2023 in Review: The Highs, Lows, & Whoas for Texas Public Schools

Photo by Mariana Krueger, CCR Studios. 

It seems like we say this every year now, but 2023 has been an interesting year for Texas public schools, as well as for everyone who works and learns in them. We say “interesting” deliberately. While it seems like there’s a flood of bad news each day, when we look back at this past year, there is still much to celebrate. 

Let’s remind ourselves about the year that was — and all the highs, lows, and whoas along the way. 

Skip ahead: 

High: Finally, a COLA for Retired Educators

Cy-Fair ISD retired educators and Texas AFT Retiree Plus leaders Pamela Davis-Duck and Rita Carden Runnels were just two of a dedicated army of retirees who have fought for years for a cost-of-living increase for TRS pension recipients. This year, their efforts finally paid off. Photo provided by Cy-Fair AFT. 

After over a decade of inaction by the Legislature, years of Texas AFT Retiree Plus advocacy, a fight during the legislative session, a successful campaign at the ballot box, and a series of baseless lawsuits threatening the results of that campaign, Texas retired educators will receive a long-overdue cost-of-living adjustment to their pensions. 

After such a long wait, this small COLA (between 2% and 6% increase depending on the year in which an educator retired) for retired educators is less than they deserve and does not reflect the massive increases in the actual cost of living that retired educators have faced (nearly an 18% increase over the past three years alone). The election results for Proposition 9, which needed to pass in order to fund the COLA, showed that Texas voters overwhelmingly support retired educators. Nearly 84% of Texas voters approved Proposition 9, the highest margin of any of the 14 propositions on the ballot this November.

This COLA would not have been possible without the work and leadership of Texas AFT Retiree Plus. Since the group was founded in 2018, its singular focus has been to win a cost-of-living adjustment for retired educators. Now that members have won a COLA, they are not stopping their advocacy. Educators deserve a livable pension that automatically keeps up with the cost of living, and Texas ranks second to last in the nation when it comes to educator retirement benefits. Texas AFT Retiree Plus will not stop fighting until Texas retired educators win the secure retirement they earned and deserve.

Low: $0 Added to the Basic Allotment

Texas AFT and its local union presidents were at the Capitol on the opening day of the 88th Legislature, demanding respect for educators, including fully funding the schools in which they work. While we heard much talk in support of this broadly popular priority, lawmakers left Austin this year with no new money for schools. Photo by Eli Melendrez, Texas AFT. 

In 2023, the Texas Legislature had a $188 billion budget to work with and a $33 billion surplus. Also in 2023, the Texas Legislature increased state funding for public schools by $0, leaving per-student funding at the same level as 2019

How did this happen? How did we squander a budget surplus that is larger than the entire budgets of 24 states? The short answer: look to the governor’s mansion. 

The longer answer: Increasing the basic allotment (the base level of state funding for public schools) is popular among Texans and an urgent priority, something we’ve seen reiterated in poll after poll. The private school voucher program that Gov. Greg Abbott has relentlessly pursued over the past year is neither popular nor an urgent priority for most Texans. 

Therefore, a basic allotment increase — and the pay raises for school employees such an increase would trigger automatically — became the “carrot” in Abbott’s voucher scheme. 

We saw this strategy first in the regular session when a well-intentioned, if imperfect, school finance bill, HB 100, was poison-pilled by the Texas Senate with a voucher. Suddenly, a modest basic allotment increase, as well as increased funding for several other important allotments, was being held hostage for a costly voucher program that would lead to the long-term defunding of those schools. 

While House legislators — with continued outreach from our members and public school advocates — held firm and let HB 100 die rather than accept the voucher, the governor and his voucher-hawk allies tried this playbook several more times in the ensuing special sessions. Without success.

The result: School districts turning over couch cushions to find money for employee pay raises that the state’s own task force said were crucial to retaining educators and stemming our staffing shortage crisis.  

Whoa: Vouchers are dead in Texas. Again. 

Thousands of educators attended a Boot Vouchers rally at the Texas Capitol in October, including Alliance/AFT member Rosie Curts. Curts was joined by Travis Cantwell, a plumber and HVAC technician who trained to become a substitute teacher so Curts could travel to testify against vouchers in Austin. They were just one pair in a cross-union effort. Photo provided. 

Going into this year, we knew that public education would face challenges unlike anything it had faced ever before. Galvanized by their billionaire donors who wish to privatize our nation’s public schools, Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick signaled throughout the 2022 election cycle that private school vouchers would be their primary legislative priority during the 88th legislative session. 

Data shows that private school voucher programs defund public education, are extremely costly, do not improve student outcomes, and act as a subsidy for wealthy parents who already send their students to private schools. Private school vouchers use taxpayer dollars to fund a system that is unaccountable, discriminatory, and inaccessible for many students, especially those living in rural areas. 

