- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Top legislative conservatives clamoring for Texas to adopt a school choice voucher plan proposed a series of other education changes instead Tuesday that are less controversial but could still spark heated debates.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor presented a package of bills including plans to issue A through F grades for individual public schools - rather than just giving letter grades to school districts, which lawmakers approved last session - and expanded online learning.

There are also proposals linking teacher pay raises to annual evaluations, and allowing parents to petition to close failing schools after just two years, instead of the current five.

“Education is not a partisan issue,” said Taylor, a Republican from Friendswood.

Indeed, less outspoken Republicans and even Democrats and teachers groups have cheered some of those ideas in the past. But much of what was listed, especially teacher evaluations that would clash with traditional, seniority-based pay scales, and issuing individual schools around Texas ‘Fs’ should prove contentious.

“None of the proposals offered by Senator Taylor and the Lieutenant Governor would give teachers and students the time and resources they need to improve teaching and learning,” Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria said in a statement. Instead the group would like to see lawmakers fully restore $5.4 billion in cuts to classroom approved in 2011.

Taylor also called for scrapping rules that students enrolled in online classes also be enrolled in public schools. He ducked a question, however, about educational accountability standards for online courses if they don’t follow state benchmark set for public schools.

Taylor also noted that the Senate last session passed a bill allowing a majority of parents in school districts to petition to shutter schools that fail to meet state academic standards faster than current law, but that it stalled in the House.

The teacher evaluation bill is sponsored by Republican Sen. Kel Seliger, of Amarillo, and would tie “professional development, career advancement and compensation” to an annual evaluation.

“A big part of the evaluation is going to be classroom observation, the interaction of the teacher with the student,” Seliger said.

Patrick oversees the flow of Senate legislation and boasts of being an evangelist for school choice - saying parents should be able to use publicly funded vouchers to pull their kids out of underperforming public schools and send them to private schools instead, including religious schools.

But his sweeping school voucher plans were derailed last session, when a coalition of House Democrats and rural Republicans passed a resolution mandating that public funding should stay with public schools.

Patrick has vowed to try again. He said Tuesday that while he wasn’t ready to announce his new plans to enact a voucher program, they would be ready soon and would be assigned low bill numbers that may fast-track them through the Senate. They may face a tougher road in the House, though.

“If you’re parent and you’re a student in one of our failing schools, you should not be sentenced to that school,” Patrick said. “School choice will have a very low bill number.”

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