Legislative Update: Education committees meet, Senate hears controversial bills, House focuses on pre-K

The Senate Education Committee met yesterday and heard several of the Senate leadership’s high-priority bills. One of the bills was Senate Bill (SB) 894 by Sen. Larry Taylor, who chairs the committee. SB 894 would vastly expand the virtual school network in Texas. Most of the Texas education community came out unified in strong opposition to the bill and expressed concerns that it would set up a system of virtual vouchers, expand access to a low-quality education that evidence indicates is less effective in most cases, and offer little to no accountability to taxpayers on the virtual providers.

ATPE Governmental Relations Director Brock Gregg testified against SB 894. Gregg noted that ATPE has long supported virtual and distance learning opportunities but has worked to ensure quality controls and stressed the importance of containing the cost to taxpayers. A good portion of the day’s testimony on SB 894 focused on its cost, with education advocates questioning the relatively small fiscal note on the bill considering the fact that SB 894 would allow home-schooled and other children free access to virtual courses on the state’s dime. Testimony ultimately revealed that the bill’s fiscal note was largely the product of guesswork, since it is impossible to predict how many existing private or home-school students might take advantage of the bill’s funding provision. ATPE and others believe that funding virtual courses for those students not currently enrolled in public schools would cause the cost of the program to balloon and would further burden the state’s already underfunded public school system. In his testimony, Gregg also cited research showing 42 percent of the state’s virtual schools as low-performing and noting that many of the largest virtual course vendors are companies operating in multiple states that use a national curriculum based on Common Core, which has been prohibited by Texas law.

Another major bill heard yesterday in committee was SB 6, also by Chairman Taylor, which calls for assigning “A through F” letter grades to school campuses in lieu of existing accountability ratings. ATPE’s Brock Gregg testified against the bill and explained that labeling schools as failures is equivalent to calling students who attend those schools failures. The committee heard several hours of testimony, including remarks by numerous members of the education community who oppose the legislation. “A through F” legislation has been proposed in several states and is being pushed vigorously by affiliates of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is widely viewed as a strong contender for the Republican nomination for President in 2016.

ATPE’s Gregg also testified in support of SB 13 by Sen. Charles Perry, a bill relating to measures to support public school student academic achievement and career preparation, including measures to improve and support dual-credit courses. The committee also heard a handful of bills relating to health and safety.

Interestingly, the Senate Education Committee’s hearing on SB 6 occurred on the same day that the fact-checking journalism group PolitiFact Texas rated as “false” a recent claim by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush that a majority of Texas students are “trapped in schools that are underperforming.” George P. Bush, the son of Jeb Bush, made the statement at a pro-private school voucher rally at the State Capitol in January. PolitiFact agreed to look into the claim upon the request of Rev. Charles Johnson, a member of the anti-voucher Coalition for Public Schools who was also a guest speaker at ATPE’s recent Political Involvement Training and Lobby Day. Looking at 2014 state accountability data, PolitiFact determined that more than 90 percent of districts and 80 percent of campuses were meeting state standards, making it impossible for the majority of Texas’s students to be “trapped” in low-performing schools.

Earlier this week, the House Public Education Committee devoted an entire hearing to bills relating to pre-kindergarten. Early childhood education is one of five priorities designated by Gov. Greg Abbott as emergency items for the 84th Legislature to tackle. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified or registered support for all of the following bills during Tuesday’s committee hearing:

  • House Bill (HB) 4 by Rep. Dan Huberty relating to a high quality prekindergarten program provided by public school districts. According to Exter, the bill provides school districts with additional formula funding in exchange for adding quality control measures into the districts’ pre-K programs.
  • HB 173 by Rep. Carol Alvarado relating to information reported by a public school district regarding prekindergarten classes.
  • HB 296 by Rep. Gene Wu relating to certain prekindergarten programs offered by a school district.
  • HB 424 by Rep. Harold Dutton relating to providing free full-day prekindergarten for certain children.
  • HB 1100 by Rep. Eric Johnson relating to a gold standard full-day prekindergarten program provided by public school districts. Similar to HB 4, this bill provides additional formula funding to schools districts that implement certain quality control measures in their pre-K programs. Exter notes that HB 1100 requires districts that opt into the bill’s provisions to provide a full day pre-K program but offers additional funding above the amounts contemplated by HB 4.
  • HB 1188 by Rep. Joe Deshotel relating to the creation of a joint interim committee to study and make recommendations regarding early childhood education.

Exter believes, based on testimony and remarks from committee members during Tuesday’s hearing, that “the question the committee has chosen to answer is not whether to expand Pre-K and pre-K funding but rather by how much.”

