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A Test for Education — and for Texas Businesses

When the House takes up its first major education policy bill on the floor Tuesday, it could provide an indication of where the battle lines are drawn on an increasingly contentious division within the business community.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock R-Killeen during a public education committee hearing on February 19th, 2013

When the Texas House takes up Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock’s House Bill 5 on Tuesday, it will be the 83rd Legislature’s first major floor debate on education policy.

Members are expected to file more than 100 amendments to the Killeen Republican’s comprehensive legislation restructuring the state’s high school graduation requirements and student assessment systems. While most of them will likely fail — the chairman said Thursday that he hoped to keep the bill as narrowly focused as possible as it heads to the Senate — they will provide an indication of where the battle lines are currently drawn on an increasingly contentious division within the business community.

A provision that modifies the courses high school students must take to graduate has invigorated a debate within business and industry about how best to prepare students for the workforce.

Industry and trade groups, motivated by the belief that more students should graduate high school ready to enter their careers, support the changes in the legislation intended to allow them additional flexibility to focus on interests in areas like technology, science or the humanities.

But it has generated vocal opposition from other organizations, including the Texas Association of Business, which say they threaten reverse the state’s progress in improving students’ preparation for college and careers.

It does away with the state’s so-called “4X4” graduation plan that requires four years of courses in math, science, social studies and English. The reduction in math and science courses, including Algebra II, that students need to graduate has raised particular concern.

Representatives from companies across the state including Exxon Mobil, IBM, Lockheed Martin and Intel recently sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to keep the “4X4” standards, cautioning that “lowering graduation requirements would send the wrong message to our students, create fewer pathways to additional education and threaten Texas competitively.”

Chief among the legislation’s supporters is the Jobs for Texas Coalition, which is made up of 22 industry and trade organizations including the Texas Chemical Council, the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Association of Builders.

Its reforms take “a pragmatic view that meets the diverse interests of our student population and our economy,” said Hector Rivero, the president and CEO of the Texas Chemical Council.

The problem with the concern about reversing success in graduation rates, he said, is that “when you talk to superintendents and teachers and counselors they will tell you the opposite is true” — that overly stringent requirements were driving students away from academic success.

Aycock said his legislation reflects an effort to provide more preparation for students who want to enter the workforce after high school while still encouraging schools to push them to achieve as much as they can.

Debate over the proposal, he said, centered on two questions.

“One, does everyone need to go to a four-year degree?” he said. “And two, does every kid need to take Algebra II?”

His answer: “Not every one, but a lot of them.”

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