Published 8:30 pm Saturday, February 25, 2017

The two Senate committees that oversee education related bills held their first hearings on legislation this week. The Higher Education Committee considered a bill that would end the mandatory tuition set aside policy, which critics call an unfair hidden tax on students. “College affordability is an issue the legislature must address, but we should not do it for some students on the backs of others that may very well be of the same financial status,” said Committee Chair and bill author Kel Seliger of Amarillo.

When the Legislature deregulated college tuition in 2003, they also passed a bill intended to help poor students cope with future increases in the price of public universities. Under that law, public colleges must set aside 15 percent of tuition revenue and use it as financial aid for needy families. In 2016, according to Higher Education Coordinating Board Chairman Raymond Paredes, those funds helped more than 100,000 students, but added an average of $459 per student per year to university tuition.

Seliger’s bill, SB 6, would end the requirement that colleges set aside that money, but they would still be able to voluntarily continue the program. Representatives from nearly every public university in the state appeared before the committee to say they intended to continue to collect and reserve the 15 percent, but said that depended on state funding levels for the upcoming biennium.

Some committee members expressed concern about those funding levels, worrying that insufficient state funding will mean money intended for financial aid will have to go towards operating costs. “We’re having enormous difficulty dealing with higher education and how we’re going to fund higher education and we’re facing potentially huge cuts into higher education,” said Austin Senator Kirk Watson.   “Candidly, I have zero faith that the state will step in and fill the gap.”

The bill passed the committee 4 to 2 and will now go to the full Senate for consideration.

The Senate Education Committee met Thursday to hear a bill aimed at stopping the practice of “pass the trash”, where teachers with histories of sexual misconduct get fired from one school district but are able to get a job at a different one, sometimes with the full knowledge of the teacher’s former administrators. . “We’ve heard stories…where, unfortunately, sometimes, school districts, individual administrators, instead of coming to transparency on this issue, would appear to be going in the reverse,” said Houston Senator Paul Bettencourt. “That’s really disheartening.”   He said that the number of cases of inappropriate relationships between students in teachers is already up 43 percent this school year, with 93 reported cases between September and January, compared to 68 over the same time period in 2015-2016.

His bill, SB 7, would carry criminal penalties for any superintendent or principle who failed to report cases of sexual misconduct involving teachers to the state. It would also automatically revoke the teaching certificate of any teacher on deferred adjudication for sexual misconduct or on the sex offender registry. . “We have to remove any possible obstacle to identify teachers or educators with this problem and pull their license,” said Bettencourt.  In order to prevent these cases from even occurring, the bill also requires districts to have clear polices about contact between students and teachers on the internet and social media, as well as adding curriculum on avoiding such relationships in regular on-going education for teachers.    The bill remains pending before the committee.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, January 27 at 2 p.m.