April 30, 2009
Austin’s wrenching experience with closure left an imprint on the mammoth school accountability bills that unanimously passed both chambers of the Texas Legislature on Wednesday.
No longer will a school have to give up its name, as did Johnston High School in East Austin, if it meets the end of the line in the state’s accountability system.
An amendment offered by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, ensures that schools teetering on the edge of closure today, including Pearce Middle School in Northeast Austin, will get the extra time and flexibility offered by the new legislation.
Pearce has been rated unacceptable for the past four years and would face mandatory closure if it were to once again fall below state standards this year.
And in the most heated moment of the House debate, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, made an impassioned but ultimately unsuccessful plea to remove school closure as the ultimate sanction in the state’s school accountability system.
Dukes argued during the debate of House Bill 3 that the threat of closure undermines a school’s ability to improve and punishes students and communities, particularly low-income communities.
The bills will give schools more time to avoid closure and more options if they do reach the end because of what has been learned in Austin.
But Dukes said those changes were not enough.
“I don’t like closure either, but it was the prospect of closure that really got people in gear,” said House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. “Closure doesn’t have to happen, but it is still a possibility, and I think that is strong enough to get people’s attention.”
Austin school Superintendent Pat Forgione said both pieces of legislation strengthen and improve the system.
“These bills improve the way sanctions apply to schools and communities. A school that is improving would be allowed to continue on that path of improvement, rather than face closure as the only option,” Forgione said.
Crafted by the education leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives, the bills aim to reduce the role of standardized tests, give schools more flexibility to help struggling students and focus education on readying students for college or the workplace.
Gone are many of the school reforms ushered in by then-Gov. George W. Bush, such as a prohibition on promoting a student to the next grade if he or she failed to pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.
That promotion decision will now be left to the school and parents.
Eissler said the overhaul will end the one-size-fits-all approach of the current system and allow for schools to be judged on more than just performance on a single test.
“We will celebrate differences. We will accommodate kids no matter where they are,” Eissler said.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said these legislative changes “will bring a new era into public education.”
“There has been an illusion of progress so far. … This places Texas on the cutting edge of education in the nation,” Shapiro said.
The House and Senate bills will probably end up in a conference committee that will hammer out the differences between them before the legislation is sent to Gov. Rick Perry.
Small differences have developed since the identical bills were filed in March, and the scores of amendments offered on the floor created some more.
Most notable of the differences are more stringent requirements for the end-of-course exams in the Senate version.
State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, won a change in wording that will delay implementation of some elements of the college readiness portion of the bill until 2012. He said the change was necessary to ensure that the new system? does not unfairly target some students.
“This is a big change. … We need to take it slow,” West said.
Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, vigorously opposed the delay. “Why should we delay these accountability standards?” he asked. “We are failing our kids. … This additional delay cannot help.
“While we fiddle, Rome burns,” Ogden said.