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The Senate Education Committee met March 25 and heard testimony on the following bills.

Sen. Kel Seliger laid out SB 289, which would allow a school to excuse a student absence one time only if the student can prove the absence was due to obtaining a driver’s license or learner’s permit. The bill carries no fiscal note and is not mandatory for districts. No testimony was given and the bill was left pending.

Sen. Angela Paxton laid out SB 226, which would require individuals seeking teaching certificates to receive instruction in virtual learning and virtual instruction, including best practices for grading students receiving virtual instruction based on academic progress and developing virtual learning curriculum that includes synchronous and asynchronous virtual instruction. Paxton clarified that the requirements of this bill are not the same as requirements already in statute that are focused on teachers learning basic computer skills but rather the intent is to better equip teachers to teach students remotely. Committee members expressed concerns about the widespread use of virtual learning in place of in-person instruction but were supportive of the bill. Dr. Chris Bigenho, director of virtual learning for Lewisville ISD, was supportive of the bill’s focus on pedagogical practice. The bill was left pending.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt laid out CSSB 1365. The substitute bill was essentially filed to close loopholes in HB 1842 (2015) on “school turnaround” that resulted in the courts overruling the commissioner of education’s decision to replace the Houston ISD school board with an appointed board of managers. Bob Harvey, president/CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, testified in support of the substitute. Sen. Menendez pointed out that the bill would give the commissioner “final and unappealable” authority and that the bill would be an “overcorrection” that could affect districts statewide. Sen. Larry Taylor said that the bill language should be worked on to find a balance to unappealable power. Bettencourt agreed to working on another substitute, and Sen. West offered his assistance. The substitute was ultimately pulled from consideration to correct a clerical error and the original bill was left pending.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst laid out CSSB 481, which she said was filed in preparation for another pandemic or catastrophic event. The bill would allow for one-time transfer of a student out of a school district that has provided notice that it intends to provide only virtual instruction for more than one grading period. The substitute clarifies that the receiving district must agree to receive that student and that the intent of the bill is for transfers for longer periods of time. One parent testified in support of the bill, which was left pending.

Sen. Charles Schwertner laid out SB 203, which would require the UIL to create a “transparent and fair” bidding process for selecting UIL statewide championship locations. Discussion ensued about equity issues with transportation and accessibility to host sites in far corners of the state. Jamie Harrison, UIL deputy executive director, testified as a resource witness on the bill. He said that state championships are already held around the state, depending on sport, and while there is not a selection process in statute, the UIL does have a process they use to determine which location is best. Barry Haenisch, executive director of TACS, also testified on the bill, stating that the UIL has a long history of making student-centered decisions. He asked the committee to consider unintended consequences of the bill, which was left pending.

Sen. Larry Taylor laid out CSSB 1171, relating to the electronic administration of assessment instruments in public schools and to certain measures to support Internet connectivity for purposes of those assessment instruments. Taylor said that the bill was filed to ensure that the measures begun by HB 3906 (2019), which sunsets, keep moving forward. The bill allows TIMA funds to be used for certain technology, extends a grant program window by two years to 2025, and specifies that no more than 75% of points allowed on a statewide assessment can be multiple choice. Taylor said he was continuing to work on the bill to lower the fiscal note. The bill was left pending.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt laid out SB 28, relating to the approval of open-enrollment charter schools and the applicability of certain state and local laws to open-enrollment charter schools. He said that the bill would solve the issue of “preposterous requests” related to zoning from local communities that prevent charters from opening and that it removes SBOE veto power of charter applications. Several committee members expressed concerns about taking authority from an elected board and granting it to a single person (the commissioner of education).

SBOE member Tom Maynard testified on the bill. He said that, in the life of a charter school, the application process is the only point at which an elected body is involved in a public meeting. He said this bill would further limit the SBOE’s role in charter approval by limiting the board to hearing appeals to the commissioner’s decisions only. Discussion ensued about the numbers of charter applications approved and vetoed over the past eight years. Out of about 200 applications, the commissioner has approved 41, or about 18%. Of those, the SBOE is allowing about 85% to go through, vetoing 7 in the past eight years. Sen. Menendez pointed out that while there were 41 new charters approved, each one can have multiple campuses. Sen. West asked Maynard how the process could be improved. Maynard said that providing the SBOE with reasons/criteria by which the board should not approve a charter would be helpful, as would more data, such as numbers of students on charter waitlists, etc.

Frisco ISD Superintendent Mike Waldrip testified against SB 28, as did Dr. Jamie Wilson, Denton ISD superintendent, who testified against the bill on behalf of TASA. He expressed concern that the bill would remove the SBOE’s veto power, stating that the only way a community member can give feedback on a new charter is through their SBOE member. He also expressed concern that the bill would limit the ability of local elected officials to protect their neighborhoods. Fourteen educational organizations united with similar concerns about the bill.

Many others testified for and against the bill. Bettencourt mentioned the possibility of working on a substitute bill that would retain SBOE’s veto power but change it from a majority to a supermajority vote. The bill was left pending.

The committee voted on the following bills, on which testimony was heard on March 18:

CSSB 179 by Powell. A substitute bill was voted out of committee 8-1 that differs from the bill as filed in that it does not include a provision requiring TEA to assess compliance that gave the bill a fiscal note. Instead, the bill simply requires districts to provide requested information, allowing for implementation with existing TEA resources. The substitute also does not require districts to interview counselors.

SB 204 by Perry with a 9-1 vote. This bill would allow a school board and a board of county school trustees to establish and operate a public school transportation system and would remove the requirement that the county or school district enter into an interlocal contract before offering the transportation to students living outside the county or school district.

SB 338 by Powell with a 10-0 vote. The bill would allow a school district to adopt uniform general conditions that would be included in all the district’s building construction contracts. It would also add a representative of TASB and a representative of TASA (appointed by the Facilities Commission) to the committee that periodically reviews the uniform general conditions of state building construction contracts.

CSSB 442 by Sen. Bryan Hughes with an 8-2 vote. The substitute version voted out of committee, related to local school health advisory councils and health education provided by school districts, would allow parents to see curriculum under consideration for reasons of “transparency and parental involvement.”