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Top education issues

Community Schools

One of the most abused words in the political arena is “reform.” Self-styled education “reformers” will be at the state Capitol again this year, pitching vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and privatization schemes that would weaken public schools and help only a few students while lining the pockets of educational profiteers.

Those so-called reforms fail to support what is most important: our neighborhood public schools. They are the heart of education, and they will continue to educate the vast majority of Texas students. When a school is struggling, we should invest resources in that school and work with parents, educators and community leaders in that neighborhood to make sure we are making the right investments. The last thing a struggling school needs is “reform” that diverts tax dollars to private school students or hands the school over to outsiders who have no stake in the community or its children’s success.

When reformers ignore educators and parents who know what it takes to improve their schools, their brand of reform is not about helping kids. When vouchers do not cover the full cost of tuition at private schools and the schools do not provide transportation for students, low-income families still have no “choice.”
Texas’ public school enrollment is more than 5.1 million, and each year it’s growing by 80,000 students, most of whom come from low-income families. Many don’t speak English. Educators work hard to give students the opportunity to learn and succeed, but they need help from policymakers in Austin, not reform that fails to invest in the school or the community.

A state judge ruled that our school finance system is inadequate, unfair and unconstitutional. After $5.4 billion was cut from education funding in 2011, the cuts were not completely restored in 2013, and Texas still spends $464 less per student now than was spent before the cuts.

Thanks to a strong economy, the 2015 Legislature will have several billion dollars more to spend on education and other needs. Lawmakers could develop and start funding a sound school finance system without raising taxes. The funds could be used to expand prekindergarten programs, reduce class sizes and give teachers time to offer the individual instruction their students need.

Two years ago, the Legislature reduced the number of end-of-course exams required for high school graduation. This year, lawmakers need to end the standardized testing plague that robs teachers and students of time needed to teach and learn. We don’t have standardized students, and third-graders should enjoy learning, not fear a test.

Fortunately, there is a proven alternative to vouchers and corporate-run privatization schemes that take the community out of running our neighborhood schools. The Texas State Teachers Association is working with other public education advocates to develop “Community Schools” legislation, modeled on efforts that have successfully turned around struggling schools in some Texas districts and other states.

The Community Schools model allows educators, parents and community nonprofits and businesses to develop effective programs for governing and supporting local schools, including a range of support that addresses problems that make it hard for a child to learn.

When educators, parents and the community work together, we have something much better than reform. We have neighborhood schools that offer opportunity and a better future for our children.

School Funding

The bottom line for public education is the state budget. The amount of money legislators appropriate for schools – and how that money is distributed – affects every education concern, including salaries and health insurance for teachers and support staff, classroom sizes, the availability of pre-kindergarten programs, and the quality of instructional materials and laboratory equipment.

With the help of our members, TSTA and other public school advocates convinced the 2013 Legislature to restore about 80 percent of the $5.4 billion that was cut from public school budgets in 2011. But with school enrollment in Texas increasing by about 80,000 children a year, school districts, on average, are still spending about $600 less per student than they did six years ago. Texas per-pupil spending was more than $2,600 below the national average during the 2013-14 school year.

In a strongly worded opinion issued this past summer, state District Judge John Dietz of Austin agreed with several hundred school districts and other plaintiffs that the school funding system is inadequate, unfair, and unconstitutional. Dietz believes the Legislature can – and must – do better, and so does TSTA. And the state can afford to do so without raising anyone’s taxes.

The Texas economy is strong, generating billions of additional dollars from existing state revenue sources. The comptroller’s office reported a 5.5 percent annual growth in sales tax receipts last year, and similar growth is expected this year. The Rainy Day Fund is at $8.4 billion and will soon swell to double digits, thanks to robust oil and natural gas production.

Testing and Teacher Evaluations

Yielding to the concerns of educators and parents angered over excessive standardized testing, in 2013 the Legislature reduced the number of end-of-course exams required for high school graduation from 15 to five. But there has been no relief in the lower grades, where students as young as third-graders continue to lose valuable learning time as teachers are pressured to teach to the test.

