This article appeared in the Winter 2022-23 issue of The Classroom Teacher.
Texas lawmakers will likely have more money than they can spend when the 88th Legislature convenes in Austin on Jan. 10.
With an unexpected surplus of $27 billion, the State of Texas is expected to be flush with cash for the next two-year budget, but legislators will be constrained from using it all unless they take some politically perilous votes to exceed various limits on spending.
At the same time, the state is grappling with significant challenges that will be costly to address, such as high rates of employee turnover in critical areas, major agency breakdowns, inadequate infrastructure, and underfunding of public education. State agencies have requested almost $20 billion in “exceptional items” on top of their base budgets for 2024-25.
Republicans will remain firmly in charge of the Texas Capitol for the 2023 legislative session, with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick each winning a third term and Speaker Dade Phelan on track to secure another session as leader of the Texas House of Representatives. The GOP also picked up some new seats in both the Texas House and Senate in the first election using district maps drawn in 2021 to bolster their majority.
Every lawmaker has a lot of ideas about how the surplus should — or should not — be spent.
Abbott has said he wants to tap half of the $27 billion balance to reduce school property taxes, which would help taxpayers but does not provide additional resources for schools.
Property tax relief tops Patrick’s priority list as well, though his approach is somewhat different and would likely provide a smaller tax break than what Abbott has proposed.
Phelan has called for major investments in infrastructure for transportation, water and coastal protection.
Given Texas’ strong fiscal situation, the state clearly has the means to provide a significant across-the-board pay raise for teachers. Whether there’s the political will to do so is yet to be determined.
“Teachers stepped up in a big way to serve students during a very tumultuous period,” said Paige Williams, TCTA’s director of legislation. “It’s long past time for the Texas Legislature to do the same for teachers by compensating them as the highly trained professionals they are.”
TCTA has provided lawmakers an analysis that shows teacher pay has not kept pace with overall increases in school funding. In 2001, teacher salaries accounted for 43.8% of school districts’ per-pupil operating expenditures. Two decades later, that figure has dropped to 38.1%.
If teacher pay had remained in line with increases in school expenditures over that same period, the average teacher salary would have been 15% higher in 2021 — lifting the average teacher salary of $57,641 by an additional $8,660.
In an important show of solidarity, the four statewide groups that represent teachers at the Texas Capitol have all come together to call for an across-the-board pay increase of at least $10,000 in addition to more state support for active teacher health insurance and a boost for retired teachers. (See page 9 for more on what’s ahead for retirement and health insurance in the 2023 session.)
Patrick included increased teacher pay among his leading budget priorities for the upcoming session. He noted that the Legislature provided teachers a sizable pay increase in 2019, and he’d support doing the same again in 2023.
In 2019, the Texas Legislature included a provision in House Bill 3 that provided for increases in teacher salaries by raising the minimum salary schedule, which lifted salaries for teachers in districts paying at or close to the schedule. That mechanism, however, does not ensure that all teachers benefit from the additional funding.
TCTA has urged lawmakers to take a different approach this time by increasing the basic allotment and adding a provision to guarantee a minimum increase to each educator.
Raising the basic allotment, which is the foundation of the school finance system, is a policy recommendation shared by a wide array of public education advocates because it helps all school districts equally. It also injects more state dollars into classrooms in contrast to the property tax relief proposals that use state dollars to compress the local tax rate without providing additional resources for students and teachers.
The $6,160 per-student basic allotment was last updated in 2019. Lawmakers, who will be crafting a budget for the next two years, would need to raise the basic allotment by about $1,000 per student just to keep up with inflation today, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics calculations.
When TEA launched the Teacher Vacancy Task Force in March, Education Commissioner Mike Morath stated that “teachers are the single most important school-based factor affecting student outcomes.”
Yet teachers were, for the most part, an afterthought in the creation of the task force. The first iteration of the task force included only two teachers among the 28 appointees, though it was subsequently expanded amid criticism that teachers were being given short shrift. And the stated mission of the task force focused primarily on the needs of school districts and administrators, not teachers.
