The COVID-19 pandemic, inflation and burnout have pummeled teachers in the last few years. Lawmakers from both parties agree they should get a pay bump — but it won’t happen without some negotiation.
Laura Herrera’s salary has barely gone up in her 20 years of teaching — about $700 in all.
The San Antonio-area teacher takes home about $3,700 a month. About $1,400 goes to rent, and the rest is sometimes barely enough to pay the bills and stretch through the month. There have been times when she hasn’t been able to afford buying insulin to treat her diabetes.
The raises she’s received — most of them in the last seven years — barely accounted for inflation.
“I’m living paycheck to paycheck,” Herrera said. “If something happens to my car, or I have to take care of an emergency in any way, I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
And while her salary has stayed practically the same, her workload keeps increasing — from having to learn how to teach online during the COVID-19 pandemic to the lesson plans and grading she does after hours. She is contractually obligated to work from 7:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., but her work hours usually extend beyond that for meetings with parents or school administrators.
That’s why Herrera is hopeful that the state Legislature this session will give raises to the hundreds of thousands of teachers across Texas in the same situation as her. Not only for her sake, but also to keep teachers from leaving and to attract more talent.
“We’re losing [teachers] in the first two, three, five years because nobody’s going to work for these pennies,” she said.
The last few years have been some of the most challenging for educators, who have had to adapt to virtual teaching during the pandemic, balance their health concerns with the return to in-person classes and be at the front lines of the culture wars over how race and sex are taught at schools. Many experiencing burnout and disillusionment have left the profession, which has worsened a teacher shortage that predates the pandemic.
Meanwhile, teacher compensation has stagnated. Texas ranks 28th in the nation for teacher pay, $7,652 less than the national average, according to the latest National Education Association report.
“There [is] obviously more than one issue that could be improved within public education right now,” said Monty Exter, director of governmental relations at the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “But the largest front-burner issue certainly seems to be our inability to hold on to teachers.”
But the political winds might be blowing in teachers’ favor this legislative session, as lawmakers return to Austin with the task of determining how to spend a historic $32.7 billion surplus and both Republicans and Democrats signal their intentions to allot some of that money to teacher raises.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listed teacher pay raises as one of his legislative priorities late last year, and Gov. Greg Abbott’s office said in a statement last week that he will “continue working with the Legislature to support our teachers.”
A couple of bills have already been filed calling for teacher raises, including House Bill 1548, which would give teachers a $15,000 pay raise and a 25% pay raise for other school employees. At least one estimate from the Association of Texas Professional Educators says such raises would cost $12 billion every two years.
“We have no excuse,” state Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, who authored the bill, said during a press conference last week. “Hoarding this surplus while educators and children are suffering is immoral.”
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said that Democrats and Republicans have been able to find consensus on teacher pay raises in the past because both parties strive to gain favor from pro-public-education groups.
“One of the few things that legislators have historically agreed on is protecting public schools,” he said.
But while Republicans and Democrats agree that teacher pay raises should be a priority, how much money they give educators remains to be seen.
Rottinghaus said it’s not surprising for a Democrat to have made the boldest proposal on teacher raises so far, adding that it’s one of the few issues they can champion and win in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
However, Talarico knows that the $15,000 may not be the final figure that lawmakers settle on.
“This is our starting proposal,” he said. “You ask for what you need. You ask for the ideal. And then in this building, sometimes, you find somewhere in the middle.”
Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said he’s glad lawmakers are considering teacher pay raises because teachers in his union have been asking for one. But he worries that Republicans may use teacher raises as a bargaining chip to seek support for “school choice” programs, which give families state funds for private schooling and which critics say siphon money out of public schools.
Rottinghaus believes there’s a realistic possibility that teacher raises will be linked to “school choice” legislation this session as some Republicans once again push for it.
“Linking a less popular policy with a popular policy is a way to move the needle,” he said.
And while there seems to be bipartisan support for teacher raises, Capo also warned that there is still a long way to go in the legislative process.
“Everybody loves a moonshot,” Capo said. “But does the Legislature have the will to get it done?”
Talarico said that at least he knows his colleagues across the aisle are willing to negotiate. He said he has spoken with Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan over teacher raises and he is “concerned about what’s happening to the teaching profession.” Phelan’s office declined to comment when asked about raises and his conversation with Talarico.
State Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, who is on the House Public Education Committee, said teacher raises are going to be a bipartisan issue this session, but Republicans may be at odds with Democrats on how to get it done.
While he has no issue with Talarico’s proposal, VanDeaver believes it would be best if lawmakers raise the amount of money schools get per student instead. This would allow schools to pay for raises but also give them money to address other financial difficulties they may be facing.
“Allow the school districts to make those decisions based on their local issues and their local conditions, rather than us from the state prescribing,” he said.
Under current budget proposals, both the Senate and House have pitched raises for teachers, including allocating additional funding for a program that gives teachers raises based on their performance. The House’s budget proposal calls for an increase in the amount of money schools get per student, which has not increased in four years and would free money for teacher raises.
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, also filed House Bill 882, which would increase the amount schools get per student from $6,160 to $7,075 and would adjust that figure annually according to inflation.
Raising the amount of money schools get per student would also mean more money for teacher raises, since school districts must use 30% of any additional revenue they receive for employee salary increases.
Herrera said any sort of across-the-board raise would be helpful — even if the number were to drop from $15,000 to $1,000.
“I will be able to live not worrying about my overdraft fees and worry about ‘OK, I gotta ration [my pay] for this month,’” she said.
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Photo: Teacher Melissa Perry reads to her fifth grade class at Jacob’s Well Elementary School in Wimberley on September 4, 2020. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune