Nov. 27, 2006, 3:52PM
Schools still big issue at Capitol
Lawmakers to address possible end to TAKS and funding matters in new session
By GARY SCHARRER
AUSTIN — State legislators will consider getting rid of the TAKS test when they return to a regular legislative session in a few weeks. And some warn they must increase funding for new schools to head off another finance lawsuit.
Just because lawmakers passed major education bills last spring doesn't mean an easy agenda lies ahead when they return to the Capitol on Jan. 9.
"You never stop discussing education. It's got to be every session, and it's got to be major — every session," Senate Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said.
Public education directly affects more than 4.5 million Texas students, their parents and about 600,000 teachers and staff.
Shapiro is among those who believe the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test "has worn out its welcome," particularly for high school and middle school grades. She will push for "end-of-course" exams for the upper grades.
She also wants to review the state's assessment process and minimum standards for student performance. Currently, schools earn "acceptable" status with a 25 percent passing rating.
"Nobody believes that 25 percent passing is acceptable," Shapiro said. "We've got to change that and make (school grades) meaningful and not something to snicker at because that's what we're doing right now."
It took lawmakers three special sessions to reform the state's property tax system for funding public education, motivated by a Texas Supreme Court deadline for doing so.
But lawmakers did not address funding inequities for school facilities. Continuing failure to do so will trigger another lawsuit, said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, a member of the Senate Education Committee.
Funding for new schools and renovation of older buildings is a problem facing districts both in property-poor areas and busting-at-the-seams suburbs.
"We may not get to the tipping point of doing a massive new school facilities finance program, but we know, sooner or later, someone's going to take us to court on that," she said.
She also wants the state, along with districts, to be more efficient in the planning of new schools. It doesn't make sense, for example, to hire 500 architects for 500 schools, she said.
"Why can't a school district have a template and save money on architects, on design, on construction practices?" she asked.
Lawmakers last year passed legislation pushing students to take an extra year of science, which will require schools to add laboratories, Shapiro said. The state did not provide funding.
Several billion dollars are needed for school buildings across Texas, but no one seems to know the exact cost, she said.
"We don't project out what our needs are. We just go a year at a time, and that is absolutely nuts," said Shapiro.
Rep. Harold Dutton, a longtime member of the House Public Education Committee, is not optimistic lawmakers will significantly improve education.
"We'll probably talk about facility funds, but when you talk about facility funding, you're talking about money, and who's going to put more money into public education?" the Houston Democrat said.
Dutton, who is starting his 12th House term, contends the state's public education system "is simply not working for the masses of students out there, particularly those of color. I don't know how to say it any louder or clearer."
Some folks want lawmakers to review a provision in last year's school funding bill requiring districts to get voter approval for any effective tax increase exceeding 4 cents per $100 property valuation.
Lawmakers probably won't make major changes to the school finance bill they just approved last spring, said Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, a member of the House Public Education Committee. But he agrees with Shapiro that end-of-course exams should replace the TAKS test.
And it will probably take "some intensive study" before lawmakers change funding formulas for transportation, bilingual education and low-income students, said Eissler, who spent 18 years on the Conroe Independent School Board before moving to the Legislature.
Eissler expects less rancorous debate over public education and other issues because House Republicans lost six seats last year, reducing their majority to 81-69.
"I think the voters aren't real enamored of very strong partisanship. They want to see results more than they want to see fights," he said.