AUSTIN — With just hours to spare, a political logjam that threatened to block Texas’ biggest education reform in years appeared to break late Sunday to allow its passage.House members approved an education overhaul geared to give Texas high school students more graduation options, reduce the number of tests they must pass to graduate and boost the number of charter schools, and members of the Senate hoped to quickly follow suit.Business in the Senate was delayed after drama erupted in the upper chamber when Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, threatened to filibuster, or talk to death, a measure that gives more than $700 million in franchise tax relief to businesses in Texas.Ellis said he was prepared to filibuster and talk House Bill 500 to death by pushing discussion past midnight.The bill’s sponsor temporarily pulled the bill down from discussion to allow other business to proceed.Meanwhile, the House moved forward in approving the education bills. And Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, prepared to bring them up in the Senate, where they were expected to pass easily.Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he was confident that lawmakers could reach common ground before midnight.“Those last pieces of the puzzle are the hardest ones to put together sometimes,” Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said as he and other senators left the Senate floor to caucus.The education measures at hand would essentially reverse a 2007 law that requires Texas students to take and pass more tests than their counterparts in other states showing proficiency in subjects ranging from world history to physics.Education reformEarlier in this session, lawmakers said the testing bill, House Bill 5, is a response to an outcry from parents about excessive testing.In addition to dropping the nation-leading number of tests, the measure consolidates tests in writing and English reading. It also requires that the state create additional tests in English III and Algebra II that will be optional for school districts and won’t affect accountability ratings.A key measure drops the number of end-of-course exams from 15 to five — leaving tests that students must pass in order to graduate in English I and II, biology, U.S. history and Algebra I. Similar tests that are no longer required to earn a diploma range from physics to world history.Students would also be given various paths to graduation, choosing whether to have an emphasis in areas such as science and math, arts and humanities, business and industry and more.Students would have choices in degree plans.A “foundation” plan would let students avoid classes such as Algebra II, which some consider a measure of college readiness. But this base plan wouldn’t let students qualify for automatic admission into Texas public colleges under the current law allowing students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes to qualify automatically for admission to nearly all public Texas colleges.Under that plan, students would take four years of English and three each of math, science and social studies. They would have to have two years of a foreign language, one of fine arts, one of physical education and five electives.In comparison, the “endorsement” plan would include all those classes, plus one more year of math, one more year of science and two more electives.Supporters say the current system overtests and takes too much time, money and preparation that instead could be dedicated to classroom instruction.Opponents say the measure waters down curriculum at a time when too many high school graduates already aren’t ready for college or the workforce. And they say this doesn’t contribute to a skilled workforce in Texas.Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, and others have spoken against the education measure.“We already graduate only 25 percent of students who are career or college ready,” Hammond has said. “I don’t understand why many of our lawmakers are dead set on running away from strong requirements meant to increase that number.”Charter schoolsSchool boards could vote to convert schools in their districts to charter schools under Senate Bill 2.Texas now has 209 charter schools. The measure would periodically add new charter schools in Texas, until 305 are allowed by 2019.Supporters say the charter legislation is needed and strikes a fair balance between ensuring enough oversight and encouraging more charter schools in Texas. Already, about 150,000 students study at charter schools and 100,000 more are on waiting lists, they say.Opponents say lawmakers should wait for more quality-control measures to take effect before allowing more charter schools. And they say “reforms” lifting class size and teacher requirements could lead to lesser student performance.“There is no one answer to transforming schools, but lifting the cap to add high quality public charters will give Texas parents, including the nearly 100,000 currently on a charter school waiting list, more choices to find the best education for their child,” Patrick has said.Other education billsEducation has been a key focus of the 83rd session, as lawmakers have struggled to restore some of the funding cut in 2011 during the last legislative session.About $3.4 billion was added back into the budget for public schools. Locally, that means added dollars for schools, including: $29 million for Fort Worth schools, $21 million for Arlington schools, $11 million for Keller schools and $10 million for Mansfield schools.Also Sunday, the Senate passed a conference committee report on HB 773, which requires charter schools to have the U.S. and Texas flags in their classrooms — and have students say the pledges of allegiance to both.Several other education proposals have already passed, including one that lets students who do well on assessment tests in the third, fifth and sixth grades to skip those tests the following year.Two other testing bills, affecting elementary and middle school students, have won approval in both chambers. One would exempt high-performing students in grades three to eight from having to be tested in reading and math every year; the other would shorten the time students are tested and also require an independent review of all STAAR exams. Staff writer Dave Montgomery contributed to this report.
Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley