AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Senate on Monday unanimously approved its version of a major high school curriculum overhaul, reducing the number of standardized tests students must pass to graduate from a nation-leading 15 to five while allowing some to earn diplomas without taking upper-level math courses such as Algebra II.
The proposal approved in the upper chamber is similar to that passed overwhelmingly in the House in March. They come amid a stinging backlash against perceived over-testing by students, parents, teachers and school administrators. Critics worry, however, that Texas is retreating from the kind of tough classroom standards that helped push its students to make academic gains in recent decades.
Both versions will now have to be reconciled in conference committee.
The original curriculum bill, sponsored by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican who chairs the House Public Education Committee, is designed to give more flexibility to students who want to focus on vocational training that would better prepare them for high-paying jobs that don't require a college degree.
It would require passing state-mandated exams only in English reading and writing, Algebra I, biology and U.S. history. The Senate version also mandates just five exams in core subjects.
The House bill allowed students to earn a new base or "foundation" diploma to avoid taking Algebra II or other tough math and science classes, giving them more freedom to take career-oriented electives. The Senate proposal would require more students to take Algebra II and other tough courses but would also offer a "business and industry" course track, and other diploma options, letting youngsters avoid taking the hardest math classes.
But it also requires four years of math and science, including upper-level courses, if students want to qualify for automatic admission to any public university in Texas — a distinction those currently graduating in the top 10 percent of their classes already earn now.
Texas' 15 state-mandated exams are more than any other state. But the rollback has been cheered by education groups, which argue that standardized tests are too high-stakes and have too many accountability consequences for teachers, students and school districts.
Some business groups claim the efforts will water down curriculum and leave high school graduates ill-prepared for the workforce of the future. But Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican who is the Senate sponsor of Aycock's bill, said he had a letter from 300,000 businesses that support the bill.
"This will be, I believe at the end of the day, the most rigorous, the most flexible plan for the 5 million public school students of Texas in the country," Patrick said. "It is not a step down in rigor."
Higher education leaders are skeptical, though, pointing to studies that show a correlation between being able to pass Algebra II and succeeding in college and beyond.
The Senate on Monday also approved a new accountability rating system that replaces the current regimen ranking schools and districts from "exemplary" to "academically unacceptable." Instead, school districts would be issued letter grades A through F, which proponents say are easier for parents and the community as large to understand. Schools would continue to be ranked using the old system.
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has already announced plans to begin rating both schools and districts using letter grades next year, but the Senate proposal would alter those efforts. Dallas Democratic Sen. Royce West has said rating schools 'F' could hurt property values in low-income neighborhoods.
He and Patrick vowed to keep the modified accountability scale in the curriculum bill through conference committee and expect the House to support that effort.
Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, tried unsuccessfully to require more students to take more-demanding math and science, saying she didn't believe that the new, curriculum standards were "as rigorous as what we have now."
Van De Putte said that she has heard from education professionals who said they worried that many poor or minority students in her district couldn't handle Algebra II and other tough math courses.
BILL WOULD BAN WORKING WITH FEDS ON NEW GUN LAWS
The Texas House gave final approval on Monday to a slew of gun laws designed to protect 2nd Amendment rights, and gave provisional passage to one that would ban state and local police from working with federal authorities on new gun control regulations.
The most contentious measure would allow Texas college students to carry firearms on campus. The bill would allow students who are 21 or older and have a concealed weapons permit to bring their handguns to class unless a university chooses to forbid what has become known as "campus carry."
Emotions flared over a similar proposal in 2011 before it was ultimately defeated. Under the bill carried by Republican state Rep. Allen Fletcher, colleges and universities can still choose to prohibit guns. But a student caught with one on campus would not be breaking the law. The House on Monday easily gave final approval to this latest attempt by a 102-41 vote.
The House also overwhelmingly approved a bill that attracted national attention when it was introduced by first-term tea party Republican Rep. Steve Toth of The Woodlands. It would nullify within state borders any federal laws banning assault weapons or high-capacity magazines, or expansion of background checks for firearms owners — even though doing so would almost certainly violate the U.S. Constitution.
