By Will Johnson

Messenger Reporter

TEXAS – As the 85th regular session of the Texas Legislature gets underway, several areas of education will be burning up the legislative chambers in Austin.

One of the loudest debates will concern Sen. Bill 6 filed by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham). The bill states that in government buildings, as well as public schools and universities, each dressing room, locker room and bathroom must be designated for use based on a person’s biological sex.

The legislation clarifies a person must identify by the sex listed on their birth certificate. It does, however, make exceptions in the case of emergencies, for parents with small children, custodians and the disabled. The bill also states schools can make individual accommodations for transgender people.

Another area which will certainly receive its fair share of press will be in the area of school choice and school vouchers. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has long been a proponent of the school choice / school voucher programs.

In an interview with the Texas Tribune, Patrick stated, “What right do we have to tell a poor parent where their child is sentenced to a failing school year after year after year that they must send their child to that school?”

Others, however, are deeply opposed to the school choice plan.  In a letter to Joe Strauss, the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, attorney and Marshal ISD Board of Trustees member Chase Palmer stated, “Stand strong against school vouchers and school choice programs. Mr. Speaker, school vouchers and school choice programs will only continue to widen the gap between ‘the haves’ and ‘the have nots’ in Texas. States that have shifted to vouchers or school choice programs have seen their public education system worsen, not get better.”

Palmer’s letter went on to state, “Vouchers will further increase the flight from school districts that are labeled as underperforming and will not solve the basic issue — how do we make education better for all children in the State of Texas? Vouchers are being promoted as a cure that is not going to treat the underlying ailment.”

A third area which will be debated involves special education practices. In an investigative report conducted by reporters with the Houston Chronicle, it was revealed the Texas Education Agency had placed a cap on special education enrollment at a mark of 8.5 percent.

Nationwide, the average enrollment in special education hovers around the 13 percent mark, according to the Chronicle. The Houston newspaper alleged the state was purposely denying children services in order to save billions of dollars by capping the enrollment numbers at the 8.5 percent mark. A federal investigation has been launched concerning this matter while the TEA has denied any wrongdoing.

Legislators have already filed several bills pertaining to this issue.

Another area of concern expected to be discussed at much lowered volumes is the funding of Pre-K. Several groups have pushed for the state to fund Pre-K at full-day levels.

One of the reasons behind the push was a plan advocated pushed by Gov. Greg Abbott during the 84th Legislative Session to give districts and charter schools $118 million in grants.

Libby McCabe an early childhood advocate with the educational nonprofit Dallas based Commit! Partnership said she would like to see the full day funding come to fruition but recognized budgetary constraints might hamper the effort.

In an interview with the Dallas Morning News, McCabe pointed out that Pre-K pays off and said research indicates “… kids in Pre-K are twice as likely to be kindergarten-ready than other students. If you’re kindergarten ready, you’re three times more likely to be reading on grade level by third grade.”

She added, “Reading on grade level is really the Holy Grail because in third grade there’s a major shift in school, from learning to read to reading to learn. So, if you aren’t a proficient reader by third grade, you’re four times more likely to drop out.”

Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at wjohnson@messenger-news.com.