Schools and Education

Mary Duty, Trib Board of Contributors: Will state legislators fail our students in preparing for 21st century jobs?

By Mary Duty
Board of Contributors

Sunday January 30, 2011

The legislative session is always an exciting time to teach, though not always for the right reasons. This year is no exception.

With drastic state budget cuts threatening virtually all levels of public education, our students have an open book on how state leaders, including our own state representatives and senators, can impact their lives and their very future.

Politicians talk endlessly about children being the future of Texas. But is this mere talk? If they’re truly sincere, then they won’t rip the rug out from under us and set this generation of children up for failure.

I have long felt and taught that public education is the glue that holds our state and our nation together. When I teach about colonial America, I teach that the Pilgrims were eager for everyone to be able to read. In 1647, the Massachusetts Colony passed a law that required elementary schools in all towns of 50 or more families. These schools were the foundation of the public school movement in America.

Part of our country

Thomas Jefferson, the genius behind the Declaration of Independence and our third president, saw education as a foundation of the American democratic experiment. He was convinced that educated citizens were the building blocks for good government.

So why aren’t our latter-day leaders as committed to education?

Using an analysis by the Association of Texas Professional Educators, I have been trying to make sense of proposed draconian cuts to education. According to the first draft of the budget, $6.7 billion, or 13.4 percent, of public education funding would vanish. The cuts are too many and too deep to list here, but it’s safe to say everything is on the table. There are massive cuts to pre-kindergarten programs, the arts and, especially baffling, math and science programs.

Even the Texas Education Agency, overseer of Texas public schools, is slated to take a 32 percent reduction in funding. This comes on the eve of launching a new statewide standardized test — the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) — and rolling out the new end-of-course exams to replace the TAKS test in high school.

Perhaps more than ever, nothing is sacred this budget cycle. Retired teachers could see changes in their pension fund program. Texas contributes to this fund at a rate of 6.4 percent. The Legislature proposes to reduce the state amount to 6 percent. The budget also proposes a 50 percent reduction in the state contribution to the Teacher Retirement System insurance program. I think our elected officials need to be careful to keep the promises made to a generation of educators that nurtured us, especially considering retired teachers have not even seen a raise in a full decade.

Teachers have done the math. We realize major cuts in the state budget must be made. The question is what will be cut.

Will we be asking educators to meet expectations of new standardized tests without the support and training provided by TEA? Will there be a reduction in all the mandates from Austin and the TEA that would go along with the reductions in funding on the local level?

We teachers give our lives to the children of Texas. We get up early and stay late to get the job done. Our leadership teams work tirelessly to provide resources we need to be successful in the classroom with already limited budgets.

No matter what the final numbers are, we will all pay for what legislators choose to do this session. Will we pay by short-circuiting and stunting a workforce that otherwise would be braced and ready for the jobs of the 21st century?

I stand before my students every day and tell them that they matter. I tell them stories of the Founding Fathers and their core values. These values bind us together as a nation. I tell them how lucky they are to live in a state and a nation that values educated citizens.

Join me in encouraging our state legislature to recognize the same and do right by the children of Texas. The children are watching. Their eyes are on us.

Local civic leader Mary Duty chairs the history department at Tennyson Middle School

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