When the Texas Legislature first met at the beginning of January, there was much talk about how public school funding would be the order of the day and the priority for the legislative session. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, eager to fulfill his campaign promise to give teachers a $10,000 pay raise (remember the pickup truck?) announced a bill to give teachers a $5,000 pay raise. Not to be outdone, newly-elected Texas Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen announced a preliminary House budget that would increase public education spending by over $7 billion and handed out styrofoam cups to members of the House that read: “School Finance Reform, The Time Is Now.” The results of last year’s elections had apparently moved the legislative agenda from talk of vouchers and bathroom bills to a long-overdue focus on the needs of public schoolchildren and educators. Or so it seemed.
Within days, the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House gathered together on the Capitol lawn for a press conference to announce their intent to pursue property tax relief. They announced identical bills in the House and Senate—HB 2 and SB 2—that would cap the revenue growth on local property taxes levied by local jurisdictions like cities, counties, school districts, etc., at 2.5 percent, unless voters overturned the cap in an election. The proposed legislation was short on details, particularly the question of where the money would come from to make up for lost revenue to these local entities, especially school districts.
City and county officials, who receive little or no state money, immediately pointed out that they would be severely constrained on raising revenue to pay for local services, including public safety, a significant portion of their budgets. If the state were to reduce the available local revenue for school districts, there would need to be a corresponding amount provided by the state to make up for it, plus the billions more these elected leaders were pledging in new money to fund our schools. When it came to answering the question of where the new money would come from, the tax cutters have essentially said: “Trust us. We’ll find the money for you.”
Trust us indeed.
If school funding is the top priority, then why are legislators not starting with school finance issues first? Do these elected leaders really believe that educators, who have now spent a decade on the losing end of state budget cuts and inaction on school funding while our state has added nearly a million more students, are going to trust them? The short answer is “NO!”
Last week when I testified before the House Public Education Committee, I told the committee that our members were enthusiastic about early signs of commitment to fund our schools. We saw that the Legislature had real opportunities to do right by our kids, especially given the amount of revenue the state has to work with. We understood that school finance reform was challenging work, and that pledges for providing money for teachers and staff, reading initiatives, special education, school safety, full-day Pre-K, and the need to fulfill promises to our school employee retirees, and possibly rebuild the entire system of how money flows, would be a challenge. But that is what we elected them to do.
We are at a critical juncture. The forward momentum of legislators from both parties who ran on the issue of funding our schools has run into the old wall of resistance from the shrinking by not yet defeated forces that have prevailed in past years in their efforts to starve our schools and cheat our students. We are not going to let this happen again.
This is a call to arms. Your students and your colleagues need you to take action on their behalf and on your own. Join them at the Capitol on March 11 for our Red for Ed Texas rally! Thousands of educators, parents, students and public school advocates are coming to cash a promissory note from legislators who told us they would fund our schools. Click here to either confirm that you’ll be at the Capitol with us on, Monday, March 11, or that you’ll write or call your legislators that day from wherever you are in Texas!
Texas AFT President
You can follow Louis on twitter @LouisMalfaro