For all the lengthy hearings, heated floor debates and tense behind-the-scenes deliberation that have already occurred, the next four days will probably be the most important for the fate of the 83rd legislative session's two major education bills.
Conferees for HB 5, which would change high school standardized testing and curriculum requirements as well as the state’s public school accountability system, have already begun meeting. The Senate appointed conferees for SB 2, the bill expanding charter schools in the state, late Tuesday night. They have yet to be named in the House.
Both bills could serve as last-minute vehicles for legislation that lacked the time — or support — to make it through the legislative process. That is especially likely for SB 2, where controversial measures like parent-trigger and home-rule laws could find a home. At the center of all the negotiations will be House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston.
On HB 5, the chambers diverge on possible changes to the courses that high school students must take to graduate. They both allow students to complete diplomas in specialized areas or "endorsements," like humanities, science and technology, and business and industry. But the Senate plan requires four years of math in all of them — and algebra II in all but the business and industry track. That could be a sticking point for House conferees, who along with Aycock include state Reps. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock; Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont; Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin; and Dan Huberty, R-Humble, who all took a strong stand against requiring four years of math by default.
Those who favor keeping four years in science and math but adding more options for career skills and advanced math courses are part of an unusual alliance, including Democrats like Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat who made clear she had concerns about the rigor of even the curriculum requirements that passed out of the Senate, and Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Van de Putte is now on the conference committee.
But there could be an interest among other Senate conferees to compromising on the math requirement. Before the legislation came to the floor, Patrick pushed unsuccessfully to keep the plan passed out of his committee — that version had four years of English but dropped to three years of science, math and social studies in certain endorsements.
Other conferees, including Sens. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo; Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock; and Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, also appear open to adjusting the math requirement passed by the full Senate, though that could change if Perry and Dewhurst decide to exert their influence on that issue.
Though both chairmen back having five state exams for high school students, they differ on which subjects those exams should cover. The Senate version combines reading and writing so students take two tests in the English I and English II exams; the House version has students take a separate writing and a separate reading test in English II only. Both versions would test students in algebra I, biology and U.S. history.
A tougher compromise may be the upper chamber’s addition of optional diagnostic tests in algebra II and English III, which Patrick cautioned, during a debate on the Senate floor, could result in a “de facto two more tests” for students if attached to any kind of incentive for districts like ACT or SAT funding. No such provision exists in the House measure.
Conferees will have even less time to hash out their differences on SB 2, Patrick’s comprehensive charter school legislation that would boost the available state contracts and also update closure, consolidation and renewal laws. Once the House names its representatives, they will join Patrick and Sens. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels; Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood; Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville; and Royce West, D-Dallas.
The House’s version offers a more moderate increase, from about 15 extra contracts to 10 a year. It also removes language that would prevent dropout recovery charter schools and charters created through a partnership with a traditional district from counting toward the cap, a move that would have freed up additional contracts. And it shifts authority over charter schools to the State Board of Education instead of the Texas Education Agency.
For the legislation to survive, lawmakers must come to an agreement in time to distribute reports of the final plans to their colleagues by midnight Saturday. Each chamber will have until the end of the next day to review and approve the bills.