Political warfare between an entrenched Texas House and Senate and the impact of a natural disaster dominated the 2017 headlines for public education in Texas. Here’s a look back at those and other major public ed stories from the past year.
1. Hurricane Harvey hit Texas schools hard. Heavy rainfall and powerful winds left thousands of students and teachers displaced and traumatized, with a number of school buildings damaged beyond immediate repair. School superintendents have gone before House and Senate panels to list their many needs, including state support in filing for federal disaster aid and funding for busing displaced students. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has estimated Harvey will cost the state more than $1 billion. And with more than 50 child care centers unable to find funding to reopen, parents with infants and young children are struggling to get back to work after the storm.
2. Yet another textbook controversy at the State Board of Education. For the second time in a year, the State Board of Education rejected a proposal for a Mexican-American studies textbook, leaving teachers without any state-approved materials for Mexican-American studies courses. Just one board member, a Democrat, voted in favor of the proposed book; others agreed it was rushed and in need of major revision. But both Republicans and Democrats on the board mentioned they would support creating an official elective course in the future. In the meantime, some teachers have been building their own ethnic studies programs without additional state support. This spring, the board also removed language from the state science standards that critics had argued could facilitate teaching creationism in high school biology classrooms.
3. The Legislature failed to approve an overhaul of the beleaguered school funding system. The Texas Senate and House spent the legislative session, and a summer special session, battling over whether to immediately reform the system for funding the state’s public schools. After the Texas Supreme Court ruled the school finance system faulty but constitutional, legislators were not facing pressure to fix it this year. Without Senate support, House Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, failed to get his version of a $1.8 billion reform bill through the legislative process. Instead, legislators tasked a commission with studying the system and making recommendations to overhaul it next legislative session. With no immediate fixes, many school districts and educators have started a new year working with less state funding.
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4. Texas will grade schools and school districts. Despite pushback from educators, the Texas Legislature retained — and revamped — a controversial policy to assess schools and districts with A-F grades, using a calculation heavily based on standardized test scores. The state will issue its first grades for school districts in August 2018. School superintendents in districts struggling to recover from Hurricane Harvey are petitioning the state to waive their ratings for the year.
5. TEA administrator fired after reporting problems with no-bid contract. After pushback from disability rights advocates, the Texas Education Agency abruptly ended a no-bid contract with Georgia-based SPEDx, which had been hired to analyze how schools serve students with disabilities and to help create a long-term special education plan for the state. The agency is keeping quiet about why it ended the contract, but Commissioner Mike Morath ordered a review of procurement processes. The agency's former special education director had filed a federal complaint alleging the TEA had violated state and federal regulations in bypassing a competitive bidding process with SPEDx. A day later, she was fired. TEA officials said they fired her because she didn't reveal that she had been accused of covering up sexual abuse allegations in a previous job.
Her removal left a major gap in the agency's structure for supporting students with disabilities. Now, TEA has no special education director or long-term strategic plan — more than a year after extensive reports that it had imposed a cap on special education that caused some students to miss out on services.
Read related Tribune coverage:
School districts lost a court case that could have forced the state to reform its school finance system, and federal officials toured Texas to investigate claims that special education services were arbitrarily capped. [Full story]
Doug Killian, the current superintendent of Pflugerville ISD, was recently named to the Texas Legislature's interim commission to study school finance. Read what he had to say about the challenges facing the commission. [Full story]