Battle over education bill reflects GOP split

header-hoover-institution-fellows1-1By Lauren McGaughy, Houston Chronicle

State Board of Education board member Ken Mercer looks over a handout as he and other board members listen to testimony during a public hearing for new textbooks up for adoption and use in classrooms statewide, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014, in Austin, Texas. The Texas Board of Education is considering 104 proposed social studies, history, geography and government textbooks that publishers have submitted for approval and use in public schools statewide.

Texas Republican Party leaders, thrusting public schools back into their party’s ideological schism, have urged Gov. Greg Abbott to veto bipartisan education legislation that critics are calling “Common Core Lite.”

“It is politics and turf, is all it is, and it is members of the State Board of Education hanging on desperately to all of their authority,” sponsor Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said of the attempts to kill his legislation. “It has nothing to do with Common Core, which I’m opposed to.”

On Saturday, the executive committee of the Texas Republican Party unanimously passed a resolution urging Abbott to veto Seliger’s Senate Bill 313, which would narrow the state’s K-12 standards in subjects including science, social studies, English and math. It also would give school districts greater flexibility over how they spend state money meant for textbooks, allowing them to use up to 25 percent for other purposes such as technology, and would provide the money in the first year of the two-year budget cycle.

Proponents of the bill say the state’s standards, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, have become so numerous and broad that they’re almost impossible to test. Narrowing them would reduce the state’s reliance on standardized testing, they say. And they argue that expanding the possible uses of textbook funds would bring classrooms into the 21st century.

But detractors said the legislation would hinder the 15-member State Board of Education from fulfilling its job of drawing up lists of state-approved instructional materials, and also would risk conservative values being cut from Texas textbooks to save space. By reducing the TEKS, they added, a back door could be opened to individual teachers or classrooms adopting materials aligned to the Common Core, K-12 math and English standards adopted by the wide majority of states. Use of the Common Core is illegal in Texas.

“SB313 puts recent conservative curriculum victories in jeopardy, including emphasis on patriotism as required by state law, discussion of the Founding Fathers and documents, (and) American exceptionalism,” the State Republic Executive Committee resolution read. “Forcing the SBOE to remove content and make it more general reflects the philosophy underlying the Common Core standards.”

State Board of Education Chair Barbara Cargill said she was not involved in drafting the resolution and wouldn’t subscribe completely to its language. The Woodlands Republican, who signed a letter urging House members to vote against it, said she understood why it was drafted.

“I’m not sure that the intent was to open the door to Common Core, but sometimes there are unintended consequences,” said Cargill. She added the “game changer” for her was that the bill would impose a price cap on its list of approved textbooks and instructional materials; this prompted her to send Abbott a letter expressing her opposition to the bill, Cargill said.

“The State Board of Education will no longer have the flexibility to match the needs regarding classroom content with the availability of funds as those change from year to year,” Cargill wrote in an email. She added it “disrupts our ability to appropriately support classroom content in a timely manner based on funding availability.”

Texas Education Agency staff said the intent of the bill was to hand greater control to school districts by allowing them to use that 25 percent for either textbooks or technology.

Thomas Ratliff, a Republican member of the state board who often breaks with his GOP colleagues, said the call for a veto is simply an attempt by the board to avoid losing more of its power to local districts or the Legislature. For the last 20 years, the board has seen many of its responsibilities removed in the wake of volatile, public fights over contentious issues.

“They don’t want to have their wings clipped,” said Ratliff, of Mount Pleasant, who is not seeking re-election in 2018. The veto attempt, he added, “is the next Bigfoot hunt from the far-right.”

The bill passed in the Senate by a vote of 27-4 and in the House 125-19.

On the day the House voted, said House sponsor Jimmie Don Aycock, members found a letter urging them to vote against it. It was signed by a number of conservative Republican policymakers and advocates, including Cargill and Texas Eagle Forum head Cathie Adams.

Abbott’s staff would not comment on whether he intends to veto the bill. Seliger, however, said he is hopeful the governor knows better.

“I don’t think the governor is going to be fooled by this at all,” said Seliger. “He’s not going to be taken in by dishonesty.”


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