Fight Over Education Reforms in Texas to Start Anew

While some believe education reforms passed by the Texas Legislature last year offer the right alternatives for students who may want to go to college or immediately enter a career, there are others who will push to make changes as soon as possible. They'll get their chance over the next few weeks. The Texas House and Senate have scheduled separate hearings for later this month and in April to take testimony on implementation of the sweeping education reforms that were signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry under House Bill 5.

This is a bit of a fight within the family because the business community is not of one mind on this issue. There are those who think the changes went much too far and relaxed standards in a way that will be detrimental to students and the future workforce. Others, specifically those in the construction industry and other fields that need skilled workers, say students will now be afforded a broad range of options that will be mutually beneficial to those students as well as their future employers.

The Texas Association of Business, as you may be aware, was highly disappointed in the way the debate played out in the legislature. The president of the group Bill Hammond has said he'd like to see more standardized tests put back into the law. He also thinks it's unacceptable that so many students are opting for the newly created "foundation graduation plan." The point of setting up that plan, supporters say, is to allow for multiple paths to a high school diploma. Hammond disagrees with it.

“Our goal is to get as many kids as possible to be career or college ready which is basically the same,” Hammond said. He added that because 60 percent of available jobs require postsecondary education, “There’s an enormous skills gap." Hammond pointed to the fact that there are thousands of information technology jobs available in Austin, for example.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said that about 30 to 40 percent of students have been graduating on the minimum plan which he contends doesn't prepare them for a career. Aycock said other students simply drop out when they’re forced to attend classes that they don't see as relevant to their lives. "That leaves about 100,000 students a year who basically are being pushed aside. We've got to do better than that,” Aycock recently told a trade organization conference in Austin. "Unless you're bound for a four-year college, we don't offer you much.”

“We have basically forgotten about the ones who don't want to (go to four-year college),” said Rep. John Otto, R-Otto. "We are not trying to dumb down,” he said. Otto pointed out that in his House district, the Dayton Independent School District responded to the business community’s need for skilled workers by creating a workforce academy that offered after-hours skills training. "Why can't we offer something like that during the regular school day?” The Port of Beaumont has had to import welders from India to the Gulf Coast because “they could not find them in Southeast Texas,” Otto said.

Workers are indeed scarce in the Houston area and elsewhere.

Jan Maly is the head of a specialty contractor who told NPR "My father used to tell me, 'You gotta go to school [or] you'll be a ditch digger,' well, right now we need ditch diggers." Maly said competition for local workers is reaching a fever pitch, in part because Exxon Mobil is building a massive new headquarters in the Houston area. It costs Maly's company $10,000 to train each new worker, and frequently, when labor is short, he worries that others are going to "try to steal our folks."

The Texas House Public Education Committee will take testimony on how things are going with HB 5 implementation on March 26 and the Senate’s Education Committee will do the same on April 14.


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