Bad Bills

Less Teaching, More Bullying

Shortchange the Kids

House Bill 933 Rep. Linda Harper-Brown (R-Irving)

A shortage of bilingual teachers has left Texas schools struggling to educate the more than half a million kids who aren’t native English speakers. State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown wants to give schools the option of simply not dealing with the problem at all. She’s filed House Bill 933, which would allow districts to implement an “English language immersion program” rather than the now-required bilingual education.

An immersion program could be “however they decide to do it,” Harper-Brown says, meaning districts could simply place students still learning English in classes with native English speakers and let them fend for themselves.

Bilingual education programs allow students to keep up with other courses while they’re still learning English. “Instruction in the child’s native language is the fastest, most efficient way for children to learn while they’re learning English,” says Jesse Romero, legislative consultant for the Texas Association for Bilingual Education. Romero says children taught only in English end up learning conversational rather than academic English, and experience difficulty acquiring skills in other subjects.

Currently elementary schools must provide bilingual education if they have at least 20 students of limited English proficiency in the same grade level with the same native language. Districts can obtain a waiver if they prove they have tried and failed to find certified bilingual instructors.

Harper-Brown says English-learners perform better when they are taught in English. A study done by the Houston Independent School District, however, showed that bilingual students who were kept in the program until they were ready to move into English-only classes tested better than the district average for all students. Unfortunately, districts often push students into English-only classes before they’re ready, says Luis Figueroa, legislative staff attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“The shortage of teachers has something to do with it,” Figueroa says. “It also has to do with the schools not recognizing the importance of native language instruction. It’s going to hurt the students in the long run, when they are exited from the program and they aren’t academically proficient.”

Blame the Parents

House Bill 557 Rep. Wayne Smith (R-Baytown)

Take heed, you parents who assumed the days of tardy notes and detention hours ended after high school. Baytown Republican Rep. Wayne Smith has a message for you: Not so fast, slacker.

Like a hard-nosed principal trolling the hallways for class-cutters, Smith is on the lookout for truant parents. His House Bill 557 would make it a crime for parents to skip parent-teacher conferences. Missing a scheduled meeting—maybe to go smoke behind the gym, maybe to finish a shift at work—would result in a fine of up to $500.

The bill’s detractors say it bullies working parents, especially those holding down several jobs, who can’t leave work to meet with their child’s teacher.

“The working poor would be the hardest hit by this bill,” says Benny Hernandez of the ACLU of Texas. He worries it would unfairly target parents who are supportive of their children’s education, but can’t come up with free time to meet with a teacher.

Smith counters that the bill allows parents to fit meetings into their schedules. It requires schools to give parents three choices of meeting times.

Having a “reasonable excuse” for missing the conference would get you off the hook, but Smith’s bill doesn’t address what constitutes “reasonable.” Presumably, “I’m working three jobs to feed my family and could be fired for blowing off work,” would justify dropping the fine. “My dog ate the calendar,” might not. Either way, fighting a fine in court would mean an even greater time commitment.

Money received from fines would go to the teacher’s school district, making the bill, if nothing else, a novel approach to school finance. The cash could be used either for paying teachers or buying classroom supplies, giving teachers an extra incentive to summon parents to class.

Smith may find that he can lead a parent to the classroom, but can’t make them care. Or worse, maybe they care so much they need to spend their time earning enough to feed their children. “I don’t think holding a gun to the parents’ head would encourage them to get involved at school,” Hernandez says. “A lot of parents would resent being threatened.”

The bill is sitting in the House Public Education Committee, and Smith says he doesn’t expect a hearing this session. The intent is to “more or less put it out there for interim study,” Smith says. Whatever happens, Smith insists his tough-on-truants bill has already served a noble purpose. “It’s certainly drawn attention to parent teacher conferences,” he says.

A group of vultures circling in the air looking for carcasses to strip is called a kettle. A group of reporters circling the Capitol looking for rotten bills to pluck from the legislative cauldron is called the Observer staff. You can count on us to skim off the worst of the legislative product for your amusement and horror. We welcome nominations for Bad Bills. Please e-mail them to [email protected]

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