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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Texas or Florida, which state hates teachers and kids the most

From the Texas AFT blog

Linda Bridges, president of Texas AFT, the 65,000-strong Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers, offered this observation Wednesday in a press statement marking the end of the special legislative session that began May 31:

The governor, lieutenant governor, and House speaker in this year’s regular and special sessions have led a shameful retreat from the state’s financial commitment to the education of Texas schoolchildren.

With a sharply reduced budget enacted in May, and a school-finance plan to enforce $4 billion in cuts in state aid passed yesterday, this retreat sets in motion what amounts to a planned failure to deliver the educational quality our students deserve. Also part of this plan for failure is the elimination of another $1.4 billion in state grant funding for full-day pre-kindergarten and extra help for at-risk students, among other vital programs. The legislature also chose to cut state pension and health-care contributions for retired teachers.

The state’s top leaders and the legislature had one more chance in the special session to mitigate the damage, without touching a penny of the currently projected amount in the Rainy Day Fund. The Donna Howard amendment simply would have allowed any future increases in the Rainy Day Fund to be used to cover the cost of rapidly rising enrollment in our public schools.

Passing this compromise amendment was the least they could do, yet they still chose not to do it. From the governor on down, the folks in the driver’s seat at the capitol seemed to be dead-set on underfunding public education. Needless harm to Texas schoolchildren will result from their unprecedented decision not to fund enrollment growth and to shortchange our public schools.

The final school-finance deal in SB 1 was improved by Rep. Diane Patrick’s sunset amendment, which will prevent the deep cuts of the next few years from becoming the permanent “new normal” of reduced education funding, as openly advocated by some key players. But the reality still is that this bill allocates $4 billion in cuts among school districts over the next two years, provides for more cuts for two more years after that—and none of these cuts were necessary. These cuts are the direct result of a decision by the governor, lieutenant governor, House speaker, and their legislative allies to refuse to use billions of dollars in the Rainy Day Fund for our schools. We will be dealing with the consequent damage for years to come.

This year’s temporary fiscal crisis also was used as the pretext for a sweeping attack on class-size limits, on state salary guarantees for educators, and on contract safeguards for teachers and other certified school professionals. We saw this year as well repeated opportunistic efforts to drain more public funds from our public schools for the benefit of private-school operators.

We are glad that the attack on class-size limits was blocked, thanks to the efforts of many legislators and a remarkable, ad-hoc coalition of parents, community groups, and educators. A similar coalition came together to block every attempt to enact private-school vouchers.

A relentless attack on teacher pay and contract rights was not consummated until passage of SB 8 on June 27. We applaud the sizable minorities who resisted in both chambers—including a bipartisan group in the Texas House. These lawmakers understood that the permanent changes made by SB 8 in pay and contract standards are unjustified and ill-advised. They understood that a reasonable bill to allow temporary, limited salary reductions, strictly to avoid layoffs, could have been crafted without undermining educators’ contract rights. But SB 8 is not that bill. SB 8 will destabilize our schools and erode educational quality.

This bill will tilt the balance in state law in favor of the exercise of arbitrary power over teachers by school superintendents and school boards. The permanent repeal of important state salary floors and due-process safeguards will roll Texas back toward the bad old days of arbitrary local personnel decisions based on cronyism and other factors utterly irrelevant to the quality of the education we provide our students.

The end of the special legislative session marks the start of a new phase in the battle over the conditions for teaching and learning in our public schools. The immediate struggle over how to implement the legislature’s handiwork will now play out in more than 1,000 school districts.

Soon, though, active and retired Texas teachers and school employees and the 80-percent-plus of Texans who opposed cuts in public education will have another opportunity to render a verdict on the actions of state leaders and lawmakers. To borrow a theme from our friends at the Save Texas Schools parent/community group: We’re watching, we remember, and we vote!

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