Sept. 15, 2023: Just Scraping By

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

Friday, September 15, 2023

If you work in Texas public schools — K-12 or higher education — and are ready to fight for positive change, we hope you’ll consider joining our fight to #ThriveTogether.

New school year, worsening problems

We asked a simple question on Facebook last week: “In one word, how is your school year going?”

The responses to that question paint a picture. For every “wonderful” or “fantastic,” there were three “exhausted,” “overwhelmed,” or “impossible” replies. 

If you work in Texas public schools, this will not be news to you. We’ve received your calls and emails about planning periods being eaten up and lists of responsibilities growing to paper over gaps. 

If you’re a parent of a Texas public school student, it may not be news to you either. Underfunded districts — scraping by without an allotment increase from the state — have been struggling to keep class sizes down and meet student needs while asking for more support from parents. At least one North Texas parent reports being asked to serve as a volunteer custodian or substitute teacher. 

How we got here has been well-documented. How we proceed is up to us to decide. The only thing that’s certain: if we want to build thriving Texas public schools, we can only do it together. 

In this week’s Hotline: 

  • We peer behind the curtain once again to identify who’s funding the push to privatize Texas schools. 
  • TEA, being sued by a coalition of Texas school districts, has delayed the release of A-F school ratings. 
  • A new bill to reduce the harm to retirees from the Windfall Elimination Provision has been filed, but is it enough?
  • Texas book bans get a national spotlight in congressional hearings this week.

— Privatization

Unmasking Vouchers: Texas Federation for Children

Photo by Mariana Krueger, CCR Studios

Two weeks ago, we began unpacking the impact of dark money on Texas public education with a look at the billionaires and organizations that fund the Charter Schools Now PAC, which donates to Democrats and Republicans alike in the Texas Legislature and on the State Board of Education in the hopes of influencing policy. 

In our analysis, we called attention to a $5,500 contribution made in May 2020 by the Charter Schools Now PAC to the Texas Federation for Children as exemplifying the messy relationships in this web of dark money and its resulting influence in our institutions.

This week, we take a closer look at the Texas Federation for Children itself. The Texas Federation for Children is the Texas arm of the American Federation for Children, which was formerly run by Betsy DeVos before President Donald Trump appointed her as his Secretary of Education.

DeVos has spent her life funding voucher and privatization campaigns. The American Federation for Children advocates for taxpayer-funded vouchers and sending public education dollars to unaccountable private schools. The Texas Federation for Children, meanwhile, has evolved into one of the most visible and well-funded astroturf organizations pushing vouchers and privatization at the Texas Legislature.

— Event

Schools in Crisis: Unpacking the 88th Legislature

Wednesday, Sept. 20, 6 p.m. CT

Register online for Zoom link

On Tuesday, we’ll talk with education activist, researcher, and parent Chris Tackett about the privatization push and who’s funding it. We’ll also provide updates on an upcoming special session about education.

— Texas Education Agency

A-F Accountability Ratings Delayed

The Texas Education Agency announced Tuesday that the 2022-2023 A-F accountability ratings, initially set for release on Sept. 28, would be delayed. This appears to be welcome news; many education advocates assumed the release of ratings (with new, revamped criteria) prior to the expected special session was intended to make schools appear as though they are failing in order to push a taxpayer-funded voucher agenda.

TEA and Commissioner Mike Morath have drawn the ire of districts across the state since the announcement this spring that adjustments to how the ratings are calculated would be applied retroactively to the prior school year after seniors had graduated and a majority of students encountered a revamped STAAR test. Seven districts filed suit against Morath for these changes, and the number of districts in the suit continues to grow.

— Event

Image reads: Connect education policy to the classroom at tribfest.

Next Week: Join Texas AFT at the Texas Tribune Festival

Connect the classroom with current events at TribFest, Sept. 21-23 in downtown Austin.

Texas AFT is proud to sponsor this year’s Texas Tribune Festival. As the saying goes, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. So we think it’s crucial that educators have a strong presence at Texas’ premier politics and policy event. 

If you plan to be in Austin next week, you can find us at several #TribFest23 events:

Sponsored Panel: Live Recording of the “Teaching Texas” Podcast

9 a.m., Friday, Sept. 22

Omni Hotel Downtown

Sponsored Panel: One on One with Dolores Huerta

1 p.m., Friday, Sept. 22

St. David’s Episcopal Church

Open Congress: Let’s Talk About a TRS Retiree COLA

All day Saturday, Sept. 23

Discounted Tickets Available for Educators, Students

At the Texas Tribune Festival, students and educators can hear from and interact with national and state lawmakers and thought leaders as they talk through the problems we’re facing today and the opportunities on the horizon for Texas and the nation. That includes school funding, teacher pay, vouchers, and curriculum standards. 

