Lege Goes to School: Education Bills

Taxes, finance, vouchers, graduation paths, "parent triggers," and community schools: Lawmakers have filed a broad slate of education bills, some of which fix what they've earlier broken, some of which make meaningful reforms, and some of which will just cause more damage to be fixed later. Here's a sample platter of what's in progress in the 84th Legislature.

Senate Bill 4, by Senate Public Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood: The Senate's omnibus vouchers bill has become a hollow shell of itself. Taylor's original language included "education tuition grants" (aka vouchers) and tax credits for businesses that donate to scholarship funds for private schools. When it emerged from committee, the vouchers were gone, and the tax credit language had nearly doubled in length. It moved slowly through the Senate, and faces a rough future in the House.

House Bill 1759, by House Public Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen: The House omnibus school finance reform bill is one of the most sweeping reforms since the 2006 court-mandated overhaul. Primarily, it gets rid of outmoded adjusters for how cash is allocated, some of which the author has described as being so poorly representative of modern education spending that they are "indefensible." However, he admits his proposal is only a short-term fix: With no changes to the underlying weights for allocation, his plan only keeps the lights on through 2017.

HB 4, by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Kingwood: Access to pre-K education is one of the great indicators of student achievements throughout their education careers, making it all the more unfortunate that pre-K funding was one of the first targets in the 2011 financial bloodbath. By replacing $130 million of the $300 million lost four years ago, HB 4 would partially fund half-day pre-K for eligible districts. However, the Tea Party has set its cap against the plan, calling it "godless."

SB 6, by Taylor: In 2013, the reforms in HB 5 changed school accountability rankings from four levels (exemplary, recognized, academically acceptable, and academically unacceptable) to two (met standard and improvement required). Taylor's bill moves campuses to the same A-F standard currently used for districts and students. Primarily supported by the business community – which would never subject itself to a similar ranking system.

SB 893, by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo: would move teachers away from five-year professional appraisals, and instead tie salary, promotion, and career development to student test scores. The fact the Legislature would do this as it is trying to reduce the impact and importance of high stakes testing for student graduation seems self-contradicting. The Senate version was heavily re-written in committee, placing less emphasis on tests and giving school boards far more leeway on setting benchmarks. Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, went so far as to say the original was "poorly written," it is stuck in committee, and it seems unlikely the lower chamber will be more receptive to the Senate version, no matter how heavily amended.

SB 14, by Taylor: Texas already has a parental trigger bill, allowing parents to effectively hand their local campus over to charter groups after five years of low performance. However, virtually no one has ever used it, so Taylor's measure proposes cutting that five years to two – good news for reformers with itchy trigger fingers. It's out of the Senate, so the question now is whether the House wants to touch it.

SB 149, by Seliger: One of the important fixes to HB 5, Seliger's measure would create graduation committees, meaning graduating students could be evaluated on the totality of their academic performance, not just on how they did on their STAAR end-of-course tests. Currently cruising to passage with near-universal House and Senate support, it provided one of the session's most entertaining moments, when House sponsor Huberty, virtually shaking with anger, publicly chastised Texas Association of Business CEO Bill Hammond and Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Vice President Drew Scheberle for opposing a bill he said they clearly didn't understand.

HB 1891, by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin: The polar opposite of a parent trigger bill, HB 1891 creates a legal definition of a community school: a campus that partners with community-based groups to provide wraparound health, social, and academic services to help students succeed, as an alternative to closure. So far, it and its Senate counterpart (SB 1483 by Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Palito Blanco) have faced an uphill struggle, even with some Democrats. But as community schools advocates have made their case in committee hearings, the antipathy of lawmakers like Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, has started to soften.

SB 391, by Burton: aka the "Tim Tebow" bill, a long-pushed pet project of the home-schooling movement, to allow home-schooled kids to compete in University Interscholastic League sports. Similar language passed the Senate but died in the House last session, and neither Burton's version, nor similar language in the House by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, or Rep. Leighton Schubert, R-Caldwell have made it to a committee hearing.

SB 669, by West: That rare beast in Texas: a Democrat-authored bill that educators loathe. West's measure would create the Texas Opportunity School District, a statewide ISD effectively run by the Commissioner of Education, into which troubled schools can be transferred after two years of low scores. Since state micromanaging of campuses doesn't exactly have a stellar track record, it's no surprise this bill is getting little traction. Neither it, nor its House companion by Dutton, nor a Republican version drafted by Taylor, is having much luck getting out of committee.

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