May 31, 2024: Shaping Our Future

Header reads: Texas A-F-T. The Hotline.

Friday, May 31, 2024

On Friday, May 24, the Houston Federation of Teachers worked with the Houston Food Bank (left) to distribute food and supplies to community members in need after the derecho. Houston Educational Support Personnel (right), meanwhile, delivered food, water, and disaster relief items to the Fifth Ward community in coordination with Black Voters Matter and Dr. James Joseph. 

We Take Care of Us 

It’s been a nightmarish couple of weeks for many Texans.  

Last week, the Houston area endured damaging winds and severe damage after experiencing a derecho, or a long-lasting windstorm. Many of our members and even more of our communities have been dealing with power outages and damage clean-up.  

Over Memorial Day weekend, Dallas County and North Texas endured deadly severe weather too with its own storm cell of hurricane-force winds. Many thousands of people there remain without power as Texas summer temperatures begin to soar. 

We are devastated for those who have experienced loss or injury, as well as those who continue to suffer in the storms’ aftermath. But it is in the most difficult times that we are proudest to be a part of this union family, when we show the meaning of solidarity. 

With hurricane season upon us and likely to be more unstable than usual (despite what certain science textbooks would have you believe), we ask that you donate whatever is possible for you to the Texas AFT Disaster Relief Fund, which has a long history of helping our members in need. And if you are an AFT member, please remember that free trauma counseling is one of your union benefits.  

In this week’s Hotline:  

  • The second of Texas’ May elections has come and gone, and we’ve got the highlights (and lowlights) for public schools.  
  • As it turns out, there are yet more reasons to be concerned about House Bill 1605 and its “high-quality instructional materials.”
  • Do you know what a VATRE is? If not, read on for more on this local way to fund our schools in the face of state inaction.  
  • Speaking of school funding, take 2 minutes to tell Gov. Abbott that he should release $4.5 billion in state dollars to cash-strapped school districts ASAP.  

— Funding

Image reads: school districts like mine are slashing budgets, jobs and it's governor abbot's fault.

We meant it at the start of the 88th Legislature, and we mean it as we stare down the 89th Legislature: respect for educators starts with fully funded public schools. 

Voter Approval Tax Rate Elections: What They Are & Why Your School District May Pursue One 

As we wrote about in last week’s Hotline, school districts across Texas find themselves grappling with severe budget deficits that threaten their ability to provide high-quality education to the state’s 5.5 million public school students. Faced with inadequate state funding, a growing list of unfunded mandates, and the expiration of temporary COVID-19 federal relief funding this fall, an increasing number of districts are turning to Voter Approval Tax Rate Elections (VATREs) as a potential solution. 

In recent years, Texas AFT’s local unions and organizing committees have successfully collaborated with their communities and school districts to help pass VATREs. For example, in 2023, Education Round Rock engaged in a comprehensive outreach campaign to educate voters about the importance of the VATRE together with parent group Access Education RRISD. Through their efforts, the district successfully passed a VATRE, generating an additional $19 million in revenue to provide enhanced raises for all school employees, recruit bus drivers and support staff, and comply with the new state mandate to have armed security personnel on all campuses.  

Similarly, Fort Bend AFT supported the passage of a VATRE in Fort Bend ISD in 2023, which provided the district with $35 million in additional local and state funding to provide raises for educators and school employees and ensure armed security at all schools.

It’s important for public education advocates to understand the distinction between VATREs and bond elections, two crucial tools available to public school districts for generating much-needed additional revenue which are often conflated with each other. VATREs differ from bond elections in that they increase the maintenance and operations (M&O) portion of the school district tax rate, and the generated revenue must be used to fund operational expenses like salary increases and student programs. In contrast, bond elections increase the interest and sinking (I&S) tax rate and the bond revenue must be used to finance facility construction and renovation projects, acquire land, or make one-time capital equipment purchases such as technology, buses, and items with a useful life of more than one year.

You may already be familiar with bond elections, but what exactly are VATREs, and how do they work within the context of Texas’ complex school finance system? We’ve got all the information (and maybe more) than you ever wanted to know.

— Advocacy

Event graphic.

Take Action: Tell Gov. Abbott to Release the $4.5 Billion Our Public Schools Need 

Texas public schools are in crisis. Texas school districts with a fiscal year start date of July 1 must pass their budgets by the end of June, while those with a fiscal year start date of Sept. 1 must pass their budgets by the end of August. We are seeing districts forced to lay off teachers and staff, cut student services, and close entire school campuses. While Gov. Greg Abbott may have tanked last year’s school funding bill, House Bill 1, with his voucher scheming, lawmakers set aside over $4.5 billion for our schools in the budget.  

Texas AFT calls on Gov. Abbott to use his authority as governor to disburse this funding. If he could call four special sessions to try to pass a voucher program, he can take emergency action to fund our public schools. If you agree, send an e-letter to the governor and make your voice heard today. 

