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Two Big Education Bills Gain Approval from Texas Legislature

House and Senate members exchanged high fives and congratulations Sunday night, as they approved  conference committee reports on two bills impacting public education across Texas.

One bill increases the cap on charter schools, while the other reduces the number of end-of-course exams in public high schools.

Both bills are now heading to Gov. Rick Perry's desk for his signature.

Senate Bill 2expands the number of state contracts for charter schools in the state from 215 to 305 by 2019. House members passed it, 105 to 41. 

Supporters say it will also ensure that poor-performing charter schools will be shut down. 

"And we have some poor performers out there, let's be honest about it," State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said on the Senate floor Sunday night.  "If they've been poor performers for three years, they're gone. That's been something that’s been a problem in the charter community for quite some time."

The bill also allows school districts to open a limited number of charter schools within the district without the need for an outside partner. Currently, if a school district wants to open an in-district charter, it must contract with an outside partner to run the school.

"I think it’s better to take those poor-performing schools and give them the tools the need to let the local guys operate under charter rules than to take it completely away from the district,” Sen. Hancock said.

Some teachers groups have raised concerns recently about the language allowing districts to create in-district charter schools. Special education charters would not be part of the cap. 

The second bill,House Bill 5, would reduce the number of end-of-course exams from 15 to five. Students would be tested in English I and II, Algebra I, Biology, and U.S. History. 

The first time it came up in the House earlier this session, State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, voted against it. But he’s changed his mind because it doesn’t eliminate standardized testing.

“I’m going to support it today,” he said, getting applause. “I understand the political pressure and the unpopularity of standardized testing in Texas schools. But I also want to make sure all of us understand the role testing has played in Texas public education over the last 20 years.

He talked about the achievement gap that these tests have closed among Anglo, African American and Hispanic students.

“As we increase student achievement, especially among poor students, more of them take the SAT,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of progress over the last 20 years. That progress wasn’t because we we’re spending more per pupil than other states. I would argue that the problem with testing in Texas is the stakes we attached to those tests, which created a culture of testing rather than learning.”

The Senate passed it unanimously.

"By the elimination of 15 [tests] to 5…that could save 40 or more days of testing, give teachers more time to teach, be innovative and creative," said State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who chairs the Senate Public Education Committee.

The bill also allows high school students to choose from five paths to graduation, including STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), public service or business and industry.

“I understand Mark Strama’s concerns about testing, and I certainly don’t want to move away from testing. But testing has been over done,” said State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen. “Too much of a good thing is not a good thing.”

House members agreed with him. The measure passed 147-0. 

KUT's Veronica Zaragovia contributed to this report.