AUSTIN -- With the stroke of a pen, or in Monday's case several pens, Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) made official one of the largest overhauls of public education in years.
"These bills will mean more opportunities and more flexibility for Texas students," Perry announced before signing into law House Bills 5, 809, 842, 2201 and 3662, as well as Senate Bill 441.
Joining the governor were Texas high school students, lawmakers who helped craft the legislation, and state officials including Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Michael Williams, Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes and Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) Chairman Andres Alcantar.
Among the six bills signed Monday, SB 441 creates the Texas Fast Start Program, a workforce readiness initiative aimed to prepare more high school students to quickly enter the workforce through beefed up Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. A separate bill, HB 2201 requires the State Board of Education (SBOE) to approve at least six new advanced CTE courses to satisfy a fourth credit in mathematics required for graduation.
Authored by state Rep. John Davis (R-Houston), HB 809 requires TWC to provide the TEA with "information at least each quarter regarding current and projected employment opportunities in this state," for the TEA to distribute to school districts for use in planning and implementation of CTE programs.
State Rep. Travis Clardy's (R-Nacogdoches) HB 3662 creates the Texas Workforce Innovation Needs Program, designed to encourage selected school districts and colleges to work together to design programs aimed to "prepare students for careers for which there is demand in this state."
Authored by state Rep. Cecil Bell Jr. (R-Magnolia), HB 842 allows schools to offer courses which provide CTE students college credits while working towards an industry recognized credential, certificate or associate degree.
Authored by state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), HB 5 drew the loudest applause upon signing. The omnibus education reform bill includes elements reducing the required number of end of course exams from 15 to five, allowing incoming high school freshmen two select one of four "endorsement" tracks on which to focus their studies, and instituting a new accountability system.
"There's wasn't any actual teaching. It was just test," Ballinger High School junior Jack Buxkemper told KVUE Monday. Buxkemper was present at the signing ceremony with his mother Laura, a middle school teacher. Both say the changes are long overdue.
"It's been too many tests," said Laura Buxkemper. "We lose too many days. If you count our district calendar days, we have over 42 testing days combined. That's just too many when you only have 172 days with students."
Also present for the signing was Spring Branch ISD junior Macala Carroll, who testified before the Senate Education Committee back in February.
"I told them that they should talk to us and not about us, and that this test shouldn't just our whole life and our whole goals and dreams," said Carroll. With fewer tests to worry about, Carroll says students can now focus on more long-term goals. "Get ready to prepare myself for the actual future and not worry about a test and if this test is going to make or break my future."
"You learn now," said Jack Buxkemper. "You take what you're taught that was for a test and now you can actually apply it to real world situations."
Among those who expressed concern early on over how HB 5 may affect academic rigor, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte said changes made by the conference committee resulted in a bill that reformed the testing load without compromising academic standards.
"I think that what has happened is that we had a system that was very constrictive and stoic," explained Van de Putte. "Now we've got one that's not high risk. It's high rigor and it's really flexible for students."
"The next step is implementation. That'll be a long, drawn out process," said Aycock, author of HB 5 and chairman of the House Public Education Committee. "It won't happen quickly. We've been systematically dismantling career and technology operations for many years, and it will now take several years to reestablish some of those offerings back to students."
"Schools will have to develop a plan to offer the courses best suited for their areas," explained Aycock. "The state board has to get busy and develop courses. Lots of things have to fall in place."
"In the short-term, work to transition and implement the requirements of House Bill 5 is under way at the Texas Education Agency," TEA Commissioner Williams said in a statement Monday. "While my staff has already been delving into those issues, we do not yet have answers to every question. However, I anticipate formally announcing the details as quickly as possible as I continue to hear from my staff, superintendents, educators and parents on the various issues important to assuring a smooth transition."
Students entering their freshman year of high school this fall will be given the option to enroll under the old system or choose an endorsement under the new graduation requirements created by HB 5. The changes made in HB 5 will be permanent beginning with the freshman class of 2014. Meanwhile, lawmakers, interest groups and business organizations from around the state are speaking out in support of the changes.
"The Austin Chamber looks forward to working with Central Texas school Trustees to adopt policies which will prepare more of our children for college and good jobs," Austin Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President for Education Drew Scheberle said in a statement. "We can continue to place all our students, regardless of economic circumstances, on a course of study which will prepare them. We can and will help those students who didn’t learn important math and science concepts the first time. We can and will ensure that our schools are organized for college/career readiness."
"That workforce is so very important to the business," said Joe Arnold, Workforce Committee Chairman with the Texas Association of Manufacturers. "It's more important than incentives in a lot of cases. If you don't have the people that can come in on the ground and build your facility and then maintain and run your facility, then you can't come here and you can't do business in Texas."
The passage of HB 5 and other legislation could potentially influence the state's ongoing lawsuit over school finance. Last week, District Judge John Dietz gave parties until June 19 to analyze the potential bearing the actions of the 83rd Texas Legislature may have on the lawsuit. With an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court still expected following the district court's ruling, the process could push legislative action on funding formulas to the next regular session.
"I think that's a possibility. I think we'll see what Judge Dietz says first, of course," said Aycock. "There's been additional money added back in, that helps. That money was added in in a way that helps the inequity portion of the suit, so we think that's helpful."