Rep. Harold Dutton, chair of the Texas House Public Education Committee, talks future of schools

Education

AUSTIN (Texas Tribune) — State Rep. Harold Dutton, chair of the House Public Education Committee, joined the Texas Tribune for a live interview moderated by public education reporter Aliyya Swaby.

Teachers, students and parents have slowly adapted to drastic changes in learning as the pandemic trudges on, and they now face additional hurdles including flooded school buildings and jolted living situations after last week’s deadly winter storm. As newly appointed chair of the House Public Education Committee, State Rep. Harold Dutton said he hopes to help schools through these challenges.

Dutton, D-Houston, spoke virtually Thursday with Aliyya Swaby, public education reporter for The Texas Tribune. He has represented House District 142 for almost 36 years and is a member of the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee and of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

Dutton discussed what the pandemic and recent storm mean for public education, including a need to reevaluate standardized testing and address accessibility issues. Here are highlights from the conversation.

What are your priorities for legislation for this session?

Dutton said he wants to work to improve student outcomes and give more attention to struggling students. The Legislature needs to help to find a solution to prevent more students from dropping out, he said.

“We have a number of children who had been affected, for example, by this pandemic, who were on the bottom,” Dutton said. “The only thing that’s happened to them is they set a new level for the bottom.”

Dutton also said he wanted to provide students with as many options as possible for school, and feels all lawmakers should support charter schools for this reason.

“With charter schools, I just didn’t think that we were providing enough alternatives in the way of schools to make sure that every child who was in a situation had an opportunity to get a public education,” Dutton said. “And we should always do that.”

How will the public education committee address the effects of the pandemic and winter storm on public education?

Texas has received $5.5 billion in federal stimulus money for schools, and Dutton said lawmakers are working to allocate it to districts that have been hit the hardest by both the pandemic and the storm.

Students should be physically back in school as soon as possible, Dutton said. He said the vaccination rollout should have included teachers in its first phases. The first phases prioritize health care workers, adults over 65 and those with chronic medical conditions.

“They’re part of the first responders, the way I think of teachers,” Dutton said.

He also said districts need to work to locate students who may have dropped off the map during the pandemic, and parents need to understand the importance of sending their children to in-person classes.

Right now, school districts across Texas are offering in-person, hybrid and virtual learning.

“Being at school and not necessarily in the classroom, you learn a lot of things about socialization and dealing with other people,” Dutton said. “You may learn your ABCs, but what good does it do if you don’t know how that relates to the person next door?”

What will happen with the STAAR test this spring and how will its result be evaluated?

For this school year, state officials have required schools to administer the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or the STAAR test, in person at a monitored testing site. The state has made it easier for parents to opt their students out of the test this year, but some high school students may not graduate on time if they do not take the tests.

Dutton said lawmakers should review STAAR and standardized testing as a whole, especially in the current situation.

“What’s happened, in almost every household, is that children have had a downturn in how they have been able to achieve educationally,” Dutton said. “I’m just convinced that we need to take a look at the testing overall. And certainly, in light of now, the situation now, we need to back off from it.”

Dutton said moving the STAAR test to the fall could alleviate some pressure, but he wants to focus on long-term consequences of “testing for the sake of testing.” Instead of the STAAR, Dutton recommended increasing diagnostic testing.

“What is [the test] really measuring?” Dutton said. “Is it measuring their student achievement? Is it measuring their emotional behavior? Is it measuring how they’ve been able to respond to this pandemic?…The deficit in learning is going to manifest itself.”

How will state funding of schools work, especially since attendance and enrollment has declined since the pandemic started?

The state normally bases school funding on attendance and enrollment rates but suspended that measure for the fall because of the pandemic, an arrangement known as a “hold harmless” agreement. Dutton said this agreement would continue, but he said schools also need to have motivation to keep attendance up and find students who have disappeared during the pandemic.

“The magnitude of the ‘hold harmless,’ we’re still debating and we’re still trying to figure it out because the devil is always in the details,” Dutton said. “But districts will be encouraged, even with the ‘hold harmless,’ to go out and find these kids, and get them back into their system.”

Dutton said he is working with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to make sure funding goes to districts that need it in a timely manner.

“We’re going to get it done,” Dutton said. “I know districts are hurting. … I just think that’s horrible for us, because that doesn’t just affect [students] this year, that affects them throughout the whole education career that they have in public schools, and ultimately affects all of us. We’ve got to do everything we can to make sure these kids get back in school as quickly as they can.”

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