Texas AFT Releases Vision for Thriving Public Schools in New White Paper

Imagine a Texas where every child, from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley, had access to a fully funded, high-quality public education. A state where educators are respected and compensated fairly for their vital work, students’ diverse needs are met, and schools serve as community hubs that support the whole child. Sound like a utopian dream?

It shouldn’t, argues the latest report from Texas AFT. In Thrive Together: A Vision for Texas Schools, from Pre-K to Post-Doc, we contend that Texas has the resources to build a world-class public education system – if only state leaders would make it a priority.

“In the state with the world’s eighth-largest economy, our public schools should be the pride of our nation. Instead, they are chronically underfunded, leaving students and educators struggling to get by rather than thriving,” said Texas AFT President Zeph Capo. “This report outlines a different future, one where schools have the resources to meet the needs of all students at every stage of their education journey.”

The comprehensive white paper highlights the importance of robust state funding to ensure access to the hallmarks of a “thriving” public school system, including:

  • Universal pre-K and affordable childcare
  • Improving student literacy and fighting book bans
  • Implementing community schools
  • Fully funding special education and emergent bilingual programs
  • Providing free school meals
  • Addressing student mental health
  • Preventing gun violence and promoting school safety, including environmental concerns
  • Expanding career and technical education opportunities
  • Protecting academic freedom in higher education
  • Improving teacher recruitment, training, and retention
  • Ensuring retirement security for educators
  • Establishing the right to collectively bargain for school employees

Chronic Underfunding Leaves Schools in Crisis

The report argues Texas has the money to fully fund public education, as evidenced by the $32.7 billion budget surplus this biennium. For roughly that same amount, Capo said, “Texas could have ensured across-the-board pay raises for all public school employees, increased staffing in mental health and student support roles, affordable health care for active and retired educators, and smaller class sizes for Texas kids.”

In the 88th legislative session, lawmakers appropriated $4.5 billion to increase school funding, but those funds were held hostage over the passage of universal voucher legislation. The voucher provision was removed from House Bill 1, the only remaining vehicle for additional school funding and raises, by a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans. In response, House Public Education Chairman Brad Buckley killed his bill, leaving schools in a worsening crisis.

Analyzing the latest state data, the report paints a grim picture:

As covered elsewhere in this week’s hotline, state leaders like Rep. Jon Rosenthal have called on the legislature to disburse the billions in funding that have been set aside by the state for public education funding, but Gov. Greg Abbott has chosen to tie this funding to his voucher schemes.

Research-Backed Solutions for Student Success

To turn this around, the white paper presents research-backed solutions spanning the identified key issues.

Early Childhood Education

On early childhood education, our report calls for implementing to reduce achievement gaps and expanding access to , noting 45% of Texas AFT members struggle to find and afford childcare. Currently,  in Texas are enrolled in pre-K.

Literacy and Libraries

To improve student literacy, our report recommends robust library programs. Texas has the fourth-lowest literacy rate at 81% and the fourth-fewest libraries per capita at 3.2 per 100,000 residents. The report also opposes the surge in book bans.

Community Schools

Struggling campuses could be transformed into community schools that provide wraparound services shown to boost attendance, decrease mobility, and help parents support learning at home.

Students with Diverse Learning Needs

The report calls for fully funding special education, moving away from a rigid formula to a system that allocates based on student needs. It also urges increasing the weight for bilingual programs to the research-based recommendation. When the first bilingual allotment was set in 1984, it was set at a weight of only 0.1, even though the research-based recommendation at the time was a 0.4 weight. Currently, Texas still has just a 0.1 bilingual weight, even though 19% of students are emergent bilingual.

School Meals

To fight childhood hunger, the paper advocates free school meals for all by encouraging school districts to implement the Community Eligibility Provision. Over 3 million Texas students receive free or reduced-price lunches, but many who are eligible don’t participate due to stigma and red tape. Texas also recently rejected almost half a billion dollars in federal aid for summer meal benefits, which Texas AFT urges the state to opt into for 2025.

Mental Health

Addressing the student mental health crisis requires urgent investments in counseling and support staff. Schools are facing increased behavioral challenges but lack adequate resources. The recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250:1, but in Texas, it is 389:1.

Lack of counselors disproportionately impacts rural districts, smaller districts, and charter schools. The ratios of students to social workers, psychologists, and other professionals are considerably worse compared to nationally recommended ratios, and the expiration of temporary COVID-19 federal relief funding this fall threatens to reverse recent gains in these ratios.

School Safety

To prevent gun violence, Texas AFT supports raising the age to purchase semiautomatic weapons, enacting safe storage and red flag laws, closing background check loopholes, and funding school-based mental health services.

Environmental safety is also key. , and poor air quality contributes to absenteeism and learning challenges.

Career Readiness

The report emphasizes expanding career and technical education (CTE) programs, which engage 1.8 million Texas secondary students and boost graduation rates. But investments are needed to scale up equitable access to high-quality CTE statewide.

Higher Education

In higher education, Texas AFT will continue defending academic freedom against political attacks on tenure and diversity initiatives. Community colleges also need more state support beyond recent increases. State funds now make up just 26% of community college funding, down from 68% in 1980.

Supporting Educators

Improving teacher recruitment, training, and retention is critical as more districts turn to uncertified educators. There are 981 Districts of Innovation in Texas, and the exemption from teacher certification is the second-most used. The report calls for providing certification pathways and mentoring for those already teaching.

For retirement security, the union backs boosting the average monthly pension, currently just $2,199, and providing automatic cost-of-living adjustments.

Finally, Texas AFT argues educators need a greater voice in policymaking, including the right to collectively bargain contracts. Research shows collective bargaining leads to better pay and working conditions, reducing turnover.

“This is not a pipe dream,” Capo said of this portfolio of investments and improvements in Texas public schools. “It is the reality we could have if Texas’ elected leaders prioritized public education. Our hope is that by the end of this report, Texans are ready to demand a future where our public schools are funded to thrive.”

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