Perry Signs Education Bill: Now What?

Gov signs off on HB5 after veto speculation

Gov. Rick Perry: Signs one major education bill, but not the other
Gov. Rick Perry: Signs one major education bill, but not the other (Photo by John Anderson)

Last week, rumors were flying wildly that Gov. Rick Perry might veto the comprehensive graduation and school accountability reforms in House Bill 5. Now he's done the reverse, putting his official seal of approval on it by signing the measure.

HB 5 was arguably the battleground bill of the regular session. Reducing the number of end of course exams from 15 to five, adding more vocational paths to graduation, and dumping the old accountability system of Exemplary/Recognized/Academically Acceptable/Unacceptable in favor of an A-F grading system, it's one of the most significant pieces of education legislation in decades.

What makes this even more interesting is that Perry has not signed off on the session's other major piece of education legislation. Senate Bill 2, which increases the number of charter schools, was sent to his desk on May 29, the same day as HB5. It's a minor victory for the Tea Party, which had dreamed of unlimited charter schools and a statewide voucher program. And yet it still sits untouched on Perry's desk, neither signed nor vetoed, and looks set to become law without Perry's signature.

Unsurprisingly, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment – which has campaigned against high-stakes testing – was jubilant at the signing of HB5. In a statement, the group said, "Texas public schools can now begin to implement the positive changes including decreasing the required End-of-Course exams from 15 to 5 and increasing flexibility for high school graduation requirements. This new law also saves Texas taxpayers millions of dollars by limiting state-mandated standardized tests."

Perry's signature leaves the self-appointed representatives of Texas commerce with a good deal of egg on their collective face. The Texas Association of Business has been a fearless cheerleader for high stakes testing, while the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce spent the last few days bleating into the wind on this. On June 5 the Austin American Statesman ran an op-ed by chamber vice-chairman of education and talent development Don Kendrick, saying that the bill was an attempt to "rectify" the changes lawmakers made in 2007, but that they had "overshot" and abandoned academic rigor. Two days later chamber senior vice president for education Drew Scheberle leaped to Kendrick's aid via Quourum Report and tried to make the chamber look like the victims in all this. He wrote, "We have been called every name under the sun, from a hero for standing up for the voiceless to a cross between the Grinch who stole Christmas and your neighbor who likes kicking puppy dogs." They weren't advocates for high stakes testing, he wrote, just education boosters who don't want lawmakers to "step back and expect less of [students]."

Then comes Perry's signature, and a muted press release from Scheberle that the chamber "can continue to place all our students, regardless of economic circumstances, on a course of study which will prepare them."

The changes introduced by the bill mean a lot of extra work for the Texas Education Agency: That's no easy challenge, since they were one of the state agencies most severely gutted during the debilitating budget cuts of 2011. Commissioner of Education Michael Williams wrote today that his staff is already working on implementation, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions about what the new accountability system looks like: "While my staff has already been delving into those issues, we do not yet have answers to every question. However, I anticipate formally announcing the details as quickly as possible as I continue to hear from my staff, superintendents, educators and parents on the various issues important to assuring a smooth transition.”

Education lobbyist and activist Jason Sabo of Frontera Strategies said he understood some of the issues raised by groups like the chamber about the lack of extra support to help guide campuses and students through the new system. However, his sympathy was limited, because these were exactly the same kind of groups that have hamstrung education funding in the state. He said, "If we're asking kids to navigate a more complicated system to get to college, then the need to provide support becomes that much more essential."

The most interesting statement of the day may have come from former Texas Workforce Commission chair Tom Pauken, who praised the bill authors for adding more vocational training. He said, "Too many of our students are dropping out of high school as a result because they don't see education as relevant to them. Being 'career ready' is just as valuable as being 'college ready'."

Why is Pauken so interesting? Because he's already announced that he will be running as a Republican for governor in 2014.

This is where the electoral politics get interesting. Pauken has been hitting Perry on school accountability for months: In fact, it's his number one target, mainly because it's seen as the weakest point in Perry's armor. For Governor Good Hair, the calculation seems pretty complex. His backers in the education reform movement and the testing industry don't want high stake tests to go away: But just about everyone else, including the anti-public education wing of the Tea Party loathe them. If Perry is going to run for anything in 2014 – be it governor or (don't laugh) president – then he'll need Tea Party support.

It could be a simpler political calculation. Perry had already called the legislature back into session, expecting a quick debate on redistricting. That has dragged out for weeks, meaning that even if he had vetoed HB5, the House and Senate could simply gavel in and vote to overturn his veto. After all the effort that went into designing a consensus bill, it seems highly likely that lawmakers could have found the two-thirds majority required to overrule Perry.

None of which answers the question: Why is he keeping his name off SB2?

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Education, Rick Perry, Tea Party, School Accountability, HB 5, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Drew Scheberle, Tom Pauken, High Stakes Testing

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