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Lawmakers Take on Texas-Sized Task: Rethinking School Code

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After five years of exhaustive legislative sessions that focused on overhauling the way Texas pays for its schools, lawmakers have found a way to create even more upheaval: rethinking the state's entire school code.

Sen. Bill Ratliff, the chairman of the Senate education committee, proposed a gargantuan school-reform bill last month that is just short of 1,100 pages and comprehensive enough to offend everyone, as its sponsor proudly predicted.

"A lot of sacred cows are going to be gored, and some of them will be yours," Senator Ratliff said in greeting about 300 members of the Texas Association of School Boards who gathered in the state capital last week to learn about the plan.

At the same time, Rep. Paul Sadler, the chairman of the House education committee, promised to release his own plan for revamping the state's school laws in the next few weeks. He also predicted that the House may go in a different direction from the Senate.

The debate over the education code is not simply a rhetorical exercise. The school-finance bill passed by lawmakers in 1993 included a provision that effectively abolishes all of the state's school laws as of Sept. 1, forcing the legislature to act. And given a new political climate that favors change and decentralization, some Texas leaders are seeing their massive task as a timely one.

Mr. Ratliff explained that perhaps the most important feature of his proposal is that it is intended to be understandable.

"The current Texas education code is organized in a way that only a lawyer could love; it is arcane and convoluted," he said.

Texas is one of a number of states that are looking at scrapping their education codes and starting over. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1995.)

Diluting State Power

Mr. Ratliff's bill would reorganize the laws and simplify the state's role. More than half of the plan is devoted to deleting current state requirements. The bill would also rein in the regulatory power of the state school board and limit the authority of the state education commissioner in an effort to give more policymaking power to local school districts.

The bill would let districts build their own academic programs around a core curriculum of English, mathematics, science, and social studies. It would also let them adopt their own textbooks--an idea with national implications, since Texas' status as one of the largest states with a state-adoption system gives it a big influence on the textbook industry.

Districts would also be allowed to map their own school-bus routes and to buy and sell buses as they pleased.

The bill would set a zero-tolerance policy on school discipline, allowing a teacher to remove an unruly child from the classroom and requiring districts to send students who were removed to approved alternative schools.

The Senate bill also would limit state testing, mandating that the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills cover only the subjects in the state's core curriculum. In addition, passing an exit test would no longer be required for graduation. Instead, the state would require students to pass an end-of-course test to earn class credits; the bill would limit exemptions from that requirement.

Students in Texas high schools would be required to pursue one of three options--an academic diploma for students preparing for college, an advanced diploma for college-bound students seeking advanced college placement, and a vocational diploma for students ready for work or planning to attend a community college or technical-training program.

'Home Rule' Districts

Mr. Ratliff's plan would also implement a prominent campaign proposal of Gov. George W. Bush, by giving districts the option of becoming "home-rule school districts." Residents in those areas could vote to free themselves from many state regulations in exchange for agreeing to meet certain state performance measures. Traditional districts would be known as "general-law districts" under the proposal.

Open-enrollment charter schools would also be created to exempt new public schools from state mandates. The state would also designate several "free schools," private schools that would agree to accept state vouchers for poor students whose parents chose the schools over local public schools. To qualify, the free schools would have to agree to participate in the state's student-testing program.

Finally, the bill would create a state teacher-certification board to regulate teacher credentials and professional-development programs. Districts would award teachers either a probationary contract, a term contract, or a continuing contract, effectively eliminating tenure.

The bill would require annual teacher evaluations, limit severance packages for superintendents, and allow recall of local school board members.

The number of instructional days would be lowered from 180 to 175, building in more days for teacher training and continuing education.

The proposal is already living up to its "offensive" billing. Teachers are complaining about its requirement that they work two extra days with no extra pay and its limits on contract rights. Administrators fear that local textbook adoptions would mean higher book costs. And observers all agree that a battle is brewing.

Mr. Ratliff's committee opened hearings on the bill last week and plans to continue deliberations through the end of this month.

"We're going to be dealing with everything," said Terry Cannon, a spokeswoman for the state school boards' association. "And that means everything."

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