legislative recap

Texas state Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) speaks to educators and foundation representatives at a recap of the 86th Texas legislative session hosted by the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium Tuesday afternoon.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part story on a recap of the legislative session. Part 1 was published Wednesday.

The Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium hosted an 86th Texas legislative session recap for educators and organizations at the T.L.L. Temple Foundation in Lufkin Tuesday morning.

The consortium had several speakers during the recap. Executive director Jennifer Esterline said the general purpose of these meetings, which they are hosting across the state, is to reach out to local philanthropists.

Kate Kuhlmann with HillCo Partners gave the majority of the legislative recap. HillCo Partners is a public affairs firm in Austin working as an advocacy consultant with TEGAC.

Senate Bill 213 and the Individual Graduations Committee, which provides an alternative graduation route for exceptional students who, for one reason or another, cannot pass their end of course exams, were extended for another four years, Kuhlmann said.

House Bill 3906 was initially part of HB 3, but legislators broke it out. The main focus of this bill was breaking the STAAR exam into multiple parts over more than one day.

“The idea is that children are sitting for shorter increments to take these exams,” she said.

The bill also begins a five-year transition into an online test, and it creates an educator advisory committee.

“Something we heard a lot about this legislative session was educator involvement in test development,” she said. “Part of that came out of some research on readability that was released. There’s also a study on readability in HB3. It is focused on ensuring that texts, especially longer texts, in the STAAR exam are at the grade level that the kids are being tested on.”

SB11 established a school safety allotment, requires emergency evacuation trainings and mandatory school drills, requires a policy on trauma-informed care and provides resources to identify students with mental health problems.

HB18 was focused on training students and educators on mental health and substance abuse.

State Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) and state Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) were present, and Kuhlmann touched on bills that the two had authored or been instrumental in.

VanDeaver was an author of HB330, which excluded certain students from the computation of dropout and completion rates for purposes of public school accountability. The impetus for this bill came from an administrator from Sims ISD who told a story of a star student and athlete who had been seriously injured on the football field.

“It left the child with some real traumatic injuries, and he ended up in a residential placement facility in Houston,” VanDeaver said. “That family and the school had to deal with the fact that that child is now a dropout. It’s kind of insult to injury.”

Sims ISD only had 20-25 seniors that year, so one dropout significantly impacted the school’s completion rate. VanDeaver said the family and the school shouldn’t have to deal with that during such a rough time.

“It is important that you communicate because we now have on the books the ability for a school to not take a ding on the dropout rate in these situations, and it came from a conversation with a superintendent about a real problem they were facing,” he said. “Continue to talk to us. It’s very important.”

He was also an author of SB668 that related to mandate relief, repealing outdated rules, provides flexibility on some rules and provides clarification on things like the definition of homelessness, which Kuhlmann said was a mess.

Ashby authored HB3009, which adds 10 questions from the U.S. Civics Exam for the naturalization process to the end of course history exam. He also authored HB2424, which calls for districts to recognize micro-credentials that educators receive and log them on the Educator Certification Online System.

“I think this is a really great idea because it’s a small way to highlight educators and the work that they do through continuing education to get any amount of expertise or training on a particular topic,” Kuhlmann said.

When Ashby spoke, he said his work on HB3 was probably the most significant.

“I probably won’t touch another piece of legislation as important to the state of Texas and our kids and taxpayers as HB3,” he said.

David Feigen with Texans Care for Children spoke about the changes to early grade success during the legislative session. He said there were several components that touched early childhood education that he was really excited about.

The full day of pre-K funding was something that districts had been crying out for, for a really long time, he said. TCC worked with TEGAC on a statewide survey of the needs for early childhood education, and the biggest topic was full day pre-K.

Another important aspect that was addressed was improved safety standards and oversight of licensed child care, he said. An investigative series called “Unwatched” by the Austin-American Statesman was released in December. It documented stories of serious injury and death in facilities all over the state.

“We have some of the highest allowed minimum standards in the country for child to adult ratios,” Feigan said. “Right now, for instance, one adult can be with 11 2-year-olds at a time. If you’ve ever been with three 2-year-olds at a time, you can imagine that’s a challenge to actually be able to provide an enriching educational experience, and it’s also a challenge to keeping them safe.”

Emphasis was placed on early childhood literacy by making strategies to help get students to the level they need to be by third grade, improving nutrition, increasing active play and improving data and transparency, he said.

He also touched on HB18, SB11 and said HB19 provides regional student mental health training and consultation services to district through partnerships between local mental health authorities and education service centers.

Jenna Watts in the Office of Strategy and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin spoke about how this legislation dealt with pathways to college and career. Watts’ office works with K-12 higher education innovators and organizations like TEGAC to design scalable approaches to increase college attendance, completion and success, she said.

Watts has been working on the Texas OnCourse program, a competency-based counselor training and resource program offered freely to schools across Texas, which came from HB18 in 2015.

The university is also working on a new project called Map My Path, a program that would assist students in deciding how their college experience is done. It would help them with things like mapping out their credits and transferring from a two-year to a four-year institution.

Watts said research and development/building and testing opportunities on this project would become available for schools in East Texas.

She also touched on SB25 and SB1276. She called SB25 the transfer bill of the session.

“It requires an annual report of credit that’s not transferable,” she said. “The biggest thing we were excited about was that it does require colleges and universities to have recommended course sequences.”

SB1276 requires institutions that provide dual credit courses to have common advising strategies and terminology, outline how dual credit courses apply toward district endorsements and postsecondary pathways and to list public resources intended to assist counselors and students with selecting endorsements and dual credit courses.

Grace Juarez’s email address is grace.juarez@lufkindailynews.com.