The opaque cynicism that runs through Texas politics numbs the senses of even the casual observers. I spent 22 years witnessing it as a reporter, covering the state legislature and the governors who inhabited the capitol building. I do not want to suggest there were not well-intentioned officeholders but what I mostly saw were people doing the least possible to claim they had addressed the state’s most important issues. There were just far too few people willing to be defiant of entrenched protocols, which were generally developed to sustain the art of killing laws, protecting businesses over people instead of passing meaningful reforms.
But hell, that’s nothing when stacked up against contemporary cowardice. When the current legislative session began, teachers were hopeful of a reasonable pay raise. There are probably thousands who have worked for a couple of decades and have seen their salaries increase by only hundreds of dollars. There were, however, great hopes among teacher organizations for a significant raise when it was learned legislators were going to be working with more than a $32 billion dollar budget surplus. Surely, there was likely to be a meaningful salary bump for classroom educators. At least, there ought to be. Just the surplus of Texas government is bigger than the entire budget of many other states.
Teacher pay in this state, though, which is supposedly rich with business tax dollars and booming growth, rates only 28th nationally, $7652 less annually than the national average teacher salary. When lawmakers convened in January, there was optimism, and reason for it, that educators would get a healthy infusion of money into their paychecks. What could be more important in a growing state that was losing thousands of teachers because of low pay, and the pandemic? In fact, Rep. James Talarico, a Democrat from Round Rock, authored a measure to provide teachers a $15,000 raise along with a 25% boost for school staff. It seemed like the obvious, and simple thing to do with all those fat stacks of cash just sitting there doing nothing in state of Texas accounts. It would have been the largest teacher pay raise in Texas history.
“We have no excuse,” Talarico told reporters at a news conference. “Hoarding this surplus while educators and children are suffering is immoral.”
I assume Talarico hasn’t noticed that Texas politics and policies specialize in immoral, and frequently appear almost amoral. (See also: Razor wire and soldiers confronting mothers and children at the border.) Measures moving through the house and senate appear to offer a maximum $2000 pay hike for teachers, and only a modest increase in per pupil funding allotment from the state. According to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Texas is right down there with the bottom ten states in funding for education, spending $11,987 per student, which is $3127 below the national average of $15,114 dollars. Seems logical Texas would want to change that since it is the Jeff Bezos of states right now. But nah, $2000 a year strikes lawmakers as a plentiful increase to the most important profession in almost every culture.
Another solution is available. Texas could increase the amount of money it allots to each school based upon pupil attendance. This would allow administrators in the state’s numerous school districts to make their own judgments about spending money on raises for teachers and support staff. But nah, that’s not gonna happen in any meaningful way, either. There was a bill moving through the Texas House that raised the per pupil allotment from its present penurious $6160 annually to $6250 and then a whopping $6300 the subsequent year. What will your district do with that extra $140 dollars per child? Another Democrat, Rep. Donna Howard of Austin, filed a bill to raise the amount per student provided by the state from that pathetic $6160 to $7,075, and adjust it annually for inflation, which is, of course, a logical tactic. But that bill hasn’t gone anywhere, and won’t, because, really, $32 billion isn’t that much of a surplus.
Yes, I jest. I jest.
The state’s share, $6160, of what we spend on students in Texas, is about $4000 below that national average, and that’s why we end up in the bottom ten states in terms of public education spending. While we spend just below $12k per student, New York, with all them danged “liberuhls” thinks it makes sense to allocate $27k to educate each one of their children, but it seems clear that what happens when you provide a comprehensive learning experience: You get liberuhls like in New York state!!
Texas has long played a shell game with public school funding, and it’s only getting more revulsive. The legislature constrains funding going from the state to local schools, and when the local district cannot meet budgetary requirements, their options are limited. Texas government failure to meet its constitutional obligation to provide an equal education to every child forces school boards to figure out how to bridge the gap when they are losing teachers because of low pay, and facilities are inadequate as the population in communities rockets upward. Administrators are forced to consider local property tax increases by raising rates or home valuations, which puts the political heat on the school boards and not the cowards sitting under the pink dome. Bonds are also often issued by school districts to pay for infrastructure that really is a responsibility of the state, and then local property taxpayers are required to retire the bonds, assuming they approved them in an election. I could write for hours about how this has prompted lawsuits against Texas that date back to the late 60s, and how the question of equitable funding and fairness has never been resolved.