Making matters worse, state Education Commissioner Michael Williams is expected to ask the Legislature to approve a new teacher evaluation system that would use test scores to help determine teacher ratings and compensation. Although numerous research studies demonstrate the flaws in using so-called value-added measures (VAM), such as test scores, to evaluate teacher performance, the state is under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education to impose such an evaluation system.

Williams launched a pilot evaluation system in a limited number of school districts this year in an effort to seek a waiver from some sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act. TSTA will continue to fight excessive testing and efforts to link test scores to teacher evaluations.

Health Insurance

Thousands of teachers and other school employees saw their health insurance premiums increase again this year. Some teachers with family coverage are paying $900 or more a month – a huge chunk of their paychecks – for premiums under TRS ActiveCare, the state health insurance plan. Premiums for some educators have increased by as much as 238 percent since 2002. During that same period, the state hasn’t increased its contribution by a dime. The state still contributes only $75 a month to each educator’s health premium, the same amount it paid 12 years ago.

School districts are required to cover at least $150 of each employee’s monthly premium. Some contribute more, but others don’t.

“Thousands of dedicated school workers are taking a take-home pay cut every time their health insurance premiums increase, and that’s not right,” said Ed Martin, TSTA’s public affairs director.  “Stopping these take-home pay cuts will be a top priority for TSTA this session.”

The average teacher in Texas is paid about $7,000 less than the national average.

The TRS-Care insurance program for retired teachers, many of whom are on fixed incomes, also faces financial difficulties that will require legislative action, Martin said.

TRS Pensions

TSTA helped convince legislators in 2013 to strengthen the Teacher Retirement System’s defined benefit plan, the only nest egg for many former educators who, under federal law, don’t receive Social Security benefits. About two-thirds of retirees – those who retired on or before Aug. 31, 2004 – received a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment, the first COLA since 2001.

The state increased its contribution to the TRS fund by almost $100 million over two years. Employee contributions also were increased, but they were phased in to avoid an immediate reduction in take-home pay for active teachers, and the employee contribution rate will remain lower than the state and local school district contributions.

Continued protection of TRS pensions will remain a top TSTA priority during the upcoming session. We will continue to fight efforts to convert the defined benefit plan into a risky 401(k) style plan.

Vouchers and Other Privatization Schemes

For several sessions now, TSTA has been instrumental in defeating efforts to siphon tax dollars from public schools to pay for private school vouchers, which would benefit only a handful of students and enrich private school owners. But that fight is far from over. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is a champion of vouchers, as well as the expansion of corporate-style charter schools, and he will try again.

He will be backed by a cadre of pro-privatization groups and entrepreneurs eager to line their pockets with state tax dollars. Many of these groups will characterize their schemes as “school choice,” although, in fact, they would offer no choice to the vast majority of Texas children who will continue to be educated in traditional, neighborhood schools.

Home Rule

So far, a group attempting to take over Dallas ISD by converting it into a home rule charter district has made only limited progress, but that fight is far from over. The group with the misleading name, Support Our Public Schools, acquired enough signatures to force DISD to appoint a home rule charter commission, but the commission was not able to complete a proposed charter in time to hold a November 2014 election. That means the home rule petition and charter election effort will have to start all over again in Dallas, and home rule advocates could ask the Legislature to change state law to make the conversion process easier.

Under a 1995 state law, which has never been used before, a home rule charter could create a new governance structure abolishing all state public school standards, including employee contractual and grievance rights, the minimum salary schedule, class size limits, parental rights, and much more.
TSTA opposes the elimination of important education standards and employee safeguards and will fight any attempt to speed up the Dallas effort or encourage similar conversion attempts in other school districts. One of the biggest financial backers of the pro-home rule group in Dallas is John Arnold, a former Enron trader, hedge fund manager, and Houston billionaire who also wants to replace defined-benefits retirement plans for teachers and other public employees with risky 401(k) style investments.