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House Derails Achievement School District Bill

UPDATED: Sen. Royce West's proposal for a special statewide school district to manage underperforming campuses will have to find another lifeboat. The Dallas Democrat has removed the bill from the legislation he had attached it to after it died in the House.

State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, at the Democratic caucus regarding state budget matters on May 17, 2013.

Updated, Wednesday, May 22, 8:56 p.m.:

Sen. Royce West's proposal for a special statewide school district to manage underperforming campuses will have to find another lifeboat. After it died in the House Tuesday, the Dallas Democrat had amended it to House Bill 2836, a bill reducing high-stakes testing for some students in lower grades. But Wednesday night, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, moved to reconsider the vote on the testing measure, saying West had agreed to take down his amendment because it violated House rules.

The House will still have to concur with the upper chamber's changes on the legislation, which now has two amendments from Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, attached to it. Each are bills that passed the Senate but ran out of time in the House — one is focused on testing for special needs students and another requires the Texas Education Agency to audit the state's testing contracts. 

Updated, Tuesday, May 21, 11:17 p.m.:

After Senate Bill 1718 died in the House, Sen. Royce West, the Dallas Democrat who carried it, amended the measure onto another piece of legislation that passed out of the upper chamber late Tuesday night. To allow West to attach it, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, expanded the caption to House Bill 2836, a bill reducing high-stakes testing in lower grades. If the House does not concur with the upper chamber's changes on the legislation, it will head to conference committee.

Updated, Tuesday, May 21, 7:46 p.m.:

A last-ditch effort to pass education reform this session failed in the Texas House Tuesday as Democratic lawmakers blocked it on procedural grounds.

Aimed at improving failing public schools, Senate Bill 1718 by state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, and state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, would have brought campuses that underperform for two consecutive years into a statewide school district operated by a Texas Education Agency-appointed superintendent. It would only apply to districts with more than 20,000 students.

Dutton said current law allows for so few interventions in struggling schools that they can deteriorate until the state closes them, devastating local communities. 

"We let a school get so sick we basically take it to the cemetery," he said. "Let's take it to the emergency room, where we can diagnose it and then fix it. Because I think that will make a difference."

As he introduced the legislation, he said the students trapped at the 15 campuses that would be affected by it were from predominately poor and minority backgrounds. Listing the House members whose districts included those campuses, he noted that they were "all people who happen to be of color for the most part."

"I wanted to point out that geography defines your educational future in this state," he said.

Dutton's legislation would have enacted a reform known nationally as a "recovery" or "achievement" school district, which usually involves underperforming campuses being turned over to charter operators. The policy, embraced by the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, has been adopted by a handful of other states including Tennessee, Louisiana and Virginia. 

In Texas, the policy is part of the legislative agenda advanced by Texans for Education Reform, a newly formed organization whose founders include Dick Weekley and Dick Trabulsi, veterans of the state’s tort reform battles who now control one of the state’s wealthiest political action committees. It is also backed by Texans Deserve Great Schools, an education research group funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. 

State Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, joined several Democrats in voicing concerns about how the achievement district would be funded — as well as with provisions in the bill that would exempt its campuses from the regulations on class size and teacher qualifications that apply to traditional school districts.

Among the amendments Patrick offered was one that would prohibit state money tied to students in the achievement school district from going to pay for its administration. She said she wanted to make certain that the legislation would not divert funding from public schools to a "new centralized bureaucracy" in Austin. 

After Dutton rejected the measure, saying it would limit the education commissioner's effectiveness in turning around failing campuses, it failed.

As the debate drew to a close, Democratic lawmakers took the unusual step of using a procedural tactic known as a "point of order" to derail legislation backed by members of their own party. 

On the floor, Dutton said the opposition was a result of "untruths" spread by SB 1718's opponents, which include the state's teacher and school board associations.

"I'm a little tired of them, because they don't come up with any solutions to help academically unacceptable schools," he said. "They simply want to sit in the shadows and hide in the dark of the night and attack when someone tries to do something about low performing schools."

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