By Trista Bishop-Watt, Manager of Policy
The 88th Legislative Session ended Monday, May 29, 2023 and as is typical during a legislative session education issues were hotly debated. Public schools in Texas have faced challenges unique to post-pandemic life with statewide teacher shortages and an upcoming funding decline as federal, pandemic relief funds run their course. Further, Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dade Phelan all included big ticket education issues as part of their top priorities for the session. Significant legislation was anticipated to meet these expectations.
In the end, several top education priorities for not only our state’s leaders, but public education advocates, failed to pass the finish line. Proposed bills that would have increased school funding and teacher pay became tied down in the more contested debate about private school choice programs. In the last hour, HB 100 became the vehicle not just for school funding, as intended by the House, but also a broad education savings account program proposed by the Senate. Ultimately, the House and Senate were unable to reach an agreement on private school choice, leaving many other education policy proposals without a means to move forward.
The bulk of legislators’ education policy work did not make its way to the Governor’s desk, but some key bills did make the journey. Although a special session is already underway, we wanted to take some time to recap the legislative wins and missed opportunities from the regular session.
Wins for Public Education
If signed, HB 1605 institutes a clear vetting process for instructional materials that considers quality and grade-level appropriateness. School districts have the discretion to, and are incentivized to, adopt high-quality materials with additional funding to implement the new curriculum. Given that right now only 19% of school materials in Texas are grade-level appropriate in reading, we anticipate that this change will help school districts adopt appropriately rigorous curriculum to support students and reduce the burden on teachers to find supplementary materials.
SB 2124 offers another opportunity to improve student outcomes through advanced math coursework. Research by the E3 Alliance shows that only one in five high school graduates whose highest level of math is Algebra II earn a college degree. The pathway to advanced math courses begins early, with students usually set on a trajectory in middle school for Algebra I completion by 8th grade. Students who score in the top 40% on the math STAAR do well in advanced courses. However, Black, Latino, and low income students who score highly do not have the same level of access to Algebra I math pathways as their peers, leading to significant racial gaps in completion.
The passage of SB 2124 directly addresses the disparities in access by requiring school districts to automatically enroll students who either score in the top 40% on the math STAAR or have demonstrated proficiency in math by 5th grade in an advanced math coursework in middle school. Dallas ISD has already implemented this type of opt out, rather than opt in, policy for math and within two years of the change 94% of eligible students were enrolled in advanced courses, with both Black and Latino student enrollment increasing by 26%. SB 2124 not only passed both chambers with overwhelming support, but Governor Abbott has already signed it, making it law.
HB 1416 also awaits the Governor’s signature. If signed, it provides flexibility to school districts related to accelerated student instruction implemented by HB 4545 (87R), while still maintaining research-backed strategies to address learning loss. Historical STAAR data shows that only 5% of students who are behind academically are able to catch up to their peers within two years, which makes strategic intervention critical to student success. HB 1416 retains low student to teacher ratios for tutoring and strategically prioritizes math and reading interventions. In response to barriers to implementation that arose over the last two years, the bill also increases parent engagement, factors in student need for tutoring hours rather than a flat requirement, and strengthens data collection to evaluate effectiveness of interventions.
Finally, the Legislature chose not to move forward with bills that would threaten the validity and academic integrity of the A-F Accountability System. Bills like HB 4402 and HB 4514 proposed adding nonacademic measures, like extracurricular activities and satisfaction surveys, to state-wide academic accountability scores. While those indicators are certainly important in education, they have great potential to mask how well schools are meeting student learning needs. We previously shared our public testimony opposing HB 4402, which fully outlines our concerns.
Parents, students, and communities deserve to know how academically effective our public schools are so they can hold systems accountable for student learning. We want our kids to thrive in extracurricular activities and our parents to be happy with their child’s school but with only 44% of students in Houston reading on grade level by third grade, we must be able to effectively measure academic outcomes to ensure schools are effectively and equitably allocating resources. By maintaining academic accountability, the Legislature ensured that the overall A-F letter grade is reserved for the most crucial function of public schools: ensuring students can read, write, and do math on grade level.
By the end of session, the Legislature did leave some critical opportunities on the table to address the concerns identified by the Teacher Vacancy Task Force and prioritize early learning.
HB 11 and SB 9 were comprehensive bills to support teachers and address the shortage crisis. Both bills would have: implemented a teacher residency program where future educators could receive paid on-the-job training with a mentor teacher in pursuit of their teaching certification; expanded the Teacher Incentive Allotment to compensate highly-effective educators; and provided quality of life improvements like support for certification fees. HB 100 incorporated several of these changes along with across-the-board increased compensation for teachers, but none of these bills were able to pass both chambers.
Given that early learning is a necessary foundation for educational success, HB 2162 was an important bill that would have required school districts to adopt an early literacy assessment that provided progress monitoring, diagnostic tools for teachers, and screening for dyslexia. Districts would then have been required to provide phonics-based early interventions for students in need using high-quality instructional materials. To better support pre-K partnerships and expand access, HB 1614 would have eliminated the disconnect in eligibility requirements for pre-K funding and child care scholarships to streamline partnerships between school districts and community-based childcare providers. Both House bills never made it out of the Senate Education Committee.
Although none of these bills passed in the regular session, there could be an opportunity in the future if Governor Abbott chooses to call a special legislative session and place these issues on “the call” – a specific charge to the Legislature restricting which items they can take up during a special session. Governor Abbott has already called one special session focusing only on property tax relief and Texas border policy. We hope that, if given the opportunity, our legislators will consider reviving these areas of improvement for public education.
Stay Up to-date
Even though the regular legislative session is over, legislators are still hard at work. We will continue to provide updates through any special sessions that affect public education and will continue to focus on our policy priorities throughout the interim. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter, visit our policy page, and follow us on social media for updates and action items for all things public education policy.