Unfortunately, no one will “lavish” a pay raise on teachers

Does anyone know anyone in the teaching profession, at least in Texas, who believes he or she is lavishly paid? Yes, it’s a stupid question.

The reason I ask is because I saw a story in a major Texas newspaper the other day about the state Senate’s so-called “merit” pay proposal. The story said the plan would allow “local school districts to lavish additional salary increases upon the top-ranked teachers.”

Lavish? That’s about as likely as the city of Austin building a subway system.

According to one online dictionary I consulted, the word, “lavish,” when used as a verb, means to “bestow something in generous or extravagant quantities on.” Or, according to another dictionary, “to expend or give in great amounts or without limit.”

When used as an adjective, the word means sumptuous, luxurious, opulent, rich or expensive.

Only in a teacher’s wildest dreams….

The average teacher salary in Texas is $54,122, according to the Texas Education Agency, or $54,155, based on the National Education Association’s calculations.

Compared to other states and the District of Columbia, that pay isn’t even average. It’s $7,600 below average, which is hardly opulent.

Even the $5,000 across-the-board pay increase approved by the Senate would keep Texas teacher pay below average, and that figure may get smaller as the House and the Senate negotiate a final school finance bill.

Merit pay, which TSTA opposes, wouldn’t make any teachers rich either. Instead, if it were tied to test scores, as allowed in the Senate bill, it would keep lavishing millions of dollars on testing companies.

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen says he opposes tying merit pay to STAAR scores because the House doesn’t want to increase the emphasis on high-stakes testing. And the House wants to give all school employees – other professional and support staff, in addition to teachers — a raise.

So stay tuned for the final word on educator pay as the House and Senate continue their negotiations. We hope a pay raise will be broad and substantial, but we all know better than to expect anything lavish.

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IDEA charters: Where students become customers

This may sound strange, but I want to give Rolando Posada, a regional director for the IDEA charter chain, a little credit, but not for trying to shutter untold numbers of neighborhood public schools in San Antonio and a growing number of other cities.

Posada doesn’t deserve credit for undermining the promise of a free public education for every Texas child, regardless of family circumstances, classroom behavior, academic record or ability to win a lottery. He does deserve some credit, though, for being candid, although it probably was unintentional.

Posada recently was interviewed by Texas Public Radio about IDEA’s plan to double its San Antonio enrollment to nearly 24,000 students, aided and abetted by a $117 million taxpayer grant from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the country’s top cheerleader for school privatization.

Posada said publicity was good for IDEA because “it draws all sorts of customers.”

Customers? I thought we still called them students. You know, the boys and girls who come to school every day. They are students, and with their parents and educators they form a school community.

To IDEA and other corporate-style charter chains, though, students and their families are customers who feed the bottom line – with our tax dollars. And these tax dollars — $2.2 billion in 2017 alone — are being diverted from under-funded traditional public schools.

Oh sure, charters are technically public schools. But there are distinct differences between charters and the public schools that most of us grew up in and graduated from.

Charters are mainly considered “public” schools because they get tax money. Aside from that, corporate charter chains, such as IDEA, operate like private schools.

They may be organized as non-profits, but many are operated by for-profit management companies, and they love the smell of money that their “customers” bring with them.

They get paid for each student, just like regular public schools do. But your neighborhood public school is operated by a local school board accountable to voters. The people who run corporate charters don’t answer to taxpayers, and some charters are operated by private boards headquartered in other states.

Unlike traditional public schools, which enroll every school-age child who lives in the district and applies, charters can polish their reputations by cherry-picking their “customers.” They don’t have to accept children with disciplinary problems – IDEA tries to avoid them – and they often find ways to exclude children with poor grades and special needs. Just 5 percent of IDEA’s students receive special education services.

And many charter schools require a lottery for admission.

Traditional public schools don’t have lotteries. They just seek waivers from class-size limits or haul in more portable classrooms when demand exceeds capacity.

Charters, overall, don’t perform any better than traditional public schools. Many perform worse. According to Texas Education Agency data from 2012-17, charters in Texas had an overall dropout rate three times that of traditional public schools and overall poorer performance records.

Posada has said his goal is to have an IDEA school less than 10 minutes away from every family In San Antonio. This isn’t the pursuit of educational excellence so much as it is greed for tax dollars. And, in IDEA’s view, the customers – with their backpacks full of taxpayer cash — are there for the picking.

