Month: February 2019

School privatization group thinks a teacher pay raise would be “wasteful”

Although the Senate Finance Committee approved Senate Bill 3 to give all Texas classroom teachers an overdue, $5,000 across-the-board pay raise, not everyone is on board. One prominent Austin group thinks such a pay raise would be “wasteful.”

That would be the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which would rather turn public schools over to corporate-style charters or waste money on private school vouchers than adequately pay educators. Here is how Kara Belew, TPPF’s senior education policy adviser, was quoted in The Dallas Morning News this week: “Across-the-board pay raises (for teachers) are wasteful.”

Kara Belew needs to sit down and have a talk with TSTA member Virginia Caldwell, who told the Senate committee on Monday how she makes more money in one day as an Uber driver on the weekend than she makes in one day as an ESL teacher in Hutto ISD, despite having eight years of teaching experience and a master’s degree. Caldwell won’t be wasting a pay raise.

Neither will the thousands of other teachers who also have to take extra jobs during the school year to meet their families’ needs. This is about 40 percent of Texas teachers, according to TSTA’s most-recent moonlighting survey.

Other teachers are scrimping on their medical treatments and prescription drugs because they aren’t paid enough to afford them. They won’t be wasting a pay raise either.

And thousands of very effective teachers are quitting the profession each year because they simply can’t afford the low pay. That is what is really wasteful – for taxpayers and school children.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation wants to limit pay raises to a very limited number of teachers and make them jump through hoops – such as STAAR test scores – to “earn” what they and their colleagues already have earned – many times over.

TSTA will continue to fight for a significant pay raise for all teachers – to bring us as close as possible to closing the $7,300 gap by which average teacher pay in Texas trails the national average. We also will fight for state funding to increase pay for the other school professionals and support staff whose work also is critical to student success and safety. We also will seek better benefits for retired educators.

And we will fight against “merit” or incentive-based pay, which would unfairly – and wastefully — exclude the vast majority of hard-working, effective Texas educators.

Teachers and retired educators could use part of that $15 billion

Fifteen billion dollars. Most of us will never see anything close to that much money in our lifetimes, but it happens to be the record balance that the state comptroller has forecast for the state of Texas’ savings account, more commonly called the Rainy Day Fund.

It’s a nice big nest egg of taxpayer money that the Legislature reserves for emergencies and state leaders are reluctant to spend. But you don’t have to look far to find an emergency in Texas, and the House Democratic Caucus has correctly concluded that there is an emergency – many emergencies, actually — in funding for public education.

The caucus has proposed taking $180 million from the savings account to give every school teacher a $500 check for classroom supplies, so they don’t have to keep digging so deeply into their own pockets to subsidize their budget-strapped school districts. Most teachers, who are under-paid and dealing with rising health care costs, will tell you that is an emergency.

The Democratic lawmakers also have proposed taking a larger amount — $1.57 billion – of Rainy Day money to stabilize the Teacher Retirement System pension fund so that retired educators may be able to get a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), which most retirees haven’t seen in 15 years. Most retirees will tell you that is an emergency, a personal financial emergency for individuals who don’t get Social Security, whose health care costs also are rising and whose average monthly pension payment is only $2,060.

The caucus also wants to use “extra money” in the Rainy Day Fund to create a special account that can be invested in the Teacher Retirement System. That would still leave billions of dollars in the state’s piggy bank.

True, Texas has a lot of other emergencies, some the result of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, and others the result of political disasters, such as years of legislative neglect of education, health care, transportation and other important public services.

Teachers and retired educators have a valid claim to make for emergency assistance from the Rainy Day Fund or from the state’s general revenue stream. The state has an obligation to provide financial assistance from one source or the other, and a fifteen-billion-dollar mountain of money is a good place to spark a discussion.

I don’t think most taxpayers want to see that much money just sitting there. It may not make us feel rich, but it’s our money. So let’s use some of it to help out people who really need it.

How long will San Antonio ISD still need principals?

