As a new state task force prepares to study the teacher shortage, I — as TSTA’s designated spokesperson — am still getting inquiries from reporters about why there is a shortage. It is an important question whose answers extend well beyond the pandemic.
Texas, in fact, has had a shortage of teachers certified for the subjects they teach, especially difficult-to — fill and fast-growing areas such as STEM and bilingual courses, for several years, way before COVID-19 became a household word.
I don’t presume to know the reason that every teacher has for making an early exit from the classroom and trying another career. But based on what TSTA leaders hear from our membership around the state, probably the single biggest reason overall is inadequate pay, and that was true before the pandemic struck.
Even after the pay raises ordered by the Legislature in 2019, average teacher pay in Texas still lags more than $7,000 per year behind the national average. This figure is based on the National Education Association’s ranking of average teacher salaries for each state during the 2020-21 school year. Using data from state education departments, NEA ranks states and the District of Columbia on various school funding issues each year, and the 2020-21 report is the most recent.
Rising health insurance premiums for teachers and other school employees, which the state has done nothing to address in more than a dozen years, is a related issue.
And, of course, the pandemic has made educator turnover worse. Many teachers got burned out by the stress of risking their health and the health of their families every time they went to school. Adding to that burnout was the extra teaching load many teachers had to take on – in the absence of enough substitutes — when colleagues got sick or had to quarantine.
Gov. Abbott added to the teachers’ health risks and their stress when he ignored the advice of health experts and issued his order prohibiting school districts from requiring students and school employees to wear masks. Some districts defied the governor and issued mask mandates anyway, but teachers felt the governor was playing politics with their health and safety and the health and safety of their students, especially during the delta and omicron surges.
Many teachers also were turned off by overt political meddling in the classroom, beginning when the governor promoted and the legislative majority enacted the two so-called critical race theory laws. Critical race theory is not taught in Texas public schools, and teachers recognized the laws for what they were — an effort to whitewash or soft pedal classroom discussions of racism and race relations.
Educators considered the laws an attack on their schools and on them, and they were particularly outraged that the attack came during a health emergency when they needed more support and more respect, not political attacks that drove a wedge between them and many parents.
The problem got worse when the governor attacked them again by suggesting pornography is a problem in Texas schools. It isn’t. Most school districts already had procedures in place to deal with parental complaints about books, but the governor made school books, mainly books about diversity, political as he campaigned for right-wing votes in the weeks leading up to the Republican primary.
After winning the primary, the governor moved quickly to have the Texas Education Agency assemble a task force to investigate the teacher shortage. Maybe Abbott was trying to make nice, but his olive branch — if that is what it was — didn’t erase the disrespect that he had spent months heaping on educators and public schools. And teachers felt another slap when the initial task force membership of 28 included only two teachers. The state now plans to add more teachers, but only after teacher groups made an issue of it.
The attacks and disrespect still sting for many educators. TSTA plans to cooperate with the task force study as long as we are convinced the governor, TEA and the Legislature are serious about finding real solutions and as long as they listen to what teachers have to say.
Many teachers or former teachers may have their own, different explanations for the shortage. Some may have quit because they were weary of STAAR, of having to waste class time year after year prepping students on how to pass a test, instead of teaching them critical learning skills. Inadequate retirement benefits, or excessive paperwork may be issues for others. The task force also needs to take a look at teacher preparation and certification programs.
It is time for the state to address all of these issues — and quit playing politics with educators.