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Austin Legislative Update for February 6

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) _ A powerful Texas lawmaker introduced a proposal Wednesday that would overhaul how the state’s public schools are rated and the number of tests required to graduate high school while allowing for specialized diplomas.

The changes proposed by state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, include many of those championed by Education Commissioner Michael Williams and answers complaints from parents about a new standardized testing regimen that includes 15 exams to graduate. Other lawmakers have introduced measures in the Texas Legislature to make some of the same changes, but the scope of House Bill 5 and Aycock’s role as chairman of the Public Education Committee make it the most far-reaching and important bill yet.

Students would only need to take end-of-course exams in English, algebra, U.S. history and biology to graduate high school, and the tests would no longer count as 15 percent of a student’s grade. Students may also use satisfactory scores on advanced placement tests, the SAT or ACT college entrancement exams to satisfy graduation requirements.

House Bill 5 would also allow high school students to earn special endorsements on their diplomas in science and technology, business and industry, arts and humanities as well as public service after satisfying certain core requirements.

But those core requirements would be reduced so that Algebra II and English Language Arts III are no longer required to graduate.

Lastly, the bill would overhaul how public schools are rated and assign each a grade ranging from A to F. The new accountability system would expand beyond just test scores to include financial performance and community and student engagement. Currently, schools are rated on test scores as exemplary, recognized, academically acceptable and academically unacceptable.

“This bill gives students more options and educators more flexibility,” Aycock said in a statement. “Students will be better prepared to continue their education after high school or begin promising careers in cutting-edge fields. Students will have more freedom to select courses that reflect their interests and talents.”

In 2011, Texas schools implemented a new standardized testing system called the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR. The end-of-course exams are intended to determine if students learned the assigned material. To encourage them to take it seriously, lawmakers made the test results worth 15 percent of the student’s grade.

The so-called 15 percent rule caused an uproar among students, school officials and parents, with critics arguing it could hurt grades and make Texas kids less attractive to university admissions boards. But it was never actually
implemented, with the Texas Education Agency suspending it for last school year and this one.

The Texas Association of School Boards welcomed Aycock’s bill.

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SENATORS GRILL TEXAS GOVERNOR’S OFFICE ON FUNDS

Republican and Democratic senators grilled the governor’s director of economic development on Wednesday, questioning how many jobs have actually been created by two incentive funds and whether they are adequately monitored.

Gov. Rick Perry’s office administers the Texas Enterprise Fund, designed to attract businesses to Texas, and the Emerging Technology Fund, which invests in innovative companies. Aaron Demerson, the director who oversees the funds, said they help create jobs in Texas and spur technological development.

But Sen. Bob Deuell, the Republican chairman of the Senate Economic Committee, started a hearing at the Capitol by acknowledging that the funds have many critics that call them corporate welfare or a slush fund for Perry to reward
campaign donors.

“There are people from the far right that don’t like this kind of thing, there are people from the far left that don’t like it and people in between,” the Greenville lawmaker said. “The criticism you get is that these are phantom job reports … and that these jobs are not really created.”

Deuell noted that another incentive program to fight cancer had been badly mismanaged and is now the subject of a criminal investigation.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth expressed concern that after 10 years, the Texas Enterprise Fund has never undergone an independent audit. Davis said she supported government efforts to encourage economic development, but said such
program require close scrutiny.

While the enterprise fund is forecast to create 66,000 jobs, when Davis pressed Demerson on how many new jobs actually exist because of the program, he could not answer. Davis also questioned whether $2 million in returns on $184 million in taxpayer funds in the Emerging Technology Fund was sufficient.

At several points in the hearing when asked probing questions, Demerson said he did not have the answers and promised to reply later in writing.

Under questioning from Deuell, Demerson acknowledged that as many as 12 companies funded by the Emerging Technology Fund were under review or subject to litigation. He said many of the companies receiving enterprise fund money have
not created the number of jobs originally promised and as a result his office has revised those contracts to set lower targets.

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PROSECUTORS CURB $3B TEXAS CANCER AGENCY TESTIMONY

Prosecutors convinced state lawmakers Wednesday to not question two former executives from Texas’ troubled cancer research institute, saying such testimony could interfere with their investigation into problems at the $3 billion
institute.

Bill Gimson, who was the executive director of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, and Nobel laureate Alfred Gilman, who was its chief scientific officer, had agreed to appear Wednesday before the state House
Appropriations Committee. It would have been the first time they had had to answer questions publicly about the matter since they resigned last year amid mounting problems at the agency.

Neither Gimson nor Gilman has been accused of any wrongdoing, but Gregg Cox, who runs the Travis County district attorney’s public corruption unit, said he didn’t want to jeopardize the investigation. He said witnesses can’t be
prosecuted if they incriminate themselves while being forced to answer lawmaker questions.

“That’s very concerning to have witnesses answering something about something we’re investigating, when that’s a possible outcome,” Cox said.

State auditors have identified $56.3 million in projects the institute has funded since its 2009 inception that weren’t endorsed by peer-review councils. Among them was an $11 million grant to a Dallas-based startup that completely avoided the review process and triggered the investigation. Prosecutors haven’t indicated when they might present their findings.

Lawmakers have vowed impose greater oversight of the beleaguered agency known as CPRIT, and there are several bills pending that would change how the institute operates. Lawmakers haven’t set aside funding for the institute in the
next budget yet, but there haven’t been any serious calls to abolish it entirely.

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TEXAS BILL WOULD ALLOW DOCTORS TO DELEGATE MORE

Key lawmakers have introduced a bill that would allow doctors to delegate limited prescription authority to nurses and physician assistants in more situations.

Sen. Jane Nelson and Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, both Republican chairs of key health care committees, announced Wednesday they want to give doctors more latitude in allowing advanced practice nurses and physician assistants to treat patients.

The lawmakers say Senate Bill 406 will help with the statewide shortage of primary care doctors. Doctors would no longer have to be on-site and could supervise more nurses and physician assistants. The bill would also encourage
better coordination between medical boards to maintain patient safety.

The Texas Medical Association expressed support for the bill saying it would promote better treatment by allowing for a team-based, collaborative approach.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY:

“We’re a long way from landing that jumbo jet.” Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, speaking to a health care conference on the possibility of Texas reaching a deal with federal authorities to expand Medicaid in Texas.

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Posted by on Feb 6 2013. Filed under Featured Stories, News.


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