State Education Commissioner Mike Morath has been eagerly encouraging school districts to turn campuses over to outside partners – notably charters – and he has found a no more-avid partner in this effort than San Antonio ISD and its superintendent, Pedro Martinez.

Last year, Morath approved SAISD’s decision to turn over Stewart Elementary School to Democracy Prep, a New York-based charter chain, despite opposition from TSTA and the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, who believe the deal violated several provisions of state law, including a requirement that Stewart teachers and parents be given meaningful input into the decision. They weren’t.

Stewart teachers lost their district contracts and are now employed by Democracy Prep without the due process safeguards provided public school teachers under state law. But the district got some extra funding under another state law, SB1882, which encourages these partnerships for struggling schools, and it got two more years to bring Stewart up to state accountability standards. It remains to be seen if Democracy Prep will be able to do that, since charters have mixed, at best, records on overall student achievement. But turnover fever has taken hold in San Antonio ISD, where, according to the San Antonio Express-News, principals of as many as 10 other campuses are considering partnerships with outside organizations – charters, non-profits, higher education institutions or government agencies.

These schools aren’t necessarily struggling campuses, and teachers’ jobs and contractual rights may not be on the line, the newspaper reported. But what about the principals’ jobs?

The new partner organizations will be accountable to SAISD academically and financially, but the partner organizations will control staffing, curriculum and other decisions made at the campus level. The district, according to the newspaper, will require the outside partners to allow principals “equal say” in hiring decisions, but what else will the principals be doing?

Will the principals still have enough to do to justify the district keeping them on its payroll at their current salaries? Or would that be administrative overload? How many will go to work for the charter or other outside partner?

Valentine ISD, home of the 4-1 student-teacher ratio

Texas has about 5.4 million public school students, and 39 of them go to school in Valentine ISD, a one-school district that is so isolated in the mostly empty reaches of West Texas that, to most of us, it may as well be on the moon. There is no gasoline station in the tiny town, and residents have to drive 30 miles to the nearest grocery store.

But Valentine is not on the moon. It is under the jurisdiction of the Texas Education Agency and operates within the gravity pull of the STAAR-spangled Texas accountability system. And, as the story from Marfa Public Radio, linked below, reports, it earned an A in the new A-F grading system last year.

There is no way, of course, to compare the challenges of a rural, one-campus, 39-student district with the multitude of issues of Houston ISD and its 200,000-plus urban enrollment, or even to compare Valentine ISD with most rural districts. You also can make a valid argument that Valentine shouldn’t even be rated on the same scale as Houston or Dallas or Austin ISD. For that matter, why do we keep wasting time and resources on STAAR anyway?

But all those issues aside, the Valentine experience showcases the basics of education – the value of teachers and small classes. Valentine has 10 teachers for its 39 students, a student-teacher ratio of 4-1, with teachers crossing grade levels and giving all their students lots of individual attention.

Individual instruction from teachers, in Valentine or Houston, is crucial to student success, not only on STAAR but also on the more important goal of public schools – preparing students for life. And even though there is high teacher turnover in rural Texas, most of Valentine’s teachers are experienced educators, and they obviously are making a difference.

Valentine was one of 38 single-campus districts that received a scaled score of 90 or higher (the equivalent of an A) on the accountability ratings last year.

Some may suggest that tiny districts should be consolidated with their neighbors, although that isn’t always feasible because many West Texas schools are many miles apart. In some cases, consolidation also may be strongly opposed by local residents who fear it would destroy their sense of community.

Consolidation aside, the teacher is the heart of education, and the critical issue – in Valentine or Houston or anywhere in between — is class size. A 4-1 student-teacher ratio, of course, is not realistic for the vast majority of Texas school districts. But 22-1 is, or it should be, and it is the law for kindergarten through fourth grade. But districts continue to plead financial hardship and get waivers for larger classes.

It is time for legislators to put limits on the waivers, and the only realistic way to do that is to increase state funding for public schools.

School finance reform is on the agenda for this legislative session, and real school finance reform starts with more state funding, including for higher teacher pay and smaller classes.

How one tiny school district in rural West Texas is making it work