From TeachtheVote.org: Highlights and Lowlights of the 2021 Legislative Session

The 87th Texas Legislature adjourned sine die on the afternoon of Monday, May 31, 2021. It was a low-key end to a session that was unusual in many respects, owing to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a crippling winter storm in February, and deeply partisan divides felt not only in Texas but throughout the country.

The night before the session ended, many Democratic state representatives walked out at 11:30 p.m., leaving the House without a quorum and unable to pass a controversial election reform bill, Senate Bill 7. Governor Greg Abbott called the legislation a "must pass" item and vowed to bring lawmakers back for a special session to revive the bill. It remains unclear when such a special session might be called. Abbott also announced via Twitter that he would veto portions of the state budget bill in order to defund the legislative branch of the government in retaliation for the walkout.

In the coming days, ATPE's lobby team will be publishing our complete review of all the education legislation considered this session. In the meantime, we offer a look at a few of the major education bills passed by lawmakers, subject to review by the Governor.

SCHOOL FINANCE: Following a 2019 legislative session that produced major school finance reforms for Texas, the 87th Legislature this year passed House Bill (HB) 1525 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) as a clean-up measure to the previous school finance bill, HB 3 (2019). Ballooning from 20 pages to a whopping 66 pages between the original filed version and what ultimately passed, HB 1525 affects dozens of provisions of state education law and ultimately had several other bills amended into it late in the session. The bill establishes the Texas Commission on Special Education Funding; authorizes Resource Campuses; directs broadband, COVID-19, and other relief funding; adjusts calculations for dropout and completion rates and for the college, career, and military readiness outcomes bonus (CCMR); changes grants for students with autism and dyslexia; modifies the Fast Growth and CTE allotments; restores the GT allotment that was eliminated last session; and makes other changes affecting finance and recapture. Policy changes in the bill include removing the requirement that TIA-designated teachers be certified, requiring public access to SHACs and sexual education curriculum, and extending to the 2022-23 school year the deadline for certain educators to fulfill the HB 3 requirement for attending reading academies.

ACCOUNTABILITY: Lawmakers also passed Senate Bill (SB) 1365 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston). The bill was originally filed in response to a failed attempt by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to take over management of the state’s largest school district, Houston ISD, based on consecutive years of struggling performance at a single campus, which was challenged in court. The bill’s Senate sponsor, former House Public Education Committee Chairman Huberty, and a group of pro-public education rural Republicans worked first with administrator groups and later with teacher organizations, with ATPE leading those discussions, to significantly amend the bill. As passed, SB 1365 clarifies the impact of a D rating in the accountability system, defines a system of due process for school districts facing sanctions, adds another year’s pause in the accountability ratings, and omits provisions of the original bill that would have dramatically increased the commissioner’s authority to sanction a district based on a TEA investigation.

GRADUATION: The Individual Graduation Committees (IGC) law appears likely to become permanent after the Legislature finally passed a bill, HB 1603 by Huberty, to remove expiration dates from the statute. HB 999 by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) was also passed to provide accommodations for high school seniors affected by the pandemic. Using the IGC law, qualified students will be allowed to graduate in the 2020-21 school year regardless of their performance on STAAR tests under HB 999. ATPE supported both these bills.

CIVICS: By far the most controversial education bill passed this year was HB 3979 by Rep. Steve Toth (R-Conroe) pertaining to civics and social studies curriculum. ATPE opposed the bill, which circumvents the process used by the State Board of Education (SBOE) to adopt curriculum standards with guidance from Texas educators. The bill mandates that the SBOE include a long list of topics and texts in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for social studies, and it prohibits any requirement for teachers to “discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” At the same time, HB 3979 prohibits schools from implementing any disciplinary rules or actions that could “have a chilling effect” on students’ ability to discuss the very same topics that teachers are expected to avoid. Many educators believe the bill will have the opposite effect from its stated purpose and will make it nearly impossible to effectively teach students about the importance of civic engagement.

SPECIAL EDUCATION: SB 1716 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) is another bill that passed this session to provide a new way for students in special education to receive supplemental education services. Originally filed as a codification of an interim voucher program that Gov. Abbott created using federal emergency funds to set aside accounts for parents to access privately, the public education community opposed the bill until lawmakers agreed to remove the most troubling aspects of SB 1716 that would have put the voucher program permanently into statute. The final version of the bill adopted by the Legislature calls for regional education service centers to administer the grant program with input from admission, review, and dismissal (ARD) committees.

