Parent-teacher and grassroots advocacy groups are armed with to-do lists for the 84th Legislature as lawmakers face crucial decisions about the children of Texas.
Area advocates and parents consistently talk about money as the top issue. The state’s inability to arrive at a fair and constitutional school finance policy is in the hands of the Texas Supreme Court, which agreed Friday to hear a lawsuit filed by some 600 districts. But lawmakers have said they are willing to work on the issue even before the high court hears the case, which likely won’t happen until after the session.
“Our No. 1 issue really is school finance,” said Carrie Stewart, president of the Grapevine-Colleyville district Council of PTAs. “We want to see more money funneled toward education in Texas.”
Other top education issues to watch: less high-stakes testing, local control of school start dates, vouchers for school choice and expansion of pre-kindergarten.
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“Parents, it is very important that you pay attention to what is going on in this legislative session,” said Jessica Lavy, president of the United Educators Association in Arlington. “Your money, your tax dollars — what is going to happen with that money is going to be decided. We need that money in education. We need our money with our students.”
Here is a look at the top five issues, why they matter and what to expect.
Friday’s decision by the Texas Supreme Court to hear the lawsuit filed by more than 600 school districts was a major development.
The lawsuit aims to decide whether the current Texas school funding system violates the state constitution. A district judge in Austin declared the funding system unconstitutional, and the attorney general’s office appealed.
The timetable set by the state Supreme Court ensures that a decision won’t be made until after the legislative session ends on June 1.
Most education experts and watchdogs agree that Texas school finance needs to be fixed. Lawmakers are poised to get to work.
“Our current system has been ruled unconstitutional and the Legislature should act now to address this,” said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie. “Additionally, we should fully restore the $5 billion that was cut from public education in 2011.”
Stewart, a parent in the Grapevine-Colleyville district, said she’s pushing for a fix. Her property-wealthy district has sent millions of dollars from local tax revenues back to the state for distribution to poor districts.
Stewart wonders why more Texas parents aren’t angry and printing T-shirts that say, “Change school finance.”
“Money is not the solution for an excellent education, but you can’t have an excellent education without adequate funding,” Stewart said.
Why it matters: School programs and resources are dependent on the dollars they get from the state.
What to expect: Lawmakers have signaled a willingness to start working on the issue even if the case continues in the courts.
Parents and teachers continue to question Texas’ penchant for high-stakes testing. Many say a previous law that lowered the number of end-of-course exams for high schools was a triumph during the last legislative session. Now, parents want to see high-stakes testing eased in elementary and middle schools.
Dineen Majcher, president of the board of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, said the issue is bipartisan and affects more than 5 million students and their families.
“I am optimistic that we can continue to make positive changes,” Majcher said. “Parents all across the state care about this a lot.”
Turner said he hopes the Legislature will look closely at high-stakes testing in grade schools.
Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, has filed a bill that would tackle another complaint by educators and parents — double-testing high school students taking college-level classes. Goldman said educators question why high school students who have already earned college credits have to turn around and take a test to prove they can pass the same subject to go to college.
His House Bill 462 would limit the double testing.
“It’s a common-sense solution,” he said.
Why it matters: Critics say too much testing results in teaching to tests instead of more comprehensive learning.
What to expect: Lawmakers listened to the outcry from parents in 2013 and reduced the number of end-of-course exams from 15 to five. Education watchdogs expect further action this year.
The school start date has been a battle for years between school districts and the state’s tourism industry. The districts want more control over when they start classes and more days in the fall semester. The industry wants summer vacation extended as long as possible.
As it stands now, districts can start on the fourth Monday in August or later.
“We are asking to move that back,” said Dax Gonzalez, spokesman for the Texas Association of School Boards.
He said districts are cramming as much learning as they can into a window of time that includes testing and winter break.
“What’s more important? The tourism dollars or making sure kids are prepared for tests and graduation?” Gonzalez asked.
Proponents of uniform start dates have complained that summer vacations are too short when school starts early in August. Some argue that districts can save money by not running air conditioners during hot August days.
Why it matters: If districts get to decide when school starts, look for classes to start earlier in August. Before a mandatory start date took effect, some districts started in early August so they could schedule a fall break.
What to expect: Two bills already filed point to a possible compromise. One would let districts start after the second Monday in August. The other would allow schools to start as early as the third Wednesday of August.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listed school choice as a top issue shortly after he took the oath of office. He wants to set up a voucher-type program so parents can use state money to send their children to private or parochial schools.
“School choice is about kids and the ability of every parent to select the very best school for their individual child’s needs,” said Kent Grusendorf, director of the Center for Education Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin.
Grusendorf said choice is the most important education issue this session. Proponents say it would improve teacher pay by creating competition.
The United Educators Association of Texas, which represents teachers, has concerns.
“Vouchers take public taxpayer money out of the public schools and puts into private schools who have no accountability,” said Lavy, of the Arlington UEA. “We would like see that money invested into our public schools to benefit all students.”
Why it matters: Critics worry the effort will take money away from public schools.
What to expect: Proponents of choice hope the issue gains momentum with Patrick’s support.
Expanding of pre-kindergarten
Expanding pre-K could include increases in funding to create more half-day and full-day programs. But it’s hard to tell what kind of proposal will gain support, experts said.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, introduced a bill that would expand the state’s pre-kindergarten program to cover all 4-year-olds in Texas instead of targeted groups. That law would bring free universal pre-kindergarten to Texas, he said.
Ellis said only about half of Texas 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K programs. To be eligible, a child must meet one of several requirements that include being unable to speak English, educationally disadvantaged, homeless, a child of active-duty military, a child of an injured or killed military parent, and a child who has been in the custody of the Department of Family and Protective Services.
Why it matters: Research by the Pew Charitable Trusts and other groups in the past five years or so has shown that crucial learning takes place before age 5.
What to expect: Some education watchdogs believe that the Legislature may pass measures that would expand half-day programs.
Staff writer Yamil Berard contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675