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'We're being given scraps': Texas teachers say Legislature is falling short on pay increases

A kindergarten classroom on the first day of school at Sanchez Elementary school in East Austin Tuesday, August 17, 2021. Jordan Vonderhaar for KUT News
Jordan Vonderhaar
A kindergarten classroom on the first day of school at Sanchez Elementary school in East Austin Tuesday, August 17, 2021. Jordan Vonderhaar for KUT News

Barton Jacques works long hours. Each weekday morning, the Killeen ISD science teacher commutes about 30 minutes from Temple with his son and daughter who are students at the high school where he works. Jacques teaches four honors biology classes and one AP biology class. He’s also the science teacher leader, which means he’s responsible for helping teachers plan and develop lessons.

“Most of my day is either in the classroom teaching or helping other teachers the best way that I can and supporting my science team,” he said.

But when school ends at 4:15 p.m., Jacques' day is far from over. He packs up his stuff and then he and his kids drive over to another KISD building where he tutors students in math and science from 5 to 8 p.m. He also tutors for three hours on Saturday mornings.

Jacques loves teaching, but he's taken on extra hours of tutoring over the last 15 years to make ends meet. His wife is also an educator. She works at a private school where she earns less than public school teachers.

“Early on, when I started teaching in Killeen, I realized that I was going to have to do something to supplement my income,” he said.

Jacques’ experience is not unique. More than half of Texas teachers work a second job, according to a 2022 report from the Charles Butt Foundation. That same survey found 81% of teachers said their pay was “unfair.”

Teacher pay in Texas lags behind the U.S. average. The National Education Association found the average teacher salary in Texas was $58,887 during the 2021-2022 school year. The national average was $66,745. The NEA expects that a gap of more than $7,700 between teacher pay in Texas and the U.S. as a whole will persist during the current school year.

But when lawmakers returned to Austin in January with a nearly $33 billion budget surplus, public education advocates were optimistic they might make a major investment in school salaries. Now, with less than two weeks to go in the legislative session, teachers are concerned more people will leave the field.

Lawmakers are still considering raises — but not as high as teachers hoped

Let’s rewind to March 2022 when Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Texas Education Agency to form a task force to address school staffing shortages plaguing districts across the state.

“Teachers play a critical role in the development and long-term success of our students,” Abbott wrote in a letter to the Texas Education commissioner. “This task force should work diligently to ensure that best practices and resources for recruitment and retention are provided to districts to ensure the learning environment of Texas students is not interrupted by the absence of a qualified teacher.”

The Teacher Vacancy Task Force issued its final report, “Developing a Thriving Teacher Workforce in Texas,” in February. One of the group’s primary recommendations was that lawmakers should significantly raise teacher salaries “by increasing the basic allotment and other state funding mechanisms.” The basic allotment, which is $6,160, is the minimum amount Texas must spend per student. School districts are required to use 30% of any increase to the basic allotment to raise pay for certain employees such as teachers, librarians and counselors.

But lawmakers haven’t increased the allotment since 2019. And since then, inflation has chipped away at its value. In fact, groups such as the Texas American Federation of Teachers and Every Texan estimate that lawmakers need to raise the basic allotment by more than $1,300 just to keep up with inflation during the next school year. But the increase to the basic allotment state lawmakers are considering is much lower than that.

The Texas House did overwhelmingly approve a bipartisan bill last month that includes modest increases to the basic allotment. House Bill 100 proposes raising the basic allotment by $90 during the first year it’s in effect and then at least $50 dollars in the second year. The legislation also raises how much of the increase school districts must spend on compensation from 30% to 50%. Texas AFT anticipates the bill would result in an $80 to $100 per month raise for teachers. The Texas Senate Education committee has not yet scheduled a hearing on HB 100.

The Texas Senate has also passed legislation that includes one-time bonuses for teachers. Senate Bill 9 would give classroom teachers $2,000 in districts with more than 20,000 students. Teachers in districts with fewer than 20,000 students would get $6,000. The legislation also includes funding for teacher mentoring, gives teachers access to free prekindergarten if their district offers it and seeks to protect teachers from being loaded up with extra responsibilities.

State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, is the author of SB 9. When the Texas Senate debated the bill in early April, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, noted teachers’ groups had issues with the bill because pay raises did not go far enough. But Creighton said the Legislature is juggling a lot of funding priorities.

“As we all work on issues related to the grid and the border and building Texas infrastructure forward and property tax relief so that people can stay in their homes and health care and all these issues that are so important to all of us, there is a rhyme and reason to how much we spend in each category,” Creighton said during the debate. “And at the end of the day, this bill provides more raises for Texas teachers than the education budgets of about nine states.”

