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March 31, 2005     (512) 463-0300
Senator Rodney Ellis (left) and Senator Tommy Williams.
Senator Rodney Ellis (left) and Senator Tommy Williams agree to disagree on a proposed amendment on the Senate floor Thursday.

COMMITTEES TACKLE SCHOOL FINANCE, TOP TEN PERCENT ISSUES

Education was the major issue this week as two Texas Senate committees considered public school finance reform and guaranteed admission for high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class. Tuesday and Thursday, the Senate Education committee, chaired by Plano Senator Florence Shapiro, heard testimony relating to House Bill 2, the House plan for public education reform. The Senate's own plan for changing the way the state pays for education will come before the committee next week. Funding to public schools would be increased by $6.7 billion and property taxes would be decreased by a third under the proposed Senate plan.

The Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education, chaired by Dallas Senator Royce West heard arguments both for and against the top 10 percent rule, which guarantees admission to any state university for any student who graduates in the top 10 percent of his or her high school class. UT-Austin President Larry Faulkner, who is in favor of changes to the law, said that the incoming freshmen classes at UT-Austin are mostly students admitted under the top 10 percent rule. He feels that the rule restricts admissions officials. "Students are not one-dimensional," said Faulkner. "A university needs room in its admissions decisions to consider criteria other than high school class rank." Chairman of the UT Board of Regents Jim Huffines said that 72 percent of this year's incoming freshman class was admitted under the rule, up from 37 percent seven years ago.

Many citizens came forward during public testimony to give support to the top 10 percent rule. Tim Ratcliff, principal of Jasper High School, said guaranteed admission gives hope to students who attend smaller or poorer schools. According to Ratcliff, students who go to schools in a prosperous or populous district attend better funded schools with higher quality facilities, and have a large advantage over other students when it comes to university admissions. He added that the top 10 percent rule gives these students a level playing field and a better chance at a quality college education.

The Subcommittee on Higher Education is considering three bills that would change the college admissions process. Senate Bill 320, by Senator Jeff Wentworth, would effectively repeal the top 10 percent rule and leave admission decisions up to admissions officers. SB 333, by West, would leave the rule as it is, but would require high school students to complete the minimum recommended curriculum to be eligible for guaranteed admission. Finally, SB 1546, by Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, seeks a middle ground by placing a cap on the number of students that can be admitted under the top 10 percent rule, to be set at 65 percent of each freshman class. West said that he will work with all members of the committee in order to find a compromise that best serves the students of Texas.

The Senate approved a number of important bills this week. Tuesday, San Antonio Senator Frank Madla passed SB 877, which would permit wineries to direct-ship wine to Texas consumers. The same day, the Senate passed SB 446, by Dallas Senator John Carona, which would prevent merchants from levying fees that reduce the balance on gift cards for 12 months following issuance. It would also allow the state to claim unused balances on gift cards that are idle for more than three years.

Wednesday, Senator Robert Duncan of Lubbock passed SB 368, which would grant a pay raise to District, Appeals and High Court Judges ranging from $24,000 to $37,000 per year. This is necessary, according to Duncan, to keep experienced judges from leaving the bench for higher paying jobs in the private sector. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst agreed with Duncan. "We've seen, time after time, good judges just not be able to keep up with the cost of living," said Dewhurst. "They've had to leave the bench and leave decades of fine judicial service."

Thursday, Senator Leticia Van de Putte passed two bills aimed at helping active-duty soldiers and veterans. SB 581 gives authority to the Veterans Land Board (VLB) to purchase or construct materials needed for veteran's homes and cemeteries. Van de Putte said this bill will help the VLB better serve the needs of veterans and be more cost-effective. She also passed SB 393, which would allow a divorced soldier with visitation rights to his or her children to transfer those rights to an extended family member if the soldier is deployed overseas. According to Van de Putte, this will allow the children to maintain family bonds with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on the soldier's side of the family.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 4, at 1:30 p.m.

Session video and all other webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's audio and video archive pages.

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