Schools in Session

Legislators Study Issues: From Vouchers to Combat Pay

Now that the chips have fallen where they may, it's time to pick a few of them back up again. The Texas Education Code was revamped, streamlined, and (most folks agree) improved during the previous legislative session in 1995. But a few rough spots in the law still remain, so this time out, lawmakers will be doing some cleanup.

Under the leadership of Sen. Bill Ratliff (R-Mt. Pleasant), who headed up the code revision effort on the Senate side, and House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Sadler (D-Henderson), the code was rewritten to return more decision-making power to parents and local school authorities, which they hoped would encourage some innovation in the classroom. Thus, Texas became the first state in the U.S. to give itself authority to grant so-called "home rule" school charters, allowing school districts to make up many of their own rules concerning school governance and classroom instruction.

Texas is also one of 26 states that has charter school legislation (not to be confused with home rule charters). Per state law, Texas has now granted 20 open-enrollment charters to non-profit organizations or colleges, which operate the schools in privately owned facilities. Two of these are in Austin -- the Texas Academy for Excellence, a Pre-K/Grade 1 school, and the American Institute for Learning, which serves high school dropouts.

Another product of last session's efforts on the education code was the "Safe Schools Act." Teachers' groups, especially, had long clamored for a law providing for "zero tolerance" for student misbehavior and violence, and they finally got it in writing from Texas lawmakers. The law also requires school districts to set up alternative education settings for students who are expelled.

But despite these apparent innovations, some loose ends in Texas public school law remain. Here are a few salient points, and a few highlights of pre-filed legislation.

  • Home rule: This aforementioned item topped the list of Gov. George W. Bush's education agenda last session, but so far, no school district has taken a swing at it. That's probably because the requirements to establish a home rule school district are quite stiff -- 25% of the registered voters in the district must turn out to vote in an election in order for the charter to be valid. Since school board elections typically only draw about 10% of registered voters, a successful home rule charter election seems to be a long shot at best. Look for conservatives, especially, to attempt to relax the requirements for establishing a home rule school district.

  • Charter schools: The state has already reached its legal limit on the number of open-enrollment charters it can grant -- 20 -- but efforts to remove all limits are underway. Groups such as the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) are opposed to authorizing more charter schools, however, until the present 20 schools have been thoroughly studied. Some liberal and many conservative educators view charter schools, and the promise of "unfettered" creativity they hold out, as a major way to change public education.

  • Vouchers: The movement to put public funds into private school coffers unexpectedly slammed into a brick wall last session. But the same advocates of vouchers -- mainly white conservatives, joined by a few Hispanic and black quasi-conservatives -- will be back in force. It's hard to say whether they'll use their old strategy -- positing the voucher question as a matter of equity for poor children -- this time around, or find another way to make their point.

    But perhaps those eager to give vouchers a test drive needn't wait for the Legislature to act. Trustees of the Lake Travis Independent School District have asked Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Moses to approve their plan to divert some of their property taxes to a fledgling Catholic school. The Coalition for Public Schools, an alliance of education, religious, and civil liberties groups opposed to vouchers, recently protested Lake Travis' maneuver, and is questioning the legality of the plan.

    Current law does allow children at low-performing campuses to ask to be transferred from their zoned schools to other schools (either within or outside their district). But the House Public Education Committee, in the course of conducting interim hearings, learned that the "public school voucher" plan is not working very well -- only about 50 children throughout the state have been admitted to other schools. According to an interim report, committee members agree that this section of the law needs more revision in order to open up the plan to more students.

  • Safe Schools: No section of the education code has flummoxed school officials more than the section on school discipline, law, and order. Teachers have the statutory authority to remove students who disrupt their classrooms -- and the teachers don't have to take the hooligans back. But what happens after that gets very complicated. Two types of alternative education programs (AEPs) are required -- one run by the school district itself, and a juvenile justice AEP, which must be developed by the juvenile board in counties with populations greater than 125,000. Students ejected from their classrooms are to be placed in the district-run AEP; students who are adjudicated are sent to the juvenile justice AEP. But, hold on -- even if the student commits a felony off-campus, he or she can still be placed in an AEP. The law is quite confusing, raises more procedural questions than it answers, and has been hard for administrators to interpret and carry out.

    Senator Teel Bivins (R-Amarillo), the newly-appointed chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has filed a slew of bills to correct and simplify this crucial section of the code. The House Interim Education Committee report says, too, that the law should better define the rights and responsibilities of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and juvenile justice officials. An ongoing complaint from groups such as TASB is that, while the state is requiring AEPs, it is not fully funding them.

  • School funding: In the past, the battle over school funding has centered around equalization and equity. But the game has changed in just a few short years. Gov. Bush declared reducing property taxes a priority for this session, so it seems very clear that lawmakers will spend a great deal of time trying to make Bush's -- and many Texas homeowners' -- wishes come true. But at what price? Is an increase in the state sales tax (which tends to hit lower-income residents harder) on its way? How much more of a burden are Texas businesses and industries willing to take on, in order to render property owners less irate? Who'll play "Robin Hood" next in Texas' long-running production of School Finance Follies?

    Meanwhile, bills have been filed in both the House and Senate that propose to dedicate net revenue from the Texas Lottery to public education. Despite the rousing success of the state games, opponents say that dedicating lottery funds is a gamble for the future security of Texas schools. But one lawmaker must be given extra credit for his creativity; Rep. Brian McCall (R-Plano) has filed a bill that would allow persons age 65 and older to work off their property taxes by doing volunteer work for the school district.

  • Miscellaneous: Rep. Sherri Greenberg (D-Austin) has filed a bill to repeal a hare-brained scheme that personally rewards school principals for "performance" with cold, hard cash... House Public Education Committee members may consider "combat pay" for teachers in rural and low-income schools... Several lawmakers have filed bills allowing home-schooled students to participate in University Interscholastic League (UIL) activities in their zoned school districts. A bill by Sen. Jerry Patterson (R-Houston) provides for penalties up to $2,500 if school districts do not permit home schoolers to participate in UIL competitions... Rep. John Longoria (D-San Antonio) has filed a bill requiring Texas schoolchildren to be instructed in "basic values of the United States" as part of the core curriculum... On the other side of the same coin, Rep. Ron Wilson (D-Houston) has filed a bill requiring instruction in "human rights issues, with particular attention to the study of the inhumanity of genocide, slavery, and the Holocaust"... On a more practical note, Rep. Helen Giddings (D- DeSoto) has filed a bill requiring students in Grades 7 and up to be instructed in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

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