Hundreds — including some who took a 'staff development day' — lobby lawmakers on education issues.
By Mike Ward AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Monday, January 31, 2005
More than 400 teachers from across Texas converged on the state Capitol on Monday to press lawmakers to pump more money into public schools in Texas.
And to raise their pay. And some were doing it on the taxpayer's dime. Sort of.
Several lawmakers raised eyebrows about having so many teachers around on a school day.
"Who's paying for all the substitutes?" asked Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, echoing the sentiments of other lawmakers.
Some of the teachers said they had taken the day off, either on paid leave or without pay. But others said they were there on a "staff development" day, which they are entitled to take to receive in-service training or improve their schools.
"I think it's great that they have concerns and want to talk to us, but they could do that at our district offices or they can send us a message," Shapiro said. "In my opinion, it doesn't look professional to have this many teachers all up here at once like this."
According to state and local school officials and the teachers, the lobbying day was legit. It's just the first of several this spring that teacher and educator groups will organize in Austin to lobby lawmakers.
State rules require students to receive 180 days of instruction each semester, with teachers allowed to take off up to six days per year for staff development. The exact number varies from district to district. On those days, educators most often attend training programs, seminars or conferences.
Some districts allow staff development to include the Capitol visits because the lobbying days are sometimes connected with a professional conference in Austin, such as one that the 105,000-member Association of Texas Professional Educators held over the weekend.
Some schools, including those in Austin, had staff development days already scheduled for Monday and held no classes.
Andy Welch, a spokesman for the Austin district, said teachers were not allowed to count the Capitol visit as staff development. But they could take one of three paid personal-leave days allowed each teacher annually.
"It's no-questions-asked," Welch said. "What they do on those days is up to them. They just get three."
Marcy McNeil, a fourth-grade teacher at Odom Elementary who has taught for 29years, did just that. She is the local president of the professional educators group.
She and hundreds of other teachers made the rounds of legislators' offices advocating for more funding for public education, smaller class sizes, a salary increase for teachers and restoration of a medical-benefit payment that lawmakers slashed in half two years ago. They were also opposing school vouchers.
Other teachers from Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio — several of whom said they were using professional development days — bristled at the suggestion they should be in class.
"I'm appalled anyone would suggest I'm here for myself," said one teacher, who, like several others, refused to give her name after a reporter questioned who was tending to their classrooms. "I'm here for better public education. I'm here for the students. Better schools make Texas better for everyone."
Randall Iglehart, state president of the educators group, said he came to the Capitol on a professional development day. He has taught for 28 years, currently English-as-a-second-language classes at a San Antonio middle school.
"Some are here on professional development days, some are here on personal days, but everyone is here to help make public education better in Texas," he said. "Some districts see this kind of thing as important and benefiting public schools in general. It's the kids who are the heart of what we're doing."
And should anyone wonder who was minding his classes Monday, Iglehart said not to worry, because he's covering the costs himself.
"I'm paying for my own substitute," he said.
In Austin, that would be between $60 and $80 a day, depending on the substitute, Welch said.
What's a staff development day? The Texas Education Code allows staff development days that are 'designed to improve education in the district.' Among other things officials said they may include: •Programs for reading/language arts, mathematics, science, social studies. •Teacher conferences. •Training in discipline policies and strategies. •Instruction for alternative education programs. •Other types of training approved by the local district. Source: Texas Education Agency, from state law and agency policy