During Tuesday's Senate Education Committee meeting, senators considered legislation that could dramatically change the way school districts operate — including two bills that target the dreaded "unfunded mandates."
State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who chairs the committee, and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, its vice chairman, laid out a pair of bills — SB 3 and SB 443, respectively — intended to target the burden of unfunded mandates on districts. Shapiro said her bill, which includes provisions that would allow districts to furlough teachers for up to seven non-instructional days and changes the notification requirements for contract nonrenewals, offered "much needed breathing room" for schools.
Patrick's bill would change the state's existing 22-to-1 class size cap to a 21-to-1 district-wide average. It would also prohibit districts from having any class sizes higher than 24 — with no waiver. Special education classes, English language learning classes and others that necessarily have small class sizes would not be included in the average. Patrick's bill also removes the 10-to-1 ratio requirement for remedial classes.
"It gives schools flexibility when they need it, and it's going to save jobs," said Patrick, arguing that his bill actually reduces class sizes because it would remove districts' current ability to obtain a waiver from complying.
Democrats on the committee weren't sold on the idea. State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said she was wary of "using a budget crisis for the purposes of changing policies" that were established because of need and on long-standing research. She also questioned whether changing 22-to-1 would provide savings to districts — especially since districts could already obtain waivers if they can't afford to comply with the requirement. State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, repeatedly asked for data that explained why the current system was not working for districts and that detailed the potential cost savings.
"I am uncomfortable with just moving carte blanche to a new system that is permanent and forever" because of a financial crisis, Davis said.
Pressed for time, senators left both bills pending in committee.
Shapiro also laid out SB 872, which creates an independent policy center that evaluates the productivity and effectiveness of Texas school districts. A board consisting of experts in the field — tasked with studying best practices from across the state and nationally — would helm the center.
"Would districts have say in [the inputs that are measured] would be from the outset?" asked Davis.
"I think this is such a good idea because it is separate and apart from the districts," said Shapiro, adding that the center would provide "an unbundling of information that we have that would give us full transparency."
"This has the potential to be a game-changer in public education," said former UT regents chairman Charles Miller as he testified in favor of the bill, which was left pending in committee because of a fiscal note.
Teachers groups and the Texas Association of School Administrators oppose the center. In his testimony, David Anthony, the outgoing superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, took issue with the fact that representatives from districts are excluded from the board and questioned whether the state needed "one more level of potential oversight to public education."
Toward the end, the meeting took an unexpected turn when state Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Galena Park, scolded Houston ISD superintendent Terry Grier for his behavior during a recent town hall meeting. "You should at least have the respect to turn that computer off" when hearing the concerns of angry parents, he said.