Texas Lawmakers Wrangle a Herd of Education Bills
For those seeking a state legislature weighing a raft of major policy overhauls, it might be hard to beat Texas, where, by the scheduled end of the session on June 1, there could be a private school choice program for the first time, along with a new state-run school district, and revamped teacher evaluations.
Part of what's driving the rush of bills, even in a legislature that only meets every two years, is the slate of new Republican elected officials brought to power by last year's elections. For example, first-year Gov. Greg Abbott has made it a top priority to expand early-education options. And Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the former head of the Senate education committee who was elected separately last year, is exerting significant influence in pushing the GOP-controlled legislature to expand school choice.
Meanwhile, an influential K-12 advocacy group, Texans for Education Reform, led by the education adviser to former Gov. Rick Perry, also a Republican, is relying on advice from groups like TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) and the Foundation for Excellence in Education as it pushes its priorities. They include an expansion of Texas' existing A-F accountability system to cover individual schools, creation of the state-run district for struggling schools, and a teacher evaluation framework that also would impact teachers' salaries.
Pushback on Testing
Legislation to reduce testing requirements for some high school students is also getting traction in Austin, two years after the state made major reductions in the number of end-of-course exams required for students to pass in order to graduate.
"Each one of them kind of has their own goals, things to be prioritized. And they aren't necessarily the same," said Matt Prewett, the founder of the nonpartisan Texas Parents Union who has mixed views on the various high-profile proposals.
The Texas Legislature only meets every two years, so the queue of bills dealing with K-12 can grow fairly quickly. Here’s a sample of notable legislation that deals with school choice, accountability, and more. Although the legislature is controlled by Republicans, similar proposals have been introduced by both GOP and Democratic lawmakers.
Two pieces of legislation would beef up the state’s existing parent-trigger law by reducing from five years to two years the length of time a school would have to be rated as low-performing before it could be subject to trigger laws. The bills are sponsored by Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat, and Sen. Larry Taylor, a Republican who is chairman of the Senate education committee.
State and Local Control
Sen. Taylor, along with Rep. Dutton and Democratic Sen. Royce West, have introduced proposals to create a state-run “opportunity” district designed to improve low-performing schools. While Sen. West’s bill would largely bar private entities from providing educational services to students at such schools, Sen. Taylor’s bill has no such prohibition.
While a bill from Sen. Taylor would create a commission to review testing in Texas, separate legislation from Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican, would cut from five to three the required end-of-course exams high school students must pass in order to graduate in certain circumstances.
Also hovering in the background is a case before the Texas Supreme Court over state funding for schools. State District Court Judge John Dietz ruled last year in favor of about 600 plaintiff districts that the state's K-12 funding is unconstitutional due to its inadequacy and inefficiencies. (The state appealed the ruling.) If the state's top court upholds Judge Dietz's ruling, it could require Texas to increase aid to public schools by billions of dollars.
Proposals in the legislature to increase annual school funding range from $1.2 billion to $3 billion—current annual state spending on K-12 is roughly $20.7 billion.
But much of the political energy this session is devoted to policy bills. In fact, a relatively low-profile change made to Senate rules at the start of this year by Lt. Gov. Patrick, who pushed unsuccessfully for tax-credit scholarships during his time in the chamber, may be just as influential as his support for any particular bill. As the new president of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Patrick reduced the share of senators who must agree to hold a vote on a bill from two-thirds of the chamber to three-fifths, a move observers say could remove a long-standing obstacle to the passage of school choice bills.
"It will definitely help carry that message over a little smoother," said Alejandro Garcia, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Patrick.
Choice and Triggers
Several Senate bills approach school choice expansion differently. Senate Bill 642, for example, would set up a tax-credit system with socioeconomic prerequisites for students, while Senate Bill 276 would provide a direct reimbursement to parents for private school tuition worth either the cost of tuition, or 60 percent of state per-pupil expenditures, whichever is less.
