AUSTIN -- For Texas Democrats it's the top issue for 2014.
"If we don't get serious about our education system, we can't be serious about maintaining our place in the world economy," State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) told media after formally filing to run for governor in November. "I know that all Texans join me in wanting to make sure that's job number one for us, keeping the economy strong."
Filing for lieutenant governor later that month, State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) sounded a similar note. First on her list of legislative priorities, she said, is "a public education system that meets the needs of a 21st Century economy."
On the campaign trail Davis and Van de Putte have both attacked Republicans for the $5.4 billion cut from education in 2011, which resulted in a lawsuit over the state's school finance system.
"It is inefficient, inequitable, unsuitable," 250th District Court Judge John Dietz ruled in February, while lawmakers of the 83rd Texas Legislature were still wrestling with how much money to return to schools in a year that began with $8.8 billion unspent from the previous session.
After the session ended with lawmakers returning $3.9 billion to public education and passing an omnibus bill overhauling graduation and testing requirements, Judge Dietz ordered parties to the lawsuit back to the courtroom with the task of determining the effects of the changes.
"We're still not where we need to be," said Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) vice president Noel Candelaria.
"There's still a big disparity when it comes to equity," Candelaria explained. "Especially our poor communities. They're having to foot a larger tax burden locally where the state is not filling the gap. That creates a big burden when we look at trying to have economic growth in our state when the biggest tax burden when it comes to financing our schools is on the poor communities."
In the meantime teachers face growing classrooms and stagnating salaries, while Candelaria says expenses like health care continue to rise.
"One of the polls that we did about 44 percent of our teachers are working second jobs just to try to make ends meet. So when you have professionals that are having to moonlight and work part time outside of their profession, that can have a direct impact on student learning."
"We have a lot of students with different and special needs it's more expensive to educate," said Texas PTA Executive Director Kyle Ward. "It's going to take funding to do that. Without the funding, our students don't graduate. They don't get a career and then in the end Texas loses."
"There are many teachers now who take money out of their own pocket to buy basic supplies. There are many students that do not have textbooks. Teachers are making copies and making do," Ward added. "Our Texas teachers are wonderful. They do a lot with a little, but basically it is the state's responsibility, it's in our Constitution that we provide our citizens an education."
With many of the state's remaining teachers nearing retirement, Brock Gregg with the Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE) warns Texas could soon see a teacher shortage. Like Candelaria, he says fixing the school system begins with addressing funding.
"The judge in the school finance lawsuit speculated in order to reach the goals set for schools would require $2,000 more per student," said Gregg. "That is roughly $11 billion per year more than current spending."
The organization has begun keeping track of lawmakers' positions on education through their website TeachtheVote.org
, and credits the bipartisan success of House Bill 5 to parents sending a loud message to lawmakers. The law drastically reduces the number of standardized tests students are required to graduate and encourages districts to focus on college and career readiness.
"It was parents who did that hard work. They put the pressure on lawmakers to get tests out of high school, but the testing lobby has enormous resources and they're going to be back to try to get their tests back," said Gregg. "So it's not like you can just give up. Parents have to stay involved. They need to know what people intend to do on these issues."
"Our job as an advocate then is really to drive home two messages. One is parents beware. Don't forget about public education. Number two is educators, when you go vote, make sure you make education a priority when you're in the ballot box."
At least one Republican candidate isn't conceding the issue. In his campaign for governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott (R-Texas) has begun a series of round table discussions on education. At a campaign stop Tuesday at Academy High School in Plano, Abbott turned the focus to digital learning and online resources for students.
"As Governor, I will bring innovative education reform to Texas children and families," Abbott said according to a campaign press release. "We must strive to lead the nation in expanding digital learning environments that allows Texas students to succeed regardless of where they live. I'm proud to work with educators like those at Plano ISD who have pioneered digital access to quality education. Together, we can build education tools using technology that helps Texas rise to the forefront of education."
Abbott's campaign provided a link to specific proposals on TownHall254.GregAbbott.com
. While agreeing that catching up on technology in the classrooms is important, Gregg points out making up ground will also require additional funding.
"We're way behind in technology in public education," said Gregg. "That's a huge cost, but if we want our students to compete with people from India and China, we're going to have to do something about it."
"I think it's great that candidates are making education a priority. it's time for that," said Ward. "Two legislative sessions ago it was a wake up call with the loss of funding, so I think it's re-energized our membership base."
"We hope to take home that momentum and make sure to drive home the message of public education as the priority in the next election," said Gregg. "And I think having a real statewide race with legitimate candidates who have different views on public education will allow us to do that."
"Public education belongs to all of us," Ward said. "These students come first, and we need to put politics aside, roll up our sleeves and prepare these young Texans so that we have a great future."