The boilerplate for conservatives talking about education usually includes getting more school money into classrooms and out of administration. It usually does not edge into the dangerous ground of teacher salaries.
But this year, in the wake of deep cuts in the state’s public education budget, some Republican candidates are talking about getting more money into classrooms by raising pay for teachers.
Take Rep. Jason Isaac, a freshman Republican from Dripping Springs who says the teacher pay he is now emphasizing has always been in his political portfolio. It is in higher relief this year for a couple of reasons. He is running against John Adams, a Democrat and a former school trustee. And voters have added education to the list of electoral concerns like jobs and the economy that dominated recent election cycles. It is also a defensive strategy: Republicans who voted for the current budget, with its $5.4 billion in education cuts, have to fend off questions about teacher layoffs and pay.
According to the Texas State Teachers Association (which has endorsed Isaac’s challenger), average teacher pay dropped slightly in the 2011-12 school year for the first time in more than a decade. And the 25,000 layoffs that group counted in Texas public schools that year includes 11,000 teachers. Meanwhile, those same schools are adding about 80,000 students per year.
Isaac’s version goes like this: The state has too many mandates on local school districts that force those districts to spend money outside the classrooms. As he put it in a recent campaign piece: “Administrative costs have skyrocketed, in part due to increasing unfunded mandates from the state and federal government, while teacher's salaries have only seen minimal increases. Teachers are one of the most important factors in a child's education, and this should be one of the highest paying occupations. I will continue to advocate for more spending in the classroom, including teacher pay.”
Sounds like something a Democrat might say. Or — this is important — a voter.
Teacher groups are almost reflexively Democratic. Isaac’s district has voted for Republicans in most statewide elections lately, but it is one of those zones that could be competitive this year. TSTA and others are on Adams’ side.
Candidates like Isaac are more interested in where the voters sit. He is taking a pro-education line against an education candidate, but it might work in this rural-turned-bedroom community anyway. People are there, in part, for the schools. Even the conservatives.
His angle on teacher raises is distinctly different from what you might hear from a Democrat. He wants to get rid of state minimums and maximums for teacher salaries, to leave those decisions to local districts and let competition between districts and between teachers within districts balance the pay scales. He is vague on how to keep the rich districts in that scheme from outrunning the poor ones, but he says there ought to be a way to make teachers the highest-paid school workers.
This is a bad piece of road for Texas officeholders. They have promised their price-sensitive constituents they will not raise taxes and they have promised not to undermine things like public education when they are holding the line on spending. If those voters turn their attention from one thing to the other — from taxes, say, to education — Isaac and his colleagues have to pivot with them.
Look at Rep. Stefani Carter, a Dallas Republican elected, like Isaac, in 2010’s conservative wave. She, too, voted for the budget and its cuts. She, too, insists that more of the education money should be spent in classrooms, that local districts should have more control over what they are doing and less interference from the state. She also has a Democratic opponent who is endorsed by TSTA, and also finds herself talking about education this year.
The political interest in public education is coming into bloom as the state enters its latest round of budget-driving lawsuits over how schools are financed. Student accountability testing is a hot topic, too.
The price of government programs and services is still critically important in political contests, but it's not the only thing driving the debate.