When the Texas Legislature tackles a long-overdue overhaul of the state’s school finance system, it will have to do without the lawmaker who has shepherded its two chambers through complex education issues for the last two sessions.
State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, announced Monday he will not seek re-election after almost a decade in the Texas House.
“Let me urge you as you go forward to not think about the extremes on the right or the left but to think about good policy,” Aycock said in an emotional parting speech on the House floor, as he asked his colleagues to remember that the state’s 5.2 million school children depended on them.
Known for his plainspoken good humor — and his deft balancing of the diverse and often warring factions within the education community — the veterinarian, rancher and former school board member has served as the chamber’s Public Education Committee chairman since 2013.
"I don't think there is anybody in this body who has garnered the respect that you have for your evenhanded way of dealing with things, authentic way of being, and willingness to do what’s right for the state of Texas," state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, told Aycock on the floor Monday.
During his first term leading the committee, lawmakers faced widespread backlash from parents and educators against implementation of a rigorous new standardized testing system. Aycock steered the state toward re-examining its standardized exam and graduation requirements.
The primary architect of 2013's House Bill 5, which greatly reduced the number of state exams needed to graduate and rewrote the state’s diploma requirements, Aycock championed increased career and technology training with the goal of keeping more students engaged in their education.
In doing so, Aycock bucked a national trend toward more stringent high school math curriculum that the state had helped spearhead a decade ago. Though the plan received the endorsement of superintendents and public school educators, who said the new flexibility would give students the ability to focus on their interests and encourage them to continue their education, it also encountered harsh criticism from state education officials and business leaders who said it would sweep away a decade’s worth of hard-won progress in improving students’ preparation for college.
Aycock also did not shy from obstructing what he viewed as bad policy in his role as chairman. He resisted repeated pushes from conservative lawmakers to enact private school voucher programs, earning him the nickname of “Dr. No” from some of his colleagues.
“He’s sometimes known as Dr. No as he’s trying to resist efforts to destroy public education here in Texas,” state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, said Monday. “But for those of us who believe in a strong public education system, he’s known as a rock.”
When he returned for the 2015 session, Aycock continued to face thorny issues head-on, urging lawmakers not to wait to address reforming the state’s school finance system.
"We had to ask the fundamental question: Do we want to do what's right for the state of Texas and the children of Texas, or do we want to sit around and try to play lawyer and out-guess the courts?" Aycock said at the time.
The topic was largely expected to go untouched this legislative session while a massive lawsuit involving more than two-thirds of the state's school districts awaits a ruling from the state Supreme Court. Texas school districts filed litigation challenging the state's school finance system after lawmakers slashed more than $5 billion from the public education budget in 2011.
With his new plan, he proposed adding $800 million to the $2.2 billion the House had already allocated to public schools, while removing several outdated mechanisms within the finance formulas. The plan received criticism from some education advocates who said it exacerbated inequities already present between wealthy and poor districts — but Aycock's willingness to take on reforming the system was widely praised among school officials and lawmakers alike.
He was ultimately forced to pull his legislation from consideration facing a key legislative deadline. It had become clear the state Senate did not share the same appetite to tackle reform this session.
As he did so, he told House members that he hoped they would now at least have a blueprint to address the problems that lay ahead.
“The debate’s important and we had some of the debate today,” he said at the time. “Continuing that debate to a point that it kills dozens of bills needlessly just to hear yourself talk isn’t a reasonable thing to do, I don’t think."