Law & Courts

Cyberbullying, Transgender-Student Rights Among K-12 Issues Tackled in Texas

By Daarel Burnette II — June 06, 2017 4 min read
A visitor looks out on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives as lawmakers enter the last stretch of the session which wrapped up business last week. The legislature dealt with a broad basket of K-12 issues including school finance, accountability, and school choice.

Texas ended a rodeo-like biennial legislative session last week that wrangled a mix of education issues—including cyberbullying, the rights of transgender students, school funding, accountability, and various school choice options—with varying results.

In the end, bills that would crack down on cyberbullying and make a slight alteration to the state’s controversial letter-grade system made it to the desk of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who was expected to sign them into law.

But various efforts by the GOP-dominated legislature failed to clear the way for the use of vouchers and education savings accounts, or to dismantle and revise the state’s K-12 funding formula.

Funding Battle

The state’s elected supreme court decided a little over a year ago that, while the Texas public school system’s performance needed more money and dramatic academic improvement, especially for its black and Latino students, it was not the court’s place to tell the legislature how to spend the state’s money or its teachers how to educate its more than 5 million students.

Texas has been under court order for years to more evenly distribute local oil revenue among wealthy and poor districts—what is known in school funding circles as the “Robin Hood plan.” But districts overall still pay the vast majority of school costs, a sore point for local superintendents. Many of the state’s districts are growing rapidly.

With the dip in oil prices, the state has experienced a revenue shortfall, and many legislators were eager this year to let wealthy districts rely even more on local revenue.

A Senate bill that would have done just that, while also providing more money to poorer districts, had been gaining traction until recent weeks. But at the last minute, a Republican senator attached a provision to the bill that would have allowed for the use of education savings accounts by special education students to attend private schools. The House, which for the last several years has blocked efforts to allow for tuition vouchers, killed the bill.

The legislature ended up passing a $217 billion overall state budget that would keep per-pupil spending at about the same level as the current school year. A large portion of that revenue will come from the state’s rainy-day fund and local revenue, and the state reserved some of the money for pre-K and to alleviate school overcrowding.

Grading the Schools

After the Texas Education Agency earlier this year released disappointing preliminary grades under the state’s A-F grading system, suburban superintendents and district board members led a petition-backed drive aiming to get rid of the grading system or dramatically water it down so that fewer well-regarded districts with stagnant test scores or large achievement gaps would receive failing overall grades.

In the end, the legislature passed a bill that delayed the letter-grade accountability system from going into effect until the 2018-19 school year and reduced the number of categories districts would be graded on.

The legislature also passed a bill that would allow high school students who have failed two standardized exams to still graduate and another bill that waives accountability measures if a regular public school decides to share space with a charter school.

Those changes came months before the state’s accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, still in draft form, is to be submitted to the federal government. ESSA goes into effect in the 2017-18 school year.

Textbook Approvals, School Climate

Legislation also passed letting the state school board’s 15 elected members reject textbook content deemed not “suitable for the subject and grade level.” It now goes to the governor, who can sign or veto it, or allow it to become law automatically.

Critics worry the proposal weakens limits in place since 1995, which allow the board to seek edits to textbooks only for factual errors or to better align with Texas curriculum.

Even with those limits, ideological battles in the state board over textbooks have long made national headlines. Texas’ textbook market is big enough to affect textbook content elsewhere.

On the school climate front, the legislature passed a bill that forces district administrators to come up with a way to, among other things, allow for students to anonymously report incidents of cyberbullying to schools officials. It gives school officials up to three days to tell victims’ parents about bullying incidents.

Lawmakers also passed a bill that allows for guns to be kept in parked cars outside schools, along with legislation that more severely punishes teachers who engage in inappropriate relationships with their students.

The heated national battle over whether transgender students have the right to use restrooms corresponding to their gender identity also roiled the legislative debate.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, entered into a standoff last week with Republican House Speaker Joe Straus over a House compromise bill that would have required school districts to provide single-occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities for students who don’t want to use the ones associated with their “biological sex.”

Patrick said the bill left too much open for interpretation and demanded that the House pass a bill with stronger language that more clearly bars transgender students from using the bathroom of their choice.

The standoff drew intense scrutiny, especially in light of a controversial battle over the issue in North Carolina, and high-profile legal cases involving students in Virginia and, most recently, in Wisconsin.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2017 edition of Education Week as Texas’ Session Sees Movement, Debate on K-12

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