Texas Targets Schools For Major Overhaul

Law would shift control from state to local districts

MOUNT Pleasant, a chicken-processing and lignite-mining town 120 miles east of Dallas, may someday be remembered as the birthplace of local control over public education in Texas.

It was there last Thanksgiving that state Sen. Bill Ratliff (R) loaded a diskette containing the 500-page Texas education code into his laptop computer. With a nine-inch stack of testimony from a bureaucracy-weary public at his side, Senator Ratliff spent the next five days rewriting and reorganizing.

The result, in a bill expected to pass tomorrow, will be the most complete overhaul of Texas education law in more than half a century.

The sweeping modifications run the gamut from no-pass, no-play to classroom discipline. The overarching thrust is a power shift from state to local authorities. Decentralization in one of the nation's biggest states -- affecting 3.6 million students -- mirrors a national push to reduce federal, and sometimes state, control over education.

Clearly pleased is Ratliff, who earlier this week ambled about the Texas Senate in a conservative suit and a tie depicting a plate of King Ranch chicken. Maybe some innovations arising from the law will benefit his six school-age grandchildren, he says.

Among the headline-grabbing features of the bill are reforms to the controversial no-pass, no-play rule adopted in 1984. The suspension from extracurricular activities will be shortened from six weeks to three. And now, poor grades will only keep students out of games and events, not practices.

Unfortunately, legislators bought the argument that kids who can't go to practice will join gangs, says Charles Wright, assistant superintendent in Mount Pleasant.

''There's no relationship. I can assure you of that,'' he says scornfully, noting that kids join gangs in his district starting in the third grade. A former coach, he objects to what he sees as a watering down of the no-pass, no-play rules to appease sports fans.

Ratcliff says the change to the rule will be inconsequential.

Far more significant but less obvious, Ratcliff says, are the hundreds of places in the old law where the rulemaking authority of the 1,100-strong Texas Education Agency (TEA) was deleted. Meddling by state bureaucrats meant ''burdensome paperwork'' including 108 reports required of school districts, says Lynn Hale, superintendent of the 50,000-student Arlington school district between Dallas and Fort Worth.

''Complete education centralization,'' has been the TEA's tendency, says Rick Wheeler, president of Lake Travis school district west of Austin. ''We're of the opinion that we can construct a system and curriculum of the most benefit to our kids.''

Now Lake Travis and other districts will get their chance. The TEA will be restricted to setting standards and and measuring performance.

But if that's still too much state involvement for some districts, they can apply for ''home rule,'' one of the platforms of Gov. George W. Bush's campaign last fall. Home-rule status would free the districts of even more state standards, such as those governing maximum class size and teacher contracts and benefits.

Such a scenario drew the earnest opposition of the 92,000 members of the Texas State Teachers Association. However, ''the governor made [home rule] his die-on-the-sword issue. We weren't able to change that,'' says TSTA president Richard Khouri.

However, teachers did achieve their No. 1 goal: derailing a plan to let students choose whether to spend public dollars to attend public or private school. Such voucher plans would let private schools siphon off the best students and teachers, and then claim credit for outperforming public schools, they argue. The result, Mr. Khouri says, would be ''an economically stratified education system.''

On the other hand, the law also will allow creation of public, nonprofit ''charter schools'' operating under still fewer state restrictions.

Teachers won other victories. They get 25 percent of the seats on the committees that would prepare a district's application for home-rule status. The new law also raises the minimum beginning pay for teachers, though by less than they wanted. Texas ranks 37th in average teacher salary, but 10th when taken as a percentage of the state's disposable income.

Teachers will be guaranteed a raise every time the state increases its spending on education.

The new law also returns discipline to the classroom. Teachers will be allowed to remove disruptive or violent students and veto their return.

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