December 8, 2022

Lawmakers pre-file dozens of K-12 bills

Texas lawmakers unveiled dozens of bills this week, aimed at tackling school safety, teacher quality and expanding school choice.

A heightened focus on school security after the Uvalde massacre and its contentious aftermath is already a focus of the upcoming session. So is a renewed push for new school choice initiatives following parents’ demands for more involvement in their child’s education in recent years.

Monday was the first day legislators could “pre-file” bills, foreshadowing some of their priorities. The deluge of hundreds of bills was a fraction of bills that will be filed in the Legislature’s 88th session that starts Jan. 10.

With more than 900 bills and proposed constitutional amendments filed as of noon Tuesday, dozens address a range of education issues.

School safety

Several bills address how school leaders can respond to students who have a history of violent behavior or mental health issues, including HB 34 filed by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands. The bill would codify the requirement for every primary and secondary school to establish an annual “classroom safety review committee” that could oversee school safety initiatives and even refer students with a history of violence to law enforcement or alternative schools.

Texas lawmakers unveil bills they plan to file in the 2023 legislative session

Other bills would shift funding to schools to expand mental health services and hire more school psychologists and/or social workers, as well as funding the new requirement for all schools to have silent panic buttons proposed by the Texas Education Agency earlier this month.

Following the 2018 Santa Fe school shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott drafted a 40-point school safety plan, and though some of those recommendations made it into policy, many school leaders say they still don’t receive enough funding to ensure students’ safety and well-being on campus.

Uvalde shooting response

In response to the May 24 massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, some parents and educators argue that schools can only do so much without lawmakers addressing gun laws.

Several lawmakers, including state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, who represents Uvalde, filed bills that would raise the age of purchase of assault-style long guns to 21. An 18-year-old man allegedly used such a weapon to kill 19 students and two teachers and injure 17 others.

Gutierrez also filed legislation that would create a $300 million fund for victims of the shooting and their families.

A memorial for the 19 children and two teachers killed in the May shooting at Robb Elementary School sits outside the school on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.(Acacia Coronado / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

School choice

Multiple bills also aim to renew previously failed efforts to launch school vouchers in Texas. Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, filed SB 176 Monday, which would establish the “Texas Parental Empowerment Program,” or an education savings account program to be administered by the state comptroller.

Education savings accounts are one type of controversial school choice program that allows parents to use public tax dollars to send their children to private schools instead of public schools.

At least one other bill already filed addresses tax-credit opportunities for individuals donating to private schools and lays out requirements for private organizations who hope to serve students that are part of a voucher program.

Many have anticipated efforts to push voucher legislation this session. More bills, potentially from top Republican leadership, are expected as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Abbott both raised the issue on the campaign trail in recent months.

Opponents — including most public school leaders — have already begun calling on lawmakers not to divert much-needed funding from public schools.

Texas lawmakers poised to fight over school vouchers as bill filing begins

Ethnic, social studies and other curriculum debates

Democrats also reintroduced a bill that would require public schools to offer ethnic studies — a contentious topic amid ongoing culture wars.

Lawmakers cite a need for students to understand their own history and culture, and the proposal comes as state education officials pause a revamping of the state’s social studies standards.

HB 45, filed by Houston Democrat Christina Morales, would add ethnic studies, specifically Mexican American and African American history, to required high school social studies curriculum.

The bill might face opposition from Republican lawmakers who have banned the teaching of critical race theory in recent years and fought to restrict what books are available in school libraries.

A handful of other bills pre-filed Monday would require high school social studies curriculum to provide students information on voting, students to complete a course on the U.S. and Texas constitutions, schools to offer fine arts classes and would address how conception and human life are taught in health class.

Parents fill the room at Fort Worth Independent School District's meeting Dec. 14, 2021....
Parents fill the room at Fort Worth Independent School District’s meeting Dec. 14, 2021. Parents rallied with signs protesting the teaching of critical race theory and asking Superintendent Kent Scribner to resign. (Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

Testing

Though some Democrats, most notably failed gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, have dominated debates about state assessments in recent months, Plano Republican Matt Shaheen filed a bill, HB 680, that would limit how test results are used to evaluate teachers and require students to take tests developed to measure growth.

O’Rourke said he would have canceled the state’s most well-known standardized test, STAAR, if he was elected. The state education agency has already unveiled changes to the test for 2023.

El Paso Democratic Rep. Mary González introduced a bill that would establish a commission “to develop and make recommendations for improvements to the current public school assessment and accountability systems.”

Teacher pensions

Rising taxes, medical expenses and inflation are severely impacting retired teachers in Texas, who haven’t seen a cost-of-living increase since 2004.

Almost a dozen bills, filed by both Democrats and Republicans, seek changes to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, including a 10% cost-of-living increase proposed by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and a proposal by Rep. John Bucy III, D-Austin, that would require the state to conduct a biennial study on the impact of inflation on retiree benefits and the need for additional cost-of-living adjustments.

Some education advocates are also anticipating possible changes to the retirement system such as a loosening of rules around what benefits retirees can receive if they go back to work to temporarily fill classroom vacancies during the ongoing teacher shortage.

Calculating school funding

Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, is also back with a previous effort to change how schools are funded.

Schools are largely funded based on who shows up to class, rather than the total enrollment for a school. Education finance experts say using such an attendance-based funding model exacerbates inequities — and that continuing to do so as districts work to recover from the coronavirus pandemic could be especially harmful.

HB 31 would replace attendance with enrollment in state code, potentially boosting school funding for districts that serve larger percentages of low-income families or students with disabilities.

Staff writers Talia Richman, Robert Garrett, Allie Morris, Lauren McGaughy and Philip Jankowski contributed to this story.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.