Joe Moody

Merit pay a bad idea


El Paso ISD’s caretaker board of managers recently approved a 2.5 percent pay raise for all district employees. Yes, that is a bit of good news, but you may want to hold your applause because the board also has asked district officials to consider merit-based raises for the 2014-15 school year.

Merit pay is a very bad idea, and no one should know better than administrators in El Paso ISD. But some memories can be very short.

As a reminder, the El Paso district is still recovering from a cheating scandal that resulted in the previous superintendent – who had a financial incentive to artificially raise test scores — being sentenced to prison. The district was taken over by the state, and teachers are trying to help hundreds of children recover lost educational opportunities.

In naming the district’s temporary board of managers, state Education Commissioner Michael Williams included former state Rep. Dee Margo as president, even though Margo had used his one term in the House in 2011 to strike a blow against public schools. He voted for $5.4 billion in school budget cuts.

The cuts crammed tens of thousands of school children into overcrowded classrooms, cost thousands of school employees their jobs and prompted many of our best, most experienced teachers to take incentives to retire early. Consequently, over the past two years, the average teacher pay in this state dropped by $528 a year. Texas now has the dubious distinction of paying its teachers more than $8,000 below the national average.

This year, the Legislature, with the help of Margo’s successor, state Rep. Joe Moody, restored part of the $5.4 billion, and El Paso ISD and a number of other school districts have been approving pay raises. The raises, however, will do little to cure Texas’ compensation deficiency.

With average teacher pay in Texas lagging so far behind the national average, a Texas school district has no business considering merit pay for a small group of teachers.

We need to continue to raise pay for all teachers, the vast majority of whom are good educators. Overpaying “bad” teachers in Texas is not a problem. The problem is underpaying good teachers and forcing many of them to leave the classroom in order to be able to support their families. That is the real threat to educational quality for school children.

Education is a collaborative effort that takes several years to develop. A teacher’s success in the middle and later grades is affected by how well his or her students were taught in earlier grades. So, it wouldn’t be fair to single out, say, an eighth grade teacher for a merit pay raise without taking into account all the other teachers who have taught the same students over the years.

Another problem with merit pay is that it usually is based heavily on students’ scores on standardized tests, a woefully incomplete measure of a teacher’s success. High-stakes testing has become such a flash point for parent and educator frustration that the Legislature this year significantly reduced the number of graduation tests for high school students.

El Paso ISD, in particular, should know better than to try to tie pay to test scores. The district’s managers need to pull their heads out of the Chihuahuan Desert sand and shelve the merit idea.




Another school budget-cutter tries to fool voters


“Lie” is such a harsh word. So, let’s use “fabrication” to describe State Rep. Dee Margo’s very wordy attempt to deny the fact that he voted last year to cut $5.4 billion from public education. Those cuts included $76 million, according to Texas Education Agency estimates, from El Paso County school districts in House District 78, where Margo is trying to convince voters to reelect him.

In an effort to claim he is a “friend” of public schools when, indeed, he isn’t, Margo sunk some campaign cash in a multi-page flyer, complete with charts and citations, that purports to explain the education funding problem. In truth, the handout is a piece of self-serving drivel that omits the real problem with school funding and ignores Margo’s role in worsening it.

Although you won’t find any mention of this in Margo’s flyer, Gov. Rick Perry started digging the deep financial hole for school districts in 2006, when he convinced the legislative majority to order deep cuts in local school property taxes without providing for enough state revenue to cover the districts’ losses. The property tax savings soon vanished, and schools have been struggling with funding ever since because the uneven swap created a permanent, $5 billion annual shortfall in the public education budget. But the scheme gave Perry what he wanted – bragging rights to “tax cuts” in a reelection year.

Margo, a loyal soldier in Perry’s anti-education army, blames the funding problem, instead, on the 2009 legislative session, when then-State Rep. Joe Moody represented El Paso in District 78. That year, the Legislature covered the school budget shortfall by spending several billion dollars in one-time-only federal stimulus money. That was the only option, since Perry and the legislative leadership were adamant against raising state taxes. Gov. Perry, who attacks President Obama at every opportunity, was, nevertheless, more than happy to let the President help him balance the state budget.

But once the federal stimulus money was gone, Perry continued his attack on the public schools. Margo, who unseated Moody in 2010, helped Perry dig the schools’ budgetary hole even deeper in 2011 by voting to slash $5.4 billion from school funding. Even without federal help, Margo and the legislative majority had about $6 billion in the Rainy Day Fund, more than enough to avoid the school budget cuts. But Margo and the other Perry allies left that money sitting in the bank, while they watched 25,000 school employees lose their jobs and thousands of children get crammed into overcrowded classrooms. More than 150 teaching positions have been lost in El Paso alone, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Yet, in his fictitious flyer, Margo criticizes Moody for taking an “easy short-term solution” to school funding and claims his own budget-cutting somehow amounted to “putting education funding on solid ground.”  I doubt that even Margo himself believes that, although he hopes El Paso voters do. Every school district in El Paso County, meanwhile, has joined a lawsuit claiming the state’s school finance system is inadequate and inequitable.

The truth is Moody helped avert a disaster for the public schools in 2009, while Margo deliberately voted in 2011 to lay off thousands of teachers and put public education in the worst financial shape it has been in many years. Margo voted for the worst public education budget of his lifetime. It cut per pupil funding by more than $500 and didn’t even pay for enrollment growth.

Margo is guided by an ideology that wants to dismantle the public schools in favor of privatization. Moody, who is trying to win the District 78 seat back, is a strong supporter of public education and is guided by a desire to create a solid learning environment in the public schools for Texas’ next generation.

TSTA’s advice for District 78 voters: Throw Margo’s worthless flyer in the trash or recycling bin and vote for Moody.