Texas Senate votes to ease student transfers out of low-performing schools

By TERRENCE STUTZ Published: 01 May 2013 10:23 PM

AUSTIN — Texas’ annual list of the worst public schools would have new meaning for students under a bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday that would make it easier for them to transfer to another school.

The legislation by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, would provide transportation funding for the first time in the Public Education Grant program, created to allow students to transfer out of low-performing public schools. Students can switch to another campus in either their district or a neighboring one.

West said the program has been hampered by lack of transportation options for students who wish to change schools.

The bill was passed on a 29-2 vote and sent to the House.

This year, the Texas Education Agency reported that students at 456 campuses — including 35 in the Dallas school district — were eligible for the program because their schools had low test scores or “unacceptable” ratings from the state. In all, nearly 300,000 students were eligible to attend another school.

But only a small percentage of those switched to a school in a neighboring district. State officials have blamed the low participation on lack of transportation and the fact that districts are not required to accept students from other districts.

“I am not down on public schools,” West said, “but hopefully this program will give these low-achievement campuses more incentive to provide a quality education so their students won’t leave.”

He said Senate leaders agreed to provide nearly $2.2 million over the next two years to pay for transportation. That amount is expected to increase in future years.

Senate Democrats have vigorously opposed GOP-backed bills that would let students at low-performing campuses transfer to private and religious schools at state expense. They argue that the Public Education Grant program and options such as charter and magnet schools offer parents and students school choice without diverting tax funds to private schools.

Schools on the grant list this year had to have 50 percent or more of their students fail Texas’ student achievement exams — either the STAAR or TAKS — in two of the last three years or an “academically unacceptable” rating over the last three years.

Some school districts and campuses avoided the list this year because the state issued no performance ratings in 2012. Ratings were suspended as the state launched the new STAAR testing program and prepared for a new school accountability system.

Districts that accept students from neighboring districts under the PEG program receive an extra 10 percent in per pupil funding for those students.

The worst schools in Texas could be placed in a special statewide school district to help turn those campuses around under legislation approved by the Senate on Wednesday.

The measure by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, would establish the Texas Achievement School District to operate schools that have been rated low-performing for two consecutive years. The campuses would be removed from the jurisdiction of their regular school districts and placed in the new district by the state education commissioner, who would also appoint the superintendent.

West emphasized that low-performing schools would not have to be moved, calling it one of several options. He would cap the number of campuses under state management at 15. The superintendent would have a range of options, including replacing staff or contracting with an alternative management group. The campus would return to its regular school district once student performance was back on track.

The bill passed on a 26-5 vote and now heads to the House.

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