Updated May 16, 11:30 a.m.
House lawmakers on Wednesday put their stamp of approval on a measure that would keep the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in business for another 12 years. But on a day filled with distractions over budget negotiations, they found time to tack on a few more amendments to Senate Bill 215.
An amendment by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, tried to further rein in the agency’s authority; it says that if powers aren’t “expressly enumerated in statute,” the coordinating board can’t claim them.
Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, added a provision for common course numbering, so that students would more easily be able to maintain their credits when transferring between institutions of higher education.
The most unusual was an amendment by state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington and a supporter of adult stem cell research, to establish a Texas Adult Stem Cell Research Coordinating Board. The board would oversee an Adult Stem Cell Research Consortium that would make grants, investments and loans with private funds. Zedler said it’s an effort to make sure the industry takes off in Texas despite the Food and Drug Administration’s deep reservations about the fledgling medical technology.
The bill passed on third reading 143-2; it now returns to the Senate to see if lawmakers in the upper chamber will concur with the House’s amendments.
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board received mixed messages but got closer to winding down a difficult legislative session on Wednesday with the House's tentative passage of Senate Bill 215, a measure allowing the agency to continue operations for another 12 years.
While House lawmakers agreed with the Senate's efforts to wrest some power away from the board under the auspices of local control, they added a controversial amendment of their own, forcing the board to ensure that student groups on campuses are permitted to restrict membership.
The agency's reform process — referred to as "sunset" — has given universities and lawmakers the chance to raise concerns about the coordinating board, and they have not held back.
In a written analysis of the bill, its author, Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, highlighted what became a theme for the agency's sunset review: its alleged “isolated approach to decision making.”
Defending the agency he oversees, Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes said, “I don’t think it was isolated as all." But he added that it "wasn’t as transparent as it could have been.”
Before the reform bill got to the House, senators added amendments to it that required the coordinating board to involve colleges and universities in its decision-making processes on the front end rather than later on. They also stripped the agency of the authority to close low-performing degree programs — those that fail to graduate at least 25 students in five years. That's a power the board has had since its creation in the mid-1960s, but has only begun exercising in recent years.
Such actions are what prompted state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, to say on Wednesday that "this agency is now regulating more than it is coordinating.”
Of hundreds of degree programs that have qualified as “low performing,” the coordinating board has shuttered about 90. Institutions have voluntarily closed or consolidated more than 200.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding in the Legislature about how aggressive the coordinating board has in closing programs,” Paredes said.
House lawmakers also raised concerns during Wednesday's debate about the application of a uniform standard to large urban institutions and small rural institutions, saying that it unfairly penalized the latter. Others also felt that institutions should be making such decisions — not a board in Austin.
“I keep hearing a lot about local control,” Paredes said before Wednesday’s debate. “That’s one of the themes of the legislative session. But a lot of the money that’s being spent in higher education is state money, and there needs to be some kind of mechanism so that all citizens and taxpayers can be assured that tax dollars are being spent effectively and efficiently.”
State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who carried the bill in the House, attempted to restore some of the board’s authority to close programs, though he conceded that one of the concerns he had heard repeatedly throughout the process was, “We do not trust the coordinating board.”
Anchia attempted to add an amendment that preserved the board’s authority but put in statute a process that would provide endangered programs up to nine years to improve. He called it “a reasonable approach that does not completely neuter or gut the coordinating board.” It failed.
In what seemed like a contradiction to the local control sentiment, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, successfully added an amendment to require the coordinating board to ensure that clubs on campuses around the state are permitted to restrict their membership.
Krause said he was attempting to protect student clubs from being forced to accept members with bad intentions. "When you come in with the intent to undermine the purpose of the club, that's subversive," he said.
But the proposal prompted heated debate, as lawmakers questioned if it was an appropriate issue for the Legislature and raised concerns about institutionalizing discrimination at public institutions.
“You don’t lose your freedom a mile at a time. You lose it an inch at a time,” state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, warned.
That amendment passed with a 78-67 vote. If it remains on as the bill moves to the Senate, it will be up to the upper chamber whether or not to concur with that and other changes or to request a conference committee.
Paredes chalked much of the apparent distrust of the coordinating board to misinformation and broader governance issues that have engulfed other boards, such as the University of Texas System Board of Regents.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise that, given all the controversy in higher education — not only in Texas, but around the country — that people are having difficulty getting on one path or another,” Paredes said.
But as more emphasis is put on nontraditional education, such as online courses or competency-based advancement, he insisted, “It’s more critical now than ever that we have some kind of agency to coordinate these issues statewide.”