Executive Director's Message

The Classroom Teacher, winter 2013-14

by Jeri Stone, TCTA Executive Director/General Counsel

The next election season is already upon us, and it’s an important one. In 2014, we will decide who will be our state’s next governor and lieutenant governor. We will also choose the people we want in all of the state House of Representative seats and in half of the Texas Senate seats.

Though the governor’s race is shaping up to be competitive, with well-known and well-financed candidates from both major parties, most of the other races will be decided in March, not November. Due to redistricting, Texas House and Senate districts generally favor one party or the other. Hence it is the March primary election, when the candidate for the party most likely to win that district is selected, which determines the winner in most races.

Tea Party to heat up the primaries

Now that the Republican Party, which currently controls the majority of seats in both the Texas House and Texas Senate is itself divided, we may see some fierce primary election races that will significantly impact the composition of the 2015 Legislature. There are clearly now two groups within the party: the Tea Party or conservative wing, and the more moderate members.

This schism within the Republican Party exists at the national level as well, and the battle is both fierce and close. A good example was the recent race to elect a U.S. senator for Texas, in which David Dewhurst (the current lieutenant governor who had historically been more moderate) and Ted Cruz (a self-proclaimed Tea Partyer) ran against each other for the Republican nomination.

To the surprise of many observers, Cruz, who started the race with less money and less name recognition, won by a convincing margin. Following that defeat, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst was much more aligned with the Tea Party last session. He also has no fewer than three Republican challengers in his 2014 bid for re-election, one of whom is Dan Patrick, a Texas state senator from Houston and Tea Party icon.

It appears that deviation from the Tea Party platform is likely to get you a well-funded primary opponent, or at least the threat of one. Of course, the origin of the “platform” is unclear, since the Tea Party is more of a movement than a traditional political party with a convention and delegates. However, the movement’s agenda includes some problematic concepts for public education advocates.

While there is rhetoric with which we can agree, such as that about making sure more dollars reach the classroom, we diverge at the implementation phase. To educators, more dollars reaching the classroom means smaller class sizes, better compensated educators, and perhaps new or improved facilities, instructional materials and technology, as well as ample support in the form of counselors, librarians and social workers.

Yet the voting patterns of self-identified Tea Partyers seems to show they believe school funding does not need to be increased significantly, and can perhaps even be cut, if the reduced funds will just be spent more wisely. The very foundation of the Tea Party movement is a belief in smaller government, which directly translates to a strong opposition to increasing funding for virtually any government function.

It’s worth noting that the lack of specific positions by Tea Party members on education issues has made it hard to predict how many legislators will act. For example, while generally opposing additional school funding and/or enhancing education programs, a significant number of House members who typically identify with Tea Party principles were among those who supported a House Bill 5 budget amendment that would have prohibited the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations. (The amendment eventually failed.)

Some candidates may put pro-teacher regulations under fire

As we head into this election season we must listen carefully, especially when we hear the words “local control.” In our minds, local control is significant parental and faculty involvement in determining how best to educate the children of a community. But for some, local control means freedom from regulation.

This is a problem for teachers when the regulations are ones like the state minimum salary schedule and the minimal due process requirements that districts must meet to nonrenew the contracts of non-probationary teachers. Then there are the regulations that guarantee the few benefits teachers are assured, such as planning and preparation periods and duty-free lunch.

Some of you may remember that these pro-teacher laws were enacted because many, if not most, districts were not voluntarily providing these basic rights. Unfortunately, some policymakers fail to understand the distinction between Texas and many other states. They do not recognize that the horror stories they read about how difficult and expensive it is to fire teachers are not applicable here.

March elections key to a good 2015 session

Just as the composition of your classroom affects your results each year, the legislators that voters elect affect the results the TCTA lobby team can have. It’s important that you vote in March because those elections will determine the outcomes in November to a large extent.

Though the governor’s race will certainly generate the most excitement, the governor really doesn’t have that much power in determining education policy, other than to veto legislation, set the agenda for any special sessions, and identify priority items that can move through the legislative process more quickly. The lieutenant governor actually has a larger role, since he or she appoints Senate committee chairs, who have significant influence on which legislation moves and which doesn’t.

Voter turnout in March is typically much lower than that for the general election in November, and it usually includes more of the voters who are highly motivated and often on the outer edges of the political spectrum. So it’s important that “the silent majority” participate in these elections. It’s also important that you know who your candidates are and, with some level of specificity, what their positions are.

For example, what does “restore local control to our schools” really mean to a candidate? Look for details that you need to make an informed vote when reading campaign materials, attending debates, or just following news coverage of the candidates in the coming months.

TCTA is a nonpartisan organization. We don’t endorse candidates, but our political action committee contributes to candidates from both political parties, when appropriate and preferably after meeting with them or working with them to be truly familiar with their views. We’ll provide you with all the information we can through our voter guides and voter website, texasteachersvote.org.

Please vote in the March 4 primary (early voting begins Feb. 18) to help elect candidates who will support Texas public schools and its students and faculty during this crucial time for public education.