In testimony on September 24 before the budget-writing staff of the legislature and the governor, Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi urged a renewed commitment by the state to funding for community colleges and for financial aid to aspiring teachers, particularly from among the ranks of experienced classroom paraprofessionals.
Community colleges now account for more than half of public higher-education enrollment in Texas, Quinzi noted, and they need to be funded “at a level that recognizes the value of this critical resource.” She said, “That means full state funding (less tuition and fees that enable affordable access) of community college operational costs——including the full amount of health-care premiums for all employees. Fully funding operational costs is the very minimum state effort necessary to enable community colleges to meet the important tasks they face.”
The state also should restore funding for two excellent financial-aid programs to help qualified individuals become certified teachers–the Educational Aide Exemption and the Teach for Texas Loan Repayment program–Quinzi testified. Unfortunately, due to decisions made by the legislature last session, funding for the former was reduced to zero for the 2012-2013 biennium, and funding for Teach for Texas was drastically curtailed.
The tuition exemption for educational aides since 1997 has opened doors for many teacher aides to achieve their dream of becoming teachers, helping to meet the needs of Texas schoolchildren. According to the latest data, 46,000 scholarships have been awarded under this program at a per-person cost of $1,999.
The Educational Aide Exemption program actually was funded at its highest level ever, $28.6 million, for the previous (2010-11) biennium. With funding reduced to zero for the current biennium, some participants have been left in the middle of their degree program without the scholarship aid they were counting on. Texas AFT also has been receiving many phone calls from eager, qualified would-be applicants who would like to enter the program and obtain a four-year teaching degree in a shortage area. Yet the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) has not included restoration of funding for this program in its budget request for 2014-15. This omission is unjustifiable and must be corrected when the legislature meets to write the new budget next year.
To qualify for the Teach for Texas program of loan repayments, teachers must provide full-time instruction in a subject designated as having a critical shortage of teachers or at a campus with a critical shortage of teachers. Recognizing the value of this program for teacher recruitment and retention, the THECB has seen fit to include in its budget request for 2014-15 the restoration of $9 million of the $10.5 million chopped from the program last year. For the time being, though, with the program reduced to just $1 million, only applicants for renewal of assistance are being accepted, and there is not enough funding to provide loan repayments to all those eligible for renewed aid.
Texas AFT’s bottom line on these financial-aid budget requests is clear: The state not only should restore previous funding levels for these two efficient and effective programs. It also should consider a significant increase beyond previous levels.