Senate Education Hearing: Cutting Into the Muscle and Bone of Public Education, Unless We Fight Now for Needed Funding

Many superintendents and school boards across the state are informing their staff and community of grim contingency plans for radical cutbacks in school personnel and programs. That conversation came to the capitol today in a public hearing of the Texas Senate Education Committee marked by calls for “flexibility” and “mandate relief” to cope with huge cuts in state school aid built into the first draft of the state budget for 2012-2013. Texas AFT’s legislative team and Texas AFT members were on hand to say lawmakers have better alternatives, and they made it clear how much damage these proposals would do in the classroom.

The draft state budget would cut close to $1,000 per pupil on average from districts’ operating funds, nearly $10 billion statewide. School superintendents in town for an annual conference showed up in droves for today’s hearing with this message: State cuts cannot be implemented without large layoffs of teachers and support staff, state-authorized pay cuts and payless furlough days, reduced contractual rights for teachers, and increases in class size facilitated by cracking the state class-size cap of 22 pupils to one teacher in grades K-4—or some combination of such measures.

This agenda, if enacted, would mean the demolition of crucial state quality standards for public education. As Texas AFT spokesman Eric Hartman told the Senate Education Committee today,

“Our members are extremely concerned that a temporary budget crisis is going to drive permanent change in policy that will do lasting damage to students’ education and to our schools, setting us back for a very long period of time.”

Many superintendents’ embrace of proposals for so-called “flexibility” and “mandate relief” unfortunately buys into the idea that educators simply must accept the proposed state cuts instead of challenging them stoutly and supporting alternatives. As Texas AFT’s Hartman testified, cutting costs by modifying state quality safeguards should be discussed only as the very last resort, after exhausting every possible alternative. The problem with today’s discussion, he said, is that key senators and superintendents seem to be talking about these bad ideas as a first resort. “We believe there is potential for a more balanced approach to dealing with the current revenue situation,” Hartman said, “including use of the Rainy Day Fund for its intended purpose as well as other potential revenue sources, such as discontinuing unjustified tax exemptions and addressing the structural problem caused by the underperforming business margins tax.”

The committee chair and vice-chair, Republican Sens. Florence Shapiro of Plano and Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, both within the past 24 hours have introduced “mandate relief” bills. Patrick’s includes a change in the 22-to-1 class-size cap that would effectively gut the cap by turning it into an average, not a limit that would apply classroom by classroom. His bill, SB 443,  would nullify the current requirement that parents be notified when their child’s K-4 class size exceeds 22 to 1. Shapiro’s SB 468 would eliminate a separate 10-to-1 class-size cap for accelerated instruction of students who have failed state achievement tests. Her bill also would repeal a 2009 state school-finance provision that prevents school districts from rolling back teacher pay.

It is clear that more “mandate relief” proposals will be forthcoming. But lawmakers like Sen. Wendy Davis, Democrat of Fort Worth, say this discussion starts from a false premise. Though it’s appropriate to talk about contingency plans for how districts might cope with drastic budget cuts, said Davis, “let’s not give in” to the notion that the “scary” agenda of education cuts and retreat from state quality standards is the only option. A similar note was struck by Sen. Royce West, Democrat of Dallas, who said legislators do have an alternative—properly funding the state’s commitment to public education.

Texas AFT’s witnesses provided a necessary counterweight to the hours of testimony from superintendents who took for granted the premise of a cuts-alone state budget. Texas AFT member Andy Dewey, a Houston ISD teacher in a gifted-and-talented magnet school and vice-president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, gave a vivid account of the high-quality educational services that would be devalued and jeopardized if the legislature goes through with deep budget cuts for education.

Texas AFT general counsel Martha Owen made it plain to committee members that school districts cannot make material changes in teachers’ existing contracts without violating their constitutional due-process rights. She also cautioned against upsetting the careful balance between employer and educator rights that was achieved in the 1995 legislative rewrite of the Education Code.

Debbie Hamerly, a reading specialist in Austin ISD and a member of Texas AFT’s local Education Austin affiliate, emphasized the importance of keeping the 22-to-1 class-size limit, which she termed a “smart A-plus investment,” especially for the benefit of disadvantaged, at-risk students. Hamerly also cited the impact of the proposed state budget in her district, which already has proposed nearly 500 layoffs, the elimination of two personal-leave days, and higher employee health-care costs. A teacher like herself would be looking at loss of $2,600 per year if these cutbacks take effect as proposed, she said.

Another member of Education Austin, Belinda Killion-Procida, spoke from the vantage point of a high-school teacher providing students with the technology savvy they need to succeed in future careers. She documented the harm that would come as budget cuts translate into less planning and preparation time, increased class sizes, and reduced educational opportunity for her students.

Ken Zarifis, recently elected Education Austin’s co-president after 12 years in the classroom, closed Texas AFT’s testimony with a challenge to the committee. Today, he said, the committee heard hours of invited testimony from superintendents and school boards offering advice on education policy. Now, he said, the committee should give the same opportunity to those on the front lines—the teachers and other school employees who directly serve students.

Earlier, Sen. Davis urged superintendents, school boards, and Texas AFT and allied teacher organizations to get together to bolster education funding for the long term as well as cope with the current crisis. It’s good advice, and for our part we aim to take it.