August 27, 2013
In 1989, Liz and I welcomed our first child, Preston, into the world. He lived with us, as kids often do, for 18 years or so, and he moved on and moved out to college. This past Sunday, we celebrated his birthday.
In 1995, we welcomed our second (and final) child, Cooper, into the world of air-breathers. As you math majors may have figured out, he’s also 18-years-old now. And, as of last week, he has moved on to college too – Liz and I helped move him and his stuff into his dorm room at Baylor last Wednesday.
All of this means that, for the first time in nearly a quarter-century, there are no children in the house. It feels different. Weird even. And, yeah, I probably need to “man up” a little and not get goobered up every time I talk about it.
I’m proud of those boys. And I’m excited for the promising futures they have in front of them.
We’re not the only ones watching kids walk out the doors for school. The school year officially started this week, and millions of parents and kids across Texas are going through variations of what the Watsons are going through right now. (That’s a little hard to imagine, honestly – if you could turn that annual Texas-sized mix of emotions into energy, no one would’ve needed to invent fracking.)
This exciting, emotional, occasionally bewildering time seems like a decent point to look back at changes the legislature made that will affect Texas kids and classrooms for the next couple of years.
During the regular 83rd Legislative Session (which, despite whatever flashbacks you might have from this summer, actually ended relatively peacefully back on Memorial Day), legislators worked across party lines to help Texas students and schools.
Parents and teachers made their marks in areas such as standardized testing, curriculum flexibility, charter-school accountability, and all-around well-being for Texas kids. These weren’t small achievements; the fact that they happened at all is a powerful testament to dedication of moms, dads and teachers who called and emailed legislative offices for months and months.
I was proud to pass a couple of other bills that will help teachers, school districts and families. Senate Bill 542 improved access to individualized education programs for students with disabilities. I worked with teachers’ groups to pass House Bill 2952 (the companion to my SB 1799), which clarified that all employee grievances heard by the Texas Education Agency must be decided within a reasonable timeframe. And I played a significant role in reforming our teacher pension system so it protects our teachers and brings the system much closer to actuarial soundness – meaning it should collect enough resources to provide promised benefits to retirees in the future.
Testing reform was such a priority for the legislature that it was the subject of the first bill the Senate passed this past session.
By the end of the session, the legislature had approved the move to five end-of-course assessments in high school (down from 15). And the exams will no longer account for 15 percent of a student’s final grade.
The legislature also capped the number of tests for 3rd-through-8th graders (a decision that still requires federal approval), and it put limits on the amount of time elementary and middle schools can devote state standardized testing. Unfortunately, the Governor vetoed the testing time limits, despite the overwhelming support they had in the legislature.
The legislature also approved a new “foundation” curriculum that creates more flexibility for students but maintains academic rigor to ensure they get the most out of a classroom.
Students and their families will be able to select one of five endorsements (which are sort of like majors in college) to match their unique interests and goals. Advanced career and technology courses will be allowed to play a much more prominent role in kids’ education.
There’s no question that in many cases, charter schools have been a good option for Texas families. The key, obviously, is to make sure the system works to benefit students and to complement, not undermine, traditional public schools.
So the legislature passed a charter school accountability bill that, I believe, will improve current charter schools and set better standards for new ones.
The bill establishes more rigorous standards for charter approvals and renewals, making it easier to close those schools that need closing. It also gradually lifts the cap on the total number of charter schools through 2019.
It hasn’t received as much attention, but the legislature did a lot to improve the general well-being and safety of Texas students this year.
For the first time, teachers will be trained to identify early signs of a student struggling with a mental health issue.
School administrators also will see new rules on “discipline tickets” − which are actually adult Class C misdemeanor citations − that are handed out on campuses. Rather than criminalizing typical student misbehavior, tickets should now be issued only for the most serious school-based offenses.
Perhaps best of all, schools with more than 80 percent of students already eligible for free or reduced meals will now offer breakfast to all students. This will ensure that kids who fall through cracks (or are too ashamed to participate in this important program) will still start their days off healthily.
I’m confident that these policies will set our students up for great school year and help them grow personally and academically.
But for all of this good work, there are still areas where Texas can do better – for our students, our teachers, and our future.
The state increased funding for public schools this year, restoring much of the money that was unconscionably slashed in 2011. But Texas continues to underfund public education – we rank near the bottom nationally in per-student funding.
That inevitably creates challenges, both in the classroom today and for our long-term economic prosperity. And Texas continues to rely on a broken school finance system that’s proven to be both inequitable and inadequate.
Education − like water, roads, and healthcare − is a critical form of infrastructure. It’s irresponsible not to invest in it.
I’ll continue to work with parents, teachers, schools and advocates through this interim to find ways that we can more equitably fund our public schools. Because our kids deserve better, and that’s what we’ll work to deliver the next time the Legislature gets together.