State lawmakers advance option for failing schools

By Michael Brick
Associated Press

AUSTIN — The Texas Senate approved a new option for troubled schools on Wednesday, advancing a bill that would create a special district operated by turnaround specialists.

“I think this is the right thing to do for the children that are trapped in low-performing schools,” said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, author of the bill.

Drawing key support across the political aisle from Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the bill passed 26-5. It still must clear the House.

Under current law, the state education commissioner can prescribe sanctions for schools with low test scores.

They range from staff changes to closure, growing stronger with each consecutive year of low scores.

The bill would allow the commissioner to transfer a school into the new statewide “achievement district” for rigorous overhaul after two consecutive years of low scores.

Asked during a debate how many schools might join the program, Sen. West said about 15 would be eligible based on the most recent ratings. But he stressed that the bill would merely create another option.

The decision would fall to Education Commissioner Michael Williams, who has pledged to hold schools more accountable for the performance of minority students and students from poor families.

He is working on changes to the system for rating schools.

Some Republicans cast the bill as a troublesomely bold move at a time of upheaval in the state accountability system.

Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, argued that it would artificially raise the ratings of school districts relieved of low-performing schools.

But Sen. Patrick called it “an important bill to address those schools that have been perennial failures.”

The proposal, modeled on a system implemented in states including Tennessee, was amended to specify that local property tax funds would remain with the local district.

Asked during the debate how his plan would improve on the current system, Sen. West said, “If you close a school in a community, you pretty much leave a devastated community.”