The 84th Legislative Session represented a victory for Texas public education, as student-centered reforms rose above dissension and distraction.

Student-Centered Reforms Rise Above Dissension and Distraction

CapitolWith the close of the 20-day veto period, the 84th Legislative Session has officially ended. Legislators should be commended for their thoughtful debate and policy achievements addressing the needs of Texas public school students.

Guided by objective research conducted prior to the session, Raise Your Hand Texas advocated for policy measures designed to advance student performance across the state by building capacity within public schools. Specifically, we supported legislators’ efforts to improve pre-k program quality, address chronically low-performing campuses, and free public schools to be more autonomous and innovative. We also supported measures preserving local control of our neighborhood schools while opposing legislation that would outsource public education.

So how did the 84th Legislature fare? Fortunately for Texas students, legislators built on the progress made with House Bill 5 and Senate Bill 2 during the 83rd Legislative Session and enacted policies geared toward improving public schools.

These important policies represent aggressive education reforms, and they must be given time to work so a fair assessment of their progress may be possible.

See below for what happened with regard to each Raise Your Hand Texas policy priority.

Priority: Enhance Pre-Kindergarten Quality

Raise Your Hand Texas supported legislation and funding to improve pre-k quality for eligible 4-year-old students. House Bill 4 passed as a positive first step toward this long-term goal.

HB 4 provides 
$118 million in statewide pre-k grant funding for districts meeting additional but modest quality requirements. Raise Your Hand advocated for further high-quality reforms such as funding full-day programs, decreasing adult/student ratios, and providing ongoing professional development, but these elements were not included in HB 4.

Moving Forward: We will continue working to achieve full-day formula funding and additional quality measures to best prepare kids for elementary school in an effort to realize the long-term achievement gains demonstrated by pre-k research and exemplary nationwide programs.

For additional information, visit our issue overview page on high-quality pre-k.

Priority: Free Schools to Innovate

Raise Your Hand supported public school autonomy and innovation, and freeing schools from the burdens of a highly centralized, compliance-driven education system. House Bill 1842 passed, allowing traditional school districts to operate with the freedoms previously granted only to charter schools.

Incorporating amendments from SB 1241, HB 1842 allows for the creation of “districts of innovation” that can exempt themselves from certain state requirements with a two-thirds vote of the board of trustees and approval by the district-level decision making committee. While providing crucial freedoms for districts, the bill preserves local control as school boards remain subject to voter control and accountability.

Priority: Address Chronically Low-Performing Schools

Raise Your Hand supported addressing chronically low-performing schools by providing swift and targeted interventions for struggling campuses. House Bill 1842 has been described as the most aggressive public school turnaround legislation ever passed by the Texas Legislature.

HB 1842 imposes sanctions on campuses with the longest record of low performance and requires the Commissioner to either close the campus or replace the school board if the campus fails to improve after the fifth year. Unlike other policy proposals such as Opportunity School District (OSD) and Parent Trigger, the guidelines provided by HB 1842 will improve the school turnaround process while also preserving local control of the schools for the locally elected school boards, parents, and district citizens who are most invested in neighborhood schools and their improvement. HB 1842 creates both a strong incentive for local school boards to act before a campus reaches long-term low performance and an effective state intervention if the board fails to do so.

Priority: Oppose Measures that Weaken Schools

Raise Your Hand opposed all voucher and “neovoucher” proposals that would have removed taxpayer funds from public schools and diverted them to private entities not accountable to the public. No voucher bills were passed by the Texas Legislature in 2015.

Although legislators debated various voucher proposals, including the tax credit scholarship voucher and education savings account voucher, none of the bills were passed by both Houses.

Moving Forward: Voucher proposals have been a staple of Texas politics for nearly 20 years, and we expect similar proposals will continue to be presented in future sessions. Raise Your Hand will continue to explain and oppose voucher schemes and remind legislators that without strong public education, democracy fails.

Furthermore, we will continue investing in efforts that make the most meaningful difference: building capacity within districts to improve our schools, training school and district leaders, and implementing innovative programs and strategies to benefit all Texas students.

Priority: Establish Educator Data System

Raise Your Hand supported legislators’ efforts to create data systems that could provide legislators, educators, and parents access to necessary information about educator performance as well as educator training and preparation programs. 

SB 892 would have taken first steps to address issues regarding teacher credentials and preparation programs. It moved successfully through the Senate but not the House.

Moving Forward: As a key interim research project for the 85th Legislative Session, Raise Your Hand will continue to advocate for quality collection and transparency 
of educator data, with the goal of improving our educator preparation, recruitment, appraisal, and retention systems. We will also work to improve access to information already available regarding educator preparation programs.

Other Public Education Issues

Raise Your Hand also took positions on the following issues that were not part of our advocacy agenda, but were crucial aspects of the education reform debate.

Issue: A-F Accountability Ratings

Raise Your Hand opposed A-F ratings without a corresponding accountability system that fairly measures campus performance. House Bill 2804 as passed worked to bridge that gap by implementing A-F after making significant changes to accountability inputs and requiring further consideration.

HB 2804 creates five weighted domains for school performance ratings; it also creates the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability, charged with developing and making recommendations for new systems of student assessment and public school accountability.

A-F ratings will be effective with the 2017-18 school year, but the Texas Education Agency is required to informally apply the ratings to campuses for the 2016-17 school year and report to legislators during the 85th Legislative Session. The report must address any correlation between campus ratings and poverty, disability, or limited English proficiency.

Issue: Full-Time Virtual Education

While Raise Your Hand supports digital education options for students and the courses provided by TEA’s Texas Virtual School Network, we opposed expansion of full-time virtual education, given its poor track record for student performance. 

SB 894 sought to expand full-time virtual education by allowing home school students to enroll at state cost, weakening oversight and accountability by TEA, and removing local control by requiring payment for any virtual course – including those already offered by the district in a regular classroom. Serious concerns were shared through testimony at the initial hearing for the bill, and the state cost was shown to be potentially much larger than anticipated. In the end, the bill was not considered by the full Senate.

Of Note: Raise Your Hand supports blended education, which combines the best of online resources and classroom instruction. We recently launched our Raising Blended Learners Grant Initiative to support Texas districts and schools implementing high-quality blended learning solutions. Public schools, school districts, charter schools, and charter school management organizations across Texas can apply to be considered for a total of $2.5 million in grants. The grants will support a three-year blended learning initiative, with five winning teams implementing their plans starting in 2016. The benchmarking and measurement research process will evaluate blended learning’s impact on student achievement and inform Raise Your Hand’s policy interests in this area for the 85th Legislative Session in 2017.