Texas educators are keeping an eye on legislators to see how their decisions on education are handled and what effects they may have on the future of testing and funding. The three upcoming bills being debated are HB 5, SB 3 and SB 1734. The focus points are accountability, graduation plan reform and funding.

Bridge City Superintendant Mike King recently spent time in Austin with legislators and other educators addressing the needs of the schools and students.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock debated on the House floor Tuesday HB 5 which is a much needed legislation to make improvements to the current state graduation and assessment systems. The bill is most beneficial to students because it reduces overemphasis of high-stakes testing by reducing the number of required end-of-course exams from 15 to 5.

SB 1724, although similar, is written by State Senator Dan Patrick, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, calls for students in the Foundation Diploma and those with the Career and Business endorsement to take 5 tests in total, with the passage of four required for graduation. Students seeking the STEM, Humanities, or Distinguished endorsement would take six tests with passage of five tests required for graduation. The tests would be based on pass fail and would not count toward a student’s GPA.

It also provides more time for engaging instruction and project-based learning with the reduced testing and will allow teachers to assess student achievement beyond their responses to multiple choice test questions.

Plus, it allows all high school graduates to be eligible to apply for admission to a Texas public four-year university.

“All tests will be taken by the end of the sophomore year which would allow students to allow for a more flexible graduation plan,” King said.

There are notable similarities between SB 3 and HB 5 as well. Both bills replace the minimum, recommended and advanced high school graduation programs with one “foundation” high school program and allows students to earn specified types of “endorsements” in addition to the foundation diploma. They both eliminate the so-called “4X4” high school graduation requirements for students entering college and both require the same number of credits in the four core curriculum areas: four credits of English language arts, three credits of math, two credits of science, and three credits of social studies with a requirement of one credit for physical education.

However, there are differences too. HB 5 continues current law which allows completion of college-level courses in the core curriculum to count as credits required for a high school diploma while SB 3 eliminates this provision.

If passed SB 3 will make the new requirements applicable in the 2013-14 school year but HB 5 will make them applicable in the 2014-15 school year.

“I believe we have come up with a plan that will reduce the number of tests taken by students, and the number of testing days in school, and provide a high level of accountability in key subject areas,” said Senator Patrick in a statement.

Both bills provide for transition plans that allow high school students entering ninth grade before the date of the bill’s enactment to choose whether to continue under the current high school graduation program requirements or switch to the foundation high school program.

“We are making progress to get a more sensible accountability system,” King said. “Districts want an accountability system, not just the one day, one test system.”

According to King, the results from the test determine how a school does all year.

Senate Bill 3 with State Senator Patrick transforms the current graduation program. It creates greater flexibility for students to pursue a high school diploma that meets the rigor and relevance needed to accomplish their goals in higher education and the workforce.

King would also like to see some changes in the graduation plan with added flexibility. The “four by four” has three levels with two parts, the distinguished and recommended, for students on the college track. An added third phase would be a minimum which would allow a broader education into technology classes.

King says the “four by four program” is a “good plan, but cuts vocational classes.” It consists of four years each of math, English, science and social studies. He added, the high school now offers three welding classes. In addition,  students have signed up to take a class on the principals of manufacturing and career connections classes.

‘The four by four plan is what has caused the career and technology classes to be trimmed down,” King said. ‘Colleges look at the GPA and college entrance exams.”

The hope of King and the educators is to allow a student to graduate with college prep plans, career prep or both.

“The main focus is a better picture of accountability,” King said.

Currently the system is a college plan or minimum plan which is not what is wanted. Instead they would prefer a college and career plans.

“This would allow for expansion of the vocational programs,” King said.

This has all happened because of a grass roots movement by parents, community members, teachers and educators, King said.

Area educators have consistently said they want accountability. HB 5 will create a new three-category rating system which evaluates schools on academic performance, financial performance, and a local rating system based on community and student engagement. The issued rating will be in the form of letter grades  with a grade of A, B, or C indicating an “acceptable” rating, and a grade of F as “unacceptable.”

During the last session in 2011, $5.4 billion was cut out of the education budget. Going into this session, there was a $8.8 billion surplus and there is $12 billion in the “rainy day” fund, according to King.

King would like to see the funding cuts restored to school finance and is hoping the $5.4 billion will be put back into the education system.

In 2007, the state began a system where they formed an equation to determine how much money a district will receive. This has been declared unconstitutional and has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

It all began when Chapter 41 of the Texas Education Code makes provisions for certain school districts to share their local tax revenue with other school districts. For the purposes of the school finance system in Texas, districts are designated as either property wealthy or property poor. The relative wealth of the school district is measured in terms of  the taxable value of property that lies within the school district borders divided by the number of students in weighted average daily attendance

WADA is the weighted average daily attendance figure used in several state funding formulas to calculate the amount of state and local funds a district is entitled to.

A district’s WADA is calculated by first subtracting from a district’s Tier I entitlement any transportation funding the district is due, any funding the district is due for new instructional facilities, the district’s TxVSN allotment, the district’s high school allotment, and 50 percent of the CEI adjustment. The resulting amount is then divided by the district’s basic allotment amount to arrive at a district’s WADA, according to the Texas Education Agency.

The amount of money given may have gone up or down since the initial finding. The Texas School Districts Target Revenue for the 2011-12 WADA shows significant differences in the amounts given to the schools per student. The Huntington School District, located in East Texas with a population of 2,068 people  per student receives $4,813. The Westbrook School District located Central Western Texas has a population  203 people and receives $13,121 per student.

Orange County school districts fared somewhere in the middle of the more than 1,100 districts statewide.

According to reports, Orangefield ISD received $4,885 per student, Vidor ISD – $4,929, Little Cypress-Mauriceville CISD -$ 4,976, Bridge City ISD – $5,082,  and West-Orange Stark ISD- $5,196.

Other area schools such as Port Neches-Groves received $5,409, Nederland – $5,121, High Island – $6,170, Beaumont – $5,610, Hardin-Jefferson -$5,778, Port Arthur – $5,610 and Barber’s Hill – $7,198.

“The goal is an equitable funding system,” King said. “Presently a student is worth a different amount of state money depending on the district they live in.”

If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling, a special session for legislators could be held in the spring of next year.

King said it is important for the public to be informed on what is going on with our states education system.

What is happening now is because of the communication with legislators, King said.

“This is the most important legislation session for education,” he s aid. ‘It’s important legislators know what we want.”