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Here's A Preview Of Education Issues Texas Lawmakers Could Tackle This Session

John Koetsier

The 2017 Legislative session kicks off next week. Among the many topics sure to spark debate is education. KERA looks ahead to several of the education issues Texas lawmakers will tackle when they meet.

Pre-K was at the top of the Legislative agenda two years ago when Gov. Greg Abbott pushed a plan to give districts and charter schools $118 million in grants.

Early childhood advocates like Libby McCabe wants to keep pre-K on the front burner. McCabe is director of advocacy at the education nonprofit Commit! Partnership in Dallas.

“We want high-quality full day pre-K, but we know that given the current budget and the political climate that that’s a real long shot,” McCabe said. “And so while we want to keep talking about it and keep the pressure on, our number one priority is to continue the high-quality pre-K grant funding that was the Governor’s number one legislative priority last session.”

The state funds half day pre-K for low-income students. Some districts like San Antonio and Fort Worth offer full-day pre-K.

McCabe said pre-K pays off and points to research that shows Dallas kids in pre-K are twice as likely to be kindergarten-ready than other students. And if you’re kindergarten ready, she said, you’re three times more likely to be reading on grade level by third grade.

“Reading on grade level is really the Holy Grail because in third grade there’s a major shift in school, from learning to read to reading to learn,” McCabe said. “And so if you aren’t a proficient reader by third grade, you’re four times more likely to drop out.”

When lawmakers meet in Austin, one sure buzzword will be “school choice.” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been a vocal advocate.

“What right do we have to tell a poor parent where their child is sentenced to a failing school year after year after year that they must send their child to that school?” Patrick said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

If President-Elect Donald Trump has his way, the country’s next education secretary will be a vocal school choice advocate – Betsy DeVos.

All that worries Bob Sanborn of the nonprofit Children at Risk. He sees “school choice” as code words for vouchers that would let parents use tax dollars to enroll their kids in public or private school."

“The fact of the matter is that private schools in the state of Texas don’t have the room to just take any poor kid that wants to go to one of these schools.”

Gary Godsey, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, thinks the “choice” movement will drain money from public schools.

“It’s taking public tax dollars and redirecting them to private institutions,” Godsey said. "And we are vehemently opposed to taking those public tax dollars, taking them out of the public education arena and putting them into private schools.”

One of the most-talked education issue in Texas over the last few months is special education.

An investigation by the Houston Chronicle showed the Texas Education Agency had capped the enrollment of students in special ed to 8.5 percent – a stark contrast to the national average of 13 percent. TEA officials denied this and federal officials are investigating.

Stephen Aleman, an attorney who handles education policy issues for Disability Rights Texas, says several bills have been filed in response.

“These bills are very straightforward and very simple,” Aleman said. “They direct through changes in the Texas education code that the Texas education agency no longer have a policy or program that tries to discourage school districts to limit students’ access to special education services.”

That’s not the only topic parents of special ed kids have a stake in. Aleman expects the Legislature to tweak rules passed last session that allowed video monitoring of some special ed classrooms.

After lawmakers begin the new session, there’s bound to be plenty of debate on a range of other education issues from bathroom bills to sanctuary campuses.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.