As TCTA noted in a letter to the task force members last spring, the root causes of today’s teacher vacancy crisis are pretty simple to understand: difficult working conditions, low pay, a lack of support from administrators, and hostile political rhetoric directed at teachers for simply doing their jobs.
Task force discussions have not been open to the public but notes from the meetings over the summer seemed promising. It appears now, however, that several teacher-friendly proposals have been watered down or eliminated.
While the task force won’t finalize its recommendations until February, TEA recently asked teacher group representatives to review the preliminary recommendations and identify “what is missing that would be important to your members.” TCTA’s short answer: pretty much everything.
TCTA’s feedback focused on our concern that earlier task force discussions on key issues had either morphed into weakened recommendations or had not been addressed at all. For example, we suggested that the task force make clear that ALL teachers, not only those paid on the minimum salary schedule, should receive an increase in base pay; and we asked for a more direct recommendation on setting limits around extra duty and time requirements for teachers.
TCTA continues to work toward policy solutions that address the root causes of teacher burnout, such uncompensated extra duties and student discipline. For example, TCTA’s lobby team has been assisting Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, with legislation that would strengthen a teacher’s ability to remove disruptive students from the classroom and that would prohibit school districts from exempting themselves, through the District of Innovation process, from the statutory requirement to have a campus behavior coordinator at every school.
In addition, TCTA has recommended that lawmakers increase the school safety allotment — currently $9.72 per student — and expand the allowable uses so schools can hire behavior interventionists to help teachers manage disruptive students.
Other school safety items, such as school hardening and additional mental health resources for children, will likely be top priorities for the Legislature in the wake of the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde. State leaders have already announced new investments in mental health programs, including the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine (TCHATT), and Patrick included rural mental health facilities among his spending priorities.
Discussions about arming teachers or bolstering the school marshal program have been muted so far but could very well pop up during the legislative session.
Parents have long had clear rights in state law to information about their child’s schooling as well the ability to examine materials and opt out of certain programs and lessons. But the organized efforts to oppose certain library books and other issues led to calls to strengthen parental rights by adding them to the Texas Constitution.
Abbott endorsed the constitutional amendment during his reelection campaign with the aim of reinforcing that “parents are the main decision-makers in all matters involving their minor children.” He also supported expanding parents’ online access to course curriculum and other learning materials, though parents are already entitled to see that information upon request.
Other potential changes include a standard grievance process for parents to challenge books, and penalties for school employees that provide minors offensive materials.
The “parent empowerment” efforts have also breathed new life into a not-so-new issue in the Capitol: private school vouchers.
The Legislature has repeatedly considered vouchers in some form over the past few decades, only to have the proposals killed in the House of Representatives by a coalition composed primarily of Democrats and rural Republicans.
This time, there’s been a stronger outside push than in the past to create a program that allows parents to use public dollars for their child’s private school tuition, homeschooling, or other educational purposes. While voucher proponents weren’t successful in defeating House members who oppose vouchers, they did win the backing of Abbott during his reelection campaign.
Patrick, a longtime voucher supporter, has repeatedly ensured passage of a “school choice” bill out of the Senate and has vowed to do so again in the 88th Legislature. He did, however, acknowledge the concerns of rural voters by suggesting during his reelection campaign that rural areas could be exempted from the legislation.
Phelan, however, remains cool to the voucher idea, citing his intent to leave the matter to the will of the House.
What such a program would look like — and cost — is unclear at this point. Proponents could try to limit the program to certain populations, such as special education students, to control costs and perhaps lure enough holdouts.
TCTA continues to oppose any policy that would divert state money away from public education to pay for private education, which lacks transparency and accountability to taxpayers.
“This session is one of the most crucial we have ever faced,” said Ann Fickel, TCTA’s executive director. “If the Legislature refuses to make a major commitment to enhancing the teaching profession — bolstering compensation, improving working conditions, and promoting respect — we will continue to lose great educators to retirement or to other professions. Teachers have the power of numbers, but we have to be vocal. Now is the time to let your state representative and senator know what it will take to keep you in the classroom.”