Bills that would protect students’ privacy, recognize schools’ success with vocational programs and create an office to investigate state education wrongdoing and fraud have been put forth by East Texas legislators.

State Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, said the elephant in the room this legislative session, which began Tuesday in Austin, is school finance.

“How do we have a balanced budget, which we’re required to do constitutionally knowing that resources are down,” he said. “How do we fund our schools adequately and keep the promises we made in House Bill 3 last session and have a balanced budget? I’m confident we can do it.”

VanDeaver has filed two bills related to education. He said House Bill 363 aims to protect student data.

The bill aims to limit the amount of student data that vendors can collect. VanDeaver said a district contacted him about those concerns.

“It limits it to the information that is absolutely necessary, and it requires (vendors) to use masking of student identification just like (the Texas Education Agency) uses when you get a report on testing,” he said. “This would require the vendors to use a similar masking system and limits the data mining they can do. I think it’s common sense.”

School districts have contracts with vendors to provide certain services such as tutoring, he said. Another such partnership is with the College Board, which administers the SAT/ACT college entrance exams.

“We have situations where vendors were gathering just an ungodly amount of information on students,” VanDeaver said.

There is no cost to the state if the bill becomes law, he said. He said the only opposition he has heard is from vendors.

Also, House Bill 773 relates to indicators of achievement in the state accountability system for schools.

“I’m convinced, and I think a lot of other people are convinced, we, over the last decade or more, have been so focused on college readiness that we have let the pendulum swing too far, and we have not given adequate recognition for students in vocational programs,” he said. “We are failing these students — we are preparing them for college, but we have to recognize not all are going to college.”

With this bill, VanDeaver hopes to add an indicator to the accountability system that would reward schools for successfully preparing students in career and technical education classes as well as vocational skills.

“The accountability system we have now really doesn’t recognize schools in these areas,” he said. “(The bill) allows the school districts to gain credit as students who successfully complete these programs that would be an indicator on the accountability system.”

VanDeaver said the bill is well received and also would cost the state nothing.

Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is one sponsor of Senate Bill 215, which aims to create an officer of inspector general at the TEA to investigate administration of public education.

Hughes did return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

If approved, the office would be responsible for the investigation, prevention and detection of wrongdoing and of fraud, waste and abuse in the administration of public education by school districts, open-enrollment charter schools, regional education service centers and other local education agencies in this state, according to the bill.

The education commissioner would appoint an inspector general to serve as director of the office.

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Kristen is the News-Journal's education reporter. A Longview native, she got a journalism degree and a graduate certificate at Texas Tech University. She covers a variety of issues, including school finance, board meetings and happenings at local schools.