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What the Texas Legislature did for public education

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Texas’ 2021 regular legislative session ended last month with lawmakers doing something education advocates initially feared wouldn’t happen: they passed a budget that kept the previous session’s funding gains in place.1

State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint

That sums up how public education fared this session, said state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, who serves on the Texas House Public Education Committee. “For the most part, we maintained the status quo,” she said.

Early childhood education had the most success this session, advocates say, which was largely overshadowed by more politicized issues relating to transgender student athletes and how teachers can talk about U.S. history.

Here are changes El Paso public school students, families and teachers will see from the Texas Legislature:

Funding

Students who continued with online learning this spring will have to return to campus this fall because lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would fund online learning for the 2021-22 school year. Districts will return to being funded based on average daily in-person attendance, making it costly for them to offer virtual schooling options. Only a handful of districts have state approval to offer statewide online programs.

It remains to be seen whether Gov. Greg Abbott will make funding online instruction a priority he wants lawmakers to address during a special session. Lawmakers are expected to return to Austin to tackle redistricting and possibly several other issues.

Aside from maintaining the 2019 school finance formula, lawmakers secured the release of $5.5 billion of federal coronavirus aid. Districts can apply for funds to cover a range of costs tied to addressing learning loss, such as hiring tutors or awarding stipends to current employees.

Families should ask their districts what new services and programs their school will offer to meet this need, said Jonathan Feinstein, Texas state director for Education Trust, which advocates for educational equity.

The Texas Education Agency will also use some of the federal relief dollars to reimburse itself for “hold harmless” spending — the money that went to fund districts based on previous years’ attendance rather than docking them for low attendance rates.

Critical race theory

Republican senators pushed through legislation to restrict how public school teachers discuss the role of racism in U.S. history.

House Bill 3979 by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, requires teachers to discuss current events “from diverse and contending perspectives,” and prevents them from teaching that people are “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” or bear responsibility for the past actions of those from their same race or sex.

Education groups criticized the bill as an effort to ban critical race theory, an academic framework that examines how racism has shaped U.S. legal and social institutions. The bill prevents teachers from requiring students to study the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine series that explores slavery’s continued impact on Black Americans.

“This piece of legislation wasn’t about policy, but about a political agenda and that really is evidenced through the ambiguity of the language of the legislation,” González, a vocal opponent, said. Teachers will “feel more policed and (have) less ability to have the needed conversations with their students,” she said.

Toth said his legislation was aimed, in part, at “prohibiting the teaching of racial superiority or collective guilt.”

“We don’t need to burden our kids with guilt for racial crimes they had nothing to do with. Our students are stressed enough already and don’t need one more reason to feel inadequate,” he said in a May news release.

His bill further bars teachers from giving course credit for lobbying or political activism.

Standardized testing

This year’s high school seniors who failed multiple sections of state standardized tests will not be prevented from graduating.

Lawmakers approved legislation allowing 2021 seniors who failed up to all five of the required State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR exams, to petition an individual graduation committee for approval to graduate. Typically, seniors can only go through such a committee if they fail no more than two STAAR tests.

Lawmakers also passed a bill that allows fifth- and eighth-graders who fail a STAAR exam to advance to the next grade level if they spend at least 30 hours in individual or small-group accelerated instruction.

Bilingual education

Senate Bill 560 by Rep. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, directs the Texas Education Agency, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Workforce Commission to create a statewide plan by Dec. 1, 2022, to improve and expand high-quality bilingual education. That includes increasing the number of certified bilingual educators and dual-language immersion programs so more students graduate proficient in English and Spanish.

Lawmakers also approved the creation of a bilingual special education certification.

Early childhood education

The pandemic underscored the importance of child care to the state’s families and economy, said David Feigen, Texans Care for Children’s early childhood policy associate.

This session saw the first bipartisan Early Childhood Caucus in the Texas House, which advanced a number of bills aimed at supporting young children. The 32 mostly-Democratic members include three El Pasoans: González and Reps. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, and Joe Moody, D-El Paso.

One of those bills requires that child care programs receiving state subsidies participate in Texas Rising Star, a state quality rating system that was previously voluntary. Until now, families were “forced to rely on Yelp reviews or things like that, which are not reliable,” Feigen said.

Another bill directs the Texas Workforce Commission to create a plan to strengthen and grow the state’s child care workforce by increasing pay and professional development opportunities.

One of the most tangible decisions lawmakers made was to put a class size cap on pre-kindergarten classes, limiting them to no more than 22 students — the same cap for kindergarten through fourth grade.

Cover photo: Ivan Brady, 5, works on an assignment in his pre-k class at Tornillo Elementary in October 2020.(Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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