Two major education bills — Senate Bill 2, which expands the state's charter school system, and House Bill 5, which changes high school testing and graduation requirements — are headed to the governor's desk after clearing the Legislature on Sunday night.
Neither measure generated much debate as lawmakers finally approved them after months of committee hearings and contentious behind-the-scenes negotiations.
HB 5, from House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, passed both chambers unanimously, with members of both the House and Senate who had previously opposed the bills explaining why they now supported them.
State Rep. Mark Strama, the Austin Democrat who was one of two no votes on the bill as it initially passed the House, said he now supports it because it brings needed flexibility to high school curricula while maintaining high standards. But he said the bill’s reduction of state standardized exams would make it more difficult to gauge the progress of low-income and minority students and may fail to address what lawmakers are trying to correct with student assessments.
“We defined the problem with testing in Texas as the number of tests,” he said, “but really it was because of the stakes we had attached to those tests that created a culture of testing rather than learning.”
Though he voted in favor, state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, also spoke critically of the measure. “We haven’t done anything more than change the ceiling,” he said. “And we haven't done more to raise the floor.”
In the upper chamber, several senators rose to speak in support of the measure, including Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, who said it was "one of the most important [public education bills] I’ve had a chance to work with" in 26 years in the Legislature.
"This is the bill that the people of the state of Texas wanted, and felt like they needed for their kids," said Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo.
SB 2, from Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, passed with less fanfare. After brief debate on the House floor, where lawmakers questioned a transfer of authority from the State Board of Education to the Texas Education Agency and a provision that would allow school boards to convert underperforming campuses into charters, it passed 105-41.
“This bill lets good-performing charter operators replicate,” said Aycock. “And very importantly, it closes down those low-performing ones.”
Most of the no votes came from Democrats, though two Republicans joined them, state Reps. Walter “Four” Price, R-Amarillo, and Larry Phillips, R-Sherman.
Three senators voted against the bill: Sens. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville; Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston; and José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.
Here's a review of what the two bills do:
· High school students would take a foundation curriculum of four English credits; three science, social studies and math credits; two foreign language credits; one fine art and one P.E. credit; and five elective credits. They would add a fourth science and math credit when they select one of five diploma "endorsements" in areas including science and technology, business and industry, and the humanities.
· To qualify for automatic college admissions under the top 10 percent rule and state financial aid, students must take four science credits and algebra II must be among their four math credits.
· The state will require five standardized tests in English I, English II, algebra I, biology and U.S. history. School districts will have the option of offering diagnostic exams in algebra II and English III that will not count toward their accountability rating.
· Districts will get an A through F rating; campuses will remain under the existing exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable labels.
· The state cap on charter contracts will increase by about 15 a year to 305 by 2019.
· Dropout recovery and charters created by a school district would not count toward that cap. High-performing charter schools from out of state would. Up to five charters focused on special needs students would not count toward the cap.
· School boards would have the authority to vote in favor of converting low-performing campuses in their districts into charters.
· The Texas Education Agency, not the State Board of Education, would oversee the charter approval, renewal and closure process.
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