Texas lawmakers must balance teacher pay raises and student needs

Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood (l.), and House Public Education Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston (r.), talk with Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, and Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio (back), on May 27, 2017. Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

As products of public education, each of us is awed by its power, if funded adequately and implemented well, to transform lives. As such, it was our honor to serve as appointed members of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, spending over 100 hours throughout 2018 hearing testimony and ultimately making 35 recommendations (supported unanimously by commission members from across the political, professional and personal spectrum)for improving both the funding and outcomes for all public school students in the state.

While we recognize that it’s the Legislature’s sole prerogative to decide which of those recommendations to enact into law, we are nevertheless concerned thatit could prove impossible to resource and implement the commission’s strategic, student-focused reforms given key provisions found in some of the recent versions of House Bill 3.

Major recommendations from the commission’s 165-page report included expanding high-quality, full-day Pre-K; increased funding for low-income students, directing greater resources to students living within concentrated poverty; additional funding for dual-language education and dyslexic students; support for expanded career and technical education; and funding for local multi-measure evaluation systems that help ensure our educators receive individualized professional development, and that reward them with higher salaries sooner in their careers to keep them in the classroom and teaching where they are most needed.

While we fully agree that teachers deserve pay raises and are underpaid for the hard work and critical services they provide to the students of Texas, teachers tell us that an outstanding education relies on all campus personnel and that students need more whole-child supports and effective strategies, like quality full-day Pre-K and strong career and technical education, for their learning to be transformational and life-changing.

Therefore, we strongly support the adequate resourcing of commission recommendations in the face of growing concern about the affordability of an across-the-board pay raise for all teachers (particularly a raise that would absorb two-thirds of the proposed overall increase to our education budget). This idea was not raised by testimony from knowledgeable commission witnesses, nor discussed among commission members, as a viable option. 

Instead, the need for a sustainable revenue source to stabilize and secure reform efforts was expressed many times over, as was the request for significant investment in the basic student allotment to stabilize school communities and provide funding flexibility to increase pay for teachers and other campus personnel while also funding the most impactful strategies benefitting students. 

If Texas had unlimited resources, the commission’s recommendations might have been different. Given funding limits, we issued a report that prioritized where funding could do the most good. Today, only four in ten Texas students meet the state’s 3rd grade reading standard, with our state ranking 45th nationally in early literacy. Every year, over 200,000 Texas students graduate high school and six years later still have no post-secondary degree. The resulting foregone lifetime earnings are equivalent to $200 billion of impact on our state’s economy — an amount equal to one-eighth of Texas’ GDP — for each and every graduating class. 

Public education cannot be what our state requires if we don’t provide the resources our children need. We must also address head on the many systemic challenges that hinder its success. The question we raise is simply whether the first step in transforming our public education outcomes should focus primarily on our teachers or our students. We believe that our report represented an appropriate balance that focused on both. 

Texas kids — 10% of the nation’s children representing our state’s collective future — are dependent on all of us getting that balance right.

The authors were all members of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance in 2018.

Disclosure: Todd Williams has been a financial supporter 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.

Scott Brister

Former justice, Texas Supreme Court

Keven Ellis

Member, State Board of Education

Todd Williams

Founding chairman, CEO and president, The Commit Partnership

Nicole Conley Johnson

Chief, Business & Operations, Austin ISD