AUSTIN (AP) – Republican House members on Thursday were pushing legislation they say will give relief to Texas schools buckling under a strapped state budget over protests from the very people they say the bill will protect.

School districts could increase class sizes, cut employee pay and perform a number of other cost-saving methods under a bill by Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. Schools also could wait until the end of the academic year to notify teachers that contracts won’t be renewed instead of 45 days before the end of the year, as under current law.

GOP House leaders called the bill a way to free local schools from burdensome state mandates while possibly saving teacher jobs at the same time. They say districts have been begging for more leeway in dealing with lower funding because of massive budget reductions.

In addition to salary cuts, the bill would allow for unpaid furlough days for teachers, which supporters say could save money and avoid layoffs. Under current law, firing teachers is the only alternative.

“This bill is about jobs — teacher jobs,” said Rep. Larry Taylor, chairman of the House Republican Caucus. “We need to cut the strings of bureaucracy and the burdens of mandates and let our school districts recruit and retain the best and brightest teachers.”

But some teacher groups are calling it an attack on educators that will result in severe pay cuts and make it even easier to fire teachers.

“This bill will have a devastating impact on teachers and their ability to stay in the profession,” said Linda Bridges, president of the Texas Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “There’s nothing I’ve seen so far in this bill that is positive. Texas teachers are furious.”

Eissler’s bill would eliminate the state minimum salary schedule, allowing districts to set employee salaries as low as they want.

“If you want to drive teachers out of the profession, this would be the move to take,” Bridges said.

Under current law districts can’t reduce salaries from 2010-2011 levels, an issue Lonnie Hollingsworth, an attorney with the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, says needs to be addressed. But to eliminate the entire state mandated minimum is taking it too far, he said.

“That is the equivalent of swatting a fly with a sledgehammer,” Hollingsworth said.

One of the most contentious provisions of the bill would change the 22-pupil class limit in elementary schools to an average of 22 students per class with up to 25 allowed.

“The 22:1 ratio is a quality control standard that really defines our state school system,” said Brock Gregg, governmental relations director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “We believe that 22:1 standard is an accountability measure as important as the state testing standard.” He added that research has shown that smaller classes lead to better learning.

But Chanika Rees-Turner, a second grade teacher in Dallas ISD, said teachers are willing to have an extra student or two in their classes if it means saving money and a fellow teacher’s job.

“In my school, we work together as a family,” she said. “I would rather make some sacrifices to save jobs. What’s best for the students is that we save the jobs of our educators.”

Eissler said he plans to amend the bill to maintain the 22-student elementary class size while giving the education commissioner power to grant exceptions to the limit.

Eissler maintains that current law doesn’t protect the best interest of students but that passing his bill will.

“The educational needs of students should always trump antiquated practices,” he said. “These laws need permanent repeal so we can focus long-term on student needs.”

Teacher advocates argue that the reforms Eissler seeks should be temporary, much like a Senate bill that allows teacher furloughs and salary reductions only while the state faces a budget crisis.

They say implementing such drastic reforms permanently is the Legislature’s way of avoiding the real problem–a 2006 margins tax that didn’t generate enough money and contributed significantly to the state’s budget shortfall.

“This bill is attempting to roll back important educational standards for the sake of saving a couple of dollars today,” Gregg said. “The state will come to depend on that in the future. The Legislature is trying to make up for their tax problem by underfunding public education into the future.”

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