By Morgan Smith, Texas Tribune
When Texas lawmakers come back to Austin in January, there will be a new governor who touts public schools as a top priority, and plenty of money in the state bank account. But that doesn’t mean everything will go smoothly as the 84th Legislature navigates public education policy.
Here are five things to watch when the legislative session gets underway:
Education Committee Shuffling: Whomever Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick appoints to fill his spot leading the Senate Education Committee — Larry Taylor, Kelly Hancock and Donna Campbell are possible contenders — will wield considerable control over which education bills do and don’t get hearings. Patrick could also opt to combine the chamber’s higher and public education committees, another move that could affect how quickly and easily legislation makes it through the Senate. The House could also take the single education committee approach. With the departure of Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, that would leave current Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, who is expected to continue in that role, to preside over both.
Pre-K Fireworks: There’s widespread and bipartisan energy building behind a push to boost early education in the state. But there’s a catch — a divide exists between those who want to expand half-day programs to a full day and make them better, and others who want to first get a better handle on how the existing programs are working. Count education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas in the former camp, and Gov.-elect Greg Abbott in the latter.
The School Choice Battleground: In the 2013 session, despite a loud drumbeat leading up to January from supporters including Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, legislation that would allow students to receive public money to attend private schools died with barely a whimper. Now, a skirmish over private school vouchers is brewing again, but it’s unclear whether 2015 will see a different outcome. Two areas that may instead become the school choice battleground: a proposal known as an “Achievement School District,” which would create a statewide entity to manage underperforming campuses, and efforts to loosen regulation of virtual education.
How Money Gets Doled Out: With a school finance lawsuit awaiting arguments at the Texas Supreme Court, the Legislature could easily punt on making any changes to the way the state distributes funding to school districts. But that might be too much of a delay for some lawmakers. State Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, has already filed a slate of bills that he told the Houston Chronicle he hoped would get the “conversation started” on school finance. And regardless of how Watson’s bills fare, lawmakers can still tinker around the edges of the school finance system as they make choices in how the budget allocates funding across school districts.
Revisiting the Big Ticket Items of 2013: Last time they were in Austin, lawmakers overhauled high school curriculum and scaled back standardized testing requirements. They also approved the first expansion of charter schools in the state since they were established in 1995. If the interim hearings over the last year on the rollout of those new laws are any indication, expect discussion about improving high school students’ access to guidance counselors, and clarifying the process the state uses to close low-performing charters schools.