KUT reached out to Creighton's office for an interview on SB 9 but did not hear back.

Creighton's bill got a hearing in the Texas House Public Education Committee at 2 a.m. on May 10. Committee members have not yet voted on whether to send the bill to the entire House.

Teacher and public education advocates say remaining proposals fall short

Zeph Capo, who is president of Texas AFT, said there are some good provisions in SB 9 that would benefit teachers but the one-time bonuses are not enough.

“We should be able to do much better for our teachers,” he said.

Capo said the amount of money teachers receive should not vary depending on the size of the district. He pointed to small wealthy districts, such as Highland Park ISD in Dallas, where teachers stand to receive the $6,000 bonus because of the small size of the district.

“That is a very wealthy district that is going to actually get their teacher salaries subsidized by the state at a much higher level than, say, Dallas ISD,” he said.

School administrators have also raised concerns that the one-time bonuses would be unsustainable once the state funding expires because districts might not be able to afford to keep providing them. Steven Bassett, the deputy superintendent for Fort Bend ISD in the Houston area, testified during last week's Texas House Public Education Committee hearing on the bill.

“Two thousand isn’t enough for teachers of big districts. And then also the fact that it’s one-time funding, that’s a big problem,” Bassett said. “It’s like an unfunded mandate in that next year.”

Ovidia Molina, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said it is frustrating that during a session where the state has a historic budget surplus, more is not being done to raise the pay of and retain teachers as well as other school staff.

“We're being given scraps,” she said.

Molina said that lawmakers’ decision to hold off on a substantial investment in teacher pay is shortsighted and will ultimately hurt students.

“Our students are going to miss out on having amazing educators that want to stay in the profession that they just can't afford to. And our Legislature is continuing to say they don't care,” she said. “And so the crisis of the educator shortage is going to continue to grow.”

JoLisa Hoover is a teacher specialist at Raise Your Hand Texas, a public education advocacy group. She said an investment in the state’s teachers is an investment in its children. She also said educators want a salary increase that allows them to pay their bills, afford medical expenses and quit their second jobs.

“I talked to a teacher who said that having cancer was less stressful than trying to pay for the cancer treatment on her teacher's salary,” she said.

Hoover said right now the state is underpaying teachers and underfunding public schools.

“Our teachers are telling us with both their words and with their actions that this is not a sustainable situation for them,” she said. “They are leaving because they cannot afford this career.”

Teachers expect more of their colleagues to leave the field

Jacques, in Killeen ISD, said some teachers have been waiting to see what the Texas Legislature was going to do this year. As of right now, he said, it does not look like lawmakers are going to approve the substantial increase teachers were hoping for, so he anticipates more teachers will leave the profession and it will continue to be hard to recruit people.

“Unfortunately, that means for us more shortages in the classroom and that’s not just teachers,” he said. “It’s the librarians, it’s the classroom aides, it’s the office staff, even administrators.”

Veronica Borrego, who works for Brownsville ISD, is already seeing colleagues decide to leave as the 2022-2023 school year comes to an end. She found out Monday that 18 colleagues are retiring or resigning and the primary reason is that the job is not financially feasible. Borrego, who has worked in education for 17 years, is herself considering picking up extra work.

“I’m thinking there is going to be a mass exodus of people from the profession because it just seems like there's such a lack of respect for our profession,” she said.

Borrego said educators are tired of not getting increases at the state level while, at the same time, Texas requires more of teachers. And while teaching is a calling, she said, it often does not pay enough to allow people to support their own families.

Both Borrego and Jacques said it is hard to watch the Texas Legislature consider spending hundreds of millions of dollars on school voucher programs that give families state money to send their kids to private school, instead of investing in public education. Abbott has said he is prepared to call special sessions if lawmakers approve a school voucher bill that is too narrow.

“It's very hard to see because here in my district we've already had to close schools down due to charter schools popping up left and right here," she said. "And that would just annihilate our district."

Jacques said money lawmakers are considering for school voucher programs could be spent to attract the best and brightest to the teaching profession. He said fewer people are considering joining the field because of the low compensation and that's a big problem.

“Teaching is the profession that makes all other professions possible,” he said. “Without teachers in the classroom, you don’t have doctors, and you don’t have lawyers, and you don’t have engineers, and you don’t have firemen, and all the things that we need in society.”

Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Becky Fogel is the newscast host and producer for “Texas Standard.” She came to the show from Science Friday in New York where she produced segments on zombie microbiomes and sneaker technology. She got her start in radio at KWBU-FM in Waco and she’s happy to be back in the great state of Texas.