Another bill would punish by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine police officers or government officials who try to enforce federal firearms limits in Texas. The House also passed a measure reducing penalties for permit holders who accidentally show a concealed handgun.
A separate measure that passed 136-0 reduced concealed handgun license fee for police officers, military veterans, national and state Guard members and even some Criminal Justice Department employees from $70 to $25, despite costing the state up to $2 million in lost revenues.
All of the bills now move to the Senate for a vote, with some more likely to get final approval than others.
Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, introduced another bill Monday that would only ban local and state police from working in support of federal authorities to enforce laws that do not also exist in state law. If a police department helps a federal agency enforce a gun law not approved by the state Legislature, then the local authorities would lose their state funding.
"We're not going to enforce gun laws that we don't think are in the best interest of the state of Texas," Krause said. "We are only dealing with a narrow universe where federal official are trying to deputize state and local officers to enforce federal laws that are not part of the law of Texas."
Opponents said it would put local, county and state law enforcement in a difficult position of choosing between lending assistance to federal agencies and receiving state money. The House gave that bill preliminary approval on a voice vote.
HOUSE BILL WOULD TWEAK NAME OF PERRY'S TECH FUND
A signature program of Gov. Rick Perry that Texas lawmakers are newly scrutinizing is now being considered for a possible name change.
The Texas Emerging Technology Fund has doled out more than $184 million to private companies since 2005. The balance of taxpayer dollars in the program is dwindling and budget-writers so far have set aside Perry's request to replenish the fund with more money.
The House on Monday gave tentative approval to a measure renaming the program the Texas Research Technology Fund. Republican state Rep. John Davis says the new name would more accurately reflect the research that goes on between fund recipients and state universities.
Perry's other main economic development program, the Texas Enterprise Fund, would receive its first state audit under a bill passed by the Senate.
SOME CIGARETTE PRICES WOULD CLIMB UNDER HOUSE BILL
State taxes on chewing tobacco would drop by more than 30 percent but the price of cigarettes would climb for some brands under a bill given tentative approval in the Texas House.
The measure passed Monday mandates that smaller cigarette brands not included in a 1998 settlement among big tobacco companies begin charging an extra 55 cent per pack like the major competitors.
Republican state Rep. John Otto said the bill is about fairness. Tobacco manufacturers that are part of the settlement pay about $500 million annually to the state. Supporters say companies that weren't around when the settlement was struck have increased market share to around 8 percent.
Taxes on a can of chewing tobacco would drop from $1.22 to 80 cents under the proposal.
TEXAS HOUSE OK'S 'CHELSEA'S LAW' FOR RAPE VICTIMS
Texas would adopt a version of California's 'Chelsea's Law' that mandates life in prison for certain sexual assault convictions under a bill given tentative approval in the House.
The law is named for San Diego teenager Chelsea King who was killed in 2010. King was out for a run in a state park when she was raped and killed by a 31-year-old convicted child molester.
Then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Chelsea's Law just seven months later. The Texas House on Monday gave swift preliminary approval to a Texas version without debate.
Under the Texas version, a "one strike" rule would be imposed for suspects 18 and older who are convicted of sexually assaulting a child while also binding, torturing or using a weapon against their victim.
HOUSE APPROVES LEGALIZING SWITCHBLADES
Switchblades could soon be legal in Texas following a vote in the Texas House of Representatives.
Lawmakers approved the bill on Monday without discussion and on a voice vote.
The measure's author, Houston Democrat Harold Dutton, had originally said he wanted to start a debate on weapons laws, including gun control. The knives were outlawed as an anti-gang measure in the 1950s.
But knife collectors and conservative Republicans embraced the measure, and it faced no opposition. The law must now pass a procedural vote and then will go to the Senate for final approval.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"This session, I've really done my best at listening. For a talker that's hard." — Dan Patrick on amending his original plan to rate schools and school districts on an A through F scale, and instead backing a bill that only gives letter grades to districts.