Updated: Where Do Education Bills Stand In Special?

The special session is the last-chance-dance for bills that died during the regular session. Our "second life" series will help you keep track of the comings and goings of old measures. First installment: education.

All the attention is on school finance, but any bills "that will allow school districts to operate more efficiently" are fair game under Gov. Rick Perry's call for the special session. Those are code words for mandate relief but plan on lawmakers pushing the bounds. Here's a status update on what's happened outside of school finance so far — and keep checking this space for more.

Pre-kindergarten: The pre-K measure Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, had in her original school finance plan has popped up again in the house. An amendment from Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth, intends to offer to SB 1 would require the Texas Education Agency to develop accountability standards for pre-K programs. The proposal leaves it up to the Texas Education Agency to decide what those standards would look like but would use existing diagnostic reading tests to judge students’ school readiness. Schools that had proven success rates with their pre-K programs, Shelton says, would be exempt; defining what “success” means would be up to the education commissioner. Districts would absorb the cost for developing the standards, which he says would amount to about 1.7 percent of their state funding, or $64 per child enrolled in early childhood programs. (There’s about $3 billion in state and federal funds allocated to pre-K in the 2012-13 budget.)

Charter schools: Shapiro, has refiled her bill that would extend the bond backing of the Permanent School Fund to charter schools. Currently, with the guarantee of the $25 billion fund, traditional public schools can obtain much lower interest rates on loans to construct facilities; charters must borrow on their own credit. Though the legislation would apply only to charters who can achieve an investment grade rating on their own, opponents argue that it will stretch already thin resources even further. The full Senate unanimously passed the bill out Monday. 

Rep. Linda Harper Brown, R-Irving, also successfully attached the measure an amendment to SB 1 in the House.

 

Mandate relief: Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, and Shapiro have both brought back legislation they introduced in the regular session that targets state requirements for school districts on contract nonrenewal, minimum salaries, employee furloughs and class sizes.

In the House, Eissler's notorious HB 400 has turned into four separate bills: HBs 19 and 20, which change notification and hearing requirements for contract terminations; being rehired; HB 21, which takes away the equivalent of "teacher tenure" if a district is in financial straits; and HB 18, which requires the Texas Education Agency to grant class-size waivers under certain conditions. A revised version of class size bill — which now instead of requiring, merely gives the agency the option of granting the waivers — passed the House on second reading Friday. The other measures will likely come up for consideration when members return on Tuesday.

In the Senate, a version of Shapiro's SB 12 has morphed into SB 8. If a district receives less funding per student than the previous year, the bill allows schools to furlough teachers and modifies minimum salary and notification of termination requirements. The full chamber tentatively approved it on Monday.

One note about all of the measures affecting contracts: districts won't be able to use them to cope with cuts until the spring of 2012, because they've already done their hiring for the upcoming year.

Testing: Eissler has also succeeded in attaching HB 500, a bill that changes requirements for the new STAAR exams, to legislation on instructional materials during Friday's public education committee hearing. His bill permits districts to set their own policies about how much the new end-of-course STAAR exams count toward a student's final grade instead of the currently required 15 percent. It also would allow districts to suspend a new requirement that students receive a cumulative score on 12 exams in four subject areas to graduate; instead, students would have to pass a total of four exams, one in each subject.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, reintroduced his bill from the regular session that exempts fourth, sixth, and seventh graders from taking the state's standardized tests if, respectively, they passed their third and fifth grade tests by a large margin. That language was also incorporated into HB 6.

With these amendments attached, expect HB 6 to find opposition in the upper chamber. Shapiro staunchly opposes making any changes to the new testing regime — and the House has already passed out the Senate version of the bill.

The House threw the upper chamber a curve ball during its debate on SB 1 when it adopted an amendment from Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, that would allow districts to opt into a standardized testing moratorium. Eissler, who said he did not support the proposal, allowed House members to vote on it after noting his own efforts to change the testing regime. Again, this one’s not going to get past the Senate. And following it, as Eissler noted, would likely be illegal under federal law. 

School vouchers: Or, ahem, the "taxpayer savings grant program." Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, first came up with his proposal to allow parents to receive a 60 percent reimbursement of what it'd cost the state to educate them when they enroll their kids in a private school as an amendment to the failed education fiscal matters bill SB 1581. Now it's back as HB 33. It was left pending after a hearing in a committee, but keep an eye out for it to reemerge as an amendment to another bill.

 

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