By SALLY SEXTON
The 83rd Texas Legislative Session began Tuesday, following months of talk and litigation from public schools regarding a number of issues including state funding.
In October, school districts around the state, including representatives from Weatherford, Aledo, Millsap, Springtown, Brock and Peaster, joined several coalitions to form a united lawsuit against the state alleging inadequate funding.
The suit was filed in response to rulings passed down by the State Legislature two years ago, which resulted in $5.4 billion in public school funding trimmed from the budget.
“In terms of what our kids need, one of the main priorities is to definitely make sure that the funding that was cut in 2011 be restored,” Aledo ISD superintendent Dan Manning said. “It would certainly make sense to do some restoration of the $5.4 billion cut from public education.”
Testimony is expected to continue through January, and the trial will likely continue on into next month, according to area administrators.
Administrators and board members from Weatherford, Aledo, Azle, Brock, Garner, Millsap, Paradise, Peaster, Poolville, Santo and Springtown districts recently joined together to create the Parker County Area Coalition for Unity in Texas Public Schools, as a way to create a unified front and educate the public on some of the legislative issues.
Members of the group have written a series of letters to be distributed to local and regional media focusing on potential issues including school funding, vouchers, assessment and accountability, open-enrollment charter schools and the Teacher Retirement System.
“We need to let others know what we believe in and, just as importantly, what we do not believe in,” Weatherford ISD superintendent Jeffrey Hanks said. “This is the perfect time in order to take these necessary steps.”
Among some of the coalition’s priorities, to be addressed during the session, are the advocation of funding restoration, the opposition of vouchers from public to private or parochial schools and unfunded or underfunded legislative mandates.
The idea of school vouchers, which has been tossed around for months, addresses the option of whether the state should help pay for some public school students to attend private schools.
The school voucher is a certificate issued by the government, which parents can apply toward tuition at a private school, rather than at the public school to which their child is assigned.
“It’s critical that our parents understand that the school choice bills that I’ve looked at are going to divert public funds to private/parochial that are not under the same accountability standards,” Manning said. “I don’t have anything against private or parochial schools, I just think it’s not appropriate to use taxpayer dollars.
“To allow private schools to take public money, I’m not even sure that’s constitutional.”
Another item on the table during the legislation is a bill proposed by State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, regarding testing options for districts.
If passed, the bill would give Texas school districts local options and flexibility in testing their students.
In July of 2011, the state announced a mandatory testing change for all Texas public schools, unveiling the more rigorous State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, to replace the former TAKS test.
Weatherford ISD and several other districts in Parker County opted to defer the testing system under a modification to the bill by Commissioner of Education Robert Scott in February of last year.
Under the transition plan, districts were allowed to defer the 15 percent implementation of EOC exams, conducted under the STAAR, for the 2011-12 school year.
“I continually hear complaints from teachers, administrators, school board members and parents that our standardized testing has become excessive and not a true measure of how our children are performing,” King said. “I am concerned that our educators are having to shift resources and valuable time to keep up with testing requirements and other state and federal mandates while our teachers are unable to provide the quality education that they are qualified and trained to do.”
Under King’s bill, with the permission of the Texas Education Agency, districts would have the ability to select an assessment text that best fits their community, replacing the current one-size-fits-all, state-administered STAAR.
Area superintendents, including Brock’s Richard Tedder, Millsap’s David Belding and Hanks, voiced their initial approval of the proposition, but said they would need more details before forming a full opinion.
“At this point, I would need to know a little more info regarding House Bill 290,” Hanks said. “There are signification costs associated with the administration of assessments, which the state currently pays for.
“If you step outside of the state’s system, who would be responsible for paying for these tests? Would it be an additional burden on districts? I don’t know the answer.”
“As educators, we want to know if students have gained the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in the next grade level or upon graduation,” Belding added. “A big question is whether one test truly gives us that information.
“I think some details need to be worked through, but I certainly appreciate Rep. King’s effort to try and flex regarding the vast number of state tests students must take.”