Week of Sept. 5-11, 2016 (early, pre-Labor Day delivery)

Education chief announces fines assessed to testing service
AUSTIN — Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Aug. 23 announced the Texas Education Agency will fine the company that delivers and administers STAAR® — the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness — with $5.7 million in liquidated damages.
Morath also directed the company, Austin-based Educational Testing Services, to invest $15 million for a total of $20.7 million. The $20.7 million, according to the TEA, “addresses various logistical issues encountered by students and school systems during statewide STAAR administration in the 2015-2016 school year.”
“I believe this combination of liquidated damages with an additional financial commitment from ETS reflects the correct balance of accountability for the recent past and safeguards for the future,” Morath said in an Aug. 29 news release. 
ETS holds the state contract for the administration of high-stakes testing for grades 3 through 8 and high school STAAR end-of-course exams. That contract was awarded in 2015. 
Rep proposes alternatives
State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, on Aug. 29 called for reform “in light of more bad news about Texas’ standardized testing system, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.”
Isaac pointed to the $20 million fine assessed to Educational Testing Services by the Texas Education Agency, which he said is “possibly the largest such fine in Texas history.”
“I’m pleased that the Texas Education Agency has taken significant steps to improve STAAR, but it’s clear there is still more work to be done. School districts should not be hampered by an inefficient and ineffective system. Adding a dose of free-market philosophy to education by allowing a variety of standardized test options can only drive down costs and improve quality.
“I hope my colleagues will join me when the 85th legislative session convenes in seeking transformational changes that will ensure that testing is a benefit, not a burden, to Texas’ students, teachers, and families,” Isaac added.
Zika testing recommended
The federal Food and Drug Administration, in response to requests by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, and a group of other members of Congress, last week announced it would recommend widespread testing of blood donations for the Zika virus.
Doggett, a senior member of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee, pointed out that Congress still needs to achieve “a bipartisan answer to provide all the funding that the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health need to fight the virus and develop a vaccine.”
Nelda Laney laid to rest
Nelda McQuien Laney, 73, wife of former Texas House Speaker James E. “Pete” Laney, died Aug. 24, after a battle with an inoperable brain tumor. Burial was in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin on Aug. 30.
Mrs. Laney is widely remembered as a driving force and champion in everything she undertook in her many private and official roles.
Revered lawmaker dies
William McKinnie “Bill” Sims, 84, died Aug. 29. Sims, of Paint Rock, was first elected to the Texas Senate in 1983 and held office until 1997. 
His Senate District 24 covered as many as 37 Central and West Texas counties and portions of others. He was considered a champion of farmers and ranchers. He served as president pro tempore of the Senate in the 72nd session of the Texas Legislature.
Grant money is available
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Aug. 26 announced the agency will accept grant applications for the Texas Clean Vehicle Fleet Program through Oct. 18.
The grants encourage businesses, governments and other entities to replace their large fleets of diesel-powered vehicles with alternative fuel or hybrid vehicles. Up to $5.9 million is available to those that qualify.
Grant applicants must commit to replacing at least 20 diesel-powered vehicles with hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles.  More information is available at terpgrants.org.
Salvinia campaign underway
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department on Aug. 26 promoted Lake Dudes, a new, animated video series launched to capture the attention of boaters and enlist their help in stopping the spread of giant salvinia, an invasive waterweed that threatens to take over Texas lakes.
Lake Dudes is part of a campaign designed to remind boaters to “Clean, Drain and Dry” their boats, trailers and gear before traveling from one lake or river to another, because boats are the main way aquatic invasive species are spread. 
The campaign also includes online and radio ads, billboards, gas station advertising, emails and social media as conduits.
In 2015, the Texas Legislative appropriated $6.3 million to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for the 2016-2017 biennium to manage aquatic invasive species, an increase from $1.1 million in the previous two-year funding cycle.