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Year in Review: Education

For public education in Texas, 2012 was the year of accountability. At the state's universities, the competition for dollars to boost research and status heated up. Here's a look back at the year's biggest stories about public and higher education.

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Public school accountability, standardized tests, $10,000 degrees and the changing faces of state education leadership made headlines in 2012 in the Tribune. Here's a look back at the year's biggest stories on public and higher education.

Public education

For public education in Texas, 2012 was the year of accountability. Questions over how best to evaluate the performance of public schools, whether they receive enough funding to adequately educate students, and how much to use student assessments in measuring effectiveness dominated discussion.

A growing backlash against state standardized tests and their role in the Texas accountability system first broke into public view in January, when then Texas Education Agency commissioner told a group of 4,000 school administrators that student testing had become a “perversion of its original intent.” He called for an accountability process that measured “every other day of a school’s life besides testing day." Following that, more than 800 school districts signed resolutions condemning the excessive use of high-stakes tests — and parents, lawmakers and educators sounded off in a number of hearings and meetings.

Now, the 83rd Legislature stands poised to significantly reform the system.

In 2012, the early consequences of the $5.4 billion budget cuts during the 2011 legislative session became clear. The number of elementary classes with more than 22 student soared and schools shed approximately 25,000 employees. A massive school finance lawsuit argues the state has violated its constitutional obligation to adequately fund public education, and it went to trial in October. A new organization representing the interests of school choice advocates intervened in that lawsuit, seeking to reinvent the public school system.

Upheaval came to political leadership in education, too. Sen. Florence Shapiro, who led the upper chamber’s education committee, announced she wouldn’t seek re-election at the end of last year. Rep. Rob Eissler, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, lost his primary election in May. Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott had his last day at the agency in July.

The openings have ushered in a new era of leadership, including Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who was recently appointed to lead the Senate Education Committee, and Michael Williams, who now heads the Texas Education Agency. 

Below are links to some of the Tribune's top public education stories this year:

In Texas, a Backlash Against Student Testing

Texas Schools Cope as Classes Expand and Staffs Shrink

Interactive: 25,000 Fewer School Employees

Death of a District Series

Texas Schools Foot Big Bill for STAAR Retakes

Texas School Finance on Trial

Senate Public Ed Chair Patrick Focuses on School Choice

Higher education

The higher education landscape in Texas is noticeably different at the end of 2012 than it was at the beginning.

The year began and ended with new additions (one of which is still tentative) to the state’s group of “emerging research” universities, a classification by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board that signals institutions that aspire to tier-one status and allows those schools to access some state financial incentives.

Texas State University was upgraded to “emerging research” status in January. And December featured a major announcement by University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa that he intends to attempt to create another “emerging research” university by combining by University of Texas at Brownsville and the University of Texas Pan American.

Meanwhile, other "emerging research" universities — the University of Houston and Texas Tech University — qualified for access to the state’s National Research University Fund, the prize money in the competition to build more tier-one universities.

The year may well be remembered as the year Texas began rolling out $10,000 degrees. There were nearly 10 such degree programs announced this year that (more or less) meet the $10,000 challenge issued by Gov. Perry in 2011. Though, the design, value and scalability of many of those programs have been called into question.

There are also some new faces of note.

Texas Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who had served in that position since the committee was created in 2009, was replaced by state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, the former chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee.

Having just been appointed in the fall of 2011, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp made his mark this year, announcing plans to dramatically change the system and its flagship campus. That includes the securing of a major federal biosecurity center that will be located in College Station.

In Texas, medical schools have always been separate from research universities, but that historical trend appears to have ended this year. The University of North Texas System, for example, is one of a number of systems that either considered or already in the process of combining its medical institution with its flagship. Unlike A&M, which is moving ahead with such a plan, UNT decided to shelve the idea for now.

The year also raised questions for 2013. What massive open online courses will the University of Texas System create for its partnership with edX?  Will House Higher Education Chairman Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, be able to tie 25 percent of state appropriations for colleges and universities to performance metrics? Will lawmakers continue to allow undocumented students to have access to in-state tuition rates?

Below are links to some of the Tribune's top higher education stories this year:

Texas Colleges Aim to Get in Sync With Labor Market

Four-Year Graduation Rates Lag, But Do They Matter? 

UT's Reform-Minded Chairman at Center of Controversy

After 10 Years in Qatar, A&M Looking Forward to 10 More 

Amid Slowing College Enrollment, Fears of Missing Goals

If There's a Way, There's a Will to Regulate Tuition

Texas State Chancellor Faces Anxieties at Sul Ross

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