Recently in the Texas capitol we heard important discussions about the future of education in Texas. The discussions came during hearings of the Senate committees on Education and Higher Education (April 14 and 15, respectively). Those committees were not the only ones meeting recently. In the Senate, we also heard from the committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security (April 7) and Veterans Affairs and Military Installations (April 15).
Numerous committees also met in the House. When these committees meet they discuss what are called interim charges – the areas of study between sessions that informs some of the large debates that take place during the sessions. These meetings will continue. Among the meetings this spring were Senate committees on Criminal Justice, Jurisprudence and Government Organization, all of which I am a member. Over the rest of the spring and summer we will prepare bill concepts and move those toward actual bill drafts, something that will accelerate toward the fall prior to session.
Testing education A major topic in the two education committees was HB 5, an experiment that will have long-lasting implications on the future of education in Texas. The Higher Education Committee also heard testimony on Closing the Gaps, a strategic plan aimed at increasing student higher education participation and success while spurring excellence and research.
The major impetus for HB 5 was parental engagement because of the widespread opinion – one that I share – that testing had overtaken teaching as the priority for schools. Last week we heard that high stakes testing remains a concern. Parents described: • Stressed out children in all grades – from fourth grade to high school – struggling with such high stakes tests as a five-hour writing exam.
• Students dropping out after repeatedly failing.
• Problems with time constraints.
• Excessive field questions.
We also heard testimony about paying testing giant Pearson more than $10.5 million a year to design a modified STAAR exam that failed to meet federal standards and had to be scrapped. Meanwhile, even with TEA lowering the standards so that a student need only answer 35 percent of the questions correctly, a quarter of the students are still not passing end of course STAAR testing and not on track to graduate. The passage rates for english language learners and lowincome students are much worse.
Further, we have a statewide average counselor-to-student ratio of 450:1, far more than the American School Counselor Association-recommended ratio of 250:1. Even that still seems high considering many counselors are asked to administer tests, inform students on college admissions, provide mental health support, and address a whole host of other issues including abuse, teen pregnancy, and bullying. All of this connects to Closing the Gaps. While we’ve made progress, we have not closed the gaps. Latino enrollment as of 2012 was at 86 percent of the target set for that year. If we expect to reduce gaps between minorities and Anglos and prepare the next generation of Latinos for leadership and the labor force, it must start with K-8.
We need rigor that keeps the pathway to college open, not a series of high stakes testing with a shortage of remediation funding to actually educate the students who fail the test. Testing works best when it is used to fix the problems, not when it is used to create obstacles for future education. This message was re-enforced recently by EPISD-PTA parents, who invited me to speak at their meeting. This was one of many district meetings in which I’ve been able to discuss education; in the coming weeks, I will be fortunate enough to speak in front of hundreds of District 29 students about the importance of persevering so they can make the most of their educational opportunities.
Border security One of my questions to those who see our community within the framework of “border security” has been: “When will you consider the border ‘secured’?” That question requires metrics for defining security, and hard data on criminal activity that would indicate a severe border-wide problem. While there are specific “hot-spots” of activity along the border, there is no evidence it poses the kind of threat that warrants the current build-up of federal forces, let alone putting ever-larger amounts of state funding into DPS and other state agencies. Unfortunately, while we did not hear enough data to support those policies, we did hear plenty of tired sensationalism about the border. In response, after the hearing I issued this statement: Among the comments we heard today, more than once, witnesses inaccurately referred to the border as a “war zone.”
Although there are localized “hot spots” along parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, this is a vast and diverse region with millions of residents and, in no way, can it be characterized as a ‘war zone.’ As shown by FBI Uniform Crime statistics, El Paso is safer than any other large city in Texas. In addition, police data show border communities are safer than other Texas cities. On the issue of sanctuary cities, not one law enforcement official testified in support of allowing local police or deputies to get involved in the business of enforcing federal immigration laws. Our border communities present opportunities, not threats, to Texas. In fact, trade and commerce with Mexico supports more than 450,000 jobs in Texas, nearly 100,000 of them in El Paso alone. VAMI Last session, I supported a number of bills that dealt with facilitating veterans’ transition back into civilian life by allowing them to apply training and experience
gained in the military to obtain certain occupational licenses. During the hearing, we heard encouraging testimony about the effectiveness of existing programs and the need for more. In all cases, public engagement helps move the public process along. It really makes a difference when constituents show up, whether at a committee hearing or at a district breakfast meeting. As stated above, the work of conceiving and crafting legislation is ongoing. It will pick up speed during the summer and fall, and now is the time to begin putting forth your ideas! As always, I urge you to contact my offi ce with your ideas for making District 29 and Texas work better for all of us. You can email ideas to my offi ce at Jose. Rodriguez@Senate.State.TX.US.