It’s not too late to buy your ticket to next week’s event. The Texas Tribune offers discounted tickets to educators ($75) and students ($50) in K-12 and higher education. Buy yours online.

— Texas Legislature

WEP Improvements, Not Total Repeal, Proposed by Texas Congressman

Last week, Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) filed HR 5342 (entitled “the Equal Treatment of Public Servants Act”), which would reduce the negative effects the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) has on retired teachers’ Social Security. 

The bill, however, would stop short of total repeal of the WEP. Instead, Arrington’s bill would replace the existing WEP formula with a formula that less severely harms retired educators.

The WEP reduces the Social Security benefits of people who have worked in jobs in which they did not pay Social Security taxes. First passed by Congress in 1983, the WEP is an austerity measure intended to eliminate the so-called “windfall” received by people who worked in jobs that do not pay into Social Security and have a public pension. The retirees negatively affected by the WEP/GPO are some of our country’s most critical employees: teachers, firefighters, police officers, and many other public employees. 

Texas AFT and national AFT have long supported the total repeal of the WEP and a similar provision, the Government Pension Offset (GPO).

— Book Banning

U.S. Senate Hearing Spotlights Texas Book Ban

Screenshot of Cameron Samuels speaking at the U-S Senate.

This Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened for a special hearing to discuss book bans instituted by states and in local school districts across the country. 

Across the nation, right-wing activists masquerading as “parent rights” groups have called for the banning of thousands of titles at school libraries and public libraries. In the wake of the passage and ongoing litigation surrounding Texas’ book ban bill, HB 900 by Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco), however, the Lone Star State was the center of discussion for much of the hearing. 

Cameron Samuels, a student activist and recent Katy ISD graduate, was invited to testify about how local book bans have affected Texas schools. They are the co-founder and executive director of Students Engaged in Advancing Texas (SEAT), a student organization dedicated to bettering our state through public policy reforms.

In their testimony, Samuels stated that student voices should be prioritized in conversations regarding book bans. Samuels, who is Jewish, focused on the decision by Katy ISD to target Maus, a memoir by cartoonist Art Speigelman chronicling his parents’ experience during the Holocaust. 

“Classmates told me the Holocaust did not exist,” Samuels testified. “Many could not name a Jewish person so they learned about Judaism through media representation, often dominated by stereotypes. Books like Maus teach accurate reflections of Jewish identity.”

— Hispanic Heritage Month

Texas AFT Celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month

National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15, 2023) is an important time to highlight the contributions of the Hispanic world to history, music, art, literature, and public education. 

We believe to #TeachTheTruth, we must recognize and lift up the contributions of the wonderfully diverse population of our state, our country, and our world. This month, we’ll highlight remarkable Latino and Hispanic educators that we’re proud to call members, along with opportunities to bring the occasion into the classroom.

Hispanic Heritage Month Lesson Plans

Want to bring National Hispanic Heritage Month into the classroom? Check out the free lesson plans and resources available to AFT members through Share My Lesson.

Member Spotlight: Fernanda Torres

Twenty-three years ago this month, Fernanda Torres started work as a custodian in Bastrop ISD. This year, when school started, Torres was in the classroom as a first-grade bilingual teacher. Read more online.

Event: Dolores Huerta at #TribFest23

Texas AFT is a sponsor of this year’s Texas Tribune Festival, including a conversation with iconic labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta. Get discounted educator tickets here.

Recommended Reading

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

📖 The House has rested its case against Ken Paxton after a chaotic day for the prosecution. The House impeachment managers rested their case against Ken Paxton on Wednesday amid a dramatic day that centered around questions of whether the attorney general’s paramour would take the stand and an abandoned effort to force a vote for an early verdict. (Texas Tribune, Sept. 13) 

📖 HISD adopts state-approved teacher evaluation system in response to lawsuit. During a Houston Independent School District board meeting last week, Superintendent Mike Miles said the district has decided to implement the state-approved T-TESS Evaluation System rather than a new teacher evaluation system. The decision comes after the Houston Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit on Aug. 30, contending that the new evaluation system was “created and implemented illegally.” (KPRC, Sept. 11) 

📖 Texas teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers. They told us why. Teachers are quitting in record numbers. It is happening nationwide, but last year Governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas Education Agency to immediately form a task force to figure out how the state could address the loss. A year-and-a-half later, many teachers are still leaving. We invited six to our CBS News Texas studios to find out why. (CBS Texas, Sept. 8)