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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Fake education “reform” disrespects the teacher

You don’t have to be too old – or maybe you do – to remember when a popular shorthand for education consisted of only three Rs – reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic.

Corny? Sure. But the three Rs emphasized that the teacher was the center, the driving force of the classroom, the school and the very educational process itself.

Now, we have a fourth R – reform – which has tried to diminish the role of the teacher in favor of the latest schemes, often ill-informed and not always well-intended, advanced by a series of self-styled education “experts” with voices or political influence loud enough to make themselves heard.

Some of these experts-in-their-own minds haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since their college days, but they claim to know more than teachers about what’s best for school children – and what’s best for the children’s taxpaying parents as well.

There is nothing wrong with reform because true reform is changing something in an effort to improve it or make it better. But the “reformers’ I am talking about have hijacked the use of the word, like they are trying to hijack the public education system.

The charter school alternative, for example, was sold to the Legislature years ago as an innovative idea to give a limited number of schools some flexibility from state regulations to experiment with educational methods that might better help some students learn.

Today’s “reformers” have hijacked the charter movement to milk billions of tax dollars from under-funded neighborhood schools in order to feed the coffers of predatory, corporate-style charter chains with educational records that generally are worse than most traditional public schools. They don’t have to hire certified teachers, and they aren’t bound by state contractual rights for teachers or the salary schedule.

“Reform” also has saddled us with the expensive STAAR albatross, which has robbed teachers of time they could spend on real reading, writing and arithmetic in favor of test prep, test prep and more test prep. It was replaced the three Rs with the four Ts – teaching to the test – has cost Texas taxpayers billions of dollars and has needlessly raised the stress levels of school children.

I suspect it also has destroyed the joy of learning for untold numbers of children, and that is the real tragedy of STARR. My suspicion has been reinforced by writer Mimi Swartz’s recent articles in Texas Monthly, reporting the opinions of real educational experts that many questions on the STAAR reading exams are above grade level.

The STAAR and its predecessors were imposed by elected officials more interested in measuring the so-called “accountability” of teachers and children than they were in fulfilling their own constitutional responsibility to adequately and fairly fund all of Texas’ public schools. It’s time to end STAAR or declare a moratorium. Instead, the Legislature has imposed the A-F grading system on schools and school districts, which will increase the pressure on STAAR scores even more.

Another type of reform, school finance reform, is dominating much of the discussion in this legislative session, and this offers an opportunity to return some of the focus to teachers and the classroom. But real school finance reform begins with a significant increase in state funding for public education and pay raises for all Texas teachers and other school employees.

Those proposals are still being debated, so stay tuned. It is a lot easier to preach “reform” than deliver the real thing.

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How absurd is merit pay?

Considering how grossly underpaid Texas teachers are, it is absurd to even be talking about “merit” pay for a handful of them. Some merit advocates, perhaps, simply can’t see the forest for the trees. Others are deliberately promoting a viewpoint that public education should be operated like a business.

They want to reward the teachers who are deemed to have the most success, even if that success is dubiously based on STAAR test scores, which don’t indicate much of anything except an ability to take a test.

Public education isn’t a business. It is a public service to Texas’ 5.4 million school children and their families, and it is a public responsibility of state government. We reward success with a high school diploma, and educators strive to make that diploma as meaningful as possible, a symbol that a student has been successfully prepared for continued success in the real word after graduation.

We know that it doesn’t work out that way for many children, in large part because they come to school with many issues – poverty, lack of proper nutrition, inadequate health care, homelessness – that public schools aren’t equipped to address, especially public schools that have been as under-funded as Texas schools have been in recent years. Yet, the “merit” pay advocates want to address that problem by singling out a small number of Texas’ 350,000 public school teachers for raises if they can improve their students’ STAAR scores or successfully jump through some other data-driven hoops.

Every student deserves an effective, properly certified teacher in an adequately furnished classroom, but thousands of effective, properly certified teachers are leaving Texas classrooms every year because they simply can no longer afford to make the personal and family financial sacrifices the classroom requires. On average, their pay is more than $7,000 less than the national average, and they continue to lose ground. Among those teachers who stick it out, almost 40 percent are forced to take extra jobs during the school year to make ends meet, based on TSTA’s most-recent moonlighting survey.

Let’s look at some hard numbers on teacher attrition, gleaned by Bryan Weatherford, TSTA’s teaching and learning specialist, from Texas Education Agency data.

More than 176,000 Texas teachers left their jobs in the five years between 2012-13 and 2016-17. Only about one-fourth of those were retiring from the profession. The yearly attrition figure ranged from 34,424 in 2012-13 to 36,300 in 2016-17, a loss of about 10 percent of the total teacher workforce each year. Thirty percent of the teachers who began their classroom careers in 2012-13 were gone five years later.

If one-fourth of the 36,300 teachers who left the profession in 2016-17 were retirees, that means 27,000 or so left for other reasons. Some may have left the state or transferred to other districts. But if you don’t think that large numbers of these former teachers left because of poor pay, either directly or indirectly, you are kidding yourself.

Other conditions, such as too much paperwork or having to spend too much time on STAAR prep, may have been factors. But the higher your pay the easier paperwork is to take.

Only three states – Florida, Indiana and Arizona – ranked below Texas on a recent “teaching attractiveness rating” issued by the Learning Policy Institute, and – guess what? – those states pay their teachers even less than Texas.

In Austin earlier this week, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia noted that some people are concerned that we have a “teacher shortage.” But we don’t have a teacher shortage, she pointed out.

Texas has thousands of certified, highly qualified teachers. But many of them are selling real estate, managing offices, experimenting with the dot.com world, anything that offers better compensation than the low classroom salaries they could no longer afford.

Merit pay? Absurd.

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