Despite the fact that the House voted against vouchers overwhelmingly (115-29) just two years ago, the public education community knew that the governor and billionaire donors would be putting a massive amount of pressure on legislators to push through his taxpayer-funded voucher scheme. If public education advocates were to hold these privatizers at bay, we knew that the bipartisan majority in the Texas House that has voted overwhelmingly against private school vouchers for decades would have to hold. 

Not once, not twice, but over three separate sessions (the 150-day regular session and two 30-day special sessions), the governor pushed the Texas House to pass private school vouchers. He tried both the “carrot” (his word to describe billions of dollars of desperately needed public education funding with which he intended to bribe legislators) and the “stick” (threatening anti-voucher legislators with primaries and vetoing their bills), but neither strategy worked. In his last, most desperate push last month, a bipartisan group of 84 legislators stood firm in their commitments to Texas public schools and bravely voted against Abbott’s private school voucher scheme.

High: Public Education Wins at the Polls

In November 2023, 2 million Texans voted in the constitutional amendment election. One in every 100 of those voters was a retired or active Texas AFT member. We saw the results, but imagine what we could do in 2024 with higher turnout and more members. 

This November, more than 2 million Texas voters cast a ballot on 14 statewide propositions and in several local elections; a record high turnout in a constitutional amendment election. More than 16% of registered voters in Texas cast a ballot, the highest percentage in an odd-year election since 2005.

The turnout was even higher for our members. About 25% of Texas AFT members voted in this November’s election, higher than the statewide turnout and a 9% increase from Texas AFT voting levels in 2021, the last off-year election. 

We credit Proposition 9 and a retiree COLA for much of that turnout bump, but not all of it. There were a number of crucial local votes this year, and most bore good news for public schools across Texas: 

  • School employee pay raises win local voter approval: Education Round Rock, Fort Bend AFT, and Brownsville Educators Stand Together (BEST AFT) all mobilized to support school employee pay raise propositions on the ballot via voter-approval tax-rate elections (VATREs). Prop A in Brownsville ISD passed with 60% of the vote, Prop A in Fort Bend ISD passed with 57% of the vote, and Prop A in Round Rock ISD passed with 72% of the vote.
  • Statewide success for school bond packages: Seventy-five Texas school districts put bond measures on the ballot, totaling nearly $18 billion, according to the Texas Bond Review Board. According to an analysis by The Texas Tribune, at least 50% of those proposals passed, including in Aldine ISD where three Aldine AFT-endorsed bonds passed with more than 55% of the vote each. 
  • School board allies elected: Nationally — and in Texas — we saw momentum swing away from extremist, anti-public education school board candidates toward allies in the fight for the freedom to learn. An AFT analysis of approximately 250 races throughout the country found that AFT-supported school board candidates won more than 80% of the time. We saw that closer to home too, with huge wins for Aldine AFT’s and Alief AFTSE’s endorsed candidates. Cy-Fair AFT was able to protect one long-time ally on its school board, even as the election was flooded with Moms for Liberty PAC dollars. 

Low: Your Working Conditions Lose in the Legislature

Northeast Houston AFT President Shonda Below and a student remind lawmakers about the truly meaningful solutions to help students thrive: smaller class sizes. If only the Legislature had listened … Photo by Mariana Krueger, CCR Studios. 

Perhaps you thought a $0 increase to state funding for public schools was the worst effort put forth by the Texas Legislature this year. 

You’d be wrong. When it comes to educators’ working conditions, not only did the Legislature fail to move the ball forward, it actively made things worse. 

Bill to cut down on unnecessary paperwork for educators? Never got a hearing. Bill to define how much area a school custodian can be assigned to clean? Never got a hearing. Bills to close loopholes that allow overcrowded classrooms? Never got a hearing. 

Chairman Brad Buckley’s House Public Education Committee was where working conditions bill went to die this session

The primary driver behind the backwards momentum, meanwhile, was a single bill that did pass: HB 1605, authored by Buckley. While this bill was pitched as a way to help teachers who are spending excessive amounts of time on lesson design, the end result reduced educators’ responsibility and agency over curriculum. And it has become a thorny issue and massive implementation project for the State Board of Education. 

High: The Power of Local Organizing

Texas AFT members across the state pushed hard on their school board members to stand with us in fighting for fully funded public schools — and against privatization attempts. Cy-Fair AFT (pictured), Aldine AFT, PSJA AFT, and Socorro AFT all successfully pushed their boards to pass resolutions calling on the Legislature to increase funding for public schools and reject voucher bills. Photo provided by Cy-Fair AFT.  

State leadership may have abandoned its responsibility to support free public education for all students, but our communities — and our members — have not. We saw that at the polls this year, but we also saw it in a diverse array of local organizing wins across the state. 

