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Still hope for Texas schoolkids

The Houston Chronicle
April 5, 2013

By Nick Anderson

We've long since given up hope that this might be the Legislative session in which Texas fixes the wiggy, dysfunctional way that it funds public schools. And we're slowly resigning ourselves to the sad fact that the Legislature won't restore every cent of the $5.4 billion that it slashed from our schools last time around.

But call us optimists: We still dare to hope that this session won't be a total bust for Texas schoolkids. Legislators still have a chance to vote for bills that would improve our schools - and students' lives.

Testing reform. Do we need standardized tests? Absolutely. But the state's current requirements (15 tests for high school students!) make testing the tail that wags the dog. By reducing the number of state-required tests, HB 5 (for high school) and HB 866 (for elementary and middle) would restore sanity.

Graduation requirements. Kids aren't all the same, but the state's high school graduation requirements are one-size-fits-all. HB 5 and SB 3 give students needed flexibility. An aspiring engineer would be able to load up on math, and a future welder could take vocational classes.

Achievement School District. What should we do with failing public and charter schools? SB 1718 and HB 3789 would bring Texas a model that's working in New Orleans and Tennessee: a special school district that handles turnarounds. (Just one tweak still needed: Schools need three years, not two, to get their acts together before going into the turnaround district.)

Charter schools. Some Texas charter schools are among the best public schools in the world; others are lousy. SB 2 would make it easier to close bad ones, and easier to open new ones - a good thing, given that roughly 100,000 Texas kids now languishing on charter waiting lists.

Breakfast in the classroom. Hunger is growing in Texas, and hungry kids have a hard time learning. SB 376 would expand the federally funded universal-breakfast program to all schools where more than 80 percent of students are low-income.

More time on task? High-flying charter schools and school-turnaround programs like HISD's Apollo 20 contend that more time at school is essential to improving student performance. Is it? And if so, what would it take for Texas to try that on a larger scale? HB 384 would create an unpaid commission to answer those questions.

Start dates. Why are school calendars frequently awkward, with semesters ending not before Christmas break, but a week after? Blame Texas' tourism lobby, which in its zeal to extend vacations, has for years prevented schools from starting before the fourth Monday in August. HB 669 would put kids' interests before Sea World's, allowing school boards to pick start dates that work better for education.