— Elections

Left: Texas AFT COPE-endorsed Democratic candidate for House District 146 Lauren Simmons, pictured at a March rally with the Houston Federation of Teachers, prevailed in Tuesday’s runoff election.

Right: Aldine AFT members write postcards to voters on behalf of Charlene Ward Johnson, endorsed candidate for HD 139, who also prevailed on Tuesday. 

Primary Runoff Election Yields Mixed Results for Texas Public Schools 

This past Tuesday, May 28, was Election Day in primary runoffs, and as usual, public education was front and center. Several Republican incumbents who crossed indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton by voting for his impeachment were swept out of the Texas House in Tuesday’s primary runoffs, including a handful who also opposed school vouchers last fall.

Some reports are suggesting these victories handed Gov. Greg Abbott a tentative majority in the Texas House to pass his long-sought school voucher program, seemingly ignoring the fact that voters will weigh in once again in November.

“I’m sure glad Texas public schools taught the governor how to count his chickens,” said Zeph Capo, Texas AFT president, in a statement Wednesday. “I regret that we didn’t teach him to count them after they’ve hatched. That’s a lesson this state’s educators will reiterate to him next year.” 

— Curriculum 

Release of HB 1605 Instructional Materials Launches Fresh Concerns, of Biblical Proportions 

On Wednesday, the public education community was treated to increasingly eyebrow-raising news relating to the State Board of Education (SBOE)’s instructional materials and review process.  

Regular Hotline readers know of our antipathy toward House Bill (HB) 1605, the sweeping instructional materials bill from the 88th legislative session. We have written extensively on this bill as it has made its way through the rulemaking process. To quickly recap, the SBOE spent the latter half of 2023 working to determine the criteria of the quality and suitability rubrics required in the bill. These rubrics were adopted in February 2024 and publishers began submitting English and Spanish language arts and mathematics materials for review. The Texas Education Agency has hired and trained quality reviewers for this first round of instructional materials review and adoption (IMRA), and TEA published all submissions for the SBOE’s review as anticipated Wednesday. 

What was not anticipated: the agency-developed materials that were created for submission contain a yet unknown number of religious references that, however intentionally or unintentionally, blur the separation of church and state in favor of a Christian worldview. Almost immediately after announcing that the publisher submissions were available for view, education news outlet The 74 dropped an exclusive article citing the infusion of many biblical references and readings into the agency’s Open Education Resources (OER) materials for K-5 English language arts. 

— Event

AFT Book Club: A Conversation with Mike Hixenbaugh 

Sunday, June 9 

5 p.m. CT 

Join the June AFT Book Club session featuring AFT President Randi Weingarten and award-winning author Mike Hixenbaugh, discussing his new book, They Came for the Schools: One Town’s Fight Over Race and Identity, and the New War for America’s Classrooms. Dive into an enlightening conversation as Mike, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and co-creator of the Southlake podcast, shares his investigative insights into the intense educational battles shaking communities across America. Together, they’ll explore the book’s deep dive into contentious school board elections and the broader national movement impacting public education. 

They Came for the Schools not only connects local conflicts to national trends but also sheds light on the significant challenges facing students, educators, and families today. Join us to gain a comprehensive understanding of the pressing issues at the forefront of educational policy and community activism. Don’t miss this crucial dialogue on the future of American education and democracy. 

Educators can receive one hour of professional development recertification credit for participating in this webinar if they complete all the poll questions, survey, and actively watch the webinar. 

Recommended Reading

Texas education news from around the state that’s worth your time.

Documents detail how Texas’ DEI ban is changing university campuses. In documents obtained by The Texas Tribune and in public testimony before senators, leaders from all of Texas’ seven university systems said they have closed multicultural offices, fired or reassigned DEI staff and stopped requiring diversity statements, or letters in which job candidates in academia share their previous efforts to promote diverse learning spaces and help students of all backgrounds succeed. (Texas Tribune, May 24)  

How Texas’ School Funding Scheme Contributed to Austin ISD’s Massive Budget Shortfall. “One thing that I’m noticing after three and a half years on this board is that many of the crises that we live under are crises manufactured by the state,” Austin ISD Trustee Kevin Foster said at a recent meeting of the district’s board of trustees. “We are living under a crisis 100% manufactured by the state. We have enough money to run two school districts this size, if the state didn’t rob us.” (Austin Chronicle, May 24) 

McAllen ISD considers cutting planning periods. The McAllen Independent School District may cut planning periods for 374 teachers, a move that could save the cash-strapped school system a little over $3 million at the cost of riling up its teachers. Middle school and high school teachers at McAllen ISD get a planning period in addition to a conference period. According to the district, teachers use their conference periods to meet with parents or work on lesson plans. They use their planning periods to meet with teachers who teach similar subjects and, generally, to plan to teach. (Progress Times, May 10)