TEA offers to waive required service days for hurricane-hit districts; House speaker looks to “prevent unintended punitive consequences” of accountability system

TEA offers to waive required service days for hurricane-hit districts, but no change in exam schedule or test-based ratings:   Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has delivered good news and bad news to hurricane-impacted school districts and their teachers this week.

On Tuesday in a formal letter to superintendents Morath announced that waivers of the 187-day service mandate for educators in state law “will be granted” to hurricane-affected school districts that wish to reduce the number of service days required of educators without reducing their pay, “commensurate with the number of days closed from the start of school for the 2017-2018 school year through the end of October, 2017.”

On Wednesday, however, the commissioner threw cold water on the suggestion that the state also should alter the testing schedule or reduce the punitive consequences attached to state tests for districts and students faced with massive disruption caused by Hurricane Harvey.  “I would say, given the information I have, it doesn’t look likely that we would be able to make too many changes on assessment, and for that matter, on accountability,” said Morath, in a meeting with the State Board of Education.

But the commissioner may not have the last word on the subject of accountability ratings for hurricane-impacted districts. House Public Education Committee chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston) has said he will convene hearings on this issue within a few weeks, and Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus today issued a directive to Huberty’s committee specifically calling for recommendations of “any measures needed at the state level to prevent unintended punitive consequences to both students and districts in the state accountability system as a result of Harvey and its aftermath.”

Speaker’s hurricane-related committee charges include one to “prevent unintended punitive consequences” of state accountability system:  In addition to asking the House Public Education Committee to weigh measures to “prevent unintended punitive consequences” of the state accountability system as applied to hurricane-affected students and districts, Speaker Straus instructed that panel and two others to study several other issues as well.

Straus directed the Committee on Appropriations to examine the use of federal funds for hurricane response by state agencies, identify state resources needed to provide relief and help with recovery, and look for opportunities to invest in infrastructure projects that would reduce impacts of future natural disasters.

The Committee on Public Education will assess financial losses caused by Hurricane Harvey and recommend changes in student counts or property valuations to mitigate negative impacts on districts. This committee also will look at “educational opportunities offered to students displaced by Harvey throughout the state and the process by which districts enroll and serve those students,” with special concern for helping districts serving a disproportionate number of displaced students.

The House Committee on Natural Resources will look at flood-control and mitigation efforts that would reduce the impact of future floods, along with strategies to fund those efforts.

The speaker’s directives came as signs are increasing that the Legislature in its 2019 session will tap into the Economic Stabilization Fund, the state reserve containing more than $10 billion currently, to address some of the rising costs of recovery from Hurricane Harvey. The interim hearings and studies Straus called for will help document those needs.