House Higher Education Committee

UT Government Professor James Henson and Texas State Representative Dan Branch hold a panel on education in the state of Texas at the downtown Hilton hotel on Monday afternoon. The panel was part of SXSWedu.

Photo Credit: Jorge Corona | Daily Texan Staff

State Senate and House educational leaders discussed technological education reform and reformatting college readiness testing during a policy forum on the first day of SXSWedu.

SXSWedu is a four-day event that hosts education panelists and speakers and is part of the annual SXSW Conference and Festival. In a series of panels focused on policy, State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, and Senator Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, dissected the higher education issues to be discussed during the current legislative session.

Branch, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said the most pressing issues for higher education are testing accountability, fiscal restraints and technologically revolutionizing the college classroom.

“Higher education seems to be in this crucible,” Branch said. “We have this notion of fiscal restraint and therefore higher education is finding itself having to do as much with less.”

Branch and Allen strongly promoted incorporating technology in the classroom both at the K-12 and higher education levels to push students to graduate with a college degree — an initiative UT has implemented and made concrete partnerships to promote.

A year after the UT System Board of Regents voted to offer massive open online courses, UT-Austin will offer free online courses starting this fall through edX, a nonprofit distributor of interactive online courses.

In 2011, the System also invested $10 million in the MyEdu website to facilitate planning degrees and online advising in an effort to increase graduation rates.

Allen, a former educator and vice-chair of the public education committee, said all public schools should track students’ progress throughout their college careers to measure effectiveness and efficiency of investing in human capital that prepares students in technological fields in which they are interested.

“In the K-12 program, we cut allocations for technology and say ‘Don’t bring that laptop in here,’” Allen said. “We walk them into a classroom and say ‘Open that book and turn to page 22’ completely turning them off. We need to think 30 years out, not us sitting here today.”

Seliger and Allen also discussed the importance of reformatting public education testing to show progress and college readiness. Both politicians said they would be pushing for this during the session.

“We want K-12 to align very, very closely with higher education so for those young people who wish to access higher education will be prepared for where they end up,” Seliger said. “We get far more information about students from SAT testing reports than we do from the STAAR testing.”

Seliger, chairman of the Senate Committee on Higher Education, said the public education system lacked technical and STEM pathways.

“It doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all-students but one-size-serves-all-students,” Seliger said.

SXSW partnered with the Texas Tribune to produce the policy forum.

Printed on Tuesday, March 5, 2013 as: SXSWedu launches with policy panels

After allegations arose earlier this week that the UT System Board of Regents is micromanaging President William Powers Jr., the Texas Legislature took steps Wednesday to limit regents’ powers over individual institutions within a university system.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo and Senate Higher Education Committee chairman, filed a bill that would limit the reach of university boards of regents into the affairs of individual universities within a system. 

Additionally, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said that he and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus will relaunch a joint oversight committee formed in 2011 to examine regents’ proper governance role over individual institutions. 

Seliger’s bill would amend state law to say that all duties and responsibilities not specifically granted to university systems or governing boards of those university systems fall under the authority of the individual institutions of that system. Nine other senators co-authored the bill, including four members of the Senate Higher Education Committee. 

Seliger said in a statement that the bill aims to preserve institutional autonomy in the same way the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects state sovereignty from overreach by the federal government. 

“It was made clear on Monday that university governance and allegations of micromanagement by the regents is an issue the Senate takes very seriously,” Seliger said.

Meanwhile, legislators will also examine the relationship between boards of regents and university administrations.

Speaking to reporters on the Senate floor, Dewhurst said the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency will be made up of the higher education committees from both houses and additional members to examine regents’ proper governance role in an institution. 

Dewhurst said he believes the job of regents is to advise institutions on policy matters and provide consent to those institutions to move forward with policy, not to manage individual institutions. 

“I don’t pretend to be an authority on the governance of higher education, but that’s the way that our universities, over decades and decades, have been run very effectively,” Dewhurst said.

Dewhurst said he signed a proclamation that will create the committee, which will be co-chaired by Seliger and state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas who chairs the House Higher Education Committee. The proclamation still requires Straus’ signature. 

The committee will have subpoena power, or the ability to summon witnesses to testify and to procure evidence related to the subject of investigation. 

Dewhurst said complaints he has received have revolved around three regents, not the majority of the board or board chairman Gene Powell.

Dewhurst and Straus formed the joint committee in 2011 after a series of controversial moves by the UT System Board of Regents including hiring a “special adviser” to the board who openly questioned the value of academic research.

The committee held a series of hearings featuring testimony from board chairmen, higher education governance experts and system chancellors from across the state. The committee explored the relationship between regents from across the state with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. 

