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By Lisa Casey Perry
Texas House Democrats were backslapping and praising themselves for a job well done as public education gains were realized in the 80th Texas legislature this spring. They won pay raises, stopped the nation's largest "merit-pay" scam in its tracks, and fatally wounded the "school voucher" scam in the Texas Legislature. Teacher Hobie Hukill, a member of the Executive Board of the Dallas Alliance/AFT Local 2260, put it this way: "From the time that we won 15 of our 17 targeted legislative races last November, we put them on notice that they had better do the right thing." The right wing, which dominates the legislature and all state offices, is down but not out as public schools in Texas continue to struggle for adequate funding.
For years, anti-taxation groups and private school entrepreneurs have managed to undermine public education in the state by promoting private school vouchers and merit pay plans. Both tactics are fully supported and pet agendas of Governor Rick Perry. The voucher lobby is known to have made big contributions to both of his election campaigns. However, standing firmly for most Texans who do not want to see money drained away from their already overburdened schools, House Democrats managed to garner bi-partisan support in defeating both strategies.
Pro-voucher activists in the state have exploited low-income children, as well as disabled and autistic students in an effort to siphon dollars away from public schools. They have proposed voucher bills in every legislative session since 1995. This year house lawmakers halted their efforts by voting 129 - 8 to ban funding for any voucher program.
Texas House members also voted to scrap a planned incentive pay plan for some teachers by applying its $583 million to an across the board pay raise for all school personnel. According to the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, Texas ranks 32nd in the nation for teacher pay. If the amendment passes the state senate, it is estimated that teachers could receive an average of $800 a year more. The amount still falls short of the national average.
The gains in the statehouse this year have been largely due to last November's elections, which swept some Tom Delay-like extremists out of office. Progressives got a better toehold in the Legislature.
While Democratic representatives may be giddy over pro-teacher budget wins, overall spending for education in the state remains flat. In an effort to protect future property tax cuts for 2010 and 2011, and preserve a "Rainy Day" fund, lawmakers decided not to appropriate almost $9 billion.
Republicans were also successful in putting in place rules for this year's budget that prevent an actual increase in overall spending. The new rule requires that any proposed spending be accompanied by a dollar-for-dollar decrease in another area of the budget. As a result, education related programs such as the Student Success Initiative, a program designed to help students achieve passing grades on mandated state tests, go under funded. The proposed budget also does not include enough money for increased student populations, higher utilities, and other operating expenses. It is expected that the Texas Senate will consider the House version of the budget beginning in early April. Groups representing teachers, parents, and labor wait to see if the gains will hold.
As a reminder of just how far the far-right can go in this state, Republican
Rep. Warren Chisum has introduced a new bill for consideration to the House
Public Education Committee. The bill requires that all school districts in Texas
offer history and literature classes on the Bible and that both the Old and
New Testaments would be the "basic textbook". Concerned citizens and
educators, confident with recent victories, continue the fight.