It takes a lot to shock most lobbyists. But Tuesday, as I stood outside the Senate Education committee room, one veteran came outside and grabbed me. “I have never seen anything like what is happening inside,” she told me. Sen. Mario Gallegos was throwing it down in the committee room against a bill by fellow Houston Democrat, Rodney Ellis, she said. He’d already lambasted Ellis, condescendingly saying, “The rhetoric is fine and Rodney is good at rhetoric.” I got there just in time to hear Gallegos hit his stride.
Terry Grier, the superintendent for Houston ISD, calmly sat before the committee as Gallegos spouted off. His concern? Whether Grier had properly notified school board trustees about the bill before the senators. The superintendent quietly explained that he does not personally call the trustees, but rather relies on the district’s legislative liaison or the board’s President Paula Harris.
“So you’re pawning it off on Ms. Harris?” Gallegos quipped accusingly.
“I’m not pawning it off on anyone, senator,” Grier said.
At that point Gallegos lost it. “No, no! Come on! If we’re going to get straight, let’s get straight. I don’t want no rhetoric!” he exclaimed. “Who knows the answers here? Here’s a panel that’s supposed to know the answers! I’m asking questions and I want answers. You’re not giving nothing but rhetoric and double talk!”
The room was buzzing. The Senate is usually considered the upper chamber, after all. Finally Sen. Florence Shapiro, the chair of the committee, had to step in. “Senator,” she said with the firmness of a former schoolteacher. “I think he answered your question.”
“No, he did not,” Gallegos shot back.
Shapiro was calm and curt. “He did not personally give the letter” about the bill to trustees, she said. “He did not personally notify. He has a staff member that handles notification.” While Gallegos demanded the staff member present herself, Shapiro ignored the request.
Ellis—and his bill—had entered into an ongoing feud between Gallegos and the superintendent. With so many dynamics and moving parts in the Capitol, small bills can quickly create big waves. Grier was before the committee to support a measure that would increase flexibility for his school district. Meanwhile Gallegos has longstanding problems with Grier, arguing the superintendent isn’t transparent enough. Gallegos has targeted the bill, getting downright confrontational with Ellis and taking it one step farther when Grier began to speak.
In the quest to pass a bill, any lawmaker or lobbyist will tell you there are a variety of potential pitfalls—from ticking off an industry to getting in the middle of a personal feud. Ellis’ seemingly inoffensive bill appears to do both.
The measure is meant to aid Houston ISD’s Apollo 20 program. Working with Harvard’s Innovation Laboratory, the program targets failing and unacceptable schools, and uses a variety of techniques to improve quality. There’s more tutoring, longer school days and an earlier start date to the school year to add more days before assessment tests. The results have been impressive—increased attendance, fewer instances of in-school suspensions and the like. While all of these are tools that successful charter schools have used for years, public schools aren’t so free.
Currently state law requires traditional school districts begin the school year on or after the fourth Monday in August. The Apollo program has been starting much earlier, thanks to a waiver from the Texas Education Agency. However, the waivers are only granted to “failing schools.” Grier is hoping this year, thanks to all the intensive targeting, the schools won’t still be categorized as failing—good news, except that means they can’t keep getting their waivers under current law.
Ellis’ measure would allow certain schools to start earlier—on the first Monday in August. Not just any school could get the early start date. The specific school would have to be “undergoing comprehensive reform” and a majority of its students must be “educationally disadvantaged.” Furthermore, the change would only apply to schools in big districts—the bill requires districts to have at least 190,000 students.
Seems simple enough, but like so many legislative efforts, the seemingly inoffensive the bill also enters another ongoing issue. The school start date has implications for businesses.
Industries, like travel and tourism, are already lining up in opposition. The industry lobbyists worry that the measure marks the beginning of the end of the August vacations, a big money maker. The line of argument goes: if we let some school districts start in early August, soon everyone will start in early August. And then what’s to become of the industries that rely on August revenue? While the Legislative Budget Board, which gives lawmakers the financial implications of each bill, says the Ellis bill wouldn’t have any cost, those in the affected industries say there could be millions in lost tax dollars. The industries have instead suggested the schools shorten winter vacation and spring break to find extra days.
While the various industries weren’t particularly visible at the hearing, the senators made it clear that they were feeling some pressure. “I see some of our friends from the industry in here,” Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said pointedly. He addressed them directly: “To the extent that I find out that you’re saying one thing—we’re not going to be against the bill—and overtly going behind everyone’s back and trying to kill the bill—I’m going to be interested in that.”
Meanwhile, after spending the first half of the hearing upset about technicalities, Gallegos later expressed other concerns. “I don’t have a problem with the program at all,” he said. “At all.” But he pointed out the school district was focusing dollars on this program while at the same time laying off teachers thanks to budget cuts. He suggested the program be put on hold until the budget cuts are through. Furthermore, he said, the program only impacts around 14,000 of Houston’s 200,000 students. “My rub is what happens to those other kids?”
Grier was quick to point out that the program specially targeted failing schools, and that “all of our kids are getting quality teachers.”
In this, despite all the controversy from outside groups, the bill didn’t elicit any partisan divides. “Finally I see a school district that is using our dollars wisely!” gushed Republican Sen. Dan Patrick.
Shapiro was offered glowing comments. “It’s a great example you are setting for the rest of these state,” she said. “This has very little to do with the adults. This has everything to do with the children.”
From his seat, Gallegos glowered.