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The school funding hole in Texas is a lot deeper than $6.3 billion

Let us assume for a moment that legislators – either during the closing weeks of this regular session or in a summer special session – will agree on a plan to boost state funding for public schools by $6.3 billion over the next two years. If they do, applaud politely but don’t get carried away.

Think of $6.3 billion as a down payment on long-neglected repairs, the start of a long climb out of a deep hole, and make it clear to the governor and lawmakers that we expect them to make school finance improvements a priority for years to come.

I say $6.3 billion because this is the amount of new education funding that the House and the Senate have approved in separate legislation but with different details for spending it. House and Senate leaders are attempting to find agreement on those differences.

Even with the new funding, though, the hole for educators and Texas school children will remain very deep. As indicated by the National Education Association’s latest analysis of TEA’s school finance data, Texas is actually spending $71 less per student in average daily attendance (ADA) this school year than it did in 2017-18.

NEA determined that Texas is spending an average $10,712 per student in 2018-19, the school year drawing to a close, compared to $10,783 last year. This includes state, local and federal funding for school operations. It is more than $2,900 below the national average and ranks Texas 39th in per-ADA spending among the states and the District of Columbia.

The average teacher salary in Texas increased from $53,334 in 2017-18 to $54,155 in 2018-19 but still trailed the national average of $61,700 by more than $7,000.

“These figures mean overcrowded classrooms, high teacher turnover and a growing threat to the Texas economy,” TSTA President Noel Candelaria pointed out.

“We are happy that the Legislature is taking steps this session to increase state funding for public schools, but this will be only a down payment. It will take several more sessions to fully overcome years of neglect and misplaced priorities,” he added.

Candelaria also noted: “School finance changes must include guaranteed pay raises for all teachers and all other school employees who devote every day to educating our children and providing for their safety and well-being.”

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Don’t take the school nurse (or any other school employee) for granted

The teacher is probably the first job description that most of us associate with a public school, but yesterday a school nurse also grabbed my attention when my 13-year-old daughter had a brief, but scary, health-related incident during her middle-school math class in Austin ISD.

For probably the first time all school year, Caroline forgot to pack her water bottle when she needed it, and I forgot to double check when I drove her to school. During her first period PE class, she did a lot of running, practicing with other members of the track team for a meet later this week, and apparently became dehydrated.

She made it to second period math, where a classmate alerted the teacher that Caroline wasn’t responding to what was going on around here, but was just kind of staring off into space. Caroline remembers feeling dizzy, and her blood pressure had dropped. The teacher alerted the nurse, someone produced a water bottle, and my daughter soon began to return to normal under the nurse’s care.

Fortunately, this was a minor incident of no great concern to anyone but Caroline’s family. But the incident reminds me that it is easy to overlook the work of school nurses – until you need one.

My point is this. Even parents of school children take school nurses for granted. We take bus drivers for granted, although these same drivers deliver thousands of children to and from school safely every day, often under very challenging traffic conditions. We take cafeteria workers for granted, custodians for granted, school security officers for granted, and the list goes on.

We, as parents, also take teachers for granted, and our attitude is one reason that teachers, nurses, counselors, bus drivers and other rank-and-file school employees have been traditionally underpaid in Texas.

We haven’t demanded that the governor and the Legislature do something about it. When most parents barely know that a school nurse exists until their kid skins a knee on the playground – or nearly passes out in class — how are school nurses going to get the Legislature’s attention?

Maybe all that will begin to change this session. Maybe.

The Senate has approved a $5,000 pay raise for teachers and librarians, but nothing for nurses, bus drivers or anyone else who helps our school children get safely through the school day. The House has approved a much smaller raise for all school employees, except administrators. Leaders of both chambers will now start negotiating a compromise, and we have to do our part of make sure no one gets left out.

It’s time for more parents – not just those employed by teachers’ unions — to start really appreciating the jobs that all school employees do for our children every day. By that I mean it is time for parents to contact their elected legislators and demand that they reward these dedicated workers – all of them – with significant raises for the work they do.

Teacher Appreciation Week, or Nurse Appreciation Week – is there one? – are fine gestures, but they don’t pay the bills.

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