Our priority must be new funding for schools

The day before the start of the special session, several teacher and education groups turned out for the state Capitol at a rally in support of public education on July 17, 2017. Photo by Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott and state lawmakers have recently called for an increase in teacher salaries, and we at the Texas School Coalition certainly agree that improved teacher compensation should be a priority in this state. School districts know better than anyone that classroom teachers have the single greatest impact on a child’s education, and their pay should be increased to reflect that important role.

While we agree that teacher pay raises are needed, we have some disagreement in terms of how to fund such an increase. We also take issue with the statements that school districts have not made teacher pay a priority — even with the limited resources available to them.

From 2008-09 through 2016-17:

  • State spending on PreK-12 public education was reduced by $464 million — despite the addition of more than 639,179 students.
  • The state cut its spending per student by $671. That’s a reduction of 14.7 percent.
  • When inflation is factored in, the state reduced its spending by a whopping $1,104 per student or 24.6 percent.

During that same time, the average salary for teachers in Texas went from $47,159 to $52,525. That’s an increase of $5,366, or 11.4 percent.

According to the Legislative Budget Board state spending for PreK-12 public education dropped from $20.1 billion in 2008-09 to $19.6 billion in 2016-17. During that same time, average daily attendance (ADA) climbed from 4,399,315 to 5,038,494 — an increase of 14.5 percent. The inflation index during that time rose by 14.5 percent.

Local funding increased by $125 per student after inflation, but was woefully short of making up for the state reductions. As a result, overall inflation-adjusted funding per student dropped from $10,456 to $8,945 — a decrease of $1,511 per student, or 14.5 percent.

Despite having less money per student to work with, school districts have prioritized spending such that average teacher pay has risen by almost $5,400 since 2008. The real issue is not how schools prioritize their spending, but rather how the state prioritizes its own spending on public education.

While some state leaders have used data to argue that only a small percentage of overall education funding is used for teacher salaries, such figures can only be derived when combining both higher education and public education spending and counting debt and capital outlay in addition to maintenance and operations costs.

Since public schools are only allowed to pay salaries through maintenance and operations spending, such calculations are unfair and inaccurate. Additionally, these numbers focus only on full-time teacher salaries (which are important), while ignoring the salaries for other school personnel such as counselors, librarians, teachers’ aides, bus drivers, custodians and food service personnel. Without those professionals, classroom teachers would not be able to teach students in the classroom. It should also be noted that only 3.1 percent of school district spending supports central office administration.

School districts have demonstrated that our priority is students and those who teach them. Even with increasingly limited funding, we have made teachers a priority. Those who say otherwise don’t have their facts straight. To properly compensate our teachers, we need an increase in state funding. New state dollars will support our students and schools, providing pay increases to our teachers — and local property tax relief.

Those new dollars for schools will require courageous leadership and a shift in state priorities. Is Texas ready for that?

Christy Rome

Executive director, Texas School Coalition