The announcement comes at a tense period between the regents and the UT administration. During the Feb. 13 regents meeting, three regents — Alex Cranberg, Wallace Hall and Brenda Pejovich, each appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 — intensely questioned Powers on a number of topics. 

In response, the Legislature passed three resolutions Monday honoring Powers. During a ceremony on the Senate floor, Dewhurst offered an emotional defense of Powers and said he received numerous complaints that the regents were subverting Powers’ authority and disrupting the System’s governance structure. 

“I believe in reform, and I know Bill Powers believes in reform,” Dewhurst said Monday. “That’s why I’m particularly troubled when I see UT regents go around this man. I see them try to micromanage the system.”

Printed on Thursday, February 21, 2013 as: Legislature files bill to limit power of regents 

A mix of old and new faces will fill the House Higher Education Committee, which was announced Thursday.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus renamed state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the committee. State Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, will succeed former state Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, as vice chair. Castro was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

In addition to Branch and Patrick, returning members include state Reps. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas; Donna Howard, D-Austin; and John Raney, R-College Station. New members are state Reps. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo; Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco; Jim Murphy, R-Houston; and freshman Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches.

In a statement following the committee announcement, Howard said she looks forward to working with Branch as the committee addresses the state’s higher education needs.

“Our state’s position as an economic leader depends on a well-educated workforce,” Howard said. “We must ensure that our diverse population is prepared to meet tomorrow’s challenges.”

The new committee includes six Republicans and three Democrats, differing from the makeup of the previous membership, which included five Republicans and four Democrats.

Sherri Greenberg, former member of the Texas House of Representatives and director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, said she does not think this slight shift in partisan alignment will significantly affect the committee’s decision-making process. 

“At this point, I don’t think it will be a big difference,” Greenberg said. “I think we will see a very reasoned debate.”

Some committee members have filed bills that would freeze tuition for undergraduates, tie more university formula funding to student success and establish a law school in the Rio Grande Valley.

Branch filed a bill that would require universities to offer students the option of paying fixed-rate tuition if they graduate within the time allotted by their degree plan. Branch also authored a bill that would tie 25 percent of university formula funding to student outcomes such as graduation rates. Gov. Rick Perry expressed support for both initiatives during his State of the State address Tuesday.

Martinez filed a bill that would allow the board of regents of a university system to establish a law school in Cameron or Hidalgo counties near the Texas-Mexico border.

Texas Speaker of the House names House Higher Education Committee

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus named committees of the Texas House of Representatives Thursday, including the nine members of the House Higher Education Committee.

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, will remain chairman of the committee and Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, will succeed former state Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, as vice chair. Castro was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

In addition to Branch and Patrick, returning members include state Reps. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, Donna Howard, D-Austin, and John Raney, R-College Station.

New members are Reps. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, and Jim Murphy, R-Houston, and freshman Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches.

In a statement accompanying the appointments, Straus said he considered members’ expertise and representative districts when making his decisions.

“All of the committee appointments highlight the House’s strong mix of experienced leaders and newer members who are ready to take on greater responsibility,” Straus said. “After traveling around the state to visit with Members before the session and talking to them over the last few weeks, I am very encouraged that the House is ready to tackle the serious challenges our state faces.”

In a statement following the committee announcement, Howard said she looks forward to working with Branch as the committee addresses the state’s higher education needs.

"Our state's position as an economic leader depends on a well-educated workforce," Howard said. "We must ensure that our diverse population is prepared to meet tomorrow's challenges."

Editor’s note: Texas State Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas) serves as chair of the House Higher Education Committee. He spoke with Daily Texan associate editor Pete Stroud about the diminished higher education budget, outcomes-based funding and how he hopes the 83rd Legislature will anticipate the outcome of the pending U.S. Supreme Court Fisher decision. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Daily Texan: How does this session’s planned budget for UT differ from recent years?

Dan Branch: If you look at just the general revenue appropriated funds, the base budget is a little bit less than two years ago. Because it’s a starting point, I think there are plenty of opportunities for changes to the base budget, so I think it would be premature to somehow predict that UT is going to do much better or much worse or even the same ... by the time we get to late May.

DT: Why have you pushed for outcomes-based funding?

DB: [We need] to put a little more incentive on completion rather than just enrollment. Now, we incentivize enrollment very much in the process, and my goal is to put a little more balance in that and have some incentives on the back end, where we need to do better ... In fact, I was really pleased that [UT President Bill] Powers sort of laid down the gauntlet for all of our four-year universities by making a bold prediction that the 2012 fall entering class would be held accountable to graduate at 70 percent in four years.

