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Top education issues


School Funding

Increasing state funding for public education remains a top TSTA priority. Funding per student in average daily attendance (ADA) is about $2,300 less than the national average, ranking Texas 36th among the states and the District of Columbia, based on the latest National Education Association rankings. The state’s share of the Foundation School Program has dropped to 38 percent, leaving the remaining 62 percent to be paid by local property taxpayers. Gov. Greg Abbott has offered a proposal that would put tighter limits on school property taxes. But you can’t effectively limit property taxes or provide students and teachers all the resources they need for success without increasing state funding for public education. Comptroller Glenn Hegar has forecast an additional $9 billion in general revenue will be available for education and other needs, and he has projected a record $15 billion balance in the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s savings account. TSTA believes this is enough money for legislators to increase state funding for public education and provide relief from school property taxes.

Teacher Pay

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance, which recently completed a study of school funding, didn’t recommend an across-the-board teacher pay raise. Instead, it recommended that the Legislature encourage school districts to develop “merit pay” programs for selected teachers, which presumably would be largely based on student test scores. With average teacher pay in Texas lagging about $7,300 behind the national average, TSTA believes every teacher, not just a select handful, deserves a raise. About 40 percent of Texas teachers are forced to spread themselves thin with extra jobs during the school year to meet their families’ financial needs, according to TSTA’s most recent survey on teacher moonlighting and morale. TSTA opposes “incentive” or “merit-based” pay plans that single out only selected teachers for extra pay.

Educator Health Care

For years, the Legislature has refused to increase the state’s contribution to school employee health insurance, even though the monthly contribution of $75 per employee hasn’t been increased since 2002. With rising health care costs eroding the take-home pay of thousands of educators, TSTA will renew our case this session. We also will work with lawmakers to ease health insurance costs for retired educators. The retirees’ TRS-Care system faces an estimated shortfall of $238 million, which TSTA believes should be addressed without raising retiree premiums or deductibles.

School Safety

TSTA will continue to oppose efforts to arm teachers as a solution to gun violence in schools. Instead, we will advocate for more state funding to increase the number of counselors and improve mental health services on campuses. We also will seek more funding to update security in school infrastructure and to hire more professionally trained campus law enforcement officers.

Vouchers

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s reelection means educators will be waging another battle against vouchers or some other device for diverting tax dollars to private schools. Whatever they are called – vouchers, education savings accounts, tax credit scholarships – they would undermine public schools. We believe opposition to vouchers remains strong in the House and was reinforced in the recent election cycle.

Charter Schools

Corporate-style charter chains, which are aggressively moving into Texas, are another effort at school privatization. These charters operate under privately selected governing boards in faraway cities, are often managed by for-profit companies and still get our tax dollars. Traditional public school districts are losing millions of dollars to them each year. The Legislature in 2017 enacted a law, Senate Bill 1882, which gave school districts new incentives for partnering with these charters. Under this law, districts that agree to partner with another entity – a charter, a non-profit organization, a governmental entity or a higher education institution – in the takeover of campuses that have repeatedly failed state accountability ratings can get extra funding from the state and relief from state sanctions. TSTA believes state Education Commissioner Mike Morath, in an eagerness to promote charters, is violating provisions in SB1882 that were designed to protect important educational standards for children and essential employment rights for educators.

Standardized Testing

STAAR testing continues to dominate the state’s school “accountability” system, and, unless the law is changed, will largely determine what letter grades schools will receive under the new A-F grading system. Many parents and educators detest the student stress and the lost learning time inflicted by these standardized tests. TSTA will continue to demand that the Legislature abolish or drastically cut back on the STAAR program.

A-F Grading System

The new letter grading system for school districts and individual campuses is closely related to testing because grades will be determined by STAAR scores. Standardized test scores are an incomplete, misleading way to measure student success, and they unfairly discriminate against districts and schools with large numbers of low-income students. There are exceptions, but these students generally make the lowest grades on STAAR tests. Their parents can’t afford the tutoring that many other students receive to prepare for the tests. Many low-income parents also work multiple jobs and don’t have the time to help their children with homework or test prep. And some low-income parents, many of whom are not English speakers, lack the educational background to assist their children with school assignments. Many districts that received Ds and Fs when the first letter grades were handed out last summer had large enrollments of low-income students. The pattern is likely to be repeated when individual campuses are assigned their first letter grades later this year. TSTA will continue to urge the Legislature to repeal or modify the A-F law.

TRS Retirement

Because of changing economic conditions worldwide, Teacher Retirement System trustees lowered the expected rate of return on investments from 8 percent to 7.25 percent. The fund remains solvent, and no reductions in existing benefits are anticipated. But the Legislature will have to approve an additional $786 million, at least, in annual funding to enable an increase in retiree monthly pensions, which now average $2,060. The additional funding is necessary for the pension fund to be considered fully funded for the next 30 years, a requirement before pension payments can be raised. At present, teachers pay 7.7 percent of their salaries into the fund, the state pays 6.8 percent of total teacher payroll and school districts pay 1.5 percent. TSTA will urge the Legislature to make a significant increase in the state’s share, which is the lowest percentage in the country. TSTA also will continue to fight proposals to convert TRS’ defined-benefit pension fund into a riskier (for educators) defined-contribution plan, such as a 401(k).

Special Education

Following a public outcry over an arbitrary cap on special education enrollments imposed years ago by the Texas Education Agency, the Legislature in 2017 enacted a law prohibiting TEA from ever imposing such an enrollment limit again. The federal government ruled that the cap, which denied thousands of children the educational services to which they were entitled, violated federal law. TEA has been trying to address some special education issues, but the issue of inadequate funding still must be addressed by the Legislature.

Payroll Dues Deductions

For the second session in a row in 2017, TSTA and other public employee advocates killed legislation that would have ended the long-standing practice of deducting membership dues for professional organizations from most public employees’ paychecks. We believe that this voluntary practice is the most secure and convenient way for teachers and other public workers to pay their dues in organizations that advocate for them and provide professional development opportunities. The automatic deductions cost taxpayers nothing. We expect to be fighting this same fight in 2019.

Community Schools

Our neighborhood public schools 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. TSTA supports the Community Schools model, which 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.