Ed Bills Wrap-Up

Wrap-up of 85th Legislature’s public education bills

By DIANN ANDY

The Senate and House had very different legislative priorities when it came to public education.  The most critical was evident in the way the two bodies approached the need to revise our public school finance system.  Two of the most obvious differences include the Senate’s determination to use public funds for private and religious school vouchers, which the House steadfastly opposes, and the Senate’s efforts to invest sweeping powers in the Education Commissioner, which the House does not appear to promote.

An equitable, fully-funded school finance system is essential

Chairman Dan Huberty and the House Committee for Public Education used a collaborative approach, listened to many experts on public education finance and needs, and crafted HB 21, which was a much-needed first step to address persistent flaws in the current system.  It would have added $1.8 billion to public education, raised the basic allotment by $210 per student, provided additional assistance to certain groups of students, simplified and updated transportation funding and the high school allotment, reduced recapture and created a hardship grant for certain districts.  While this commendable effort passed the House, the Senate gutted the funding (offering just $530 million) and tacked on an Education Savings Account voucher amendment before passing it.  The House, led by Huberty, refused to accept the voucher amendment and called for a conference committee.  Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor refused to name Senate members to the conference committee and the bill died.

Vouchers are unacceptable

Several other voucher bills were proposed.  Given LWV’s strong opposition to vouchers, we testified against two, HB 1335 and SB 3 (three if you count the Senate’s version of HB 21) that had traction in committee.  We registered against others.  Fortunately, none made it through the House.  We owe thanks to the strong stand that House Public Education Committee Chair Huberty, Vice Chair Diego Bernal and committee members took against vouchers with Speaker Joe Straus’s backing.

Accountability measures should be non-punitive

Because we support a non-punitive accountability system, we followed with concern several bills relating to the new A-F ratings schools and districts will be receiving.

HB 22, which in its original form would have delayed implementation of A-F, clarified the ratings methods, and mitigated some of the effects, passed the House, but did not pass the Senate intact.  The bill as ultimately passed by both houses does delay implementation for schools (to 2019) but not for districts.  It does clarify some elements, but it remains largely punitive and, under the Senate’s changes, gives the Commissioner of Education broad authority to make rules and set implementation methods and standards.  Gov. Greg Abbot has signed HB 22, which will take effect Sept.1.

An example of other bills related to the A-F rating system is HB 2782, which would have prevented a Bell Curve approach to the ratings.  It passed in the House and the Senate’s education committee, but was not heard by the Senate.

As it stands, the A-F accountability system oversimplifies the complexity of teaching and learning and has limited usefulness to serious efforts to improve our public schools.

Students should be well-prepared for future

Our positions on academic standards led us to follow several bills relating to teacher and instructional quality.

HB 3759 would have temporarily allowed districts to ignore a long list of instructional mandates relating to nearly every academic subject.  These exemptions had the potential to adversely affect students’ performance on exams required to graduateand we testified against them.  Fortunately, HB 3759 did not make it out of committee. 

SB 1278 would allow field supervisors of teachers in training to reduce on-site observations and would allow those same aspiring teachers to be certified even after twice failing the required content exam, leaving a generation of students with under-prepared and unqualified teachers.  As we noted, students who do not pass the end-of-course exams do not graduate; their teachers should have passed their content exams to certify their competency to teach their subjects.  We testified in opposition and, although SB 1278 passed the Senate, it failed in the House Public Education Committee.

HB 1485 would have allowed science teachers to instruct students on their personal beliefs regarding the origins of life, evolution, and climate change under the guise of academic freedom.  We argued that teachers are charged with preparing students for graduation under the TEKS and, ultimately, for academic and career success, which require them to know and use the scientific method and understand proven science.  HB 1485 was left pending in committee.

SB 463 would extend Individual Graduation Committees (ICGs) through the 2018-19 school year.  These committees meet when high school students are in danger of not graduating solely because they have not been able to pass one of the end-of-course exams.  We urged support for this bill which would require that the students’ teachers, administrators and parents agree that, in all other aspects, the student qualifies for graduation.  We had hoped the bill would make ICGs permanent; however, we’ll take this as a step toward that goal.  The bill awaits the governor’s signature.

HB 1237 creates a dual credit-type arrangement for students taking post-secondary approved technology courses in high school.  We testified on this bill, lauding most of its provisions, but questioning elements allowing the Commissioner to accept and use private funds to implement the program.  The bill passed and becomes law Sept.1.

HB 515 would have simply reduced the number of mandatory state tests (STAAR and EOC) to those federally required by ESSA and NCLB and was widely supported by parents, teachers, etc.  However, by the time the Senate approved it (without public commentary on the many changes made), only the 8th grade Social Studies test was eliminated.  Among many other changes, the U.S. History test was replaced with a citizenship exam; it ends retesting for those students who fail the 5th and 8th grade reading and math STAARs, instead requiring individual accelerated learning plans to support them in the following year; and it empowers the Commissioner to create a high-stakes writing portfolio assessment by 2021 to replace the current essay requirement.  While we supported the original test reduction bill, we were studying the changes made when the bill appeared to die in committee.

Notes:  A bill search on public education criteria resulted in a list of 785 bills total in the Senate and House.  Many bills did not directly relate to LWV-TX positions.  Many of the bills that directly related to our positions never got a committee hearing.  Of those that were heard in committee, we testified and/or registered in support of or opposition to 45 bills, achieving the desired outcomes on 39.  These results would not have been possible without the patient assistance and hours of work of LWV-TX VP Grace Chimene and the Capitol Corps, especially Barbara Fransden and Janet Imhoff.  Thank you!

LWV-TX positions on K-12 Public Education:

  1.    Supporting a schoolfinance (funding) system that ensures a fair distribution of funds to provide ALL students with high quality education
  2.    Opposing vouchersby any name that transfer students and funding to private and religious schools
  3.    Supporting academicstandards and curricula that prepare students for success in college or careers
  4.    Supporting academic achievement testing(assessment) that is used for diagnostic (not punitive) purposes
  5.    Supporting a fair, non-punitive accountability system

NOTE:  Pre-K education is handled by Marlene Lobberecht, LWV-TX Chair for Early Childhood