Senate Education Committee considers virtual school, curriculum bills
Date Posted: 3/30/2023 | Author: Mark Wiggins
The Texas Senate Education Committee considered bills on virtual schools, curriculum, and a variety of other subjects in a lengthy hearing Wednesday, March 29, 2023, that stretched into the evening.
The committee discussed Senate Bill (SB) 1861 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston), which is intended to implement the recommendations of the Texas Commission on Virtual Instruction. Among other things, it would lift the moratorium on full-time virtual programs and expand the ability of districts and charter schools to provide full-time programs and remote course options.
ATPE submitted testimony against SB 1861, pointing out the history of failure among the state’s existing full-time virtual programs. Of the 38,000 students currently enrolled in full-time virtual programs, 88% are enrolled in one of three programs with a history of substandard performance.
Bettencourt presented a committee substitute that included a number of changes, including requiring the commissioner of education to revoke the authorization of any full-time virtual program that has been assigned an unacceptable performance rating for the past three years.
ATPE supports bill provisions such as accountability for vendors and a section on teachers’ rights. A district would be prohibited from requiring a teacher to provide both virtual and in-person instruction at the same time and from assigning virtual instruction duties to a teacher who has been specifically hired to teach in person.
The committee discussed two curriculum-related bills by Chairman Brandon Creighton (R–Conroe). First, SB 2089 includes a list of criteria for instructional materials, such as a requirement that they “treat all groups fairly and avoid biases or stereotypes regarding any particular individual, group, or type of work to reflect the positive contributions of all individuals and groups to the American way of life” and prohibitions against “selections or works that condone civil disorder, social strife, or disregard for the law.”
ATPE submitted testimony against SB 2089, pointing out that the bill would force instructional materials to make false equivalences and, in some cases, prohibit them from covering certain Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum standards, such as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
ATPE further pointed out that the State Board of Education (SBOE) process for approving instruction materials is based on coverage of the TEKS and that SB 2089 would place the board in the awkward position of not being able to approve instructional materials that comply the with TEKS.
SB 2565 by Creighton is the companion to House Bill (HB) 1605 by House Public Education Committee Chairman Brad Buckley (R–Killeen). The bill seeks to create lists of high-quality instructional materials approved by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and SBOE that meet TEKS curriculum standards.
Under the bill, districts would receive an allotment for adopting these materials for their teachers. ATPE submitted neutral testimony on SB 2565, expressing that teachers need relief from the burden of administrative tasks and do not wish to sacrifice their autonomy in lesson design.
Much of the public testimony revolved around open educational resources (OER) curriculum purchased by the TEA from Amplify, a national curriculum vendor. Senators questioned agency staff over the Amplify Texas contracting process and lack of empirical evidence supporting the agency’s claims the curriculum will improve student outcomes.
The committee also heard SB 13 by Sen. Angela Paxton (R–McKinney), which would implement rules regarding school district library materials and catalogs. The bill would require schools to allow a parent to receive notice of the books a student checks out.
SB 13 would prohibit a school district library from possessing “harmful material” as defined in the Texas Penal Code as material that “appeals to the prurient interest of a minor, in sex, nudity, or excretion; is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable for minors; and is utterly without redeeming social value for minors.”
ATPE opposes SB 13 due in part to its reliance on the subjective nature of the Penal Code definition, which could be broadly interpreted to cover classical literary works and materials that many may not consider offensive.
The bill would require a school district to establish a local school library advisory council composed of appointees that would be empowered to investigate and remove school library materials, as well as offer advice and recommendations regarding the procurement of new materials.
The committee also heard the following bills:
- SB 163 by Sen. Donna Campbell (R–New Braunfels) would permanently extend the opt-in requirement for human sexuality instruction.
- SB 164 by Campbell would require public schools to display copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Essays 10 and 57 of the Federalist Papers if copies are donated. The bill would also require an elective course on founding principles.
- SB 544 by Sen. Cesar Blanco (D–El Paso) would allow an instructor for the Community College of the Air Force to count their experience toward a temporary teaching certificate. Blanco presented a committee substitute that incorporated feedback from ATPE and other teacher organizations to ensure that candidates hold at least a bachelor’s degree and complete an educator preparation program (EPP).
- SB 1396 by Sen. Mayes Middleton (R–Galveston) would allow a school district board of trustees to approve a period of prayer and Bible reading during the school day.
- SB 2482 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D–San Antonio) would order TEA to review the implementation of Holocaust Remembrance Week in each school district and allow the agency to partner with the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission for assistance.
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