The 2015 session was one of the most difficult teachers have faced. In 2013 the education community was introduced to a new breed of education reformer – well-funded, relentless, and seemingly not very interested in the views of actual educators - led by Texans for Education Reform. TER comprises much of the same group of heavy hitters as the Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which changed the legislative landscape in the area of tort reform a few sessions ago. This session, the group was even more organized, pushing a large number of reform proposals that included, among other objectionable provisions, more options for alternative management of schools and exemptions from important teacher rights and benefits in the Education Code.

TCTA and other education allies, with help from our involved members across the state, were able to hold back most of the bad bills. SB 893, which at one point seemed to be a sure thing, was defeated by a combination of TCTA pointing out to lawmakers the unprecedented grant of authority to the commissioner over teacher salaries and appraisals, and the phone calls and emails from tens of thousands of educators across the state decrying the proposed elimination of the state minimum salary schedule.

We fought off other proposals, including the voucher/tax credit bill, opportunity school districts, and expansion of parent trigger laws, despite their easy passage through the Senate. The House was more receptive than the Senate to the concerns of the education community, though administrators and school boards tended to fare better overall than school employees. Countless hours were spent in committee meetings and individual meetings with legislators to explain the negative impact these bills would have on public schools.

Out of the large number of school reform bills that were filed this session and the somewhat smaller number that made significant progress, only two were finally passed and sent to the Governor. (Note: they have not yet been signed; Gov. Abbott has until June 21 to sign or veto these bills.) TCTA strongly opposed both bills.

HB 2804 – ACCOUNTABILITY, A-F RATINGS

 
Harmful provisions

HB 2804 expands the A-F accountability ratings, previously reserved for districts, to all campuses beginning with the 2017-18 school year. TCTA opposed this legislation because of the lack of nuance in letter grades given to an entire district or campus and because of the punitive connotations of the lower grades. Even a “C” designation, which equates to an “acceptable” rating, sounds mediocre at best.

Worth noting

A-F ratings will also be given for each of the domains on which campuses are being rated, which will help provide more detailed information about how the school is actually doing.

There are limitations on the extent to which ratings can be based on standardized test scores, and the bill adds measures that are not based on test scores, so ratings will include a somewhat more comprehensive view of school and district performance.

The 2017-18 effective date means there is time to refine or repeal the law in the next legislative session (spring of 2017) before implementation.

HB 1842 – CAMPUS TURNAROUND, INNOVATION DISTRICTS

TCTA’s biggest battles over the years have been over exempting schools and districts from portions of the Education Code that are important to teachers and other employees. We have fought very hard to get and keep statutes such as the state minimum salary schedule, teacher contracts and due process, duty-free lunch, conference periods, class-size limits, the ability to remove a disruptive student from the classroom, and many, many more. The myriad efforts in recent years to facilitate exemptions from these laws have been very challenging.

HB 1842 began as a proposal to help improve struggling schools ("campus turnaround") but an expansive "innovation district" concept was included, at the insistence of Senate negotiators, in the final bill. The bill greatly expands the means by which districts and campuses can be exempted from major provisions of the Education Code.

Harmful provisions

A school that is low performing for two consecutive years must develop a campus turnaround plan, which is to be implemented after the third consecutive year of poor performance. Among the available options is operation of the campus under a district charter, which is subject only to the same laws that apply to open-enrollment charter schools (i.e., the district charter would be exempt from the teacher rights and protections noted above).

The innovation district provisions open the potential Education Code exemptions to entire districts as long as they are rated at least acceptable. A school board can initiate and approve the process for converting a district to an innovation district, and the plan that must be developed will include information about which provisions of the Education Code the district is requesting to be exempted from.

Between the campus turnaround plan for low-performing schools and the innovation districts for those rated acceptable and up, virtually every school is eligible for Education Code exemptions, and TCTA believes this bill may be very problematic for school employees, parents and students.

Worth noting

The development of the campus turnaround plan will involve teachers, parents and the community. The plan would not be put into place until after the third consecutive year of low performance, and few schools reach that point.

The innovation district process requires a public hearing and approval of the district-level committee as well as a two-thirds, rather than simple majority, vote of the school board. The innovation plan may not exceed five years.

Both options retain the local school board as the governing body, rather than turning the district/campus over to a charter operator/private manager or other outside entity (as could have happened with some of the other legislative proposals we saw this session). Note, however, that if the commissioner does not approve the campus turnaround plan, the alternatives are appointment of a board of managers, alternative management or closure.

 

Despite some mitigating provisions, TCTA believes these proposals have the potential for great harm, and we encourage our members to notify TCTA and become active locally if any governance changes are being considered. This is a great time to get involved in school board elections as well. TCTA will be working on these laws at the state level, with regard to development of agency and commissioner rules and follow-up legislation for future sessions.