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May 24, 2000     (512) 463-0300

Statewide Education Issues Examined at Laredo Hearing

LAREDO - The Senate Education Committee continued its series of Interim meetings in Laredo today, May 24, 2000, at Texas A&M International University(TAMIU). Senator Bivins began the meeting with a review of education reforms in Texas over the past decade along with the challenges that face the state over the next ten years such as distance learning, dropout prevention and performance pay for teachers.

County Judge Mercurio Martinez welcomed the committee to Laredo, reminding them of the tremendous growth in the area and the challenges it creates for education. Also welcoming them was J. Charles Jennett, President of TAMIU who echoed the growth theme, saying the university had a growth rate of ten percent per year. Later in the meeting, Laredo Mayor Elizabeth G. Flores asked the members for special attention to the border saying that "...kids we are graduating from high school today don't have skills...something is terribly wrong...we have to address border education a little differently."

John Stevens, Executive Director of The Texas Business and Education Coalition led off the invited testimony. He reviewed how changes in the Texas education system will affect schools over the next few years, saying that students will have to perform at higher and higher levels. He also said that far too many experienced teachers and administrators are leaving the profession for many different reasons. At the college level, he said that Texas companies are demanding graduates who can go anywhere in the world, but that graduates from schools like Texas A&M are sometimes seen as provincial, unprepared to deal with business not only overseas, but even other parts of the U.S. as well.

He was followed by a group of school superintendents from the Laredo and Lower Rio Grande Valley. Dr. Sylvia Hatton, Executive Director of the Region One Education Service Center, led off this testimony. She reported that students from Region One are 95 percent Hispanic and 82 percent economically disadvantaged. giving it a unique set of challenges not seen anywhere else in the state. On the other hand, it has the highest performance level among those students.

Dr. Paul Cruz, Superintendent of the Laredo Independent School District (ISD) then reported that his district is 90 percent Hispanic and urged the Legislature not to change programs that now work. Dr. Jesus Chavez, superintendent of the Harlingen Independent School District, addressed the teacher shortage issue saying that his district is forced to recruit from all parts of the U.S. He said that current teacher salaries are simply not competitive with other fields. Dr. Jerry Barber, Superintendent of the Laredo United School District, addressed the problems of rapidly growing school districts. His district is hiring 250 teachers a year due partially to growth, but also the fact that many teachers are leaving the system. Roberto Zamora, Superintendent of the LaJoya ISD said that learning gaps between students that existed ten years ago are slowly closing, but that there are still problems in teaching migrant students, which cannot attend class for the complete school year.

James Harris, Chair, and Ed Patton, Vice Chair of the State Board for Educator Certification followed. Harris reported that his board is working to eliminate a backlog of certification cases and is dealing with the accountability system for the colleges. He also said that 327,000 Texas primary and secondary school students are taught by an uncertified teacher during at least part of each school day. Patton echoed the earlier testimony as to the importance of keeping current teachers from leaving the profession.

Katie Reed, Trustee of San Antonio's Northside ISD and also representing the Texas Association of School Boards, testified that her district is struggling financially, since as local funding increases along with the growing tax base, state funding decreases. This year, the district will recruit more than 700 new teachers this year due not only to growth, but also turnover. Felicia Escobar, National Council of La Raza, told the committee that Charter Schools nationally have waiting lists and that here in Texas they currently educate 24,000 students. Andrea Venezia, Project Director of the Bridge Project, Stanford University, said that state-mandated testing is useful, but is not indicative of success in college. She also said that students don't know what all the tests are for, that when students don't know why they need to do well, they won't.

Jim Quinten, President of the Automotive Wholesalers of Texas, told the committee that his business is "in desperate need of people in our business. Education is a survival issue. We have to have people we can train." His members are taking people directly out of high schools and community colleges and then training them in their business.

Virginia Copeland, Director of Special Education for Houston's Alief ISD testified that her specialty as well is experiencing a shortage of trained professionals. Angie Pena, Director of Special Education for Monte Alto, Edcouch-Elsa and the LaVilla school districts, said she sees the same issues in special ed today as there were when she was a student. In the lower Rio Grande Valley as well, there are shortages of special ed teachers. Terry Fisher, educator development, Austin ISD told the committee about ways to structure the mentoring system for incoming teachers.

Gilbert Galvan, President of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association (TCTA), told the committee that while last year's salary increase is appreciated, the current compensation package is simply not adequate to attract and retain qualified teachers. He says 45,000 teachers will be needed next year, yet only 15,000 will be coming out of Texas colleges. Insurance is a special problem, he says that for many teachers, two-thirds of last year's salary hike went to pay increased insurance premiums.

Lonnie Hollignsworth, also from TCTA, said that health insurance is available in some districts but not others, but that there's a lack of data on why that's the case. Generally, urban areas are now having trouble getting health insurance.

Public testimony followed. Rene DeLaVina, is a special ed teacher in the Laredo ISD. He says that many special ed teachers leave because of excessive paperwork. Rene Lara, legislative director of the Texas Federation of Teachers and testified that his members would rather have a statewide health insurance program rather than a pay raise if they had to choose between the two. He also testified that charter schools are not automatically better than public schools. Other members of the public criticized the way charter schools are established, urged that public universities become open admission institutions and urged that the schools teach more skills useful in daily living to special ed students.

The Senate Committee on Education is Chaired by Senator Teel Bivins of Lubbock. Members include Senators David Cain of Dallas, Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, Steve Ogden of Bryan, Bill Ratliff of Mt. Pleasant, David Sibley of Waco, Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, Royce West of Dallas and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo. The committee has recessed subject to call of the chair. The time and place of its next meeting will be announced later.

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