William McKenzie: Perry could help students with strategic vetoes of education bills

William McKenzie wmckenzie@dallasnews.com
Published: 03 June 2013 10:48 PM
Updated: 03 June 2013 10:51 PM

Rick Perry faces a predicament.

Does the governor veto a batch of education bills that will reverse the state’s longstanding efforts to measure students and schools as well as raise education standards? Does he veto them selectively? Or does he veto them not at all?

For several policy reasons, he should veto HB 5, HB 866 and HB 2824. Those are the most important education bills coming to his desk.

HB 5 would reduce from 15 to five the number of high school end-of-course exams students must take. The proposal also would make it easier to graduate without the current four years of math, science, social studies and English. HB 866 would allow some students to skip annual testing in reading and math in some grades. HB 2824 would allow some districts to no longer give some of the state’s tests in grades three through eight.

Being the politician that he is, my hunch is Perry does not veto HB 5 outright. It is the main anti-testing bill. It has passionate support from suburban parents, some of whom urged him Monday to sign the measure. They also are key voters, and I don’t see him crossing them completely on such a visceral issue.

But he could veto HB 5 on narrow grounds, such as requiring legislators to revisit in special session the type of tests HB 5 reduces. He could send it back with guidelines for requiring fewer tests but making sure those few tests include state exams in key subjects.

For example, he could request that HB 5 require end-of-course tests in Algebra II and English III. They matter because they are seen as good predictors of a student’s readiness to do college work.

He also could send it back with instructions about improving applied math and science courses in high school. HB 5 would allow math and science courses that are aimed at trade jobs. Perry could say let’s make sure Texas has the best type of applied math and science courses in the nation.

HB 866 and HB 2824 are different matters. Perry has plenty of room to veto them outright.

HB 866 would require the governor to ask Washington for a waiver from testing in reading and math in grades three through eight. Testing in those grades is the backbone of No Child Left Behind. Despite that law’s bad press, the Obama administration has never let up on testing in those subjects in those grades.

Why should states let up on testing students in reading and math in elementary and middle school?

Don’t most parents want to know whether their kids are advancing in reading and math year over year? Don’t they want to receive each year the kind of detailed information that the state provides parents about their children’s work on STAAR tests? That includes their high-achieving children, whom HB 866 would exempt from some annual reading and math tests in grades three through eight.

The worry about HB 2824 is that the bill would exempt high-performing districts from some tests, but not all the 20-odd high-performing districts seeking exemptions are actually high-performing.

Some of them had well below half of their high school students scoring at the college-ready level on the last TAKS exam for English and math. That was the last official testing data from the state. It makes you wonder why the state should exempt districts from some tests when their high school students are not learning in a way that shows they are ready for college.

Yes, we should hope that most kids shoot for college. There is plenty of push-back about getting kids ready for it, but students with college degrees are much more likely to survive tough economic times.

Perry has good reasons to take out his veto pen for these last two bills. It wouldn’t surprise me if he does. If he’s smart, he will veto HB 5 on narrow grounds. That way, he can compromise with those who want to change testing and still preserve academic rigor.

Dallas Morning News columnist William McKenzie can be reached at wmckenzie@ dallasnews.com. He moderates the Texas Faith blog at dallasnews.com/texasfaith and contributes to dallas news.com’s Education Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @bill_mckenzie.

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