“We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” Who would have thought these words—often, and perhaps incorrectly, attributed to Thomas Jefferson—would bear so meaningfully upon our current state of politics here in Texas? The Texas of today wields an outsize influence on American politics, yet even after 200 years of change, the statement still rings true. Simply look at the results of the past two election cycles in Texas.
The Old Problem
The 2016 elections proceeded much the same as many before, without much focus on education, so it came as no surprise when the subsequent 2017 legislative session saw the same tired attacks on educators. Lawmakers passed a budget that continued a decade-long decline in the state’s share of overall funding for public education.
Outside of presidential election years, relatively few people show up to vote in Texas elections—a circumstance that has historically allowed small groups of highly motivated people to have a significant impact on state policy. More than 700,000 Texans work for a school or school district—not many people’s definition of a “small” group. And though educators are definitely a “highly motivated” group in most every regard, traditionally they have not shown up to the polls in great numbers. With so few educators exercising their right to vote, and as long as the majority of voting Texans have little interest in public education, why would legislators have any incentive to pay attention to schools and educators?
Following the challenges of the 2017 legislative session, some public education supporters began to circulate a new hypothesis based on simple math: If enough educators turned out in the next round of elections, could they make a difference in key races and ultimately alter state-level public education policy?
After years of being ignored and abused, educators tested this theory in 2018 by banding together with parents, school board trustees, and other public education supporters to maximize their influence. They made public education their priority issue and spearheaded get-out-the-vote initiatives across the state in both the primary and general elections.
The result: Voters booted a slew of anti-public education lawmakers out of office—and gave those who narrowly survived reelection a scare they won’t soon forget. With pro-public education legislators in the driver’s seat and newly energized education voters paying close attention, the 2019 legislative session focused on increasing school funding and teacher pay. This marked a massive shift in the way public education had been prioritized in the Texas Capitol, yet it was still accomplished by a relatively small amount of people.
Texas is home to about 29 million people today. Nearly 20 million Texans were of voting age during the March 2018 primary elections, and about 15 million of those were registered voters. However, only 1.5 million actually voted in the Republican primary, and 1.1 million others voted in the Democratic primary, which means the crucial 2018 primary elections were decided by just 9% of Texans.
Because Texas is heavily gerrymandered, most elections to the Texas House of Representatives and Texas Senate are decided in the March primaries. That means the membership of the Texas Legislature—and by extension the Legislature’s agenda—was determined in large part by just one in 10 Texans. One in 10!
Those who participated in the 2018 elections sent a clear message: Legislators had to stop attacking educators and get serious about funding public education. Legislators responded by passing House Bill (HB) 3, an $11.6 billion bill that added $6.5 billion to the public education system and ordered districts to spend a portion of that new money on increasing educator compensation.
Now We Have a Different Problem
Under HB 3, the Legislature required school districts to spend 30% of any increase in their state funding on increased educator compensation. Of that amount, 75% must be spent to increase compensation for full-time classroom teachers, nurses, counselors, and librarians, prioritizing differentiated compensation for teachers with more than five years of experience. The remaining 25% of a district’s funding increase may be spent at its discretion on increased compensation for any full-time employees who are not administrators. Districts are required to report their compliance with these requirements to the Legislature by December 1, 2020.
This might sound cut and dry, but in legislative terms, it’s actually vague. For example, what is “compensation”? Most people would think it’s take-home pay, but it could also include employee benefits such as retirement and health care contributions. Furthermore, individual districts received widely varying increases in funding under HB 3, and each district is allowed to decide how to spend that money on educator compensation. As a result, whether an educator received a raise and how substantial it may have been has varied widely. HB 3 also required districts to “prioritize” veteran teachers, but what exactly does that mean? It all adds up to confusion about just how much change, if any, individual educators should expect to see in their paychecks.
That’s a headache. But legislators must address a more fundamental problem with HB 3 when they return for the next legislative session. The increases to educator compensation required by HB 3, like the $6.5 billion school funding increase from which they stem, are built on sand.
HB 3 was passed without a crucial component to ensure its longevity: a funding mechanism. The bill spends $11.6 billion of general revenue untethered to any dedicated source that would protect it from changes in budget demands in future years. Legislators committed $11.6 billion to fund HB 3 for the 2020-21 budget cycle. Growth in the state’s population and school enrollment are expected to increase the cost of the same HB 3 provisions in future years. It’s estimated the price tag for maintaining HB 3 in light of this growth will be $13.4 billion for the 2022-23 budget cycle, and legislators will arrive at the Texas Capitol in January 2021 confronted with the question of whether to continue to fund this increasingly expensive commitment.
And There’s Another Wrinkle
We mentioned earlier that Texas is heavily gerrymandered. Each voting district is almost guaranteed to elect the candidate of one party over the other based on the political makeup of its residents. Legislators redraw voting maps and district boundaries every 10 years following each U.S. census. This process—called “redistricting”—has become an extremely partisan affair in Texas. 2021 will be a redistricting year, which means many legislators’ focus will be almost exclusively on protecting their seats by securing a “safe” voting district for themselves and their respective parties for the next 10 years. This often leads to unsavory alliances and backroom deals legislators would prefer not see the light of day.
Under these circumstances, public education will occupy an exceedingly precarious position. In the 2021 legislative session, a vote on school funding or educator pay could conceivably end up being traded for a more favorable electoral map. It would not be the first time good legislation was quietly exterminated as part of a grand bargain to further the ambitions and party loyalties of those in charge of drawing the maps.
The sole defense for educators and their allies next session will be the presence of legislators whose commitment to public education is without question. Electing more legislators who will prioritize support for education is the best way to inoculate our public school community against the inevitable horse trading of a redistricting session. The 2020 elections represent our only opportunity to fortify our defenses.
Taken as a whole, the effects of the next round of elections on student resources and educator pay could be profound. Whether schools receive more, less, or the same amount of funding depends entirely upon whom voters elect this year—and that depends on who shows up to vote in both the primaries and general election of 2020, as well as any runoffs.
In a state where few people tend to vote, it doesn’t take much to turn the tide. That, of course, works both ways. Educators demonstrated in 2018 they are fully capable of determining the course of an election, yet our opponents could just as easily erase those gains if educators take their foot off the gas.
It’s hard to imagine what the founding fathers would think about the current state of the American experiment, but they would probably have something to say about our overall rate of voter participation. That brings us back to the beginning. Like it or not, we are governed not by the majority but by the majority who participate.