Teachers all over Texas are preparing for an increasingly difficult time for the profession. In the face of a historic budgetary shortfall, the state cut district funding by approximately $5 billion in formula funding and discretionary grants. Some estimate that this will result in at least 15,000 fewer teachers this year than last, while student enrollment continues to increase. The state also passed legislation intended to increase flexibility in how districts manage personnel matters, such as contracts and salaries. Further, a new accountability system rolls out this year. With all of these policy changes, teachers need to be more aware and involved in the decisions local school boards will be making to implement the changes in the coming weeks, months and even years.

Paige Williams and Lindsay Gustafson watch as Gov. Rick Perry signs HB 1907 into law.

TCTA lobby team members Paige Williams (far left) and Lindsay Gustafson (far right) were on hand as Gov. Rick Perry signed into law HB 1907, along with Rep. Jerry Madden (3rd from left), Sen. John Whitmire (3rd from right), legislative staff and others.

No conversation concerning what teachers should expect can start without first discussing Senate Bill 8 which passed during the special session. This divisive legislation was passed at the urging of districts and superintendents requesting the ability to lower salaries and furlough employees, ostensibly to cope with the budget crisis. While SB 8 authorizes districts to lower salaries and furlough workdays, among other things, these two options are not required to be instituted and cannot be exercised without first following a detailed process, which requires districts to allow employees the opportunity to provide input on the proposed plans and school boards to hold a public meeting to discuss the proposed policies prior to adoption. SB 8 also made changes to the reduction in force (RIF) process, particularly with respect to continuing contract holders. Specifically, the RIF seniority provision requiring the most recently hired continuing contract teachers to be discharged first was removed. Due to SB 8, districts must now base continuing contract RIF decisions primarily on teacher evaluations. What is unclear is how districts will incorporate this directive into their RIF policies. It is also important to note that while the state gave districts the ability to lower salaries and reduce workdays, the policies will be drafted and adopted by your school boards. So whether and how these changes will affect you depends almost entirely on your local school board and serves as just one example of why teachers must be active at the local level where policies are drafted and implemented. It is also unclear whether districts will seek to make changes to contracts this year (for example, reducing salaries, creating furlough programs, or not considering seniority in continuing contract RIFs) since teachers are already under contract.  It is TCTA’s position that these changes can only be made prospectively and cannot affect the current contract.  However, we fully expect litigation on this issue and should you have any questions about actions or decisions that your school board is considering, please contact the TCTA Legal Department at (888) 879-8282. 

This year also ushers in big changes to the accountability system as well as a new testing program, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). As has been done in the past, districts and campuses will keep the same accountability ratings received this year (2011) for the next two years while undergoing the transition to the new accountability system and more rigorous testing program. The first accountability ratings under the new system won’t be assigned until 2013. However, an added wrinkle this year is TEA’s decision to discontinue the use of the Texas Projection Measure in determining 2011 accountability ratings, causing some district and campus ratings to be lower this year than last.  Other facets of the new accountability system that will go into place this fall include the requirement for entering freshman students for the 2011-12 school year to achieve a certain overall cumulative score on STAAR end-of-course exams to fulfill graduation requirements.  Also, students in grades 3-8 will no longer take the TAKS, but will begin the more difficult STAAR exams.

The likely result of the more rigorous accountability system will be lower district ratings again, though in 2013 the accountability system will shift away from labels like “recognized” and “exemplary,” and instead use only two categories – “acceptable” and “unacceptable.” These two categories will be supplemented by distinction designations for performing in the top 25% in annual improvement or demonstrated ability to close performance gaps. In addition, campuses may receive distinction designations for performance in certain areas such as English language arts, math, science, social studies, fine arts, physical education, 21st century workforce development, or second language acquisition programs. Committees are being formed to help TEA define the various distinction designations. In addition, the new accountability system is meant to focus more on measuring whether students will be college- and career-ready by the time they graduate from high school.

On a more positive note, the 82nd Legislature passed a bill that will help teachers keep their students safe and allow them to make more informed instructional decisions. House Bill 1907 provides much needed information to teachers by requiring more immediate notification to school districts by law enforcement personnel when students are arrested for felonies and certain dangerous misdemeanors. Additionally, the superintendent is then required to immediately notify teachers with supervisory responsibilities of the student’s arrest, and provide sufficient detail of the crime for which the student was arrested. Failure of the superintendent to provide this notification must be reported to the State Board for Educator Certification by the school board.  If you, as a teacher, receive notification of a student’s arrest, it is imperative that you keep this information confidential. While this law is in place so that teachers can make fully informed decisions that affect the safety of their students and the classroom, there is no entitlement to refuse a student to your classroom or refuse to teach a student assigned to your class.  

TCTA will continue to monitor and be involved in the implementation of laws passed in the recent legislative sessions, and will keep you informed via our website at tcta.org and our eUpdates. Another invaluable resource is the TCTA Survival Guide (included in this magazine), which has been updated to reflect the many legislative changes to education-related laws that impact your day-to-day life in the classroom.