Updated, Thursday, May 23, 8:29 p.m.
Leaders in the House and Senate appear to have reached a deal on two high-priority education bills after two days of deliberations that culminated Thursday evening with a closed-door meeting with Capitol lobbyists and staff from the governor's office.
"We reached good policy. There is a high probability of it passing. It's not everything we wanted, but it is a lot of it. And we are hopeful that the governor will sign it," House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said as he left the conference room behind the Senate chambers. He said more details would be announced Friday.
Lawmakers have been working out their differences on House Bill 5, which makes changes to high school testing and graduation requirements, and Senate Bill 2, which expands the state's charter school system.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst; House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio; Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston; and Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, were among the elected officials present for the negotiations. The meeting also included staff from Gov. Rick Perry's office, and Texans for Education Reform lobbyists Mike Toomey, Dick Trabulsi and Florence Shapiro, a former senator who preceded Patrick in leading the upper chamber's education committee.
The future of West's SB 1718, a measure creating a special statewide school district for underperforming campuses, is an open question. Since House Democrats killed it on procedural grounds, West has been searching for an appropriate vehicle for the bill, which is among those advanced by Texans For Education Reform this session.
HB5 was among those prospective vehicles, according to state Rep. Harold Dutton, the Houston Democrat who carried the legislation in the House.
As lawmakers hammer out their differences on major education legislation that changes high school testing and graduation requirements, they are working with Gov. Rick Perry to ensure House Bill 5 isn't endangered when it reaches his desk.
"At this point in the session with any major bill, whether it's education, highways, health care, you really have to have the discussions with the governor's office to make sure there is nothing that would raise the possibility of a veto," said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat who is one of five senators negotiating with House lawmakers in conference committee.
Authored by House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, HB 5 is a response to widespread outcry from parents about the testing regime the state implemented last spring. It reduces the number of end-of-course exams students must take to graduate from 15 to five — in reading, writing, biology, algebra I and U.S. history. The result of countless hearings that started a year before the session began, the bill is the most significant piece of legislation this session for many in the education community.
Like some other high-profile bills, it is caught in the middle of a turf war between the House and the Senate. The HB 5 negotiations progress while conferees also battle over which chamber's version of Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick's high-priority charter school measure, Senate Bill 2, they will adopt. HB 5 could serve as a lifeboat for measures that have died in either chamber, too, like the achievement school district bill from Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, which late in the session is being pushed heavily by reform advocates.
But HB 5's ultimate fate may depend on the outcome of a game of chicken between the legislative and executive branches, with lawmakers daring Perry to veto the popular measure if he does not win out in negotiations.
Like the House version, the bill that passed out of the Senate also has five exams, though the Senate version combines reading and writing tests to add an English II exam. Both chambers' versions also adjust the curriculum required for a high school diploma, opening up graduation plans that vary on the number of advanced math and science credits required in order to allow students to take courses in areas like business, technology and industry. That is a change from the existing standards known as the 4X4, which require four years each in math, science, English and social studies.
A Perry spokeswoman told The Texas Tribune in March that while Perry supports reexamining "how we prepare and evaluate our students throughout their entire high school career, he will protect the academic rigor that prepares students for career and college."
Van de Putte, who fought to add amendments to the legislation that would make it more difficult for students to opt out of a college preparatory curriculum that required four years of math and science, said "the governor has always said he wants to maintain rigor, which quite frankly has been a concern of mine as well."
Aycock, who said Thursday that negotiations were happening hour by hour, has pushed forcefully for more flexible graduation plans that do not include algebra II in favor of allowing students to take courses in specialized areas. During debate on the House floor, he was joined in doing so by the four other members of the conference committee.
Another conflict could come if the governor pushes for an additional two exams in algebra II and English III, two courses that are linked to the state's college readiness standards. When asked Thursday about Perry's position on adding algebra II and English III exams, spokesman Josh Havens said in an email that the governor "supports efforts to re-evaluate the number of high school end-of-course assessments" and continues to work with lawmakers "on what the appropriate number of tests should be."
"I'm just not sure the Legislature is going to go there," Van de Putte said of that possibility, noting that the original versions of the bill in each chamber both had five exams. She said the Senate had given districts the option to offer diagnostic tests, which would not count toward accountability ratings, to students in algebra II and English III in the hopes of addressing concerns about the need to evaluate students' performance in those courses.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is also in the camp that does not favor adding any more exams, according to a spokesman, who said that he supports HB 5 as it passed out of the Senate.
If any changes beyond what are in either chamber's version of the bill — like the achievement school district measure or more exam requirements — are added in conference committee, lawmakers will have to take a majority vote to even consider the legislation again.
On Thursday morning, Patrick — like Aycock — said negotiations were ongoing.
"What's important is that we reduce the number of STAAR tests, we get flexibility in our curriculum, we pass the charter school bill and we get reform in our schools," Patrick said.
He would not confirm whether there was pressure from the governor's office to add the exams. But he did point out that both chambers had put provisions in the legislation that would allow schools to give optional diagnostic tests to students in algebra II and English III.
The Senate's version makes whether to administer the exams the districts' choice; the House's leaves it up to students to decide whether to take them. A concern that Patrick raised himself during floor debate on the bill was whether the optional diagnostics would turn into a "de facto two more exams" if districts were pressured — or given an incentive — to offer them.
"You know what passed," Patrick said, "and everything that passed is on the table for negotiation."