Today is the last day that legislators may file bills in the 84th session with the exception of certain local and emergency bills. More than 6,000 bills or resolutions have already been filed this session. It is estimated that at least one-quarter of those will relate to public education in some manner.

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10 thoughts on “Legislative Update: Education committees meet, Senate hears controversial bills, House focuses on pre-K

  1. Sarah Harrison

    I am a big proponent of Pre K, especially since mandates for testing are being pushed down farther and farther in school systems. What I taught in first grade for 30 years is now being taught in kindergarten. What used to be taught by K is no longer taught anywhere so most children start out behind and lots never catch up. Pre K is imperative for ALL students!

  2. pat duran

    I spent the last 16 years in the PK world. The obsession with assessing these little ones is in overdrive. For the last 5 years of PK, it’s as if this age group is to be 3rd grade. This is when a little youngster wants to come to learn thru play, explorations, during centers, enrichment learning activities. One thing I have heard through many a training for early childhood, if these little ones don’t have the emotional/social control and gross motor skills developed, the cognitive is not going to click as well as it needs to. PK guidelines came out in the late ’90s-2000 and revised later for PK to follow. As PK teacher, you spend a good 3-4 weeks, working on procedures, classroom routines, behavior expectations. These are revisited on a regular basis. In PK it’s all about the data. Our district currently uses the E-circle. When they are assessed in Oct. – a lot of the students fall into the red. When they get a green, it means the child has mastered the skill. If they are in the red, it show lots of room for growth over the course of the school year. The admin is in panic mode which coming down from the state.– In PK skills needed are Letter knowledge, lots of vocabulary, and phonological awareness, counting, identify numbers 1-10. Math skills are incorporated into PK . — Kindergarten does not need to be 1st grade. This age group still needs center time and not all ditto sheets. K can have a literacy and math/ science centers. These little ones need the opportunity to be kids who want to love to learn and not be burned out by 5th grade on state mandated test.

  3. Deann

    Thank you, Brock and Monty, for testifying for all us. In particular, there is no need for the A-F system except to demoralize the students and educators of Texas. Our state is used to our current system and it should be left alone. Way to go on setting the record straight, by the way!

  4. Dabney Johnson

    I had an interesting conversation with an lead environmental engineer with Toyota at the new site in Plano for the Toyota facility near Frisco being built. He informed me that about 6,000 employees mostly highly educated, are deciding whether to make the move from California or to transfer elsewhere in the country. They are reviewing what Texas has to offer before they decide to move. Quality of life issues and of course the quality of our public education system that their children will attend. He was shocked to hear of the inferior standing in the country on teacher pay and our standing on spending on health care and mental health. I informed him it is near the bottom of all our states. He informed me that this was not the presentation they were presented and it bothered him. He was going to inform the CEO’s of Toyota and took a video on his tablet of our conversation to review with them on questions he had about Texas. I was pro Texas but told him our schools are funded and controlled by our legislature and unfunded mandates have been common in the past ten or so years and even more so with our current legislature now in session. He told me that Toyota could not make the quality cars they make with such methods. I told him that our public school teachers work long hours and ensure the best quality they can even with the lack of funding. He also was unaware that retired teacher’s health insurance has not had an increase in funding for the past ten years and the potential huge increase in premiums this population will endure if our current legislation does not address an increase in funding. All of these issues bothered him and told me other states they considered have a stronger education platform and that Perry’s people presented a very slanted presentation to win Toyota’s move from California. Very pro business, tax incentives, and a source of cheaper labor, but education was not presented. He thinks this was wrong but it will impact what their employees decide. I told him Texas offers a great diversity of cultures and that in the end, Texas was a great decision and that ATPE presents an unbiased education impact to our legislature on bills proposed and to our membership; 100,000 plus strong as an organization not a union since we are a right to work state. I gave him our phone number and told him to give ATPE a call and verify the facts that I presented before he informs Toyota. He was impressed by the stature of our organization feeling it was very professional. I told him of course this was the culture of ATPE and its members.

    1. Sarah Harp

      Pat Duran is exactly right about the abilities PreK children have. I think that is most of the problem with the legislators; they mean well, but don’t have a clear idea of what goes on in the classroom nor do they have a background in early childhood. Probably most of them have children or have spent time with PreK children, but there is such a difference in children of that age. So much has to do with their home environment. Do their parents read, write, and speak English? Are they financially able to provide extras for their children in the way of trips, exposure to fun and educational workshops offered free of charge by many museums, city and church groups, etc.? Do the parents spend time with the children talking, playing, reading to them? Their environment is so instrumental in the abilities they have at any age, especially for the very young. It would be interesting and an eye opener
      for the legislators to visit several schools in differing economic categories and
      physical settings. I think that would give them a better idea of the effect of the bills they do or don’t support.

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