School Employee Pay

In April 2023, San Antonio ISD passed its largest employee compensation package in over 25 years, guaranteeing raises from 4-9% for district employees. The vote was unanimous, and the product of months of advocacy by San Antonio Alliance members, who made significant across-the-board pay raises their top organizing priority at the start of the school year. 

Likewise, after a monthslong campaign, Education Austin reached an historic agreement on compensation through elected consultation with Austin ISD in May 2023. Included in the agreement — approved unanimously by the school board — were pay raises for all district employees and an increase to the district’s minimum wage, bringing it up to $20 per hour.

In Spring 2023, Spring AFT members spoke against Spring ISD administrators’ actions denying a performance bonus previously promised to teachers with students taking the STAAR ALT 2 assessment. On Valentine’s Day, our members rallied at the school board meeting in favor of a proposed amendment to restore that pay incentive. The amendment passed, and 54 additional educators received a total of $221,000 for their efforts.

Working & Learning Conditions 

The Legislature kicked the can down the road on meaningful improvements to the day-to-day conditions in our schools, completely ignoring solutions to real issues documented by educators in our fall working conditions tracking project

We plan to work with our local unions and members across the state to wage local campaigns to address these issues next year, as we wait for another legislative session and a potential statewide solution. In the meantime, our members have been protecting their schools and winning improvements throughout 2023. 

Thanks to Brownsville Educators Stand Together (BEST AFT) members, every elementary school student in Brownsville ISD is now guaranteed a minimum 15-minute recess each day. “We posed the question, ‘If we can waste countless hours of instructional time on excessive practice testing, then why can’t we use 15 minutes a day for the well-being of our children and community?” said Esmer Garcia Barajas, co-chair of BEST AFT and an elementary teacher. In February 2023, the district responded to BEST AFT’s request, instructing principals that recess is a requirement.  

Faced with budget troubles, La Joya ISD proposed closing two elementary school campuses and eliminating nearly 140 jobs in February 2023. In response, La Joya AFT members sprang to action, calling a quick-response press conference and flooding the school board meeting with concerned employees and parents. On March 23, 2023, the school board voted to keep both schools open.

Low: Attacks on the Freedom to Learn in Higher Education

Austin Community College AFT President David Albert and Brian Evans, vice president of the Texas Conference of the AAUP, meet with Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) during a bruising legislative session for higher education. 

This year, higher education in Texas weathered many attacks familiar to K-12 public education. State leaders attacked diversity, employment protections, and the freedom to teach the truth. Last year, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) became a national affiliate of AFT. Throughout the legislative session, Texas AFT partnered with Texas AAUP to defend higher education from this barrage of attacks. 

Through this partnership, Texas AFT and Texas AAUP killed SB 16, which was intended to limit professor’s ability to teach certain topics and to chill discourse on college campuses, and made significant improvements to SB 18, which originally would have eliminated tenure protections. Unfortunately, the Legislature passed SB 17, which targets diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs on college campuses. Several harmful provisions were removed or changed when the bill came over from the Senate to the House, but the bill’s core purpose of rolling back DEI initiatives remained intact. 

The passage of these two bills has already created a variety of issues, as institutions of higher education begin to implement provisions of SB 17, which officially goes into effect on Jan. 1, and adjust their tenure policies in adherence to SB 18. As time goes on, these issues will undoubtedly persist and multiply.

Despite these issues, higher education did see one significant victory this session. HB 8 provided Texas’ 50 Community College systems with a desperately needed $650 million increase in funding. In addition to the overall funding increase, the bill increases transparency, creates new programs, and addresses previous inequities in the community college finance system.

Whoa: We did what?

More than 500 Texas teachers and public school employees participated in Texas AFT’s Public Education Advocacy Day in March, where Northside AFT leader Melina Espiritu-Azocar addressed the crowd (above). But that was just a drop in the bucket of educator activism throughout the 88th Legislature. Photo by Mariana Krueger, CCR Studios. 

That there are any high points on this list at all is a testament to you. Actually, it’s because of you and nearly 26,000 of your fellow Texans. 

This year, 25,685 teachers, school staff members, parents, and community supporters took legislative action with Texas AFT. 

This is the largest mobilization of our members and allies during a legislative session in our history. This year, Texas AFT members sent 127,438 letters to legislators and made 10,180 calls to legislators for a total of 5,165 minutes. 

Without your calls, emails, and visits to legislators, we would not have a cost-of-living adjustment for retired educators. Without your unrelenting advocacy, we very well could have been heading into 2024 with a private school voucher program around our necks. 

Remember that as you recharge this December. In January, we regroup and return to the fight for fully funded, fully respected, and fully thriving public schools. 

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