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Gov. Greg Abbott wants task force to examine state teacher shortage

Teaching demands during the pandemic have exacerbated the nation’s teacher shortage. Abbott wants a task force to investigate.
Substitute teacher Kara Huesser helps a student at Buda Elementary School in Hays CISD on Jan....
Substitute teacher Kara Huesser helps a student at Buda Elementary School in Hays CISD on Jan. 18, 2022. Credit:(Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)
Published: Mar. 8, 2022 at 6:41 AM CST
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AUSTIN, Texas (TEXAS TRIBUNE) -Gov. Greg Abbott has directed the Texas Education Agency to create a task force to examine the state’s teacher shortage problem.

In a letter to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath on Monday, Abbott said the task force should investigate why these shortages exist, recommend policy changes to the state education agency and consider more flexibility in the teacher certification process.

“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,” Abbott said.

The pandemic has exacerbated the nation’s teacher shortage. Shifting mask requirements and the closure then the reopening of schools have taken a toll on teachers. At the same time, schools have become the center of the state’s culture wars, and teachers are caught in the crossfire.

By last summer, school districts reported a rising number of teacher vacancies. The Houston Independent School District, the largest district in the state, had more than 700 vacant positions last summer.

And when the omicron surge hit in January, school districts had to close because both full-time and substitute teachers were out with COVID-19. In some instances, districts were asking parents to watch over classrooms.

In a Charles Butt Foundation poll of 919 Texas teachers last year, 68% said they seriously considered leaving the profession in 2021, an increase of 10 percentage points compared to the year before.

In the same poll, teachers said they felt undervalued and underpaid. The average pay for teachers has not increased between 2010 and 2019; it instead decreased from $55,433 to $54,192, according to a recently released University of Houston report.

In 2019, Texas lawmakers mandated raises for teachers in a $11.6 billion overhaul of public school finance. The bill also included a merit raise system aimed to help rural and high-need school districts attract talent. In rare cases, the program rewards Texas’ highest-rated educators with hefty pay raises that could balloon to a six-figure salary.

In February, a Texas American Federation of Teachers survey of 3,800 of its members found that 66% of educators throughout Texas said they have recently considered leaving their job.

But the state’s shortage of teachers existed before the pandemic hit. From 2010 to 2019, the number of teachers initially certified fell by about 20%, according to the University of Houston report. The report also showed that teachers are least likely to be retained from year one to year two in the profession.

In addition to the pandemic, Texas teachers are now having to follow Senate Bill 3, a new law that limits how teachers talk about race and slavery in the classroom. Abbott pushed the 2021 regular legislative session and the special sessions afterward to abolish “critical race theory.”

The result in schools has been confusion. One North Texas administrator informed teachers that they needed to present material that had an “opposing” view on the Holocaust.

The law never mentions critical race theory and educators say that it’s a framework that isn’t taught in Texas public schools. Critical race theory examines how racism is not something restricted to individuals. Instead, the theory contends that bias is something embedded in policies and legal systems.

Clay Robison, spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, said Abbott and other lawmakers made teachers feel like they were breaking the law if they taught the truth about race and racism. Abbott needs to make sure teachers feel heard and are given respect, he said.

At the time, it was unclear who would be on the task force.

Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said in a statement that he hopes his organization is included on the task force as it would ensure the voices of educators are heard.

“We hope [the task force] produces collaboration between education leaders at the state and district levels — something that has too often been missing during the past several years,” Holmes said.

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