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New School Choice Bill Would Allow Local Accountability Plans

House Bill 300 from state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, would allow local school boards to opt out of most state regulations to set their own accountability goals.

Rep. Jason Issac, R-Dripping Springs on the House floor, February 8, 2011.

Amid widespread momentum at the Legislature to restructure the Texas Education Code’s requirements for student testing, high school graduation and accountability, one lawmaker has proposed giving communities the choice to scrap state education law altogether.

House Bill 300 from state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, would allow local school boards to opt out of almost all state regulations, with the exception of basic health and safety guidelines, and create their own plans to measure student achievement. It would also give parents the ability to enroll their children in any of the participating districts, regardless of geographical boundaries — although select schools could choose to set admissions standards.

“Educators consistently tell me that unfunded mandates are one of the biggest hindrances to delivering effective education to our children,” Isaac said Thursday in a statement announcing the bill. “This voluntary system replaces burdensome state mandates with local control and puts the ‘Independent’ back in ‘Independent School District.’”

Isaac, first elected to the House in 2010, is not the only lawmaker making a pass at education reform this session. But until now, most of the attempts focused on school choice have come from the Senate, where Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has made it a top priority.

Under Isaac’s proposal, school districts would set their own policies in a number of areas currently covered by state law, including hiring and firing practices, compensation, student testing, curriculum, class size and the academic calendar. Behind the effort is Texas Families First, a Houston-based nonprofit that advocates for school choice. In the past, its agenda has included a narrow form of voucher program limited to low-income students, but that is not a part of Isaac's legislation.

Instead of the current statewide ratings, school districts would set their own accountability milestones. If those milestones weren't met, the state would have the authority to open the district up for proposals from outside school operators. Parents would vote on who would run the school the next academic year. If a community otherwise feel the school is underperforming, they could also circulate a petition to switch management, triggering the same situation with signatures from 50 percent of the parents of enrolled students.

“It was developed by people who have been working in the trenches, so to speak, in the education world. If people look at the bill, and think about the impact it would have, I think it's something that would be attractive to a lot of districts,” said Texas Families First chairman and Houston construction magnate Leo Linbeck III, who is the son of the Texans for Lawsuit Reform co-founder who goes by the same name.

Linbeck, who also teaches business courses at Rice and Stanford universities, said that he did not expect most school districts to switch over to the alternative school system at first — but that the legislation provided the option for “a completely different architecture” for the public education system.

“It's like an operating system upgrade, not everyone switches to the new version of Windows the day it comes out,” he said. “But you've got some early adopters in the system, then other folks study it, and when they are ready, they make the switch. And some people don't ever switch, and that's okay."

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