“The new Dan Patrick!” said Royce West, a Democratic senator from Dallas, in earshot of the Senate’s crowded press table. It was Monday afternoon, midway through the Senate’s discussion of their version of House Bill 5, which had been sponsored, in the Senate, by Patrick—the Republican from Houston who is chair of the Senate Education Committee and has, in both capacities, occasionally frustrated his colleagues on both sides of the aisle during the course of this session.

Not so much on Monday, though. Apart from a moment of friction with Tommy Williams, a Republican from The Woodlands who described himself as “shocked beyond all belief” when Patrick took a moment to think out loud about whether the state should pay for districts to administer a couple of optional diagnostic tests—it was smooth sailing for HB-5, one of the major education reform bills of the session.

The bill in question covers a lot of territory; several of the amendments the Senate considered actually originated as other bills, but had been turned into amendments and tacked onto HB-5 because the bills were languishing in various committees. The general purpose of HB-5, though, is to increase flexibility and rigor in Texas schools, by overhauling the state’s approach to testing, accountability, and the high school curriculum plans.

On testing, the Senate agreed with the House, and millions of angry parents in Texas, that the state’s current testing regime, while perhaps well intended, has gotten way out of hand; HB-5 slashes the number of mandatory end-of-course tests from 15 to five. As for accountability, the bill calls for Texas to grade its districts with letters, “A” through “F”, although individual schools will still be assessed as unacceptable, acceptable, recognized, or exemplary. The idea is one that was touted by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has made several appearances in Austin during the course of the session, and had signed a reform to that effect in Florida (which used to rate schools with Roman numerals).

The idea is that letter grades are more transparent, because everyone knows what an “F” means, whereas a parent who hears that a school is “unacceptable” can’t be sure whether that means the school is appalling or mediocre. And Patrick explained that the decision to rate districts had emerged from discussions he held with Democratic senators, including Royce West from Dallas and Kirk Watson from Austin. By rating districts rather than schools, he said, superintendents will be accountable for all the schools in the area, rather than writing any off as a perennial laggard. The reform elicited some criticism from Bob Deuell, a Republican senator from Greenville, who argued that rating a district with a “B” rather than the analogous “recognized” will have a “stigmatizing” effect. But that is, in a way, the point; the accountability advocates want the districts to aim higher than “B.” The amendment to that effect passed, and West made Patrick promise that he would insist on this provision when the bill goes to the conference committee. “Not only do you have my word,” said Patrick, “but Jimmie Don Aycock”—the chair of the House Committee on Public Education—”likes it as well.”

Now, as for the curriculum changes. This has not been the most visible aspect of HB-5, but it has been highly contentious among experts, and it may well prove to be the most influential for future generations of Texas students. As it stands, Texas has three plans for high school graduation: minimum, recommended, and distinguished. The “recommended” plan is the default plan, and it requires four credits (that is, four years) of English, math, science, and social studies, along with some foreign language study, some physical education, and various electives, for a total of 26 credits. With parental approval, however, a student may drop down to the “minimum” plan, which requires only 22 credits, including four in English, three in math, two in science, and three in social studies.

Roughly 20 percent of Texas’s high school students are, at the moment enrolled in the minimum program, and all of the senators seemed to agree that this is a problem. Advocates have, for years, argued that the state’s minimum plan is too minimal, insofar as it doesn’t prepare students for college or even for post-secondary training. “I really believe that the minimum plan just means a minimum-wage job,” said Leticia Van de Putte, a Democrat from San Antonio. Patrick described the problem from the state’s perspective: 80 percent of the “jobs of the future,” he said, will require more than a high school education, and so if 20 percent of Texas’s students don’t finish high school, and another 20 percent squeak by with the minimum plan, then there’s an obvious disjunct between the workforce the state will have and the workforce the state will want to have.

The senators broadly agreed, then, that they want more Texas students to receive a rigorous high school education, but there is some disagreement over what that means. HB-5 gets rid of the three-tiered system, and replaces it with a “foundation” diploma and four “endorsements.” As is the case with the minimum plan, students will need parental approval to drop down to the foundation plan. As a matter of course, they will choose one of the endorsements—business and industry, arts and humanities, STEM, or distinguished—at the beginning of their high school program.

As Patrick explained it, these reforms will increase flexibility, because the endorsements are tailored to a student’s particular skills and interests (and in Patrick’s view, the two are linked; a student, he said, is more likely to excel at the courses he or she loves. “We’re going to let their passion lead them instead of the system leading them,” Patrick told a gaggle of reporters after the Senate adjourned for the day.) And at the same time, Patrick said, the reforms improve rigor, because the new least rigorous option, the foundation plan, requires 26 credits, and adds one more credit to the science requirement.

There were some concerns expressed, on the floor, about whether this new structure would amount to “tracking”—nudging a student who might be a candidate for higher education, for example, into the vocational “business and industry” track, which allows for some public-private partnerships with companies or industries that want to do some workforce training in Texas’s public schools. Patrick sought to allay these concerns by pointing out that although students will choose their endorsement before they start high school, they’ll be asked to confirm their decision after their freshman year, and that in any case, it is easy enough to change; most of the “endorsements” vary by one or two courses.

The greater concern, for some senators, was whether, the additional science requirement notwithstanding, the new plan is rigorous enough. Specifically, neither the foundation plan nor the business and industry endorsement require Algebra II. That is controversial not because successful adults spend so much time graphing linear functions, but because studies have shown that success in Algebra II is predictive of college readiness. Conversely, students who haven’t taken Algebra II, or who have tried it but not passed, generally need remediation if they get to post-secondary education—and students who need remediation struggle to graduate from two-year and four-year college programs.

The argument against the Algebra II requirement—which is currently in the “recommended” plan, but not the “minimum” plan, is that not all students go to college, and for those who don’t intend to go to college, Algebra II might constitute a burden that could discourage some from finishing high school at all, which is worse than finishing with the bare minimum. The debate, to put it another way, is over whether Texas should try to maximize the number of students who are prepared for higher education, or the number of students who are prepared for higher education or vocational training.

Van de Putte, taking the latter view, offered an amendment that set what she called “a floor of rigor”—four years each of math, English, and science, rather than the four by three by three of HB-5’s foundation plan. To relegate a subset of students to a program that doesn’t render them ready for post-secondary education, she suggested, amounted to what the George W. Bush administration once dubbed the soft bigotry of low expectations—and it amounts to an equity issue. African-American students, Van de Putte observed, make up 18 percent of the students enrolled in the minimum plan, and only 4 percent of the students in the distinguished option. Hispanic students are, similarly, underrepresented in the distinguished plan. The discrepancy, she said, reflects expectations rather than capacity. For evidence, she pointed to the state’s top 10 percent rule. Research suggests that the black and Hispanic students who have earned automatic admission to the University of Texas since that law was passed have been as successful as white or Asian students at the university.  

In making this argument, Van de Putte is aligned with some unlikely allies, including Governor Rick Perry, who said, while the House was debating the bill, that he wants to protect academic rigor. But she eventually withdrew her amendment, “regretfully,” apparently in recognition of the fact that HB-5 had enough votes to pass the Senate as it was—and that the Senate’s version of the bill, in any case, now has to go to the conference committee, where the two chambers will reconcile any differences.