But I won’t because you’d stop reading.
The governor, meanwhile, is running around the state promising to do his best to see that as much as $8k will be offered to parents who want to send their children to private schools. Unmentioned is the fact that if enough parents take that option, local public schools will face an even greater financial crisis. Gov. Greg Abbott has been concentrating his efforts on singing his sweet songs to a select audience of likely supporters. According to Texas Monthly, he has visited seven schools and they are all Christian and protestant, no public or secular institutions, nor any affiliated with Catholicism, Islam, or Judaism. His audience is comprised of parents who have already made a decision to opt out of public schools, and he’s offering them $8k in tax money to help them pay their bills. Gee, I wonder if they support his proposal. It is of interest that Abbott can seemingly find a per-student total of $8k but neither he nor his confederate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick can manage to come up with more than the $6160 lawmakers appear ready to settle upon to fund public students in their current proposals.
Abbott’s rapt listeners are mostly white, middle and upper class, and remain oblivious to how his voucher plan will harm minorities and children living in poverty by reducing teacher rolls and various other educational resources school districts will no longer be able to afford if their tax dollars go chasing the privileged and their belief systems. What the governor is doing is offering your hard-earned tax dollars to support a Christian theology being taught to Texas children. The separation of church and state long ago faded from existence in Texas government. The state senate, under the increasingly unconstitutional leadership of Lt. Gov. Patrick, passed a measure that requires every public school classroom to display the Ten Commandments in front of students in a “size and typeface that is legible to a person with average vision from anywhere in the classroom.” Another nonsensical law was also approved under Patrick this week and it requires schools to set aside time for students to pray and “read the Bible.” Never mind, of course, that some children might have Korans in their home and pray to a different god. Will Patrick’s policies allow Muslim students to use prayer rugs in classrooms, too? Ha, sure.
Well, at least our classrooms will be safer while our children are being force-fed baby Jesus stories by the state. I say this because our clever public leaders are planning to institute a teacher “sentinel” program, which means paying them to carry guns to protect against mass shootings. The idea brilliantly melds the need for more teacher pay with the notional need for more guns in Texas, which everyone knows is one of our primary governing problems. The lawmakers who made Uvalde families wait overnight to testify on laws that would make children safer from guns came up with an ingenious plan to pay teachers $25,000 to take firearms training and carry guns into schools. They’d get all learnt up in first aid, firearms and mental health, and be ready to shoot whoever looks like they are problematic, or didn’t get their essay completed on why trans kids are sinners before god.
There are other similar bills sneaking through the legislative process. One requires a minimum of one armed person on campus at all times, and a measure to install panic buttons in all schools is expected to be signed by the governor in a matter of days. Texas is inspiring national laws, too. Rick Scott, a U.S. Senator from Florida, and predictably a Republican, has proposed a federal law to mandate armed officers in every public school, which will cost about $80 million dollars. You will note the unspoken theme here creates greater demand for more guns, so we all win. Teachers, under financial pressure from getting insulting raises, will probably jump at a chance for $25,000 more in salary, and having to be inspected each day when they come to school so they can prove they are packing. Plus, the private security industry and gun makers will be joyous over having to provide guns and personnel for the almost 116,000 public schools here in the land of the armed and semi-free.
The only question left to ask is what in the hell is wrong with Texas Democrats? What is their message? Why aren’t they organized enough to even slow down this idiocy? I’d recommend that they set up a website to offer rapid responses to daily foolishness from Patrick and Abbott and their colleagues. Post video reactions. Send out news releases. Make Democratic officeholders available online for interviews. Set up a damned infrastructure that gets out an intelligent message and stop throwing your hands in the air and surrendering to the heinous fools and their ideology. Who cares if you don’t get reelected? What’s better than doing what is best for your state and the people who elected you to office?
Another Texan from a different time summed up the responsibility of leadership with one simple sentence. “Do right,” Sam Houston said, “and risk the consequences.”