(AUSTIN) —Higher education access, affordability and excellence will be enhanced by 12 bills passed by Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, during the 2015 legislative session and signed into law recently by Gov. Greg Abbott.
Improving Higher Education Governance
Three of the bills will improve transparency and accountability for the governing boards of Texas’ higher education institutions. Senate Bill (SB) 24 by Zaffirini and Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, for example, will expand and enhance the training required for members of governing boards of institutions of higher education. The new law will require regents to complete an intensive short orientation course covering key topics such as ethics and student privacy before than can vote on budget or personnel matters.
“This will ensure regents understand their roles, responsibilities and duties before they vote on these critical issues,” said Senator Zaffirini, former Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.
What’s more, SB 27 by Zaffirini and Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, will make the meetings of boards of regents more accessible to the public by requiring conference call meetings to be broadcast live over the Internet.
“The public has a right to know about the decisions made by these boards, especially because they impact not only the students, faculty and staff of these institutions, but also our entire state,” Senator Zaffirini said. “What’s more, broadcasting conference call meetings over the Internet will allow more Texans to access meetings without driving long distances.”
Another of Senator Zaffirini’s bills, SB 42, sponsored by Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, clarifies that student regent appointees must be selected from among students who apply for the position through their respective student governments.
“While the governor decides whom to appoint, this requirement ensures that students can participate in selecting their representative for their respective boards of regents,” Senator Zaffirini said.
She added that the law was clear before, but her bill was necessary because former Gov. Rick Perry named students who didn’t honor the process.
Senator Zaffirini’s legislation also empowers students to access affordable, high-quality higher education opportunities that will allow them to complete their degrees timely. To help them achieve that goal, SB 1714 by Zaffirini and Howard promotes reverse-transfer degree awards. It authorizes Texas institutions to participate in a national clearinghouse to share student information between four-year institutions and community colleges.
The cost of college is a significant obstacle for many students, which is why Senator Zaffirini supports opportunities for them to access financial aid and work-study programs. Another bill passed by Zaffirini and Howard, SB 947, calls for the state to explore the potential for greater work-study employment in the private sector.
“Students should have more opportunities to receive credit for relevant experience, whether it’s in the university setting or in a private sector position related to their field of study,” Senator Zaffirini.
The senator also authored and passed SB 1066, sponsored by Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, which helps more institutions continue participation in the Texas T-STEM Challenge Scholarship Program. Established by legislation she passed in 2013, this program provides scholarships to gifted students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, who also work part-time in these fields.
What’s more, Senator Zaffirini sponsored and passed Rep. Clardy’s House Bill (HB) 1583, requiring community colleges to offer at least five of their programs in block scheduling format, which has been successful in helping students be graduated on time.
A longtime champion for enhanced educational opportunities for persons with disabilities, Senator Zaffirini collaborated with Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, to pass SB 37 and HB 1807. They require the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to collect data regarding persons with disabilities’ participation in higher education and develop an inventory of post-secondary opportunities for this population.
An ardent advocate for university research at all levels, Senator Zaffirini also worked with Rep. Howard to pass SB 44, which clarifies that private gifts made to higher education institutions to support undergraduate research are eligible for matching grants under the Texas Research Incentive Program.
During the 2015 legislative session Senator Zaffirini passed 100 bills that became effective, breaking her personal record and passing more bills during the session than any other legislator. As the Senate’s top bill passer, she passed 44 Senate bills and 56 House bills, surpassing by 18 the next most productive senator and bringing her total bills passed and effective to 895.
A distinguished communicator, educator and leader, Senator Zaffirini holds B.S., M.A. and PhD degrees from The University of Texas at Austin, each with a 3.9 grade-point average. Her dedication to higher education is reflected in the name of Laredo Community College’s Senator Judith Zaffirini Library and Texas A&M International University’s Senator Judith Zaffirini Student Success Center. Her son, Carlos Jr., endowed a scholarship in her name at UT-Austin and another at the Baylor College of Medicine. The Beaumont Foundation also endowed a scholarship honoring her and her husband at Texas A&M International University, where the annual Senator Judith Zaffirini Medal is presented to faculty and students for accomplishments in scholarship and leadership.