This article appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of The Classroom Teacher.

By Jeri Stone | TCTA Executive Director

It seems that the tide of activism is rising on almost every front. Teachers in four states have been on “strike,” though that term has varying meanings (as described more fully in the Legal Notes article here). Students throughout the nation have supported the #WalkForOurLives movement to prevent school shootings, while women have come forward to join the #MeToo outing of sexually inappropriate conduct.

Protests and disruptions are occurring on the local level as well, and on local issues. Recent Austin-area news coverage addressed both the dire financial condition of the Austin ISD as well as parents’ demands for a nurse at every elementary school, which would cost additional millions. Meanwhile, the same news sources report almost daily on some aspect of the “affordability crisis” being experienced in the area, due to rising costs of living, especially property values and taxes. It’s unclear whether anyone, anywhere, is addressing the disconnect between the cries for more high-cost services, the simultaneous budget issues, and the clear message that taxpayers can’t keep up.

At the state level, the Texas Commission on Public School Finance appears to be starkly divided, primarily on the issue of whether school districts have plenty of money and just spend it unwisely, or whether districts and teachers and students really are being shortchanged by the state’s decreasing contributions. Historically, with the notable exception of the Select Committee led by H. Ross Perot in the 1980s, the reports of special commissions have had a fairly short shelf-life, and rarely frame any subsequent legislative action. But school finance is a discussion that has to be had; it can’t be backburnered long-term with the time-honored strategy of “we’ll have a special committee look into this.” 

I confess to a fair amount of personal frustration with this issue. When the demands of taxpayers for lower taxes became too loud to ignore in the early- to mid-2000s, the legislature reduced the maximum level of maintenance and operations taxes for districts, theoretically replacing that lost revenue with business franchise taxes. In reality, the franchise taxes never produced the revenue predicted. Since that time the legislature has reduced them incrementally on more than one occasion, while regularly entertaining the possibility of repealing them altogether. This has not been a major topic of discussion for the Commission on School Finance. 

No one has yet “bitten” when TCTA has brought up the fact that Texas is one of a minority of states that do not require the disclosure of real estate sales prices. We have seen estimates that business properties, in particular, are undervalued by up to 75 percent in some areas, resulting in potentially billions of dollars in unrecognized local property taxes. (To his credit, one member of the commission, State Rep. Diego Bernal, filed a bill during the last regular session to require property sales price disclosure. It didn’t receive a hearing.) And if you want a fine example of bureaucratic waste, consider the process of property tax valuations and appeals, where everyone from the property owners to the taxing authority is bumbling around in the dark, having hearings and appeals, and trying to assess property without the benefit of the most pertinent information available – sales prices. 

Then we have the other issues in public education, like the apparently conflicting demands to improve teacher quality while the state simultaneously makes it ever easier for teachers to be hired without appropriate certification. More than 600 of the state’s current 700+ Districts of Innovation have exempted themselves from certification requirements, most under the guise of needing career and tech teachers, despite the fact that current law already provides flexibility for such situations. 

And there’s the legislation passed last session that essentially provides a “get out of jail free” card for chronically low-performing traditional schools by pairing with a charter school. The best among the charter schools have made it pretty clear that they don’t strive to become turnaround options for low-performing traditional schools. 

The focus by some policymakers on increasing salaries, but under most proposals just for a select few teachers, strikes me as a way to say the right things about paying our “best” teachers more while doing it on the cheap. 

The Occupy movement seems to have foundered due in large part to the lack of a common message and a specific remedy sought, and I fear that many of the current movements may meet the same fate. My point, to finally reach one, is that school/teacher grievances and concerns need to move to the next level and start addressing potential solutions, even those that may be politically inconvenient or unpopular. The striking teachers in other states are having some success because (with the support and encouragement of their school administrations) they are asking specifically for more money, not only for their own benefits but for schools and students. In a recent article that allowed reader commentary, there was a blurb reporting on the STAAR online testing glitches that recently occurred. It was heartening to see the unanimity in the responses from readers: all suggested, in one way or another, that Texas get rid of the tests and spend those dollars on teachers and students. 

Many of you were involved in the recent primary election efforts to elect more education-friendly legislative candidates. While the end results were mixed, it’s important to recognize that progress was made, attention was captured, and this may be a longer and slower process than some of us might like. But it’s time to agree not just on what we don’t want but what we do, the details on how to accomplish those goals, and to start to rebuild from here if we want the traditional public school system, with good options and innovations, to survive and thrive.