graphic adapted from Free Images chalkboard
As the new legislative session ramps up, the top three leaders in Texas seem to have their eyes on the same thing: education.
“Nothing is more important than providing our children the education they need for the jobs of tomorrow,” said Gov. Greg Abbott during his victory speech on election night.
“An educated workforce is the key to the future of Texas,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, recapping his legislative agenda.
“Education remains our top priority,” said Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, after his re-election as Speaker of the House.
But what are the specific priorities for schools this legislative session?
There are four main areas to watch.
1. Early Education
Already several lawmakers have filed bills to expand and reform pre-kindergarten.
One is from Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. He said Texas needs to decide what the best kind of pre-K is for young kids.
“This is what quality pre-k education means,” Wu said, explaining his bill.
“It doesn’t mean day care. It means an actual educational experience for the children that enriches them and helps them grow and helps them catch up.”
2. School Choice
Patrick, the new lieutenant governor and former chair of the education committee in the state Senate, wants private school vouchers.
Vouchers let families use public dollars to help pay for private school tuition.
“Not just the wealthy who can send their children to private school and not just those who have the mobility to move to the suburbs, but for parents in the inner cities that are trapped, or their children are trapped in failing schools, it is their right to have those same opportunities,” Patrick told reporters recently.
The battle over school choice could get big, fast.
Charles Luke with the Texas-based Coalition for Public Schools said the problem with vouchers is that they drain money away from the public system.
“And they’re often used by those most wealthy to be able to put their kids into a separate system and leaving behind a school infrastructure that still has to maintain itself at a certain level but then struggles to keep up,” he said.
Luke worries what would happen to those students who are left behind in schools that are even more strapped for cash.
3. School Finance
A state judge has ruled that the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional.
But don’t expect wholesale changes in Austin. There’s an ongoing appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, and a final decision may not happen until 2016.
Still, others think that lawmakers can take small steps to improve school funding.
“Our biggest priority this session relates to funding. There is an issue with equitable and sustainable funding in the state’s funding formula,” said Ashlea Graves, who directs governmental relations for the Houston Independent School District.
She gave an example of a possible improvement.
“Our ask is that the state consider adding pre-K funding into the current formula structure. As a separate stand-alone grant, pre-K has a tendency to be cut and it’s very vulnerable to changes when it’s separate from the rest of K-12,” she said.
In fact, lawmakers cut about $200 million in pre-K grants in 2011. Some, but not all, of that grant money has been restored.
4. 83rd Session Redux
The last thing to watch is a follow-up on the biggest education items from last session in 2013.
Those are things like standardized testing, more counselors to guide students through new graduation plans and grading individual campuses on a scale from A to F.