TESTING: Additionally, HB 4545 by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) passed, providing for accelerated learning committees that will plan targeted instructional interventions for students who fail certain STAAR tests. The bill eliminates grade promotion restrictions that were based on test performance. Earlier in the session the bill sparked controversy by proposing outcomes-based bonus funding for school districts based on student test performance – provisions that were later removed from the bill.

UIL: The Legislature also passed HB 547 by Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls), giving home-schooled students the ability to participate in UIL activities on behalf of a school district without being enrolled as public school students. ATPE opposed the bill, which holds home-schooled students to lower standards for academic eligibility and will effectively gut the "No Pass, No Play" rule aimed at making sure students do not prioritize extracurricular sports activities over their academics. The bill also creates an unfunded mandate for school districts that have to fund the home-schoolers' UIL activities despite receiving no attendance-based funding for them. Many in the home-schooling community also oppose the bill, calling it a government overreach that is unnecessary.

CHARTERS: Charter school advocates picked up a win this session with HB 3610 by Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio), a bill to create a new tax exemption for any property leased or purchased by a charter holder. The author was able to pass the bill despite it being voted down multiple times on the House floor. Other bills aiming to exempt charter schools from local government regulations and lessen the role of the elected SBOE in approving charter expansions did not pass this session. ATPE opposed the bills, which would have decreased voter oversight and input regarding the expansion of charter schools.

VIRTUAL: A significant bill that did not pass this session despite going down to the wire was HB 1468 by Rep. Keith Bell (R-Forney), aimed at extending options for virtual education. ATPE opposed the bill because it did not include enough protections for teachers and students in its expansion of virtual schools, which have not had a good track record in Texas and have proven to be a poor fit for most students. HB 1468 died on the calendar Sunday night when the House lost its quorum. However, the Legislature did pass HB 3643 by Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian) that will establish a commission to study virtual education over the next two years and make recommendations for the 88th Texas Legislature to consider in 2023. ATPE supported that bill as a more measured approach to decision-making about the future of virtual learning.

BILINGUAL: The Legislature approved a pair of ATPE-supported bills pertaining to bilingual education this session. SB 560 by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) calls for a strategic plan to improve bilingual education, including efforts to recruit a larger pipeline of bilingual certified teachers. HB 2256 by Rep. Bobby Guerra (D-Mission) creates a bilingual special education certification to help students with disabilities who are also English language learners.

CERTIFICATION: Also related to educator preparation and certification, SB 1590 by Bettencourt was passed, allowing options for field-based observations of certification candidates to take place in virtual settings. ATPE opposed the bill in its original form as filed, which would have allowed all observations to take place virtually, but we worked with Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) and Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) to successfully amend the bill to provide flexible options for a reasonable mix of in-person and virtual observations. SB 1267 by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) also made its way to the Governor’s desk with ATPE’s support. The bill is the product of an interim work group in which ATPE participated, and it streamlines numerous provisions in state law and rules containing educator training requirements that were often redundant.

TRS: Lawmakers passed the TRS “sunset” bill, HB 1585 by Rep. Stan Lambert (R-Abilene), which codifies recommendations of the Sunset Advisory Commission to improve TRS operations and member benefits. The bill creates a new TRS ombudsman position and addresses communication strategies. Also passed were these ATPE-supported bills on retire/rehire: HB 3207 by Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) that waives retire/rehire penalties during a disaster, SB 202 by Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) ensuring districts cannot force retire/rehire employees to pay the district’s contribution owed to TRS, and SB 288 by Seliger requiring notice to retire/rehire employees before their annuity payments are withheld, a provision that was also added to the TRS sunset bill.

BUDGET: Finally, the Legislature's approved budget bill, SB 1 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), provides full funding for the finance system put in place by last session’s HB 3, including funding for estimated enrollment growth for the next two years. Plus, districts and charters will also collectively receive an additional $11.2 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding under the American Relief Plan Act (ARPA). Depending on the result of a federal waiver request and any attempts to supplant the funding at the state level, districts may also receive some or all of $5.5 billion in relief funding provided by last year’s Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA).

Watch for ATPE’s complete review of the 87th Legislative Session here on Teach the Vote in the coming days.
 

This article originally appeared in ATPE’s advocacy blog, TeachtheVote.org, at https://teachthevote.atpe.org/Our-Blog/Latest-Posts/Highlights-and-lowlights-of-the-2021-legislative-s.

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