Deconstructing the Public Schools

The House has generated the most dubious bills targeting education this session. Here's a brief selection of the worst still standing:

HB 2465: "Freedom Scholarships" Grusendorf's "scholarship" (i.e., voucher) bill would provide some of the poorer students in the 11 largest districts in Texas (including Austin ISD) with vouchers directly from the districts' budgets and redeemable at private schools. The cost of the two-year "pilot" program is estimated at $260 million. Schlomach says the bill will give poor Texans an alternative to government-run schools and force public schools to compete. But since highly selective prep schools will not lower their fees to the level of public-school funding, many anticipate an explosion of second-tier private schools run by churches or for-profit chains. "Do taxpayers really want to fund schools that are less accountable than public schools?" asks Brock Gregg, government relations director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. "Why don't we try a pilot program that fully funds the public schools in 11 districts, and see what that does?" Thirty-six states spend more per student than Texas on their public schools.

HB 1554: "Virtual Charters" This bill, also Grusendorf's, was defeated in the House, but its companion (SB 933, Shapiro) passed the Senate. The House bill would have used public-school funds to pay for online classes, computers, and printers for an unlimited number of home-schooled students. The Senate bill limits the program to two virtual schools and caps enrollment at 2,000 (see "Capitol Chronicle").

HB 859 & 973: Deregulating Districts Grusendorf's 859 would exempt districts rated "exemplary" by the Texas Education Agency from most state education standards, including but not limited to: class size, attendance standards, teacher-certification requirements, minimum teacher salary and benefits, transportation and safety standards, etc. "Why would you lower these very standards that have helped districts become exemplary?" says Gregg. "It is just a way for districts to save money by shortchanging teachers and students, since the Legislature can't find the will to support public schools." The bill's supporters say it "rewards" high-performing districts. "You're doing a good job," says Schlomach, "you deserve deregulation." HB 973 (Jerry Madden, R-Richardon) would deregulate any district in which voters choose "home rule."

HB 318 & 2722: Deregulating Teacher Certification Grusendorf's 318, which passed the House last week, would allow anyone with a bachelor's degree to obtain teacher certification without graduating from a certification program, simply by passing the certification exam. HB 2722 (Roberto Gutierrez, D-McAllen) would allow anyone with a master's degree to teach, without even taking the test. Grusendorf contends these bills would free up a talented pool of professionals willing and able to teach -- although qualified professionals can already get district waivers to teach in their subject areas. Teachers organizations argue the bills dodge important training and are disguised attempts at lowering standards in order to force down teacher salaries and benefits -- already undermined in the House budget.

HB 1132 & 323: Eroding Teachers' Due-Process Rights Both bills (Grusendorf) give district administrators more freedom to arbitrarily suspend or fire a teacher without hearings or even a reason. "These bills add insult to injury," says Gregg. "Teachers are being told their training doesn't matter, their pay is being cut, and now they are losing their right to due process."

HB 133: Private School Textbooks Grusendorf's bill would have used public funds to buy private-school textbooks. When the House budget slashed funding for public-school textbooks, the bill was shelved and is probably dead.

HB 1172: A Whitewashed Curriculum Since textbooks aren't boring enough, Madden's bill would mandate that public schools teach a "balanced" curriculum and that the U.S. has "overcome its mistakes and emerged as the freest, most democratic nation in the history of the world." Even Grusendorf found the bill dubious, although not because it's idiotic on its face. "Representative Grusendorf believes that the markets should regulate textbooks," said Schlomach, "just like everywhere else."

HB 607 & 1447: More SBOE Authority The overwhelmingly conservative State Board of Education has censored textbooks and recklessly granted charters to unqualified applicants, motivating past legislatures to limit its power. Here we go again: HB 607 (Anna Mowery, R-Fort Worth), pending in committee (probably permanently), would take power from the commissioner of education and give it to the board. HB 1447 (Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land), pending in Calendars, would return "sole and unlimited authority" over textbook content to the SBOE -- a power the board abused so thoroughly that the Lege considered shutting it down altogether. Some reps need to go back to school.

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