Texas Legislature Passes Teacher Pay Raises, Tax Cuts
When all was said and done last week, the Texas legislature seemed to have provided something for everyone: raises for teachers, new tests for students, and bragging rights for a likely presidential contender.
Texas lawmakers, who meet once every two years, closed out their 1999-2000 session on a high note. Shortly before adjourning May 31, they tapped a projected $6.4 billion budget surplus to spend $1.7 billion on $3,000 raises for teachers and school nurses, librarians, and counselors in the new biennial budget.
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. George W. Bush, an all-but-announced candidate for president next year, secured a $1.35 billion cut in the local property taxes that support schools, as well as approval for his plan to stem social promotion of academically unready students and bolster reading instruction.
"I commend legislators for a successful and substantive session that will result in better schools and lower taxes," he said in a written statement. "Texas is leading the nation when it comes to improving our schools."
Mr. Bush has indicated he will sign the $3.8 billion school finance bill that includes the raises and tax cuts. The new spending will help raise total K-12 school spending in fiscal 2000 and 2001 by about $4 billion, to nearly $24 billion--a 20 percent jump from the current two-year budget.
"As far as we can tell, this is the most money that has ever been put into education in one session," said Rhonda McCollough, the assistant commissioner of government relations for the Texas Education Agency.
Despite the back-patting, not every wish was granted.
Teachers' unions had lobbied for a $6,000 pay raise. That is how much they say it would cost to bring the average Texas teacher salary from some $33,000 to the national average, around $39,000.
While they missed that goal by half, teachers weren't complaining. The pay hike is the largest anyone in Texas can remember, and it will augment already-slated "step" increases. Another measure, designed to lure former teachers back to school, would protect pensions from new-income penalties when retirees return to the classroom.
"This is the best education session for at least the last 15 years," said John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "We made some great progress."
The raises, which Mr. Bush supported, go into effect this coming fall and will increase the minimum starting salary from $21,240 to $24,240.
It's not just about money, one union officer added.
"I think teachers are feeling appreciated and morale is higher, and that has a trickle-down effect for kids," said Donna Haschke, the vice president of the Texas State Teachers Association, the National Education Association's state affiliate. "We are exuberant."
While Mr. Bush applauded the session, the legislature's $1.7 billion in total tax cuts fell short of his $2.6 billion tax-cut goal.
Senate Republicans also failed in last-minute efforts to pass a pilot voucher program that Mr. Bush supported--a measure that would have been a prized achievement to cite in his anticipated bid for the GOP nomination in 2000.
But if Mr. Bush formally throws his hat into that ring, state political analysts suggest his tax cuts and focus on other school issues will outweigh the voucher defeat.
"That [loss on vouchers] disappoints some conservatives," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. "But I can't see that education is anything but a plus for him to the extent it becomes an issue in the Republican primary."
Members of the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House moved ahead on other issues designed to increase academic rigor and achievement for the state's nearly 4 million K-12 students.
They passed a plan, backed by state Commissioner of Education Mike Moses, to add an 11th grade exit exam and a 9th grade test to the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills program by the 2002-03 school year.
The measure also would add tests in social studies in the 8th and 10th grades, and science tests in grades 5 and 10. Currently, TAAS exams are given in grades 3-8 and 10.
Under the final bill to curtail social promotion, students who failed the 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade TAAS exams would receive remedial help, including summer school classes; if they failed two additional attempts to pass the exam, they would then be held back. A local grade-placement committee, however, could promote a student who did not pass the exams. The bill includes $200 million to help train teachers to identify and aid students with reading problems and other learning difficulties.
The heightened accountability provisions would be accompanied by additional support in children's early years. The two-year budget includes $300 million to help districts expand full-day kindergarten, prekindergarten, and Head Start, as well as programs for 9th graders who are at risk of dropping out.
"Of all these things, the governor's reading and kindergarten initiatives will have the most long-term effects on education in Texas," Mr. Cole predicted. "For the first time, we will try to get all kids ready to read by 3rd grade, not 80 percent."
And, in response to a spate of TAAS-related controversies this year, legislators passed a bill that would make it a felony to alter tests and test results.
Such tampering would be punishable by two to 10 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. Several teachers and administrators have been reprimanded since January, when the state education agency asked 11 of the state's 1,042 districts to review high erasure rates on the TAAS. ("States Increasingly Flexing Their Policy Muscle," April 14, 1999.)
Vol. 18, Issue 39, Pages 13-15