This summer Iíve had the opportunity to speak with a lot of different groups and one of the most common questions I get is, ďWhat new laws did the legislature pass this session that will affect me?Ē

With our children embarking on a new school year, I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about some of the new laws passed this past session dealing with public education.

State funding for public education increased this past session; general revenue funding in support of our public schools increased more than $2 billion for the biennium beginning Sept. 1. The majority of this increase covers enrollment growth in our schools. A large portion of the remaining increase goes towards teacher incentive pay ($342 million) and an across the board pay increase for teachers ($280 million). The House of Representatives passed a budget with a substantially higher amount for the across the board teacher pay raise, but this amount was reduced in the final budget negotiations with the Senate. While I would have preferred a larger pay increase for all of our teachers, this funding will hopefully bring salaries for Texas teachers closer to the national average and offset some of the recent cost of living increases brought about, in part, by higher gas prices.

The new state budget also includes $50 million for a new program targeted towards preventing students from dropping out of high school. The dropout rate in Texas schools continues to be one of the most troubling problems in our public education system. I hope the results from this new program will give us some fresh ideas towards addressing this issue. The legislature also provided nearly $500 million in funding for textbooks and other instructional materials.

One of the biggest accomplishments of this past session was the ability to provide additional funding for public education while still keeping our commitment to lower local property taxes. In addition to the new money for our schools, the legislature appropriated over $14 billion towards reducing local property taxes to $1 (from the statewide average of $1.50 just two years ago). Property owners should finally begin to see a real reduction in their property taxes this fall.

In terms of legislation, one of the most significant bills to pass this session (SB 1031) phases out the TAKS test and replaces it with new end-of-course exams. This bill had widespread support from educators and parents alike. The end-of-course exams will test high school studentsí proficiency in English, algebra, geometry, world history, U.S. history, biology, chemistry and physics, beginning in the 2010-11 school year. These exams will count towards 15 percent of the studentsí final course grade.

Two bills passed this session that address public safety issues for students. The first (SB 9) requires all school districts to begin conducting criminal background checks on all school employees. As part of this legislation, school districts have until Sept. 1, 2011, to ensure that all existing teachers have been fingerprinted.

The second bill (HB 323) requires new buses purchased by a school district after Sept. 1, 2010. to be equipped with lap and shoulder seatbelts. Beginning Sept. 1, 2011, all buses contracted by a district must be equipped with these belts. However, both of these provisions are contingent on the state reimbursing districts for the cost of making these changes.

The dangers of steroid use have received a lot of attention in the media this year, and legislation aimed at preventing steroid use among student athletes passed with widespread support. This new legislation (SB 8) will require students participating in UIL or school-sponsored athletic activities to submit to random steroid testing.

Two additional pieces of legislation passed this session generated significant attention, and controversy, and have already resulted in lawsuits being filed against some school districts. The first bill (HB 1287), which allows school districts to offer an elective course about the Bible, generated significant controversy because in its original form, all school districts would have been required to offer the course. The version that finally passed grants districts the option of offering the course and requires that the course offered be taught in a way that follows all state and federal laws concerning the separation between church and state.

The second bill (HB 3678) is aimed at clarifying a studentís right to express their religious views at school. This bill requires all districts in the state to adopt a policy that outlines at what types of events, and how, a student may express their religious viewpoint. Despite being well intentioned, many expect there to be several lawsuits filed over how districts actually implement the provisions of this bill, with the outcome of those suits possibly taking years to determine.

Finally, Iíd like to close on two positive notes.

First, Iím proud to note that according to the 2007 accountability rankings released by the Texas Education Agency the schools in Ellis and Hill counties are performing very well. Of the 80 campuses in these two counties, 27 received the ranking of recognized, and nine received the stateís highest ranking of exemplary. Itís also important to note that none of the Ellis or Hill County schools was ranked below academically acceptable.

Second, results just released by TEA show that not only are more Texas students taking the SAT and ACT in preparation for attending college than in the past, the reading and math scores for Texas students actually increased by one point, while the national scores on the SAT declined in both of these categories. Increasing access to higher education and ensuring Texas students are prepared for college-level coursework are two of the biggest challenges we face in this state. These statistics show weíre making some progress in this direction.

Iíd like to remind everyone that if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact my Waxahachie or Austin offices. Itís an honor and a privilege to serve you and my offices are always available to you if you need assistance.

Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, is in his 14th year of service as state representative for Ellis and Hill counties, House District No. 10.