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For Texas youths counting down the days before they head back to school this month, there's some good news: a longer summer vacation.
Most of Texas' 1,040 districts will start school the week of Aug. 21, a date specified by a new law effective this year. At least 80 districts received state permission to begin school earlier, including Keller Independent School District, which opened its doors the earliest on Aug. 5.
But regardless of the date, when school bells ring in the new year, Texas' 4.1 million public school students will meet a state education system that is getting harder. A lot harder.
The system will use a more difficult standardized test, higher attendance standards and other factors to rate schools, educators and students.
"Next year, when we introduce the more rigorous Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, which will cover more grades and subjects, it is likely that we will see drop in passing rates," acknowledges Education Commissioner Felipe Alanis.
Alanis says he believes the state is up for the challenge.
Texas schools will grow by an estimated 70,000 students this year, enough youngsters to create a school district about the size of the 126-school Fort Worth system.
At the same time, the state continues to battle a teacher and principal shortage that teachers' groups blame on low pay and discipline challenges. The State Board for Educator Certification estimates a teacher shortage of between 37,000 and 40,000.
Last school year, an estimated 42,808 teachers taught subjects for which they were not trained for at least half of their work day, the board estimates.
Earlier this month, two of the state's largest teachers organizations joined forces to ask for a $5,000 across-the-board pay raise.
The request was well-received by some, like gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez and state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, two Democrats who promise to lead the fight for better pay for Texas teachers who earn an average of $38,359 a year.
The conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy, on the other hand, called the proposal "outrageous" and said it was unrealistic in light of a tight budget.
The proposed hike for Texas' 275,000 public school teachers would cost $2.5 billion over the next two years, about 3 percent of the $114 billion budget.
The Texas State Teachers Association and Texas Federation of Teachers say boosting state educators to the national pay average will help students do well as the system gets tougher.
And, they say, it will help with the teacher shortage.
"We have 600,000 certified teachers in Texas. We just have to convince them to come back to the classroom," said Donna New Haschke, TSTA president.
Some districts, like the Dallas Independent School District, have made a dent in their vacancies by raising salaries and recruiting out of state.
DISD offers starting teachers $37,000, among the highest beginning salaries in the state, along with signing bonuses and other incentives such as laptop computers. Out of 10,000 positions, less than 100 are unfilled going into this school year, said spokesman Don Claxton.
"The word is getting out that if you want to think about teaching you should think about Dallas ISD," Claxton said. "Without good teachers you won't have good students, and we are out to get the best teachers in the state and in the country."
Also beginning this school year, no longer will third-graders be advanced to the fourth grade if they are not academically ready and fail the state-mandated test. The ban on so-called social promotion is another major change to the accountability system.
Texas schools are undergoing a number of safety upgrades since last September's terrorist attacks.
Safety and emergency response plans have been revamped and teachers and other employees will be trained to deal with potential acts of terrorism.
Gene Acuna, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Rick Perry, said training also will prepare school officials to deal with natural disasters, such as tornadoes, hurricanes or floods.
The Texas Education Agency is installing a $175,000 Statewide Education Notification System, allowing state officials to send emergency messages to school districts through e-mail, phones, pagers and fax machines.
"The Sept. 11 tragedy and the aftermath of that day convinced us that we need to be able to reach all 1,200 school districts and charter schools in an instant," said Ron McMichael, the state's deputy education commissioner.