The heart of a school is its teachers, and teachers should be at the heart of school finance reform

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The heart of any school is the teacher. The only way to ensure that every Texas child receives a quality education is to place a well-educated, well-prepared teacher in every classroom. That truth will never change.

The attractiveness of teaching, however, continues to decline. The results are tragic. Labor Department statistics reveal that public educators are leaving the profession at the highest rate in 20 years. Low pay and disrespect are key factors in this alarming decline.

The Texas Legislature this session will have the job of remedying the state’s public school finance system. As historians of education, we think some background is helpful.

The last time Texas overhauled public school finance was immediately following World War II. The need for change was great. Many young Texans had been denied the opportunity to serve during the war because of their poor level of education. Such news was embarrassing to Texas leadership. 

Compulsory attendance laws existed, but they had many loopholes. Only 65 percent of school-aged children attended school. Only 40 percent of adults had a high school education. Many school buildings were dilapidated and dangerous. 

School finance was based on a census count of how many school-aged kids lived in a county regardless of whether those students attended school. Consequently, funds were commonly distributed but no education took place. Pay for teachers was embarrassingly low, leading to difficulties with recruitment and retention.

Fortunately, Texas had leaders who were driven by foresight and determination. Named in honor of legislators Claud Gilmer and A.M. Aikin, the Gilmer-Aikin Laws modernized Texas education. They revolutionized school finance, substantially increased pay for teachers, rebuilt dilapidated buildings, and redesigned teacher education and certification.

In September 1948, the Gilmer-Aikin Committee published a pamphlet titled To Have What We Must. The purpose was to communicate why the Gilmer-Aikin bills needed to be passed. Messages from this pamphlet provide insightful context for today:

Proposals for improving education in Texas must be based upon the needs of the state. Personalities, petty quarrels, local self-interest, political alignments, selfishness — these must be forgotten by any group entrusted with designing a better education for Texans.The teachers and administrators who operate our schools will be the only real hope for having the educational program we need in Texas.We must have more than emotion and good wishes to solve this problem.The threat to our way of life, to our prosperity, to our moral fiber as a people which resides in the alarming deterioration of teaching excellence cannot be ignored. We feel impelled to present a positive program for improving the caliber of teaching and administering.We present a salary program designed to attract, encourage, and hold promising people for the teaching profession. Salaries alone will not solve the teacher shortage, nor will they guarantee a better quality of teaching. However, the problem cannot be solved without better salaries for those who work in schools.We call on the citizens of every community to act at once to make teaching a more satisfying and better recognized vocation within that community.

The 51st Legislature embraced these principles. School finance prior to Gilmer-Aikin was haphazard and unjust. Like now, schools were financed through a combination of local and state funding. After Gilmer-Aikin, the state’s proportion of school funding was between 75 percent and 80 percent. In 2019, that portion will reach a historic low of 39 percent down from 48 percent in 2008.

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