After years of cuts and attacks, educators are on the offensive this legislative session. But will lawmakers do enough, and what will teachers do if they don’t?
In 2018, teachers led a wave of strikes and walkouts in red states around the country, demanding not just better pay but more public school funding after years of cuts — and for the most part, they got it. And while teachers didn’t strike in Texas, they did target pro-voucher politicians like Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and his band of Empower Texans legislators at the ballot box in November. Despite an attempt by Attorney General Ken Paxton to root out teachers’ pro-voting sympathies, educators helped beat back right-wing Republicans and elect 14 new Democratic state legislators who ran on public education. Patrick came uncomfortably close to losing to an underfunded accountant.
Texas’ right-wing governing faction finally experienced consequences for starving public schools of resources in the name of fiscal austerity. The Lone Star State is one of just 12 states that is spending less, adjusted for inflation, on public education per-student than it was before the recession. In fact, Texas has slashed per-student funding by 20 percent since 2008, more than anywhere else in the country.
In response, the Big Three of Texas government — Governor Greg Abbott, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Patrick — have gone to great lengths to make the 2019 legislative session focused on matters of public education. For once, lawmakers are talking about injecting new money instead of more cuts. That has teachers feeling emboldened, and cautiously optimistic.
The House is pushing a $9 billion school finance bill that would get state education funding much closer to where it was before the 2011 cuts. Patrick and the Senate are taking a different approach, calling to put less money directly into schools and instead focusing primarily on an across-the-board $5,000 salary increase for teachers and librarians.
But hundreds of teachers and school support staff showed up on the steps of the Capitol Monday with a clear message about the proposals thus far: “It’s not enough.” With more state revenue and a record $15.4 billion in the Rainy Day Fund, teachers are demanding an overhaul of the state education system, not just piecemeal changes.
“Ten years of underfunding schools: Ya basta is right,” said Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers union, at the rally.
Teachers’ list of grievances is long. They want a sustainable stream of funding for schools as well as pay raises that aren’t linked to test scores and don’t exclude bus drivers, counselors and cafeteria workers. They want to do away with the STAAR test and to rein in charter schools draining school districts of resources. And they want the state to offer relief to retired teachers facing exorbitant health care costs and diminishing pension benefits.
In short, Patrick’s $5,000 pay bump for teachers and librarians ain’t gonna cut it. “This is him just trying to make this go away,” said Carla Bandy, who has taught art for more than 20 years at Hays CISD. “He thinks teachers are stupid, and we’re not stupid.”
After seeing striking teachers in red states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona were gaining national attention and getting results, Texas teachers feel emboldened. The weight of a decade-plus of legislative neglect has finally become too much for educators to stomach. But what will teachers do if the Legislature doesn’t deliver?
The deck is stacked against organized labor in Texas, which, like many conservative states, has a long history of anti-union antagonism. Public sector workers have no collective bargaining rights and state law bans public employees from striking. The Texas education commissioner has the power to strip teachers of their jobs, teaching certificates and pension benefits if they walk off the job. That helps create a widespread wariness of strikes. As Wayne Stalworth, a recently retired teacher from San Antonio, put it: more bluntly: “If you strike, they will rob you,” he said.
But the wave of red state strikes has teachers wondering. A mass show of resistance, damn the law, could galvanize public support, force the issue and pressure lawmakers to acquiesce if they don’t meet expectations this session.
“I think if we end this session with no real increase in funding and nothing really changes, [a strike] will definitely be something on the minds of teachers in Texas,” said Traci Dunlap, a kindergarten teacher at Austin ISD and a member of the Education Austin teachers union. “If our lawmakers really care about public education, they will put their money where their mouth is.”
Toni Malone, a first-grade teacher at Bastrop ISD, agreed. “I think that teachers in Texas have tolerated enough from the people in this building. It’s not totally out of the question.”
Some still see voting as the surest means of recourse. “The problem with a strike … is that these guys don’t play with their own money,” said Troy Reynolds, founder of the grassroots advocacy group Texans for Public Education.
In Oklahoma, public employees are also prohibited from striking. However, facing a crisis worse than Texas, school administrators shut down school last April in solidarity so that teachers technically would not be striking. After 10 days, teachers won a $6,000 salary increase and forced legislators to create new revenue for schools.
After years of playing defense, teachers in Texas finally have some leverage. Will they use it?