of new-car cost control. Though he enjoyed working for Ford, he left when he noticed the company wasn't only losing market share to the Japanese, it was losing interest in dealing with the problem. "I didn't," he says, "want to be part of a company that had lost its zest of giving the consumer the best possible product." It was a perspective that he would later bring to the schools.

He returned to Texas to work for Bob Bullock, then Texas comptroller. For Bullock he managed a system for evaluating the fiscal impact of local bills, and worked on the historic revamp of the Texas Property Tax Code.

From Austin he moved to Houston and, from 1979 to 1992, served as president of the corporate-sponsored Tax Research Association. As a tax watchdog he pried into local tax expenditures, always focusing on the numbers and how public money can be spent most effectively. In the early 1980s, he challenged Metro's cooked numbers on its proposed heavy rail system, an investigation that contributed to its massive defeat at the polls. Last spring, Mayor Bob Lanier hired him as a consultant to study the cost-effectiveness of a downtown sports stadium. Not a good idea, Privett concluded. He has just finished a study for the city about the effectiveness of its tax abatement policy in attracting new industry.

Since education accounts for approximately half of all local tax expenditures, Privett spent about half his time at the TRA on education. In 1990, he analyzed a huge HISD tax increase and essentially wrote the school board a fresh budget. He showed the board and then-superintendent Joan Raymond how they could reduce the increase by $17 million, cut administrative costs and still provide teachers the largest salary increase in HISD history. The board adopted his plan by a 9-0 vote.

From 1989 to 1991, Privett served on the Texas School Performance Indicators Committee, which was created by the state Legislature to create a performance-driven description of how effectively the state's tax money was being spent. Privett worked with a panel of school superintendents to write a "report card" on the performance of every school district and campus in the state. After months of battles on how to create a fair system of accountability, the committee created the Academic Excellence Indicator System. This computer database provides the public with a description of how schools and school districts perform on state achievement tests, and provides school-to-school comparison of performance, expenditures and demographics.

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