Thousands of teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky rallied in their state capitals Monday as school districts across their state closed for want of teachers to hold classes. West Virginia teachers walked out for a nine-day strike a month ago, and word in Arizona is that teachers there may follow soon.
Will Texas teachers be next? Should they be?
Why not? Nothing else has seemed to work to get state lawmakers to spend more on an education system whose funding is so bad that in 2014 after a 12-week trial a state district judge ruled it was literally illegal.
Even as Texas’ need for a trained and productive work force — that is, an educated one — becomes more and more acute, lawmakers keep shrinking the state’s share of overall school funding. What’s it going to take to shake them out of this downward spiral?
The cost of educating our growing — and, this is critical, increasingly needy — school-age population keeps going up. Who’s surprised? Everything tends to go up over time. Especially when the population of kids who need schooling keeps getting bigger.
But as the costs go up, the state has shifted more and more of the burden to local school districts, whose money comes straight from taxes on homes and commercial properties. That has homeowners hopping mad, naturally, and Gov. Greg Abbott has formed a commission charged with looking at how to further cap property taxes.
Meanwhile, no one seems to have stopped to ask: What happens when the real estate values cool off, and the supply of money from homeowners taps out? When is the state going to start upping the share it pays?
Not anytime soon, it seems clear enough. By next year, the state estimates it’ll shoulder about 38 percent, or $18 billion, of the funding needed for public schools. Local districts will pay 62 percent, or $30.2 billion. That’s not the first time the state’s share had dipped below 40 percent, but it’s rare — it’s happened only five other times since 1985.
What’s scary is that the lower the state’s percentage gets, the more underfunded our schools will be, and the harder it will be to fix. This is all made worse because in 2011 the Legislature took a giant cleaver to the school budget, and trimmed $5.6 billion right off the top; it has been climbing out of that hole ever since.
After state district Judge John Dietz’s landmark ruling in 2015, the state appealed, of course. Republican lawyer William Jefferson, a former state Supreme Court chief justice arepresenting the Dallas and Fort Worth school districts, told his former colleagues on the Supreme Court that school districts “are crying out for the court to have the Legislature act. … We are not preparing students for the 21st century.”
They didn’t listen. Sure, the system is bad, they noted, but not so bad that it can’t be fixed. Two justices wrote separately to emphasize how badly that fix needed to come, and soon. They began their concurring opinion with a line from Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
That was in 2016. By the time lawmakers got back to work last year, all the fireworks over properly funding education appeared to be over. Rained out.
In a post-session interview, House Speaker Joe Straus said it never had a chance.
“School finance reform never got a serious consideration in the Senate. The governor seldom spoke of it at all,” Straus said. “The bathroom bill sucked all the air out of the session.”
So that takes us back to the teachers. Shouldn’t they be in the streets here in Texas, or up at our Capitol, too?
It’s a fair question. If the courts can’t — or won’t — step in, and lawmakers are too busy talking about bathrooms, who else is going to be heard? How else is anything going to be changed?
Sure, it’s a big step. When teachers in Kentucky called in sick Friday — teacher strikes there are illegal — plenty of parents were outraged. Get back to work, they seemed to be saying, as they scrambled to find child care for their suddenly free-range children.
But plenty of others have supported the teachers, who arrived by the tens of thousands in Frankfort, where lawmakers are hurtling toward the last couple days of the 2018 legislature.
Turns out, there’s plenty of room to argue over whether the changes to the teacher pensions there make sense. After all, pensions are just one way of compensating teachers for spending their professional lives caring for our children. You can’t argue they are too generous unless you take into context the salaries, the benefits, the workplace expectations, the respect they receive from elected officials, and whether the state provides the resources to education more generally so that their work can have results.
Kentucky has failed its teachers on most of those factors. If the state didn’t pay them so poorly, and if the governor would stop trashing them and the public schools, they might have been reluctant to walk out over the pension changes.
In Texas, teacher pay varies greatly from one district to another. But everywhere, state funding for schools is inadequate. That makes it hard for even the best teachers to have results that the their students long for and which we all know are necessary for Texas to remain competitive.
It’s too bad that the Texas Legislature met last year, and has missed the wildfire spreading out from West Virginia. Maybe what the lawmakers needed most was a reminder to get their minds out of the bathroom stalls and back on the urgent need to improve and adequately fund public schools in Texas.
We can only hope that by the time state lawmakers meet in 2019, teachers here will be ready to make their voices heard, too.
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