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Public education advocates stressed the need for increased teacher support and criticized Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to tie public education funding to a school voucher program in the ongoing special legislative session during a Texas Tribune event Wednesday.
Abbott, who has made vouchers his top legislative priority this year, added public education funding to his special session agenda Tuesday. The governor, who had previously threatened to withhold the funding from his agenda until the Texas Legislature passed a voucher program, said he added the item after reaching a deal with leaders in the House, where voucher legislation has stalled. House leaders declined to say whether a deal has been reached.
Michelle Rinehart, superintendent of the Alpine Independent School District, said vouchers shouldn’t be tied to school funding in order to get the program approved.
“If there wasn't enough support for a voucher bill specifically, it would have already passed,” she said.”
Along with increased funding for teacher raises and school safety measures, Abbott’s expanded agenda included legislation to phase out the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness and replace it with alternative standardized tests. Though federal law mandates a form of standardized testing in all public schools, public education advocates have long criticized the STAAR test as an ineffective measure of student achievement.
Rather than standardized tests, panelists said they would like to see an alternative accountability system that accounts for factors like a student’s classroom performance and extracurricular activities.
“I’ve never had a superintendent tell me that they wanted to eliminate the accountability system. Accountability is a good thing,” said Josh Sanderson, deputy executive director of the Equity Center. “It’s how you get there — that’s where the questions lie.”
Panelists also said increased support for teachers should be a top priority to bolster the state’s public school system. In this year’s regular legislative session, aside from a bill investing in high-quality instructional materials, lawmakers failed to most of the policies recommended by a task force assembled by Abbott to look at the state’s critical teacher shortages.
With some voucher proponents buckling down on criticizing public schools and the ongoing culture wars adding new instructional challenges in the classroom, Sanderson said Texas has to work on rebuilding respect for the teaching profession.
“The state has to get back to creating a profession that’s attractive,” Sanderson said. “It has to be a multi-faceted approach and it has to be done at the state level. This can’t be a patchwork system of district by district.”
This approach should include creating multiple pathways to the teaching profession, said Bridget Worley, chief state impact officer for the Commit Partnership. Given the state’s teacher shortage, Worley said it’s no longer feasible to expect every teacher to attend a four-year university.
An expansion of the state’s teacher residency program, which pairs teachers in training with veteran teachers in the classroom, could also be a solution, she added.
“The residency model provides a pathway to a teaching profession for someone who can’t spend a year being broke because they’re going to a prep program where they’re not earning any revenue,” Worley said. “It’s an ability to get that training while you are also working in a school system and providing support systems.”
Of the 90 teachers in Alpine ISD, Rinehart said 19 are currently uncertified. The district implemented a system contracting veteran retired teachers to train the new ones — but this program does not receive any separate state funding. Paying for it represents an additional financial challenge for the district, which Rinehart said already only receives about 85% of the state funding it should get because of discrepancies between state and local officials over the district’s property tax base.
With teacher salaries starting at $33,000 in the district, Rinehart said Alpine ISD continues to face “persistent and chronic underfunding.” Educators are particularly frustrated because though they have identified tangible solutions to pursue through legislation, and the state has a historic budget surplus at its disposal this year, lawmakers have yet to take action, she added.
“If this is not the year to fix that, then when is?” Rinehart said. “And if this is not the year to fix that, then we sure don’t have $500 million to be putting into vouchers.”
Disclosure: Commit Partnership and Equity Center have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.