05/17/2011

In Texas, Valiant Efforts Hold Back Assault on Schools

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The citizens of Texas, led by Texas AFT, have halted proposed changes to state law that would have ballooned school class sizes at the primary level, cut educators' pay and eroded their rights on the job. The legislation (H.B 400) died in the state House May 12 after lawmakers let it expire without acting on it. Although similar provisions could creep back in before the legislative session ends or in special session later on, AFT members, parents and other allies are remaining vigilant.

The irony was not lost on citizens during Teacher Appreciation Week (May 2-6) that the Texas House was considering a bill that would have allowed pay cuts to teachers, made incursions on their collective bargaining rights and eliminated the 22:1 class-size law. Supporters of H.B. 400 claimed that the bill would have offered "flexibility" for districts, even though it would have permanently gutted class-size caps in grades K-4; putting more kids in each classroom would make it harder for them to get individual instruction. More on the union's class-size initiative is available online.

Texas AFT collected more than 13,000 petition signatures from teachers and parents to preserve the 22:1 class-size law, accompanied by some 4,000 comments on why changes to the law would hurt student learning and drive teachers away from the profession.

In the end, their arguments prevailed—at least for now. Not only did Texas AFT stop the awful legislation, but the union also turned back a voucher bill and averted some backtracking on pensions.

The news isn't all good, however. Despite opposition by a unanimous bloc of Democrats, the Texas Senate passed a budget plan May 4 that guts education funding, with senators first dumping a provision to tap the state's rainy day fund. The Texas House already had passed an even worse budget for 2012-13. A compromise bill between bad and worse is expected soon.

Texas AFT president and AFT vice president Linda Bridges points out that the House and Senate budget plans "make history—of the worst kind—while sowing the seeds for a bleaker future for our state." She also notes that the final budget will be the first in decades that does not fund new student enrollment. That's 80,000 to 90,000 more students each year streaming into schools undercut by at least $5 billion. Such deep cuts present the possibility that Texas will fail to meet its obligations under state school finance law. For details, see the Texas AFT legislative hotline.

The budget and policy battles continue, but it seems that as lawmakers look at what their own school districts would lose to deep cuts, enthusiasm for the slash-and-burn approach may be ebbing. Much of the credit goes to heroic efforts by Texas AFT members, who started early this spring with their most successful lobby day ever. In March, more than 4,000 Texans came together from across the state to make their presence felt at the Capitol.

Keeping up the fighting spirit, Texas AFT has launched a new campaign driven by individual members to raise awareness of state budget issues. "Say Cheese" asks members and friends to post a photo of themselves holding a sign with a pro-education message to their Texas legislators. Already, members have literally put themselves on the map, flagging their posts on a state map of Texas. Check out this fun and important activity on the Texas Can Do Better website. [Texas AFT, Annette Licitra]

May 17, 2011