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One partial, one pointless: School leaders give new laws mixed reviews
by Bill Clough
Jun 21, 2013 | 1328 views | 0 0 comments | 48 48 recommendations | email to a friend | print
BEEVILLE — When students and teachers learned that last week the Texas Legislature had reduced by two-thirds the number of high-stakes tests required to be graduated, they probably yelled “hallelujah!”

And that was legal, too, because lawmakers also passed what is called the “Merry Christmas” bill allowing students to utter religious statements without fear of litigation.

Bee County superintendents welcome the former with reservations and expressed indifference about the other.

Gov. Rick Perry signed both bills into law during a special session.

House Bill 5 reduces the number of end-of-semester tests from 15 to five for high school students. Superintendents statewide favored a different piece of legislation, House Bill 2836, which would have lowered the testing requirements also for elementary and middle school students. Although both houses passed it, Perry vetoed it.

House Bill 5 “will allow us to maintain focus on what our teachers do best, teaching content, not necessarily being focused on the way it is tested,” says Skidmore-Tynan Independent School District Superintendent, Dr. Brett Belmarez. “But I wish we could have carried the same efforts to grades three through eight, which Perry vetoed.”

Still, “this was a very important bill,” says Beeville Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Sue Thomas. “It’s going to be a big boost for our students.”

The STAAR end of semester tests, and their high failure rate, have been a statewide issue since students began taking them last year. House Bill 5 is result of a parental and school district backlash to overhaul the testing system that has created an environment where teaching for the tests overrides all other academic concerns.

An equally significant aspect of the bill, she says, is a revised graduation plan for students that nudges the focus away from the concept of every student is attending a four-year college.

The bill still requires students to take a foundation of courses, but gives them more flexibility to chose electives.

“A student who wishes to go into business as a welder or a chef can chose electives for those goals. It gives them a little leeway. Not every student needs to take calculus,” she says.

“It has more of a workforce preparation in it,” Belmarez says. “This not only will benefit our young people in Skidmore but all students in the state. It will help students focus on potential jobs and future careers in the oil and gas industry, too.”

Neither superintendent buys the argument that the new testing rules represent a dumbing down of standards.

“Oh, there already are charges about that,” Thomas says. “I’m still waiting for one of those critics to take one of those tests and see if they pass it. Kids in the fourth and fifth grade now are responsible for material that is light-years beyond what their parents got in high school.”

Belmarez agrees.

“Just because you have reduced testing doesn’t mean you dumb down schools. I won’t agree with that statement one bit. We’re going to have the same educators educating with the same vigor and the same relevance. I challenge any elected official to walk into any high school in Texas and find if anything has been dumbed down.”

The new standards should take effect this fall, although Thomas warns that the Texas Education Agency has not yet distributed guidelines that reflect the testing changes.

While the new bill will affect all county high school students, superintendents privately question if the “Merry Christmas” bill will affect anything.

“I still say ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Hanukkah,’” Thomas says. “We start all our board meetings with an invocation. This has not been an issue here.”

The bill, which does not alter existing law, is designed to assure school districts they may display religious scenes —such as a manger — or symbols without fear of litigation.

It also provides that students may wish each other “Merry Christmas” instead of the generic “Happy Holidays.”

Belmarez’s assessment of the bill?

“I think it was a convenient way to create a distraction away from the education bill Perry vetoed. I have to tip my hat to the distraction it created. The bill concerns issues that were not significant to the issues we were tackling this year.”

His ambivalence is echoed both by the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission in Austin and watchdog agencies in Washington.

“The issue was not one we had on our radar,” says Steve Reeves, the director of public policy for the commission.

“There just didn’t seem to be a lot of policy ‘meat’ there.”

Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, says the Merry Christmas bill is more about politics than protection.

Noting that many of the concerns in the bill already are allowed, Walker says “It’s a political procedure to solve problems that don’t exist. I’m at a loss to see what is critical other than doing something that is politically popular.”

That the bill is without substance is the opinion of the Washington-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State Executive Director Barry Lynn.

“What the governor of Texas thinks the law is,” he says, “does not mean the law is that way. Laws that are written like this tend to be difficult to challenge on their face but easy to challenge in multiple ways when they are applied in individual cases.”

Under existing law, he says, students already had permission to say “Merry Christmas” and schools are allowed to display manger scenes, as long as the activities are not proselytizing or can be construed as official endorsement of a religion.

“These are ‘feel good’ bills,” Lynn says. “I’m sure the governor feels good about it, but if he thinks this ends the controversy or ends the discussion, he is whistling past a legal graveyard.”

Still, the Rev. Larry McRorey, Beeville United Methodist Church pastor, sees a positive side to it.

“The bill is promoting discussion. Any time we can bring religion of God into the public arena, we all benefit. We’re a Christian nation — even if we don’t act like it.”

Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.
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