Senate committee debates voter oversight of charter applications
Texas Legislature TEA | Commissioner | SBOE Deregulation | Charter Schools Testing | Accountability
Date Posted: 3/26/2021 | Author: Mark Wiggins
The Texas Senate Education Committee met Thursday, March 25, to consider a number of bills, including one that would eliminate voter input from the approval of new charter school chains.
Members voted Thursday morning to advance the first round of bills from the committee and on to the full Senate, including the following:
Committee Substitute (CS) for Senate Bill (SB) 179 by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville), which would require school boards to adopt a policy that requires a school counselor to spend at least 80 percent of their total work time on actual counseling and not on other duties, such as administering tests. Sen. Lucio submitted a committee substitute that removed the bill’s need for a fiscal note, which is required when a bill would cost the state money. Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) was the lone senator to vote against the bill. ATPE supported this bill.
SB 204 by Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), which would remove the need for an interlocal contract for a district to provide transportation outside its boundaries. Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) voted against the bill.
SB 338 by Sen. Beverly Powell (D-Burleson), which concerns uniform general conditions for all district building construction contracts. The bill was recommended for placement on the local and uncontested calendar, which means the full Senate may pass the bill without formal debate on the floor.
CSSB 442 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), which deals with school health advisory council (SHAC) requirements. Sen. Hughes offered a new committee substitute, which advanced with Sens. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) and West voting against it.
The committee spent much of the morning discussing CSSB 1365 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), which is aimed at addressing issues in Houston ISD that led to a state takeover attempt. Members heard testimony by the Greater Houston Partnership in support of the bill, which would greatly expand the commissioner of education’s authority to launch investigations and take over control of school districts without the input of local voters. ATPE opposed SB 1365 because of the extent to which it would increase the powers of the unelected commissioner of education in ways that would carry a statewide impact, as opposed to being limited to HISD. Sen. Bettencourt submitted a committee substitute for the original bill that did not address this issue.
The committee heard a lot of testimony Thursday on SB 28, also carried by Sen. Bettencourt, which would greatly expand the ability of charter schools to proliferate without input from local voters and taxpayers. Currently, the unelected commissioner of education determines which charter school chains are allowed to operate in Texas. The State Board of Education (SBOE) provides voters’ only check on this process through a veto power that is found in current law. Charter applications were originally managed entirely by the SBOE, which comprises 15 members elected by Texas voters. Voters were largely cut out of the charter application process when it was consolidated under the commissioner’s office in 2013, and the SBOE’s authority over charter approvals was reduced to a simple veto.
Charter schools are not governed by locally elected school boards, not required to seek taxpayer approval through tax elections, and not required to hold open public meetings. The SBOE veto provides the sole remaining opportunity for Texas taxpayers to exercise input regarding the ability of prospective charter operators to access their tax dollars. SB 28 would eliminate the SBOE’s veto authority and limit the ability of local communities to control the location and manner in which charter schools operate. ATPE submitted testimony in opposition to SB 28 for these reasons.
Several members of the committee pointed out the danger in moving oversight from an elected body to an unelected bureaucrat. SBOE Member Tom Maynard (R-Florence) testified on behalf of board Chairman Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin), and pointed out the SBOE’s judicious use of their veto over the past several years. In response to these concerns, Sen. Bettencourt announced Thursday afternoon that he is working on a committee substitute that will maintain the SBOE veto, however he suggested that the veto be changed from a simple majority, as is currently in the law, to requiring a supermajority of 10 members. This would be a significant departure from the way most SBOE votes are conducted.
Another bill considered by the committee Thursday was CSSB 1171 by Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), which deals with the electronic administration of state-mandated standardized tests. SB 1171 specifies that no more than 75% of the points allowed in a test can be based on multiple choice questions. It would allow the commissioner to waive the prohibition on Monday testing enacted by the Legislature last year, and SB 1171 would require by default every STAAR test to be administered electronically unless otherwise specified in commissioner rule. Furthermore, the bill would open the Technology and Instructional Materials Allotment (TIMA) so that it could be used to purchase services, equipment, and tech infrastructure necessary to ensure internet connectivity and for training personnel in the electronic administration of the tests. SB 1171 would also establish a matching grant program to ensure schools have the necessary infrastructure for electronic testing. Chairman Taylor submitted a committee substitute to SB 1171 that would extend the grant program window by two years and said he is also working on bringing down the bill’s $30 million price tag.
The Senate Education Committee also heard testimony on the following bills this week:
SB 289 by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), which would allow a school district to excuse a student in order to obtain their driver's license.
SB 226 by Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney), which would require instruction in virtual learning and virtual instruction in order to obtain a teaching certificate, including a virtual learning curriculum that includes synchronous and asynchronous virtual instruction.
CSSB 481 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), which would entitle a student who is enrolled in a district that offers only virtual instruction for any part of the school year to transfer to another school district that offers in-person instruction.
SB 203 by Sen. Schwertner, which would detail requirements for institutions of higher education and other entities wishing to host UIL events to respond to a request for proposal from UIL.
We expect the committee to meet again next Thursday, April 1. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates. As a reminder, ATPE members can find tools for contacting their legislators about these and other bills on Advocacy Central.
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