Major bills on the move | TCTA
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Major bills on the move

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Some of the biggest education bills of the session were addressed Wednesday. The Senate took up three significant education bills, while the House passed major accountability legislation. For the most part, these bills have been improved from their original version thanks to a great deal of work from the education community, but some problematic provisions still remain.

Accountability and sanctions

SB 1365 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt/Rep. Dan Huberty addresses accountability issues for school districts with failing campuses. It was originally designed to help the state in its battle with Houston ISD over a school with a history of poor performance in the accountability system – a battle that eventually landed in court. The bill gave the commissioner stronger authority over districts with regard to accountability sanctions. However, it drew concern from districts and legislators because it affected districts statewide, and many felt that it went too far in authorizing a single unelected state official to impose severe sanctions – including making the commissioner’s decisions in such matters final and unappealable.

As it passed the House, the bill reined in the commissioner’s authority and gave districts more due process in accountability matters. A commissioner’s decision to, for example, appoint a board of managers would no longer be unappealable. The bill clarifies how D’s and F’s factor into accountability ratings over time and gives schools who would otherwise earn a D or F rating a “pause” in accountability ratings next year while they work to catch students up after learning losses from COVID-19 disruptions. The changes were enough to bring many school districts on board to support the bill, which will now return to the Senate. The Senate will decide whether to accept the House changes or appoint a conference committee to negotiate the differences.

Post-COVID virtual education

HB 1468 by Rep. Keith Bell/Sen. Larry Taylor creates a mechanism to allow districts to continue providing education virtually to students in the district while still receiving the same level of funding as for in-person students. TCTA has had concerns about how teachers would be treated if a district chooses to create a full-time online program, but the bill author, Senate sponsor and others have worked with us to address concerns. Thanks to TCTA’s efforts, HB 1468 will prohibit districts from assigning a teacher both “roomies” and “zoomies” at the same time. As it passed the Senate Wednesday, another TCTA-initiated provision ensures that a district could not assign a teacher to a virtual program without that teacher’s permission, and the agreement to teach virtually must be included in the teacher’s contract.

The bill limits a district’s virtual program to enrollment of no more than 25% of the district’s total student enrollment (the House had included a 10% limit). Districts will report separately on the performance of in-person and remote students, for comparative purposes. The new law would expire in 2027, with the expectation that a special commission to examine and make recommendations on virtual learning will convene in the meantime to establish some best practices. After passing the Senate Wednesday, HB 1468 will return to the House for acceptance or rejection of Senate amendments.

School finance and more

HB 1525 by Rep. Dan Huberty/Sen. Larry Taylor has been described as a “clean-up” bill to address issues in the school finance system resulting from last session’s HB 3 reforms. TCTA and several other education groups were very concerned about some of the provisions in the bill that sought to limit how districts could use the incoming federal COVID-19 relief funds, requiring districts to bank a significant amount of funding regardless of local needs. That provision was removed by amendment on the Senate floor.

But the bill also – especially after a number of Senate amendments – includes new laws affecting schools and teachers.

Unfortunately, the only Senate amendment that did not pass, due to Taylor’s lack of support, was a TCTA-initiated provision offered by Sen. Eddie Lucio that would protect the salary increases teachers and other employees received due to HB 3. It would ensure that as long as a teacher remained in the same district, the district could not lower salary below 2019-20 levels.

Among the provisions of particular interest to teachers, both in the bill as brought to the floor and in the amendments added during the debate, are the following:

  • A delay of the deadline for teachers and principals to attend a reading literacy academy from 2021-22 to 2022-23.
  • Inclusion of the tutoring bill that is moving through the process separately. It will allow retired and active members of a participating teacher association to apply to tutor students at a district either in-person or remotely; retirees would not be subject to certain return-to-work penalties.
  • A requirement that some of the state’s discretionary COVID-relief funds must be spent on intensive educational supports, specifically including P-TECH programs in participating districts, the Texas Regional Pathways Network, and the JET Grant program.
  • A provision for bonuses to districts based on successful performance of students in accelerated learning programs on STAAR tests. This provision has been removed from other bills due to strong opposition by the education community for increasing high stakes on standardized tests.
  • New language reinserting the gifted and talented allotment – removed in last session’s HB 3 – into the school finance formulas.

HB 1525 will return to the House for consideration of the Senate changes to the bill.

Accelerated instruction

HB 4545 by Rep. Harold Dutton/Sen. Larry Taylor was filed to address student learning losses through accelerated instruction. From the beginning it caused concern over provisions expanding commissioner authority over some district operations through a “strong foundations” program, and implementing outcomes-based bonuses based on student performance on standardized tests (see 4th bullet under HB 1525 above). TCTA was also concerned about language that would let parents of a student receiving accelerated instruction choose their child’s teacher for the next year.

The outcomes-based bonuses were removed on the House floor, but the bill was killed (for a time) over concerns about some of the remaining provisions – in particular the “strong foundations program” - and the possibility of worse to be added in the Senate. It was eventually revived, with author Dutton promising to defend against any negative Senate actions.

The Senate retained the House language, except for a TCTA amendment added on the Senate floor. The new language ensures a process through which a parent of a student receiving accelerated instruction can request a teacher, rather than allowing the parent to choose.

HB 4545 will return to the House for consideration of the Senate change to the bill, which we anticipate will be acceptable - in which case the bill will head to the governor's desk.