While North Texas students are off this week enjoying spring break, some of their teachers are using this time to rally.
It's part of Public Education Advocacy Day at the Texas capitol, as the legislative session continues.
“It is absolutely exhilarating to be here,” said Rena Honea, president of Alliance AFT, one of the largest unions that represents Dallas ISD employees. “We were not able to come two years ago during the legislative session because of COVID. So this is the first time in four years that we've been able to get back together.”
The teachers are spending their first day of spring break joining hundreds of other educators who have gathered in Austin for the occasion, which is organized by the larger Texas American Federation of Teachers.
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The North Texas group left early Monday morning by bus to begin a busy day of meetings with lawmakers, panel discussions and other events.
It’s all in an effort to stop the mass exodus of teachers, as the state's teacher shortage reaches new levels. According to Texas AFT, up to 70% of Texas teachers say they’re thinking of leaving education.
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“I think [this rally] is a way for it to get started and quite frankly, we have fabulous educators. But so many of them have chosen to leave the profession because of these conditions that they're having to work in,” said Honea. “What we're asking is for respect in the paycheck.”
The union’s demands to lawmakers are specific:
- Minimum 10k raise for teachers
- Minimum 15 percent raise for support staff
- Close class size loopholes
- Create a defined work year
- More resources so teachers aren’t spending their own money on classroom supplies
Some of these demands are even emblazoned on shirts teachers are wearing at the capitol and are listed in detail online as the union’s Campaign of Respect.
DISD bilingual teacher Tania Hernandez is attending her first-ever rally after years of uncertainty working through the pandemic.
“I think the pandemic put me in a situation as an educator that it was either going to make me or break me – and it made me,” she said. “I love being here with my union siblings, showing our union muscle and showing how we stand up for our communities and educational workers all over the state.”
Bilingual teachers are especially needed in Texas as the Latino population grows and dual language programs in districts grow. Some districts like Dallas ISD and Fort Worth ISD are even offering incentives for new bilingual teachers.
Hernandez said she is especially keen on seeing better control of class sizes, which has been hard to balance during the teacher shortage.
“I have had class sizes of 29 students in kindergarteners and I can tell you how that can get. But it really affects how children learn how to read,” she said. “Kindergarten is very critical in getting children started starting to read, especially bilingual kids. And you don't Want to start off behind. Usually, in those class sizes, who gets more affected are those students that are struggling. It's almost impossible because the day has 24 hours and you cannot make more time to dedicate to these students when they really, really need it.”
The union is supporting several bills that were filed by last Friday’s deadline, including one that increases funding for public schools and another that would boost teacher pay by $15,000 across the state. It would be the largest teacher pay raise in Texas history and
That bill would also include a 25% bump for support staff in schools working in key positions like school nurses, cafeteria workers, counselors, and bus drivers. The average pay for such positions is just over $29,000.
That could be a game changer for smaller districts, which haven't been able to match the pay and budgets of larger ones. While starting salary for teachers in districts like Dallas and Fort Worth is $60,000, rural districts with less funding can't come close to higher salaries without help from the state.
“That’s one of the things that our state needs to be responsible for and make it livable,” said Honea. “There is a district about 30 to 40 miles outside of Dallas – I learned today their teachers make $30,000 a year. And that is just unbelievable to me in 2023.”
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, Texas teacher salaries average around $58,000 and currently rank in the bottom 10 states across the country. If some of the newly filed legislation passes this session, Texas could move into the top 10 states for teacher pay.
“These people need a paycheck increase, especially our retirees who have not had any kind of increase since 2004,” said Honea. ‘Inflation has gone up, everything has gone up but their paychecks have remained the same…it’s not nearly enough to cover the expenses for living as we get older for doctor’s visits medications, housing, and food. All of that is so vitally important.”
Much of what teachers are demanding in Austin right now aligns with recommendations in a recent report by the state’s Teacher Vacancy Task Force created by Gov. Greg Abbott. In addition to better pay, the task force is also recommending lower health care costs and improved working conditions and training for teachers.
Meantime, the union is fighting back against a school voucher bill championed by Gov. Greg Abbott this session, which would allow parents to opt out of their local district and use tax dollars to pay for private schooling.
“There is nothing right about that, in my opinion, when our public schools in Texas get 30-40% of the funding,” said Honea. “We have got to stop funding dual educational systems and take care of our public schools that take every student and are not selective in their process.”
Teachers have been meeting one on one with legislators throughout the day in Austin on Monday before those bills are voted on in the coming weeks. The meetings were followed by a rally outside.
“We have got to speak out for those kids, those educators and help these legislators understand,” said Honea. “You have got to meet your responsibility in funding public education.”