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Tex. Lawmakers Reach Accord on Overhaul of Education Laws

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Texas lawmakers agreed last week on a vastly revamped set of state education laws that scales back the education department's authority and gives school districts the power to make their own rules.

A House-Senate conference committee approved a version of Senate Bill 1 after two weeks of negotiations. Aides said it could be taken up in either chamber this week.

The bill creates several new classes of schools for Texas administrators, educators, and entrepreneurs to consider. Districts could apply for "home rule" charters that would free them from most state mandates.

They could also seek a "campus program" charter, which would be exempt from some state regulations. The bill also would create or allow creation of up to 20 separate charter schools, free from some state regulations and organized by groups or individuals outside the existing school system.

The bill, introduced earlier this year by Sen. Bill Ratliff, would accomplish the sponsor's goal of forcing a fundamental change in the school power structure in Texas, the nation's second-largest state school system.

The conference committee shelved a school-voucher plan after failing to agree on the concept of allowing state money to subsidize private school tuition. In exchange, Mr. Ratliff was able to keep class-size regulations from being applied to home-rule districts.

In the conference committee's bill, only home-rule districts with low academic performance would have to meet the state's 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio in kindergarten through the 4th grade.

Easing No-Pass, No-Play

During the proceedings, Mr. Ratliff predicted that the overall reduction in regulation might actually make the home-rule charters less attractive to Texas administrators. Freeing them from state rules in purchasing buses and textbooks and in dividing the school day or teaching courses could remove any desire to seek even further freedom, he said.

The conference bill also would:

Establish end-of-course exams in required high school algebra, biology, English, and American-history courses. Students who passed the exams would be exempt from the state's exit-level Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, which all students must now pass to graduate.
Revise the state's no-pass, no-play law to require students who are failing at least one course to be suspended from competition for three weeks. The current law carries a six-week suspension and bars suspended athletes from practice.
Provide districts with three lists of textbooks to choose from: a conforming list with books that met essential curriculum items, a nonconforming list with books meeting some essentials, and an open list. The state would pay the cost of books from the first two lists and 70 percent of the cost of books from the open list.
Describe parents' rights, including publication of state tests after they are given, access to written school records and teaching materials, and mandatory parental consent before students could be videotaped or participate in psychological testing.

The conference bill would create a state board for educator certification. Appointed by the governor, the board would have authority over teacher qualifications, certification requirements, continuing education, and discipline. The board also would have veto power over any rules adopted by the state school board.



Limiting the Agency

The certification board and the district-charter options are among the most obvious signs of a de-clawed Texas Education Agency.

The conference committee agreed to limit the department to six basic responsibilities. Among them are recommending education goals, granting campus charters, managing school funds, and administering federal programs.

Training and assistance activities would shift from the T.E.A. to the state's education-service centers, which would be allowed to compete for contracts with districts across the state.

Finally, the bill would create a network of alternative schools and would make it both easier to remove violent and disruptive students and harder for them to get back into their old classrooms.

Gov. George W. Bush, who called for the home-rule districts throughout his campaign last year, was also a supporter of the voucher program. He said, however, that he will likely support the bill that reaches his desk.

"This bill must empower local people, must encourage innovation, must have strict accountability, must have a concept of zero tolerance, and I believe it will," the Republican Governor said. "I may not have 100 percent of what I campaigned on in the bill, but if it adheres to those principles, I will look upon it favorably."

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