PUBLIC AND HIGHER EDUCATION ADVOCACY
Texas Democrats returned to the Capitol determined to restore last session’s $5.4 billion in cuts to education. In addition, leaders on both side of the aisle were eager to overhaul the current student assessment system. While conservative legislation for voucher programs and campus carry failed to gain support, grassroots organizations were more successful with bills relating to charter school expansion and CSCOPE.
Highlights of education funding include:
$2.2 billion to fully fund enrollment growth in our public schools
An additional increase of $3.2 billion for the Foundation School Program
A total increase of $330 million to Teacher Retirement System, authorized by the passage of SB 1458
Increases the TEXAS Grant Funding to include coverage for approx. 87% of students
Enhances per-student funding at colleges and universities
Student Assessment Reform
HB 5 by Representative Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Houston) sought to reduce the number of high school assessments from 15 to five, revamp the state’s graduation requirements, and establish new accountability systems in public schools. Prior to session, parents, education advocates, educators, and business leaders sought to reform the state-mandated testing system by reducing the number of tests required for graduation. Currently, high school students are required to take 15 tests in order to graduate, and in turn, schools are rated based on the pass/fail rates of these tests. This has resulted in a system where teachers are often forced to focus on ‘teaching the test’ instead of standard classroom instruction.
By reducing the number of student assessments, HB 5 strengthens the accountability system by lessening dependence on test scores and gives a deeper understanding of school performance through an overall evaluation based on a number of standards. Under the graduation provisions of HB 5, students have the opportunity to choose a pathway to graduation that includes career readiness courses in such areas as technology and business & industry. This increased curriculum flexibility is intended to prevent those students who choose not to pursue higher education from dropping out while developing a skilled workforce.
Similarly, HB 866 (R-Huberty) reduces the number of State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) in grades 3-8 for high-performing students who meet certain standards. By providing this exemption, advanced students can focus on new concepts instead of minimum requirement testing. It also reduces the number of subject-based testing required in grades 4, 6, and 7 in order to encourage teachers to move classroom instruction beyond test preparation and increasing focus in such areas as developing better writing skills.
SB 2 (R-Patrick), the charter expansion bill, allows the number of open-enrollment charter schools to incrementally increase by approximately 15 new schools a year, to 305 by the 2019-2020 school year. In addition, SB 2 transfers charter system oversight from the State Board of Education to the Texas Education Agency. The bill also strengthens the TEA Commissioner’s authority to revoke the charters of schools that fail to meet academic and financial requirements and sets new guidelines for districts relating to facilities and converting underperforming campuses into charters.
Developed and owned by the Texas Education Service Center Curriculum Collaborative (TESSCC), CSCOPE is a comprehensive online curriculum management system that includes the framework for grades K-12 and used by 78% of the state’s school districts. Originally used as a replacement for textbooks in public schools, CSCOPE came under the ire of conservative groups concerned over perceived anti-American sentiments by the organization. SB 1406 (R-Patrick) requires school districts using CSCOPE to replace the system with a regionally managed Education Service Center.
However, this means many school districts must develop new lesson plans prior to the start of next school year despite limitations of time and financial resources. With this in mind, some lawmakers and school districts have asked for a waiver to continue to use CSCOPE programs for the upcoming school year.
B-On-Time Loan Program
The B-On-Time program, first initiated in 2003, provides interest-free loans to eligible students as well as loan forgiveness incentives for students who graduate in four years with at least a 3.0 grade point average. Though B-On-Time has a proven record of success, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) and universities voiced concerns over certain aspects of the program, including its overly rigid requirements for students and disproportionate funding structure. Previously, B-On-Time funds were distributed to universities based on the number of students participating in the program rather than how much the institution actually contributed. This resulted in many universities, especially those with a higher percentage of low-income students, losing money.
Thanks to two amendments added onto the THECB sunset bill, SB 215 (R-Birdwell), by Representative Helen Giddings (D-DeSoto)and Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), universities will now keep their proportional share of contributed funds as well as have increased control over how these loans are awarded.
In addition to changes to the B-On-Time program, the legislature also made important increases to other financial aid programs including:
$724 million for TEXAS Grants (25% increase), which will fund grants for approximately 84 % of new eligible students
$180 million for Tuition Equalization Grant Program (7% increase)
$27.8 million for Tuition Educational Opportunity Grant program
$18.8 million for Texas Work Study program (6% increase)
In addition to efforts to improve college readiness in the public education system and financial aid programs, important higher education legislation included:
HB 29 (R-Branch) requires all public universities offer incoming students a four-year, fixed-rate tuition option.
SB 24 (Hinojosa) creates a new general teaching university in South Texas under the University of Texas System, which will also include a medical school, Center for Border Economic & Enterprise Development, and a Texas Academy for Mathematics and Science. The multi-campus university will have locations across the Rio Grande Valley and be the largest institution serving primarily Hispanic students.
While campus carry failed to pass, lawmakers did approve a measure, SB 1907 (R-Hegar), to allow licensed concealed handguns in locked cars on campus.
SB 16 (D-Zaffirini), a statewide Tuition Revenue Bond bill, failed to make it through both chambers by the end of session. Though many hoped TRBs would be revived during special session, Governor Perry did not add them to the call.
HB 2549 (R-Patrick) authorizes a periodic review and revision of the college readiness standards by the vertical teams established by the public and higher education commissioners.
University of Texas Board of Regents
In advance of session, policy disagreements over tuition rates between the University of Texas System Board of Regents and University President Bill Powers led to concerns by many lawmakers that the regents were unfairly wielding their power in order to remove President Powers from his office. Lawmakers found Furthered the governor-appointed regents’ failure to respond to legislatures’ open records requests, several members in both chambers filed legislation geared towards ensuring greater board transparency.
SB 15 (R-Seliger), a higher education oversight bill, sought to limit the authority of university board of regents and included a provision prohibiting regents from removing a university president unilaterally but was vetoed by Governor Perry. Additionally, an amendment added to SB 1, the budget bill, limited how the regents could use state dollars for investigations and reimbursements.
During the first special session, Representative Pitts (R-Waxahachie) passed House Resolution 230 to open an impeachment investigation of UT Regent Wallace Hall after it was discovered Hall failed to disclose lawsuits his company was involved in during his confirmation hearings. Notably, Hall resisted various lawmakers’ open records requests after spearheading efforts to continue a costly, unsubstantiated investigation against President Powers by summoning a voluminous number of documents from the university despite being warned against making such demands.