Will the teachers’ revolt reach Texas?

June 5, 2018

Seth Uzman writes from Texas on the potential for teachers to join the rebellion.

SEVERAL HUNDRED education workers gathered in downtown Houston for a rally May 19 in support of expanding state resources and support for Texas public schools.

Public education here shares many of the same conditions of underfunding, paltry teachers’ pay and meager benefits that provoked workplace rebellions nearby, from West Virginia to Arizona. But Texas has remained immune — so far — from the region’s contagious mass protests, though the Houston rally was a sign of the potential.

The quiet seems to be making everyone uncomfortable, provoking a mix of speculation and rationalization, whether from those responsible for the crisis or those stuck having to endure it.

At the top, state officials continue with well-rehearsed claims about budget shortfalls and a dry spigot of available funds. At the bottom, among educators, parents and students, many have concluded that the obstacles to taking action in Texas — some specific and some not — are fundamental barriers to sustained protests developing in the state.

Teachers take to the streets of Houston to defend public education
Teachers take to the streets of Houston to defend public education

These rationalizations conceal more than they reveal. Not only is a teachers’ revolt in Texas possible, but it is the only strategy that can resolve the state’s “budget problems” in a progressive direction and win relief for ordinary people enduring the Texas-sized and unnatural education disaster.

WHILE IT was common during the walkouts and protests in Oklahoma to hear about educators who had moved to Texas for the relatively better pay, this shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the crisis confronting teachers in both states.

Compared to Oklahoma (as well as West Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado),

State officials in Texas imposed deeper education cuts between 2008 and 2015 than in Oklahoma, West Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado. The 16 percent drop in funding per student in Texas is the sixth-largest of any state.

Though teacher pay in Texas is near the median nationally, it remains nearly $7,000 below the national average. And in the state’s major cities, the nominal figure likely understates the rising cost of living in areas playing host to unplanned expansion.

The state government has failed to index, much less raise, its contribution to state employee health insurance plans as health care costs have steadily risen. The state’s transfer payment of not more than $900 annually to employee plans remains unchanged from the figure set 15 years ago in 2003.

In 2011, the legislature cut more than $5 billion in education funding, devastating special education, bilingual programs and other measures that primarily benefit students from working families.

None of these cuts that came in the aftermath of the Great Recession have been made up for. Instead, as local and state governments sound the alarm about continuing “budget shortfalls,” the state legislature continues to subsidize the school system’s privatization with charter schools, while maintaining some of the lowest severance taxes for the region’s booming extractive industries.

THE PUBLIC education funding hole has everything to do with the state’s rigged system for not raising revenue.

Tax law in Texas shamelessly reflects the priorities and interests of the state’s bosses. With a constitutional ban on a mandated income tax, the state government draws revenue primarily from property and sales taxes. Sales taxes in particular are a familiar hallmark of regressive tax systems that penalize working people, who spend a much greater portion of their income on consumption than the rich do.

As state support for education has continually fallen — Texas ranks 36th in the U.S. — education funding has become increasingly reliant on local property taxes. This has been disastrous for working people and their schools.

As in other states, effective taxation on the non-residential property of bosses, such as office buildings or refineries, is difficult. Not only can employers drain state coffers and secure favorable deals by challenging appraisals through extended and expensive litigation, but they also have a variety of ways of concealing the true value of their property.

Moreover, Texas is one of the few states where real-estate valuations do not have to be made public. The mechanism has not only starved available state funds, but acted as a Robin Hood in reverse, as poor and urban school districts send more money out than they receive back.

There are several features specific to Texas that present real difficulties.

First, unlike legislatures in Arizona and West Virginia, which meet annually, the Texas state legislature meets for less than five months and only during odd-numbered years. One of the lightning rods for the “red-state teachers’ revolt” was the protests in the state capitals when lawmakers were in session.

Second, in any right-to-work state with no collective bargaining rights, striking has potentially significant penalties for militant teachers. Similar to Arizona, educators in Texas risk losing their teaching certificates if they take strike action.

Aggravating the situation is the state’s cruelly stupid mechanism for funding teachers’ benefits. Texas is one of 15 states that doesn’t allow teachers to pay into Social Security, leaving them instead with a poorly organized pension fund through the state’s Teacher Retirement System. And if Texas teachers organize anything defined as a “work stoppage,” under law, they risk the state revoking benefits from the system, thus losing all savings support for retirement.

WHILE STRIKING may seem, as some writers have noted, to place these provisions in jeopardy, the fact is that not taking strike action could be the bigger disaster.

Many of the forces responsible for starving Texas public education have their eyes on teachers’ benefits — which are already in jeopardy.

First, the teachers’ pension plan in Texas is already among the most underfunded in the country. The law restricts the state’s contribution to pensions to between 6 percent and 10 percent annually, and teachers in Texas have only seen the minimum.

Second, the legislature has already made moves toward further privatizing the pension fund, moving the state’s commitments away from the defined benefits that should be the whole point of a social security mechanism in the first place.

Even outside the circumstances of a recession, the pensions’ connection to private investment has been far from kind to present and future beneficiaries.

Far from burying teachers deeper in the hole dug by the state’s commitment to Texas bosses, strike action from below has to be seen as the only way out.

While the extractive oil and natural gas industries helped insulate Texas employers from the effects of the Great Recession, money at the top has not trickled down, but, on the contrary, has been snatched up. While workers have been squeezed, their wages have subsidized the energy industry’s ambitions to expand and profit in a state with one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the country.

This is exactly what helped invigorate the teachers’ rebellion in other states, including those hosting extractive industries: the conclusion that the public sector can and must be expanded for the benefit of the majority, at the expense of the small minority at the top.

Like in other states, the possibility of a Texas teachers’ strike will depend on the leadership of education workers at the rank-and-file level, in their schools. The period before the start of the next legislative session in January offers time for education workers to organize with each other and inform their surrounding communities.

Mobilizing funds and resources to sustain the struggle and defend against punitive attacks will demand alliances with other struggles — against the deportation machine, police brutality and the state’s anti-choice fanatics. With people of color making up more than a third of Texas teachers and women more than three-quarters, labor struggles in Texas must take up the issues that affect the oppressed.

As the highest courts provide legal cover for an assault on unions and workplace organizations, the only way to save them is to strengthen and expand their relevancy, both at work and beyond.

For too long, too many hoping for a progressive, working-class shift in Texas politics have placed their hopes in a Democratic “blue wave.”

But if the spark in West Virginia that became a flame across the South holds any lesson for the rest of us, it is that teachers have power as workers — and that a society with different, humane priorities demands not a blue wave, but a strike wave.

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