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S.C. House Passes Bill To Ax $32 Million in School Programs

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A massive school-reform bill that would rewrite most education laws in Texas easily won approval from the Senate last week--sending a signal to parents and educators that they soon could be operating under vastly different rules.

The reforms, known as Senate Bill 1, were approved 28 to 2. They include provisions ranging from a new accreditation system for Texas school districts to modifications in the state's no-pass, no-play law. (See related story.)

The bill now goes to the House, whose leaders have said they will set their own priorities rather than work strictly from the Senate bill.

Lawmakers are under pressure to make big changes after passing a school-finance bill in 1993 that will wipe out the state's school code in September. (See related story The most controversial portion of the Senate bill proved to be a pilot program experimenting with vouchers. The bill would allow poor children in districts that do not meet state education standards to use vouchers to attend any private or parochial school that is willing to provide transportation and lunch, administer state tests, and abolish entrance requirements.

The two Democrats who voted against the bill objected to that pilot program. But Sen. Bill Ratliff, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee and the author of the bill, said parents are ready to make changes and need to have more options in low-performing districts.

"I can't understand why anybody would want to deprive these children of the opportunity to at least try something different," Mr. Ratliff said. The program fits the theme of the bill--that business as usual is not working, he added.

"We must do something different," Mr. Ratliff said. "We must make a difference. The public, our educators, and schoolchildren are depending on us to make a difference."

State Role Slashed

In fact, educators and parents may find themselves spending the next few weeks trying to understand what the differences included in the Senate bill would mean.

The bill would pare the job description of the Texas Education Agency, authorizing it to set state standards and draft state plans for several programs, while reporting on education goals, monitoring state funding, and granting district charters. All outside training and consulting would be shifted to "education service centers" across the state, which would compete with one another for business from the districts.

The plan would also create new levels of school district accreditation. Schools could apply for "general-law charters" that require administrators to follow the letter of the state code or "home-rule charters" that would allow more freedom in scheduling the school day, designing programs, and setting class size. The provision was approved on a 16-to-13 vote.

In addition to the voucher pilot, the state would allow up to 20 charter schools under the bill.

Under Senate Bill 1, students would not be required to pass the exit-level Texas Assessment of Academic Skills for graduation.

Instead, end-of-course proficiency exams would be instituted for all high school classes included in the state's core curriculum. The test questions would be made public after the test was administered. The bill also would allow schools to award an "advanced seal" to diplomas for students who enrolled in more challenging courses.

Changes in Local Rules

The bill spells out the responsibilities of local officials who would be called on to take more authority. "Local boards will no longer govern and manage, but govern and oversee the management of school districts," a summary of the bill states.

Local superintendents would be responsible for drafting budgets, state aid would be reduced by any amount awarded as severance pay to a former superintendent, and voters could recall and remove local board members.

The plan would allow teachers to remove disruptive students from their classes and veto their return.

Districts would be required to provide alternative classes for students removed from regular classrooms, and the bill would forbid a court or school official from returning to the regular school any student found guilty of assault, selling drugs, or public lewdness. More serious crimes would result in expulsion.

The bill would create a state board to set teacher qualifications and handle teacher certification, training, and discipline. The board would set up a system for appraising teacher performance. Consecutive unsatisfactory evaluations would be grounds for dismissal under the bill.

The measure also includes $92 million for adjustments in the state salary schedule for teachers.

It would allow districts to adopt their own textbooks, a potentially far-reaching change for the textbook market nationally. (See Education Week, 3/22/95.)

In addition, it would increase the state's school-funding level and add a $2 billion facilities program. And the state would no longer regulate local busing beyond requiring safety standards.

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