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February 10, 2000     (512) 463-0300

Senate Committee on Education Met at the University of North Texas at Dallas Today

DALLAS - The Senate Committee on Education met Thursday, February 10, 2000 at the University of North Texas at Dallas. Committee members include Chairman Teel Bivins of Amarillo along with Senators Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, David Cain of Dallas, Royce West of Dallas, Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant, Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, Steve Ogden of Bryan and David Sibley of Waco.

Chairman Bivins opened the meeting with a review of Texas education reforms that have taken place over the past decade. He also reviewed the challenges facing schools as the 21st century begins. He specifically mentioned the role of technology in education and how to offer the benefits of distance learning to all Texans. Senator West remarked that we know what the problems are, and the committee is looking to the educators to help find the solutions. Senator Nelson mentioned that input from the business community will be important as well, since it is the ultimate destination of the students. Senator Van de Putte said we are at a crossroads, and the way we integrate it into the schools will be important as Texas continues to invest in public education.

In the welcoming remarks, Mayor Ron Kirk said that schools need the Texas Legislature's help in order to keep up with population growth all across the state. Kirk also stated that a message needs to be sent out to the Texas public about how important the 2000 Census is. This needs to be done to ensure that Texas gets its fare share of Federal funding.

County Judge Lee Jackson said that school course requirements need to match job skills that are required by businesses. University of North Texas Chancellor Dr. Alfred Hurley said that Dallas County has been under served by public universities, and that the new facility in which this hearing took place is an example of UNT's commitment to the area. UNT Regent Richard Knight, Jr. told the committee that North Texas University is committed to finding solutions for the problems facing education in Texas.

In invited testimony, John Stevens, Executive Director of the Texas Business and Education Coalition, said that rigorous academic standards are essential if students are going to compete in the global economy, and testing students is a big part of that. Given that more students are doing better on these tests, he recommends that they be made more challenging.

Dallas Superintendent of Schools Dr. Waldemar "Bill" Rojas told the committee that problems facing schools in Dallas are not unique to either the city, or Texas as a whole. Rojas is pleased and heartened by the abilities and desires of the Dallas teaching staff. He believes programs for dropout prevention need to be created as early as the third and fourth grade.

Dr. Bill Wenrich, Chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District, told committee members that most students need something more than a high school education for a successful career. Therefore, grants and loans are vital for low income students who may be the first in their family to apply for college.

Dr. Deborah Cron, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Operations for the Garland School District, stated that encouraging students to take a strong academic course load will challenge them and will offer a head start on achieving a college education. She says students simply cannot learn what is not taught and that they must be prodded into taking difficult classes.

Patti Clapp, the Vice President of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, reported on the success her group has had with encouraging businesses to directly help schools increase academic performance for all students.

Dr. Virginal Collier, Brenham I.S.D. Superintendent, and President of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said that superintendents and school board members often don't communicate as well as they should, and that this too can hinder schools. She also warned about racial issues and the possibility that certain programs could re-segregate schools.

Judge Thomas Jones, Justice of the Peace, J.P. Court 7 place 1, told the committee that while truancy is a violation of state law, it remains a major problem. Many students brought up for truancy are failing one or more courses. He recommended two programs that are being used in Dallas County to help fight truancy. For example, students appearing in his court may have fines waived if they return to, and stay in, school. Other offenders are handcuffed in his courtroom at truancy proceedings and taken to jail, as shock therapy. He says both have been effective.

Steve Palko, Texas Business and Education Coordinating Committee co-chair, said that the Texas Legislature should not slow down reforms, i.e., exit exams. In Palko's opinion, exit tests can help determine whether students can compete in today's high tech economy. He recommended that comprehensive testing be continued, and that test results be reported directly to parents so they can make the decisions they need in regard to their children's education.

Phil Ritter, President of Texans for Education, and Vice-President of Public Affairs for Texas Instruments, says that we need more accountability of funds spent, and more advanced degree graduates coming into the workplace. He recommends a strong focus on math and science, saying these are essential for any job in the technology sector.

Tim Shaunty, Director of the Center for Economic Education at the University of Houston at Clear Lake, says that school districts are required to have classes in economics, yet they are not required to have teachers trained in economics. He says his school would be willing to host a pilot program for special teacher training on the subject.

Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson recommended ways of getting more young people interested in teaching and discussed the problem of keeping those teachers we now have in the profession. He said relatively few leave because of pay and benefits, because low levels of support and low job satisfaction are the major causes of teachers leaving the field. He also told the panel that tough school courses are essential, saying that students making "C" level grades in difficult courses will do better in college than students who take easy courses in grade school and gets higher grades.

During public testimony the committee heard about the pros and cons of statewide health insurance for teachers and other school employees, possible ways to relieve the teacher shortage, the dropout rate and difficulty of keeping teachers in poorer or smaller school districts, and other problems of local school districts.

The committee recessed subject to call of the chair, with its next meeting scheduled for March 1 in Midland.

Click here to listen to the hearing in RealAudio format.

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