DT: You filed a bill that would require universities to offer fixed, four-year tuition plans. If passed, how would your bill make college more affordable?

DB: It gives certainty to students and parents, and any funders of higher ed — you know that if your student is one that’s interested in getting in and out in four years you’ve got a fixed price. My legislation doesn’t make it mandatory that that be the only price a school can offer. What it calls for is that each public university will give the option. So you can either buy higher education by the semester or year, as we price it today in most places, or you could buy it for eight semesters or four years at a fixed price. And obviously if you do that there’s going to be a bit of a premium built in on the front end because you know you’re going to likely get a discount on the back end because you’re getting a fixed price over four years. It’s also designed to encourage people to get in and get out ... and that’s the best way to keep your costs down ... And if you’re getting financial aid, you free up that financial aid for the next student.

DT: How will the Legislature as a whole and your committee specifically react if the state wins or loses Fisher v. UT?

DB:  We anticipate based on past history that the Supreme Court will rule probably in the late spring and therefore to be prudent, I anticipate introducing legislation to preserve the Top Ten Percent Reforms ... because in the reform package that we passed in 2009 ... was an amendment that got added to the bill that said that if there was a change in admissions policy as a result of a court ruling, all the reforms would go away. It was a sort of killer amendment. And my argument would be  that it would now be timely to remove that portion of the reform package from statute, because ... if [UT’s race-influenced admissions] were to be struck down by the Supreme Court, then all the Top Ten Percent reforms would fall and we would have chaos in 2014 before we come back into session ... To me it makes much more sense to take that piece out of the statute and anticipate that there could be a ruling that could affect UT’s admissions, and if it does, then we would have smoothed out any risk of this sort of chaos in 2014. And those who want to revisit the reforms, they would have the opportunity in the 2015 legislative session to [do so]... But we can do that in a way that’s orderly, and not somehow that would just sort of pull the rug out from under UT because we had a Supreme Court ruling that all of a sudden, because of this amendment from 2009, rips out all of the reforms — and there would be no governor at all on the Top Ten Percent rule, which is what we had in place before 2009. There was nothing in law to prevent 30,000 students from having an automatic right in the state of Texas to come to UT-Austin. And as you know, the UT-Austin entering class last year was a little over 8,000 students, and we would not have a way to take on that sort of capacity if all the reforms were to go away ... I think at a minimum, whether you’re rural, urban, right of center, left of center, we can all agree that we shouldn’t do something that would unintentionally harm UT and disrupt its admissions process while we weren’t in session and able to address it.

Bookstore representatives and a UT student testified before the House Higher Education Committee on Wednesday in support of a bill that would make college and university textbooks more affordable. Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, authored the bill, which would require colleges and universities to directly inform students of textbook-purchasing resources other than the university’s bookstore, require professors to use all materials students purchase and require universities to post all booklists early enough for students to explore alternatives. “There are many, many students who don’t understand [the options], particularly first-generation college students,” Branch said. Branch said the bill would also aim to increase the affordability of student textbooks by supporting the use of alternative textbook options, such as used, paperback and online versions of textbooks, as well as ensuring professors use all assigned material. “Sometimes, you’ll go the whole semester and hardly use the book,” Branch said. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said he doesn’t understand why the bill encourages schools to inform students of alternative book purchasing options specifically, although he does support lowering the cost of higher education in general. “I see the spirit of the bill,” Castro said. “They are not obligated to promote Burger King, Jack in the Box or McDonalds in lieu of their cafeteria — why the distinction of books?” Stephanie Gibson, a representative of several bookstores, said she hopes the bill will not encourage universities to promote certain retailers over others in the community. “We want to ensure the most fair, educated business environment in which textbook costs are low, but also we want to address the issue of allowing businesses to thrive, especially in today’s economic environment,” Gibson said. Marc Eckhart, a regional Barnes & Noble manager, said it offers textbooks in multiple formats and makes the process of acquiring them as easy and transparent as possible. Eckhart said a section of the bill that limits the posting of course-required textbooks each semester to colleges and universities undermines the work many bookstores already do to gather and distribute the information themselves. “The bill as it is currently written could cause colleges and universities to spend their time, money and resources to duplicate a process of gathering and posting the information that already exists,” Eckhart said. Alex Jones, who recently won a seat on the University Co-op Board of Directors, said he hopes the bill will pass to make the process of book buying cheaper. “The innovative efforts to make course material transparent and available to students earlier allows us to explore options and ultimately purchase cheaper, used material, which costs on average 45 percent less than new,” Jones said.