A Few (More) Education Bills to Watch in the 2017 Legislature: Senate Edition

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Senator José Menéndez points to the rewards of earning a good job to students at Longfellow Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Senator José Menéndez points to the rewards of earning a good job to students at Longfellow Middle School during a visit in November 2015.

If the surprising results of November’s presidential election has had one invigorating effect, it is heightened vigilance regarding laws passed at every level of government. Add to that a projected budget shortfall in Austin, and the 85th Legislature, which convenes in January, should be one to watch.

Advocates of public education are rolling up their sleeves to fight for every penny. Since the Texas Supreme Court passed the hot potato of finance reform back to the Legislature, the spud has cooled considerably. To ignite the fires of political will, citizens will have to be prepared to follow legislation and contact their representatives.

In a previous article, the Rivard Report identified a few education bills to watch. Now we turn our attention to the Senate.

Many bills filed in one chamber of the Legislature will have a replica in the other.

Senator José Menéndez gives remarks as audience remembers look on. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Senator José Menéndez gives remarks as audience remembers look on at Fox Tech High School.

“Every piece of legislation filed should be looked at as a vehicle,” Sen. José Menéndez (D-Texas) said. “You try to increase the opportunity (for passage) by giving it two vehicles.”

Menéndez has refiled two bills for this legislative session that would have a profound impact on teachers as well as the students in their classrooms.

SB 215 calls for a reduction of standardized testing in elementary and middle schools. It would eliminate any tests not federally mandated.

“I want us to reduce standardized testing as much as possible,” Menéndez said.

Total elimination is not an option at this time, because many federal funds are tied to test scores. While this would only leave three tests to be cut, Menéndez explains that the impact is exponential because teachers would regain an immense amount of instruction time.

“Every test creates weeks of test prep,” Menéndez said.

While 2013’s HB 5 reduced testing for high school students in this same way, Menéndez and others feel that the same relief should also extend to younger children, many of whom experience high stress levels to the point of physical illness over the tests.

SB 125 should be popular, as excessive testing is widely reviled among teachers and parents. However, its passage will have to overcome one of the special interests lobbying hard in Austin to maintain the status quo.

“I think there’s an industry that’s been built up around testing,” Menéndez said.

SB 216 calls for a statewide teacher pay raise, so as to meet the national average. It ensures that teacher salaries increase by at least $400 for the 2017-2018 school year and creates a $4,000 per teacher State aid.

Paying teachers well is a critical piece of ensuring that aspiring educators don’t see Texas public schools, particularly in property-poor districts, as entry-level jobs or stepping stones toward something more sustainable.

“Districts with more experienced teachers have better outcomes,” Menéndez explained.

Both SB 215 and SB 216 should be broadly popular as decreasing standardized tests and paying teachers more are appealing to sprawling groups. However, testing is big business, and the Texas Legislature is notoriously tight-fisted with extra dollars.

Representatives and senators need to hear from their constituents, Menéndez said. Getting elected and staying in office has more to do with money than it should, but at the end of the day, a strong showing from will-be voters can make a difference.

Not only do bills need support from constituents, but they also have to garner support among the lawmakers themselves.

In Texas’ somewhat courtly Legislature, ambitious or comprehensive bills often fall to senior legislators to file. Junior members file separate bills that can serve as baby steps toward the ultimate goal.   

U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) shares a laugh with Senator Sylvia Garcia. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) shares a laugh with Senator Sylvia Garcia at the Texas Democratic Convention.

Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) filed SB 193 to create Texas Community Schools as an official state designation. Community schools are a favored choice among many in areas where public services, health and wellness resources, and other institutions are missing in the student support system. It has been suggested that the public school is one of the last remaining civic hubs where people might access health and dental care, financial services, counseling, and other resources without the added burden of cross-town travel.

SB 193 would also require the State to give failing schools the option to become a community school before closure.

Most agree that the pass given by the Texas Supreme Court has removed any urgency from school finance reform, as far as the Legislature is concerned. However, Garcia and others have responded to the Court’s urging for “transformational top-to-bottom reforms.”

Garcia also filed of  SB 192 calls for a comprehensive review of Texas school finance allotment system, as well as for consideration of geographic isolation, high-poverty areas, other risk factors, and diseconomies of scale.

The bill requires that allotment recommendations not be “artificially adjusted to meet predetermined outcomes and must not use arbitrary limits.”

Not all education bills have to do with finance and accountability. The social politics of education will also be in play.

In the wake of the ongoing showdown between conservative states and the federal government over transgender bathroom usage, it comes as little surprise that LGBTQIA issues, especially in schools, pepper the docket in both the Senate and the House.

One bill, which may not be overtly recognized as detrimental to the LGBTQIA community is Konni Burton’s (R-Texas) SB 242, which would require teachers to share all knowledge of students’ social and emotional lives with parents. Equality Texas has identified this as a requirement for teachers to out their students to parents, which could create both anxiety and fear in some situations. The group is concerned that students may be afraid to go to school if they feel that they cannot trust teachers.

On the other side of the political spectrum, legislators are working to ensure the rights of LGBTQIA people in comprehensive and single issue bills.

A comprehensive non-discrimination bill, filed by José Rodríguez (D-Texas), Garcia, Juan Hinojosa (D-Texas), and John Whitmire (D-Texas), the longest-serving senator and “Dean of the Senate,” is the most ambitious bill, SB 165. This bill aims for full support and protection of LGBTQIA people and creates penalties for discrimination in the workplace and public accommodations, such as business, park, amusement, and other institutions open to the public. This includes organizations that identify as religious, but are run as for-profit businesses open to the general public.

The oft-used phrase “our public schools” has been a go-to on both sides of the aisle to stir up either social protections or community investment. However it is being used, the statement holds true. What happens in the 85th Legislature directly affects the public schools that educate children – if not yours, then perhaps your friends’ or neighbors’ kids. 

It will affect the way your tax dollars are used, and it will determine what resources are available in your district. For many, it will be well worth a perusal of the list to see if there’s something among the filed bills that could merit a call to your state senator.

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