The special session is underway, and of the 20 items Gov. Greg Abbott says he wants lawmakers to tackle, one is getting a lot of attention from teachers: pay increases for educators.
"I want legislation on my desk that increases teacher pay by $1,000,” Abbott said. “To achieve that, Texas doesn’t need to spend more, it just needs to spend smarter.”
Most people agree teachers should be paid more but some educators say this proposal could actually do more harm than good depending on where the money comes from. One of our listeners wanted to find out more details about how such raises would work. Jane Chesney submitted her questions to the TXDecides project to learn more.
Who "counts" as a teacher?
“The idea of giving every teacher in Texas a raise of a $1,000 sounds really nice,” Chesney said. “But I’m just curious to know: Who is a teacher?”
Chesney is retired now but she spent 30 years in education. She taught in the Midwest, then the Southeast, and finally Texas. Here, she settled down in the Woodlands and was a librarian in public and private schools. So her question hits close to home.
Chesney has a master’s degree in library sciences, she put in an equal amount of hours with students as teachers did. So, if she was teaching in a Texas public school today, would she be eligible for a raise? Well, it depends.
“Generally when they say they’re giving a teacher a raise they’re talking about a certified professional that is in a classroom,” Tonja Gray said. “So there’s a lot of people who are being left out of this proposal.”
Gray is the State Secretary for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. She’s also a literacy education specialist in Abilene.
“In my position, I’m an interventionist,” Gray said. “But some school districts consider that a specialist rather than a teacher.”
That means Jane Chesney hypothetically may have gotten a raise, but it would depend on how her district classified positions. That leads us to part two of Chesney’s question:
"Where is the money going to come from?"
That's on many people's minds, and the term “unfunded mandate” has come up a lot. The short answer is, we don’t know yet. That’s because there’s disagreement on who ends up paying if Texas public teachers do get their extra $1000 dollars. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says it should be the local school districts.
Last week, when he was laying out his education agenda for the special session, Patrick said districts should set aside some of the money they already have to raise teacher pay. Districts could make it work, Patrick said, if they just make better choices.
“I know there are challenges but we have to prioritize how we spend the money,” Patrick said. “Teachers are the key, buildings don’t educate students.”
"The local districts are strapped"
But groups like Gray’s and other educator advocates say that’s way easier said than done.
“We are spending our money as efficiently as we can," Gray says "I don’t want to see us lose teachers or programs trying to give teacher’s a pay raise. The local districts are strapped.”
Gray says the only solution when it comes to schools and money is for the state to simply increase funding for public education.
Lawmakers want to help, but still can't agree how to pay for it
For the special session, some lawmakers have filed bills that would do that. Rep. Drew Darby, a San Angelo Republican, is one of them. His take:
“If we’re going to tell the school districts to increase their help to teachers then I think the state ought to step up on our responsibility,” Darby said.
But even though his bill kicks more cash to public schools, Darby’s still not certain where it would come from. He says one possibility is using money from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, which you probably know as the rainy day fund. Or, maybe using some of the extra $42 million dollars the state Comptroller recently said is available. What he doesn’t want to see happen is for local communities to raise property taxes to cover the cost of raises.
“You can’t talk about one without the other,” Darby said. “If we’re going to talk about real property tax relief then we need to talk about school finance.”
Local property taxes have steadily gone up over the past decade to compensate for the state’s share of education spending, which has gone down.
“It’s all tied together,” said Mark Wiggins, a lobbyist for the ATPE. “The more the state invests in restoring its share of public school funding. The less local taxpayers will have to shoulder that burden.”
Wiggins advocates for Texas educators by taking their needs straight to the statehouse. Currently, Texas employs about 350,000 public school teachers. Wiggins said everyone knows teachers deserve a raise. Even outside of work, he hears about it a lot.
“My mom’s a teacher, my sister is a teacher, I have an uncle who is a teacher and an aunt who is a teacher and my brother is about to become a teacher,” Wiggins said.
While we don’t definitively know yet how any raise would be funded, Wiggins said there’s an even bigger unknown in play during the special session because the size of Texas’s public education system makes it a role-model for other states.
“People pay attention to what happens here,” Wiggins said. “When we do good things, those tend to get copied elsewhere and when we do bad things, people learn lessons from them.”
What will Texas’s special session be for other states? A model or a cautionary tale? Teacher pay is just one of several education issues lawmakers will take on in the next few weeks. And Texans aren’t the only ones who’ll be watching.