This month the Texas Senate passed its version of House Bill 5, the major reform bill on public education curriculum and testing. In both the House and the Senate, vigorous debate shaped the two versions of the bill. As HB5 heads to conference committee to iron out the differences between the two versions, more debate will occur.It’s unfortunate that much of this debate has focused on one shortsighted question: Do all students really need Algebra II? Many students will not attend a four-year university, this argument goes, so why should they be forced to spend time taking it?The real questions need to be: At what point will students decide they are not on a university path? What can we do to prepare them for success in their chosen postsecondary path? And, to be prepared for the jobs of the future, can any path afford not to require rigor?I hope to reframe the debate in conference committee and come out with a much stronger bill that helps every student realize his or her potential.Although well-intended, the House version of HB5 has a fundamental flaw: All students start at the “foundation” diploma — the minimum plan to get through high school. If they want to accomplish more, they can continue toward an “endorsement” (sort of a high school version of a college major).If they’re going to reach for college, they must seek a “distinguished” level of achievement, which includes Algebra II. This presents a huge problem, as 14-year-old high school freshmen may be too young to realize just how high they can reach — and if they come from a family with no history of higher education, they may not get the guidance needed to set their sights appropriately.I fear that choosing the minimum will result in a lifetime of minimum wages.The Senate version improves on this, but not enough. It at least starts students on one of the endorsements, rather than defaulting at the minimum, but one of the endorsement paths (Business & Industry) does not require Algebra II.The problem is, Algebra II is required for eligibility in the automatic admissions program for Texas universities (aka the Top Ten Percent program). A student could choose Business & Industry early on but then realize too late that he or she wants to aim for college.Even if they don’t seek automatic admissions, will their diploma be valued less by higher education institutions?This is a problem not just for students, but also for Texas. The Top Ten Percent program has enabled students from all walks of life — rural, urban, poor, minority — to get a first-tier education and break the cycle of poverty.In general, college admissions require high test scores, but test scores don’t measure ganas (the will to succeed). The Top Ten Percent program does.Why have 14-year-olds choose between multiple pathways, leading to very different outcomes, where the student can get lost?During the Senate debate, I proposed an amendment that would start all students on a single, rigorous pathway — but one with multiple choices built in.Along the way, students — with guidance from school counselors and parents — would assess their future direction after they’ve had time to gauge their abilities and interests.I pulled down my amendment after sensing that it didn’t have the votes to pass, but I hope the conference committee will incorporate elements of this plan.I respect the tremendous work that House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick put into their respective versions of HB5.But I believe that, in creating the curriculum flexibility sought by students and their parents, we must also maintain the rigor necessary to prepare them for the competitive professional world that awaits them, whether they enter it after high school or college.
Texas Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, sits on the Senate Education Committee.