SEN. LUCIO PROPOSES LEGISLATIVE PACKAGE ON EDUCATION
AUSTIN, TX -- Today Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. announced his public school legislative package aimed at improving public school facilities; expanding benefits for educators, including retired teachers; allowing school counselors to spend more time counseling school children; and increasing stability among school boards.
"The intent of these Senate Bills is to focus on the needs of students so they can perform at a higher level of academic success. They need adequate instructional facilities where they can learn properly," said Sen. Lucio. "We need to draw the best qualified teachers into the classroom and keep them there, and so decent compensation is essential. School counselors need to spend more time on their primary responsibilities of guidance and counseling, and less time administering TAKS tests and other administrative duties."
SB 797 would guarantee automatic funding for the Instructional Facilities Allotment (IFA) program at a level of $300 million per biennium. The IFA program was created in 1997 and has been selectively underfunded since the first year. In last year's school finance court case, where both property-rich and property-poor districts sued the state, District Judge John Dietz concluded that the current public school system inadequately funds school facilities in low-wealth districts. SB 797 seeks to remedy those inequities in school facilities.
Brownsville Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Michael Zolkoski remarked, "The IFA dollars are needed to equalize facilities across the state of Texas. Children in all parts of the state need to experience buildings that enhance learning rather than inhibit their education. No child should be left behind because of the lack of adequate facilities."
An average of 70,000 additional students enroll in Texas public schools each year. The IFA program benefits the poorest districts in Texas - those who cannot afford to build new schools to accommodate their growing student populations. In 2004-2005 a total of 237 districts applied for the IFA program, but only 16 school districts were awarded assistance.
Property-poor districts are facing more problems with their current facilities and use portable buildings as the temporary solution to the overcrowding in schools. In Brownsville ISD, for example, students are taught in more than 400 portable buildings across the district. Permanent buildings provide a better learning environment for students. SB 797 will fund the quality permanent buildings our students deserve.
"Property poor districts from throughout the state of Texas support Sen. Lucio's school facilities legislation. Without substantial state assistance property poor districts cannot afford to repair, replace, or build additional classrooms," said Mr. Martin Pena, executive director of the South Texas Association of Schools.
"Poor school districts find it impossible to pass a bond to build school facilities because of the huge tax increase," he continued. "On behalf of property poor districts in need of new facilities, we thank Sen. Lucio for filing this legislation. And we will work with him to secure the necessary support for the legislation."
SB 798 will provide for a cost of living adjustment to the annual salaries of teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses. The inflation adjustment will be based on the Texas Consumer Price Index as determined by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.
"As educators rely on the Legislature for infrequent salary raises, this piece of legislation attempts to restore the loss of school employees' purchasing power due to inflation," explained Sen. Lucio. "This inflation adjustment is meant to supplement a teacher raise and by no means replaces the need for a full $3,000 salary increase that teachers deserve. I feel it will be a useful recruit and retention measure to lure the best teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians to Texas schools."
"Thank goodness legislators like Sen. Lucio get the picture on teacher salaries! At this moment, teachers need an advocate who sees the need to ratchet up teacher pay and enable Texas to attract and keep good teachers," said Mr. John Cole, president, Texas Federation of Teachers.
Another bill meant to recognize the dedication of teachers who have retired is SB 799. It expands the existing Professional Educators Home Loan Program to include retired teachers. The program was established in 2003 under SB 284 by Senator Lucio. It provides first-time homebuyer assistance to teachers, teacher aides, school nurses, school librarians, and school counselors.
SB 207 would require school boards to adopt policies regarding counselors' use of time with respect to their primary duties of guidance and counseling. It further limits administrative duties to 10 percent of a school counselor's time.
A 2002 report on school counselors' time issued by Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn indicated that most Texas school counselors spend only about 60 percent of their time on counseling activities. There is significant research from Florida and Washington demonstrating that students achieve higher test scores and are less disruptive when attending schools that implement the Comprehensive Developmental Guidance and Counseling Program. If we want our students to be successful, school counselors must focus on the work they are trained to do.
SB 813 would institute a ratio of one school counselor for every 350 students. Comptroller Strayhorn's report found that 233 of the state's 1,034 total districts (22.5 percent) had no full-time equivalent counselor in the 2001-02 school year. Further, the overall counselor-to-student ratio for 2001-02, was one counselor for every 423 students.
"Counselors must spend more time addressing the individual needs of students, and frankly, with a state average of 423 students to every one counselor it is virtually impossible for counselors to provide the individual guidance and responsive services needed to ensure that every student in Texas is successful. That ratio is unacceptable," said Sen. Eddie Lucio.
"School counselors are highly credentialed and dedicated educators. Schools that use these professional educators appropriately see higher test scores, lower drop-out rates and fewer incidents of classroom disruption," said Jan Friese, Executive Director of the Texas Counseling Association.
School Board Terms
Senator Lucio is carrying Senate Bill 800, which would extend the terms of school board trustees to four years and implement simultaneous board elections. This bill will provide stability among school boards, prevent annual turnover and limit district expenses, due to election costs.
Other education bills that will be filed soon by Senator Lucio include a proposal to direct the Texas Education Agency to conduct a study of unfunded state mandates on school districts and estimate the local cost to school districts per mandate.
Also, Sen. Lucio will file a bill directing the Office of the Comptroller, in conjunction with the Texas Education Agency, to determine the feasibility of the state providing a set of model school design plans, also known as prototype designs, for school districts. The study would also provide an inventory of permanent and temporary school buildings in Texas. The bill is meant to reduce the time and cost of developing new facilities.
Last week Sen. Lucio filed SB 722, the TexasNextStep grant program, which would provide grants to recent high school graduates for up to 90 semester credit hours at any public community, technical, or lower-division institution in Texas.
Earlier, Sen. Lucio also proposed SB 510, requiring schools to start classes on the first Tuesday after Labor Day, while removing the provision allowing schools to requests waivers from the start date.
A comprehensive bill aimed at combating obesity and improving nutrition in Texas will also be proposed by Sen. Lucio, and it will ensure that the new School Food Nutrition Policy is never weakened.
Note: Ms. Perla Cavazos, senior policy analyst, handles these issues for Sen. Lucio and can be reached at 512-463-0127.