Although Republicans control of the legislative agenda in both chambers, Democratic Sen. Royce West, a member of the Senate education committee, said his experience with struggling schools in the Dallas district, which he represents, has helped convince him to support greater choice. He's supporting a bill to allow for the "parent trigger" law, which in general allows a majority of parents at a school to petition for changes including new administrators or a conversion to a charter school.
That bill from GOP Sen. Larry Taylor, the Senate education committee chairman, would allow the law to be used at a school which has been given the lowest rating for two straight years—the law currently requires five straight years of low performance before parents can use the trigger law. As of last December, the Texas Education Agency reported 297 schools with "improvement required" ratings for two years, the lower of the two state ratings, and another 436 with one year of that lower rating.
"Parental involvement correlates with student achievement. That's the bottom line," Sen. West said.
But opponents of school choice proposals still hold out hope that a traditional political coalition of lawmakers will unite to stymie private school choice expansion.
As far back as 1995, Texas legislators have considered but ultimately rejected bills to create private school choice programs.
Charles A. Luke, the coordinator for the Austin-based Coalition for Public Schools, which supports higher spending on K-12 and opposes private school choice programs, said the $130 million plan from GOP Rep. Dan Huberty to expand kindergarten (an idea backed by Gov. Abbott) making its way through the state House of Representatives is a good step forward. But the coalition, which includes associations representing the state's local school boards and administrators, believes more resources need to be provided to the overall K-12 system, instead of chipping away at traditional public schools through what Mr. Luke called "privatization" attempts.
"I think that rural Republicans join with Democrats in the House to understand that schools are one of the bastions of the common good in their community," said Mr. Luke, who is also the director of development for the Fort Worth-based Pastors for Texas Children. "You don't have to throw the public school system away."
One group proving particularly influential is Texans for Education Reform, an Austin-based group led by Julie Linn, who previously was the education adviser to Gov. Perry, who served 15 years in office.
Bills supported by the group to create a state-run district and A-F school ratings, for example, have in turn been sponsored by Sen. Taylor, along with several other senators of both parties.
The group, which is working in its second legislative session, is also backing a teacher-evaluation bill from Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican, that would guarantee a minimum salary of $2,750 per month for teachers. But that bill also would require higher salaries to be subject to a new evaluation framework that primarily utilizes "objective measures" of performance such as student test scores and implementation of discipline policies, rather than "observable, job-related behavior." The framework does allow for classroom observations to be a factor.
The Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers has labeled this plan an "illegitimate use" of student scores on state exams.
Although Ms. Linn said that "in many ways I wish there was a silver bullet, transformative policy," she stressed that it will take an entire suite of policies, as well as expanding current ones, like expanding the use of A-F grades now used for districts to individual schools, to move the state's public education system forward. And she said progress will require ideas coming from outside the state—Texans for Education Reform is pointing to state-run districts in Louisiana and Tennessee as models the state can use, she said. (Bills to introduce A-F for schools and a state-run district were also introduced in 2013.)
"So much of this is looking at existing Texas law and improving it so that it can be used to actually improve Texas schools," said Ms. Linn, also pointing to the group's push to make the state's parent-trigger policy easier for parents to utilize.
A Multi-Front Battle
However, the different proposals in Texas have different allies whose views on policy particulars aren't uniform.
Texans for Education Reform, for example, doesn't take a position on private-school choice bills. And Sen. West said labeling schools on an A-F basis is an "asinine" move that will unfairly slap a bad label on some schools. He also wants for-profit charter-management groups kept out of schools where the parent trigger is used.
Moreover, some conservatives argue proposals dealing with school and teacher accountability are too limited.
Kent Grusendorf, a former state representative and member of the state board of education who is now a senior fellow at the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation, which advocates for free-market policies, said expanding school choice not only serves parents, but will undercut the "power of the school establishment" in Texas.
"Anything short of injecting competition and choice into the system is simply tweaking around the edges," he said.
Vol. 34, Issue 26, Pages 15, 17Published in Print: April 1, 2015, as Texas Lawmakers Wrangle a Herd of Education Measures