State lawmakers delivered a big break for high school seniors and put all Texas schools under the spotlight with a new A-to-F rating system, but the two most sweeping education bills of the 2015 legislative session were left in the dust — for now.
In the end, Senate leaders had no interest in dealing with school finance, while House leaders wanted no part of the Senate’s $100 million plan to let public school students transfer to private or religious schools at state expense.
Those proposals and several other education measures that failed, however, could come back as soon as next year if the Legislature is forced into an expected special session over its funding system for schools. A lawsuit filed against the state by more than 600 school districts is now before the Texas Supreme Court.
House and Senate members agreed on a new rating system for schools using letter grades, and on a measure that allows students who failed one or two of the five Texas end-of-course tests to graduate.
Also approved this year was Gov. Greg Abbott’s $130 million plan to boost the quality of prekindergarten classes in Texas. The plan offers additional funding for school districts that adopt new standards such as hiring only certified teachers for the classes, which primarily serve lower-income and limited-English 4-year-olds.
And a “turnaround” plan for low-performing schools was nearing approval in the final days of the session. That legislation would give those schools firm deadlines and options for reversing poor test scores and achievement levels.
“We got some good movement on education improvements this session, and we avoided stuff that needed to be avoided,” House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said Friday. “Everybody got a little bit and nobody got a whole lot.”
Aycock and other House leaders filed a $3 billion bill to overhaul the state’s school finance system in response to a court ruling last year that found the system unfair and inequitable. The measure was dropped after Senate leaders indicated they were waiting for the Supreme Court to rule before taking action.
“If we had done what the House proposed, with the kind of money we talked about, I am almost certain we would have prevailed in the case,” Aycock said.
His counterpart, Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said the House “started a conversation” on school finance that could not be completed with all the other issues facing lawmakers.
“I am certainly for changing how we fund our schools,” he said. “But this was not the time.”
Senate leaders were disappointed in the failure of several of their major education bills, notably a plan that would have allowed thousands of lower-income students in Dallas and other urban areas to transfer to private or religious schools and use tax dollars to pay tuition.
Other bills backed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate leaders that bit the dust in the House included proposals to make it easier to set up home-rule school districts, create a special statewide school district for poor-performing schools, mandate annual teacher appraisals and dramatically expand virtual classes in Texas — including access for the 400,000 home-school students in the state.
Other measures would have boosted funding for charter schools and beefed up the state’s “parent trigger” law that allows parents to overhaul or close a failing public school.
Taylor said those proposals will probably come back in the next legislative session, or possibly in a special session if one is convened on school finance.
Still, Taylor pointed to bills that require annual letter grades for schools and that allow districts to set up “innovation zones” where creative teaching methods can be used – similar to what charter schools already do.
“There have been a lot of disappointments from my perspective, but if you look at the body of work from this session we have gotten several things done,” he said.
David Anthony, chief executive of Raise Your Hand Texas and former superintendent of the Cypress Fairbanks school district in southeast Texas, said his group lined up against bills that threatened local control of schools. Those included “home-rule” proposals to turn over management of some school districts to private entities, such as was recently attempted in the Dallas school district.
“There was some mischief out there under the name of school reform that would have undermined local control and brought in out-of-state entities to manage some of our schools,” he said.
Graduation tests: Allows high school seniors to fail two of five end-of-course exams and still graduate.
A-to-F rating system: Schools and districts get annual letter grades based on test scores and other measures.
Prekindergarten: Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan offers $130 million to school districts over the next two years if they agree to upgrade their prekindergarten classes.
School vouchers: Would have allowed public school students to transfer to private or religious schools using tax dollars.
School finance: A $3 billion plan to deal with a court order that found Texas school funding system unfair and inequitable would have increased funding for 94 percent of students.
Home rule districts: Would have made it easier to create a home rule — or “local control” — district under new management and free of many state requirements.