Op-Ed: Ensuring Our Kids Have Schools That Help Them Thrive

by | Feb 9, 2023 | Education, Opinion

Inevitably, you’ve seen the headlines about our public education system in crisis: Texas teachers are leaving in droves. Schools are struggling to fill all staff positions. Some districts are looking at closing campuses because there just isn’t enough money to keep them running.

All of that is true. But so is this: 89% of Texas public school parents like the job their kids’ schools are doing. The same percentage, in a 2023 Charles Butt Foundation poll, supports raising Texas teacher salaries.

Three-quarters of Texans understand that their children’s favorite teachers and librarians and bus drivers and custodians are underpaid and disrespected by the people in charge. But an even larger majority — 82% — of parents say that our public schools are places where their child can be their true self and feel supported.

That is something worth fighting for. While the problems are many, I’m here to say as a former teacher and now a union leader of 66,000 Texas school employees that these problems can be solved.

But we need your help to move the Legislature to action before it’s too late.

Schools Funded to Meet Student Needs

Everyone who works in our schools has warned about our current crisis for years. My union has spent the past year, in particular, sounding the alarm about the state’s underfunded chickens coming home to roost.

Texas is 39th in the nation for per-pupil funding of our public schools, and we have not increased state funding for schools since 2019. We pay our teachers nearly $7,500 less than the national average. The average salary for a Texas school cafeteria employee, along with many school support staff members, is less than $25,000 a year.

Sit with that for a moment: the people who make sure our kids are fed every day don’t make enough to put food on their own tables.

All in a state that has the world’s ninth-largest economy.

What this has translated to, unsurprisingly, is a mass exodus of school employees. Do we think our kids don’t notice? Do you think a rotating cast of characters subbing in and out of their schools makes them feel valued and respected?

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw our schools serve as true community hubs. By sheer force of will, school employees met the needs of students and families. Teachers transformed courses overnight. Bus drivers turned their vehicles into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. One of our members, a food service worker in Dallas ISD named Yolanda Fisher, was hailed on the cover of Time as a front-line “hero” for her work feeding families.

Our schools should be able to provide these kinds of wraparound services all the time — with full funding and support.

The Legislature can increase the basic allotment that funds our schools and give every school employee an across-the-board raise; it must do both to build the schools our kids deserve.

Respectful Working Conditions, Fruitful Learning Conditions

Taking money away from our schools and expecting them to still serve their students is like asking someone to build a house but snatching away every brick they try to lay. But that’s what will happen if any of the several bills with various forms of private school vouchers pass in the Legislature.

There is another piece to be written about the fight against school privatization. For now, I’ll say that there is no version of a voucher that does not take money out of our public schools and away from those kids. And so, there is no version of a voucher that does not hurt the 5 million students who learn in those schools and the 650,000 people who work in them.

Remember: School employees’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.

We fight for smaller class sizes because overfull classrooms are overwhelming for educators, yes. But we also fight for them because smaller class sizes give our kids more individualized attention.

We fight to lighten the paperwork load so educators have more time — more time they can spend teaching and supporting students.

We fight for a defined work year and across-the-board raises to keep qualified, dedicated staff in our schools. We do that so they will stay and help our kids thrive.

I have watched too many of this state’s teachers and school employees leave their jobs, distraught, not because they don’t care, but because they care too much. They know what their students need from them, but they lack the time, space, support, and funding to provide it.

“It was death by a thousand papercuts,” said Sara Fox, a teacher and AFT member who recently left her job in Conroe ISD. “I was running so fast that I was about to fall on my face with every step. And I felt like, no matter what I did and no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t produce the kind of work that I wanted to.”

My heart breaks at how many times I hear those same sentiments from school employees statewide. When Gov. Greg Abbott claims he’s devoted more funding to our schools than ever before, I want him to say that directly to teachers like Sara with a straight face.

Texas may be “spending more than ever before” on public education, but that’s because what we’ve spent has never been enough. We’re at the bottom of every list for funding. We’ve never even studied at the state level how much it costs to educate a child — and educate them well.

What We Need from You

Our teachers and school employees cannot do this alone. A loud opposition is aligning against our public education system, even as we know most Texans are with us.

As a union leader, I am asked often by folks outside of education what they can do to help. My biggest request is that you speak up, in every room and at every event, for the schools our kids deserve and the respect our school staff need.

Show up at your school board meetings and help us build a statewide coalition around our Respect Agenda. Show up for your kid’s teachers and bus drivers and librarians in this legislative session by calling and writing your representatives. Give no legislator an excuse to say, “We never heard from anyone.”

We know you’re with us. We need you to show you’re with us.

Zeph Capo is president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, which represents 66,000 current and retired school employees statewide.

Photo courtesy of Socorro AFT

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