To say the Texas accountability system for schools has problems may be a huge understatement. From questions about whether students are appropriately tested to issues with the A-F grading system to failure of the implementation of the system as a whole, Texas’ school accountability system has its challenges.
While problems inherent to the system abound, efforts to adjust the entire system to fit a specific scenario in the state often only exacerbate the problem. The bill in the 87th Texas Legislature that proposed to do that was Senate Bill 1365.
Sponsored by Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) the bill proposed to enhance the authority of the Texas Education Commissioner to appoint a board of managers to take over a school district, including cases where districts overall accreditation status was not at issue but where one, or more, individual campuses had failed to perform adequately under the A-F accountability system for a number of years.
The background behind the bill is related to the failed attempt of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to take over the Houston Independent School District (HISD) and rulings from court cases resulting from the attempted takeover.
Houston ISD, the largest district in the state, was a B-rated district in the 2018-19 school year with a district grade of 88 and 92% of the district’s 271 campuses earning a passing grade. However, the district had a handful of underperforming campuses. One of those campuses, Wheatley High School, missed making a passing grade by one point due to a change in TEA rules. This meant that as of the 18-19 school year the campus had at least 5 years of poor ratings.
Based on a bill passed during the 85th legislative session which requires the commissioner to either close a campus with five consecutive years of poor performance under the A-F system or appoint a board of managers to take over the school district TEA moved to take over HISD.
However, the district fought back in court. To date, the courts have ruled in HISD’s favor citing, among other things, that TEA failed to correctly adhere to the procedures laid out in law. Additionally, the court ruled that TEA’s authority to sanction under an agency investigation was limited to proscribed violations and procedures under the academic and financial accountability system. This would end TEA’s ability to sanction a district based on board malfeasance that falls outside of the accountability system. The ruling is currently being appealed to the Supreme Court of Texas.
As filed SB 1365 was opposed by nearly all of the public education community, including the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA), the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), four statewide teacher organizations, and the majority of community groups which took a position on the bill.
A similar bill in the House – HB 3270 – was sponsored by the Chairman of the House Public Education Committee, Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston). When the bill was challenged by committee member Rep. Alma Allen, Chairman Dutton told her she had “the right to be wrong.” Dutton removed all question that the bill was aimed at HISD when he told Allen “If this bill passes we are going to see a change in Wheatley.” The bill made it to the floor of the House but was returned to committee when Allen raised a point of order against it.
With HB 3270 effectively blocked, SB 1365 became the vehicle for the accountability plan. It was at that point the bill, which had passed the Senate and was then in the House, was altered with the input of multiple stakeholder groups, including administrators and teachers with the backing of the advocacy group Pastors for Texas Children. As a result the bill underwent substantial changes to rein in the commissioner’s authority as compared to the filed version. The amended bill passed both chambers of the legislature and was sent to the Governor.
A large part of the compromise which allowed SB 1365 to move forward was how the bill re-defined a D rating and its impact within the A-F accountability system. Under the bill an overall rating of D will always be considered a rating of “needs improvement”. However, the section of code which required TEA to impose sanctions on a district or campus that had otherwise received an overall B or C rating but also had a D in a single domain was repealed. Additionally, under the bill, the provision in the law which triggers a mandatory campus closure or district takeover by the agency based on a single campus with five consecutive F ratings will also be triggered by less than five F ratings if for eight consecutive years the campus has had either an F or D rating. This is one more year than the current TEA rule requires. Unrated years will neither be counted toward the five or eight years nor will they break the ratings chain. A rating of C will reset the accountability chain.
The primary purpose of SB 1365 is still to lay out the powers and processes of an agency investigation. The bill re-names “special accreditation investigations” to simply “special investigations”, signaling a potentially broader scope more in keeping with what agency practice in the use of these investigations has been. The final bill removes two proposed changes that many argued would have given the commissioner the ability to investigate, call secret witnesses, and shut down a district without judicial recourse for virtually any reason. Instead, the bill specifies an appeals process for special investigations that involves the district court local to the district under investigation and ensures that districts through the appeals process have access to witness testimony and the ability to depose witnesses. The final version also specifies that interlocutory or intermediate court actions are limited only in chapters where there are specific appeals processes spelled out in the statute.
The bill specifies how prior years and the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years will be treated with regard to accountability ratings. No ratings prior to the 2012-13 school year will be considered in the future. No D ratings prior to the 2018-19 school year will be considered. In the 2020-21 through 2021-22 school years districts receiving an A, B, or C rating may optionally accept that rating. This would allow a campus or district which is currently sanctioned under the accountability system to get out from under those sanctions. Campuses and districts which receive a D or F rating this year or next will receive a “not rated” designation.
As passed, SB 1365 clarifies the TEA investigations process and creates a defined structure for due process, redefines in statute the role of a D in the A-F accountability system, and provides an additional optional pause in accountability ratings for the 20-21 and 21-22 school years.
Even with the changes to SB 1365 the Texas school accountability system still has challenges. In calling for the Speaker of the House to convene an Interim committee to study the system, Pastors for Texas Children stated, “Our present public education accountability and assessment system needs sweeping reform. It is unwieldy, unduly complex, dangerously centralized, unfairly punishes and stigmatizes children, and is vulnerable to interests far removed from the life and health of Texas schoolchildren and the dedicated local classroom teachers who so valiantly serve them.”