Public schools are front-burner for Texas lawmakers this year.
Other issues starting to percolate include whether lawmakers will lengthen the school year for some students and even change the start or end dates of school years.
“There is certainly more attention to public schools this session than past sessions,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Suburban voters were especially unhappy with the state of public education, driving many to pressure Republican candidates to act or to vote for Democratic candidates.
“If this suburban shift is politically durable, the Democrats could make major gains in both the House and Senate,” he said. “Teachers (also) showed themselves a significant political force in 2018, advocating for changes to public education. For many Republicans in rural and suburban districts, this movement was a wake-up call.“
Benefits of extra time
The school year lasts 75,600 minutes a year, or about 180 seven-hour days.
But Xavier De La Torre, the Ysleta schools superintendent, said some students could benefit from extra timex in the classroom — maybe even an extra month.
“We’re not keeping our students long enough throughout the year,” De La Torre, who represents the Texas Urban Council of Superintendents, recently told lawmakers in Austin. “So any resources that would allow us to continue the school year into the summer ... would benefit those students.”
No bill has been filed to expand the school year, but a proposal could be tucked inside other bills addressing education in Texas.
The goal, De La Torre told the Star-Telegram, is to help struggling students, those considered “academically vulnerable” who have special needs or whose families have lived in poverty for generations.
“The length of the school year is adequate for many students and families — maybe most,” he said. “My stated interest was aimed at accelerating English language acquisition and academic language acquisition for English Learners and students with special needs.
“This population of students would benefit from additional instructional time during the summer months when a lot of academic progress is vulnerable to ‘learning loss.”
The Urban Council of Superintendents represents nine school districts, including those in Fort Worth, Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Houston.
Kent Scribner, superintendent for Fort Worth schools, is a member of the council and said he supports a longer school year “within reason.”
“Students and teacher need breaks as well,” Scribner said, adding that school communities find approaches that best work for their students.
“We know that students benefit from high quality teachers and more time on task,” her said. “Students who are not starting the educational race at the educational starting line need more time in school with high quality teaching.”
Longer school days
Scribner said the model that is working for Fort Worth schools is lengthening the school day. The Fort Worth school board recently approved a school calendar for next year that adds five minutes to the school day for elementary students.
Extended school days are also the norm at five district schools that were transformed into leadership academies after long struggles with academic achievement.
Scribner said the schools improved when they were turned into leadership academies that included longer school days with after-school programs in reading, math, enrichment, tutoring, fine arts and athletics.
“Our leadership academies were some of our perpetually under performing schools,” he said. “Now, they are achieving at acceptable levels.”
The leadership academies will remain Fort Worth schools, will be staffed by district teachers and will serve about 3,000 students who live in the district.
Steven Poole, executive director of the Tarrant County-based United Educators Association, said the lengths of school years or school days are best decided by communities.
“It’s not a one-size fits all approach,” Poole said. “There are schools here, in Fort Worth, that go longer into the year.”
For example, Fort Worth’s Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center has an extended school calendar. The last day of school for students at Alice Carlson is June 14. Students at traditional schools in the Fort Worth district end classes this year on May 31.
Poole added: “What may work in Dallas, may not work in El Paso or here in Fort Worth.”
Shortening the year
State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, filed a bill to prevent schools from starting before the Tuesday after Labor Day and from ending after the Friday before Memorial Day.
House Bill 233 would push the start date back about two weeks, and wrap up the school year several days earlier than this year and in the past.
“It’s a Labor Day to Memorial Day school calendar,” Krause said, adding that it’s geared to let families spend more time together and help businesses in industries ranging from tourism to retail that lose revenue when students head back to school earlier.
Fort Worth, for instance, started school this year on Aug. 20, two weeks before Labor Day. The last day of school in Fort Worth this year is four days after Memorial Day.
At the same time, state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, proposes HB 1604 to make sure that schools wrap up work no later than the Friday before Memorial Day.
Goldman said he learned this was something parents wanted when he visited schools in his district. A similar proposal two years ago was approved by a House committee but failed to reach the House floor for a vote.
“It just seems to be common sense that the entire state would know that school is over on the Friday before Memorial Day,” he said.