Monday, November 29, 2010

Make the Rules Apply to Every Student

SB 66 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini would close an administrative loophole that prevents schools from expelling transfer students that violate the school's code of student conduct. To understand why the loophole exist in the first place let's take a look at how laws are made in Texas.

There are three major sets of laws that govern the State of Texas. The first is the Texas State Constitution. The State Constitution is superseded by federal law, but takes precedence over any other state law. It can only be amended if 2/3 of both the House and Senate agree to a statewide vote and then a majority of Texans vote to approve the amendment.

The second is State Statute. State Statute is superseded by the State Constitution, but takes precedence over Administrative Code. Statute is written by the Texas Legislature and must pass by a majority in both the Texas House and Senate and then be signed (or at least not vetoed) by the governor. All of the House and Senate bills discussed on this website are attempts to amend State Statute.

The third, and the issue that SB 66 is attempting to address, is Administrative Code. The Constitution and Statute contain enough laws to fill multiple bookshelves, but there are enough questions about exactly what some of those laws mean that the various state agencies have to create rules about exactly how to enforce the law. Different agencies go about this in different ways, but almost every state agency has a governing body that sets its administrative code.

In setting the administrative code the agency is supposed to look at the "legislative intent" of the legislature in passing the law (or proposed constitutional amendment) that is being interpreted. This is done by carefully reviewing the language of the law and looking at the hearings and floor debates that took place as the law was being considered.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) is responsible for creating rules to clarify the Texas Education Code. When the TEA took a look at Education Code Sec 25.036 the rule they created caused a loophole that meant that transfer students can not be expelled, even for severe violations of the school's student code of conduct.

Education Code Sec. 25.036. TRANSFER OF STUDENT. (a) Any child, other than a high school graduate, who is younger than 21 years of age and eligible for enrollment on September 1 of any school year may transfer annually from the child's school district of residence to another district in this state if both the receiving district and the applicant parent or guardian or person having lawful control of the child jointly approve and timely agree in writing to the transfer. (b) A transfer agreement under this section shall be filed and preserved as a receiving district record for audit purposes of the agency.
Seems reasonable right? If a parent wants to transfer their student to a different school district, and everyone involved is agreeable the law lets them do it. This could be used to move a child who has been the subject of bullying to a new school, or to give a child who has fallen in with a bad crowd and started making poor decisions a fresh start, or just make the process of dropping the kids off for school a little easier for a parent who commutes. It's a common sense solution. The problem arises from one word - "annually" - and the TEA's somewhat creative interpretation of it.

The TEA has determined that the limit of one transfer per year imposed by the statute means that a student, once transferred, can not be removed from their new district. This ties the hands of school administrators making it impossible for them to expel a transfer student, even for egregious violations of the student code of conduct.

(Why would the TEA create such a nonsensical rule? The money local school districts receive from the state is determined, in part, by student enrollment. Every time a student transfers districts the TEA must recalculate the disbursement. It would seem that, rather than do what's right for students, the TEA decided to save themselves some paperwork.)

SB 66 corrects the loophole created by the TEA rule by deleting the word "annually" from the statute and adding a provision specifically allowing the school districts to make compliance with the student code of conduct a provision of the students continued enrollment.

Sen. Zaffirini filed this legislation last session (SB 1445), but interference from the TEA prevented it from getting a hearing.

Being able to move bullies, or their victims, to a new district is a valuable tool - one we need. But the loophole created by the TEA's irresponsible rule removes accountability from the system. SB 66 marks a return to common sense.

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