Teachers union writes TEA asking for local autonomy

Education Austin requests that state entrust individual districts with authority to set staffing, scheduling policies

English+teacher+Nikki+Northcutt+tapes+a+flyer+to+the+AISD+Southfield+building+at+a+teacher+rally+on+Sep.+26%2C+2020.+Caravans+of+AISD+staff+organized+by+Education+Austin+drove+to+the+district+headquarters+to+protest+campus+re-openings+and+raise+questions+and+concerns+for+the+district.

Bella Russo

English teacher Nikki Northcutt tapes a flyer to the AISD Southfield building at a teacher rally on Sep. 26, 2020. Caravans of AISD staff organized by Education Austin drove to the district headquarters to protest campus re-openings and raise questions and concerns for the district.

Evie Barnard, staff reporter

Nikki Northcutt feels drained. She feels drained from being stuck inside because of COVID, teaching seven virtual classes and raising her son while trying to maintain a social life. On top of that the English teacher has been doubling as an advocate for her fellow educators who are being forced to come back to school in the middle of a global pandemic.

I just don’t understand why we can’t make decisions based on logic and safety.”

— English teacher Nikki Northcutt

“I have waves of where I’m able to advocate,” Northcutt said. “I’ll write letters, I’ll talk to the principal, and then I just can’t do it anymore. I don’t have the energy or the time.”

For those times, Northcutt became a member of Education Austin, AISD’s teacher union, and decided to take a stand. They have written a set of demands to TEA, asking to allow for decisions to be made on a districtwide level.

TEA, or Texas Education Agency, oversees statewide public education. They distribute funding, administer standardized tests and manage learning curriculum. Since October, TEA has said that all teachers must return to in-person school.

While some were granted accommodations to stay home because of their health or medical issues, the majority had no choice but to come back in person. To ensure that teachers attended, TEA has tethered school funding to attendance rates.

McCallum social studies teacher Robert Bucher stands in front of a list of questions addressed to the district regarding school re-openings. Photo by Bella Russo.

“TEA is holding funding over our heads like it is a weapon,” said Robert Bucher, the head of the teacher union at McCallum. ”They are putting pressure on students and teachers to return to the classroom, implying that they’re going to punish districts who have low student attendance. It’s ludicrous because we can’t control whether parents choose to keep their kids home.”

[Punishing] districts who have low student attendance … [is] ludicrous because we can’t control whether parents choose to keep their kids home.”

— social studies teacher Robert Bucher

Education Austin decided to take a stand. They have written a set of demands to TEA, asking to allow for decisions to be made on a district wide level.

“We understand TEA’s responsibility to fund schools on a statewide level,” the statement read. “We want to recognize that keeping our children, faculties, and community safe is best served on a local level. It is here we can more accurately evaluate and address the needs of our entire school community. As one of the over 1,022 ISDs [independent school districts] in Texas, we are entrusted to make countless decisions to meet the safety and educational needs of our students, faculties, and their families every day. Education is our job, but safety and well-being are our responsibility.”

But Education Austin can’t do much more than ask. Texas is a right to work state, meaning that picketing or striking is illegal. This makes it very difficult for the union to create improvements. Instead, their main tactic has been raising awareness with the public.

Since this school year began, Education Austin has held car-led marches, created petitions, and launched letter writing campaigns. They have connected with political officials, talked with news sources and are making sure their voice is heard. But ultimately, any substantial policy change must be the decision of TEA.

“I just don’t understand why we can’t make decisions based on logic and safety,” Northcutt said. “I know that there are kids who need to be in (in person) school. And I know that there are teachers who are willing to go up to school and teach. But there are ways that we can do that and still be safe.”