Two top lawmakers made an unexpected Wednesday evening visit to urge the State Board of Education to preserve legislative intent as it implements new high school graduation requirements the Legislature passed in May.
"When in doubt about what the right course of action is, lean toward local control," House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said at the meeting, where he was joined by Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston.
The changes in the new law included allowing students to select from diploma "endorsements" in a specialized areas like science and technology, business or humanities, and to determine which math courses they take, but lawmakers left it up to the SBOE to choose which courses those would be. The 15-member board may decide this week that students in all endorsements must take algebra II — a requirement the Legislature expressly dropped from existing law.
"The idea that we think as a board or a Legislature that every one of those 5 million students must have algebra II to live the American dream is fool's gold," Patrick told state board members.
Since the end of the legislative session, a coalition of business groups and education advocates has mobilized to urge the board to require the advanced math course because of concerns over how eliminating it would affect the academic progress of low-income and minority students in the state.
"The inclusion of algebra II is critical to ensure students' opportunities aren't limited going forward," Celina Moreno, a staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said at a media gathering organized by the Austin Chamber of Commerce before the hearing.
Other educators and industry leaders, along with Patrick and Aycock, have argued that the new graduation requirements allow students who know they do not want to attend college to attain the skills they need to go into the workforce instead of being pushed to drop out.
"There are many children that we are crowding to the side of the system because they do not see relevance in their courses," Aycock said.
State board members asked Aycock to address concerns raised about the possibility of school districts funneling low-income and difficult-to-educate students into less rigorous coursework if the advanced math courses were not required in all endorsements. He said that the new law included accountability measures that would punish school districts if they did that.
"Much of the discussion that you've heard in testimony today is that [school districts] won't push kids hard enough or push them high enough," Aycock said. "But those accountability systems in those schools will look pretty pitiful if they don't push them onward and upward."
Testimony on the new law was expected to continue late into the evening Wednesday. Board members will take a preliminary vote on the issue Friday.