Educators not yet sold on legislative plans

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

The 86th Texas Legislative session kicked off with a different tone on public education as everyone at the Capitol cheered grand pledges of increased funding for schools and big raises for teachers.

The biggest splash came in Senate Bill 3, which outlined a $5,000 annual salary increase to approximately 350,000 classroom teachers in the state, with an estimated price tag of $3.7 billion in the fiscal year 2020-2021 budget.

While educators and legislators have shown cautious optimism, they say many questions remain.

“I don’t know a whole lot about (the proposal),” said Liberty Hill ISD Superintendent Steve Snell. “I remember at election time it was thrown out by a couple of our state politicians because it was a good sounding board We have a lot of questions when they just say blanket across-the-board raise for teachers. Is that going to be funded? How long is that going to be funded and what strings are attached? As soon as you start asking legislators questions about this, you will hear various things attached to that money and I don’t think that’s the point of school funding and teacher pay.”

District 136 State Rep. John Bucy, D-Leander, likes the tone of the session on education issues.

“What I’m encouraged about is both chambers and the Governor are all talking about increasing funding,” he said. “We’re not on the same page about what that means, how much and where it goes, but we start with a good foundation if everyone is committed to working at the problem.”

With the more aggressive tone, Bucy believes progress will be made, but because the issue of public education has so many facets, he is not convinced every concern will be addressed adequately.

“My first impression is I’m encouraged,” he said. “I think we will leave this legislative session with some progress. I think if you ask the teachers and administrators you’ll find we probably won’t get enough done and will have to keep at it, but I think we’re going to make progress. It’s going to be hard, there are a lot of opinions.”

One big question everyone has on the teacher raise pledge is where the funds will come from. State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who proposed the bill, has said the state must provide the funds.

“The most important investment we can make in education is in our teachers. They are the key factor in preparing our students for success,” Nelson said. “Teaching has always been a labor of love, but we need to elevate the profession, recruit the best and brightest to the classrooms and compensate our teachers for the critical role they play in shaping the future of Texas.”

But that pledge of funding from the state doesn’t go any further into exactly where the money will come from.

“I have heard the Senate bill that’s calling for this raise doesn’t have any mechanism for funding it,” Bucy said. “We need to get down to where the money is really going to come from and what we can do. I want to be part of the conversation to get our teachers more funding, but it can’t just be campaign promises, it has to be hard work behind the scenes.”

Aside from the funding question, educators are concerned about what strings may be attached to the raises and whether that pay increase might take the focus off other reforms.

“I think honestly, if you ask teachers, of course there needs to be more money in the system to pay teachers, I think everyone can agree on that,” Snell said. “But if you ask teachers, they just don’t just want you to throw money at them, they want some of those roadblocks taken out of the way, too, that prevent them from doing their jobs.

“The ultimate fear of educators right now is what strings will be attached to whatever money is allegedly going to be given to educators,” he said. “Will it be a certification they have to get? Would it be a training they have to get? Or would it be a realization that they have been underpaid and are now going to be compensated at a more reasonable rate?”

Teachers and administrators believe the raises are merited without additional stipulations.

“We’re working as hard as we can having to teach more and at a higher level than ever before, with more accountability than ever before, but the pay hasn’t kept up with even cost of living inflation,” Snell said. “The funding needs to match the expectations put on (teachers) by the state and I don’t think there needs to be strings attached.”

Beyond raises, there has been talk of increased funding in general for public education, but as legislators weigh property tax relief and how much the state can find elsewhere, it is unclear how much that might be.

“I think neither of the approaches that we’ve heard, whether it is from the Speaker, Lt. Governor or the Governor are adequate enough,” Bucy said. “We need to get our funding back up to 50 percent of the shared cost between the state and local property taxes. I don’t think any of the plans are addressing that.”

The decision on how to divide up any additional funds is also a question mark.

“They talk about funding district based on their A through F accountability level, and rewarding districts that made A’s with more funding,” Snell said. “That seems counterintuitive to me. The high performing districts like Liberty Hill need additional funding to continue to do the things we need, but at the other end of that there are other districts that have different challenges that also need additional funding. I’d hate to have them punished by an accountability system that is extremely flawed to begin with.”

District 20 State Rep. Terry Wilson, R-Marble Falls, did not respond to The Independent’s requests for an interview.

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