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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Don't Put Teachers in Detention for Seeking a Pay Raise

Feb. 5, 2005, 9:46PM

By CLAY ROBISON
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Like a junior high principal catching eighth-graders without hall passes, state Sen. Florence Shapiro clucked her disapproval at a group of schoolteachers caught lobbying legislators at the state Capitol for more education funding and, of all things, a pay raise.

What nerve! Maybe a couple of hours in detention will put them in their place. Or should we banish them to an alternative disciplinary campus?

Seriously, however, teachers need a pay raise, no strings attached, and they need all the help they can muster in convincing the Legislature to give them one. If they can't lobby on their own behalf, for starters, who can?

Shapiro, a Republican from Plano who chairs the Senate Education Committee, admitted that teachers — no fooling — have "concerns" about how the school debate will unfold, but she must have felt besieged when about 400 of them showed up in an orchestrated effort last week.

"In my opinion, it doesn't look professional to have this many teachers all up here at once like this," she said, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

Not nearly as professional, for sure, as the schmoozing that legislators regularly enjoy with the army of business-suit, expense-account persuaders who daily prowl the statehouse and Austin's prime social venues.

Shapiro wondered if some of the teachers were playing hooky, since the lobbying event was on a weekday. The Association of Texas Professional Educators, the sponsoring organization, said the teachers were either taking a personal day off — which is allowed by their districts — or were using a staff development day to lobby.

Some school districts didn't have classes that day.

Quibbling aside, schoolchildren are better off with teachers lobbying on educational issues, than with entrepreneurs seeking to privatize much of the educational system with vouchers or other schemes designed as much to enrich themselves as to improve instruction.

Sure, teachers have a personal stake in how much they are paid, but they have no less a right to address their legislators on their own behalf than do countless other people promoting a variety of special interest legislation.

The average public school teacher's salary in Texas is about $41,000 a year, usually based on a 10-month contract. That level, according to the Texas State Teachers Association, is about $6,000 below the national average and puts Texas 32nd among the states. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Texas teachers are about $4,000 behind the national average, but either way a signficant gap exists.

Dewhurst and other Senate leaders, including Shapiro, have said they would like to give teachers an across-the-board raise to bring Texas up to the national average. So far, details haven't been spelled out, and the Senate's outline of educational goals indicates some teachers would be singled out for higher rewards than others.

Instead of a general pay increase, Gov. Rick Perry and House leaders want to pay only the best teachers more, provided they meet certain "incentives." Perry has proposed paying some teachers as much as $7,500 extra a year for working in struggling schools.

House Public Education Chairman Kent Grusendorf of Arlington has filed a bill that would require school districts to spend 1 percent of their basic state allotment for teacher performance bonuses and mentoring.

Paying extra rewards to the best teachers is an option worth considering, provided a fair, realistic way can be found to measure performance. But the best teachers should be singled out only after every teacher is given a significant raise, something the Legislature hasn't done (aside from providing a health care allotment) since 1999.

As in any profession, compensation is crucial to a strong teacher base. The longer the Legislature dawdles, the more that base will erode.

Principal Shapiro, meanwhile, can mark Spring Break on her calendar. If the fate of the education bill is still undecided then, as I suspect it will be, more teachers will be dropping by. And they won't be playing tourist.

clay.robison@chron.com

This article is: http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/editorial/outlook/3025605

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