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Texas teachers grapple with their raises caught up in voucher fight

By Maia Pandey, The Texas Tribune

Texas teachers grapple with their raises caught up in voucher fight” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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When she first began teaching 13 years ago, Katrina Rasmussen, a studio art teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in the Dallas Independent School District, said her salary was enough to make a living. But between rising inflation and minimal teacher salary raises, Rasmussen and her husband, who is also a public school teacher, now both rely on second jobs to keep their family afloat.

Many teachers she knows have begun looking for jobs outside education — and not because they no longer want to be in the classroom, Rasmussen said.

“It’s a simple matter of economics for us,” she said. “If we can’t provide for our own families, if we’re struggling to put food on the table and gas in our cars every single month, that wears on us, and the job is already hard.”

Texas teachers — whose average salaries are $7,652 less than the national average, according to the National Education Association — were the only state employees who didn’t receive a raise during this year’s regular legislative session.

In fact, lawmakers failed to pass legislation on public school administrators’ three biggest priorities during the regular session. Proposals to raise teacher salaries, increase the base amount schools receive per student and overhaul the public school system’s funding formula all fizzled amid a political standoff over school vouchers, which would allow families to use state funds to pay for their kids’ private schooling.

[Vouchers return this special session — and school funding might be left out. Here’s what you need to know.]

Now, as attention swivels to a long-awaited special lawmaking session to tie loose ends in education, it’s unclear whether raises or any other public school funding measures will even be on the table. Public school advocates have worried that teacher raises would be used as a bargaining chip to reach an agreement on school vouchers. But the only education priority Gov. Greg Abbott listed in the agenda for the special session was education savings accounts, a form of school vouchers (other items in the agenda including border security and vaccine mandates).

But even if lawmakers find a way to insert raises into the conversation, some teachers say they would rather forgo a salary bump than see school vouchers implemented in Texas. Proponents say a voucher program would give Texans more freedom to choose how to educate their children, but critics worry it would take away funds from the state’s public education system.

“If it comes down to it, and it’s vouchers or being able to stay in the job that I care about — unfortunately, I’m gonna have to leave,” Rasmussen said. “That’s not a compromise that I can make values-wise.”

Public education funding and vouchers

Many teachers disagree with the idea of using taxpayer dollars to fund private education — and potentially diverting funding from public schools.

Stacey Ward, a fifth grade science teacher at Centennial Elementary School in Humble ISD, said she worries that public school funding would be siphoned off to private schools at a time when some Texas schools are going into deficit budgets to keep up with costs.

Ward, a teacher for 28 years, said she often pays out of pocket for teaching costs not covered by school funding. She also said she would oppose a vouchers bill, even if it meant a salary raise.

“If I didn’t have to spend hundreds of dollars every year on crayons and colored pencils and construction paper and glue sticks and scissors and plastic cups and everything else that we need for science experiments, I wouldn’t have a problem with [vouchers],” Ward said. “But the problem is the public school system is not fully funded.”

The basic allotment — the amount of money the state gives school for each student — was last raised in 2020 to $6,160. Public school advocates say that amount has not kept up with inflation.

On Saturday, hundreds of teachers, school administrators and parents rallied at the Texas Capitol against vouchers — and for increased public school funding. State Reps. Gina Hinajosa, Vikki Goodwin, Donna Howard and Sheryl Cole, all Democrats from Austin, were also in attendance.

Leander ISD Superintendent Bruce Gearing said at the rally that his district is “strongly opposed” to any form of voucher that would feed public dollars to private schools.

“No amount of money that they offer us will cause us to say yes to vouchers,” Gearing added.

Who would benefit? 

Jason Forbis, a first grade teacher at Spring Valley Elementary in Midway ISD, said he, too, would rather not get a raise than see vouchers pass.

“With choices come the responsibilities of choices, meaning if you choose to put your child in a private school, then it’s your job and your choice to pay for that education,” Forbis said. “I don’t feel like taxpayers’ money, which is supposed to pay for public schools, should go to parents who are choosing to put their children in other private or charter schools because our schools already are underfunded.”

School voucher advocates, however, argue that parents’ ability to choose a different school for their child should not be limited by socioeconomic status. Parents should be free to pick the public or private school that best fits their child, said Mandy Drogin, campaign director of an education initiative for the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“We should acknowledge that not every school works for every child,” Drogin said. “Dictating to children that they must attend a specific school simply because they live in a home on a specific street — it’s counter to the freedom that we all hold dear.”

Some educators in rural and poorer areas of the state also expressed concern that a voucher program would only benefit a small number of students in their district, if any.

Education savings accounts, the voucher program championed by Abbott, would give families who exit the state’s public education system access to a certain amount of state money to pay for private school tuition, home-schooling costs or other educational expenses. Senate Bill 8, introduced by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, was the primary savings account proposal on the table during the regular session and would have given families up to $8,000 per student.

Hundreds of protesters cross 12th St. and walk towards the Governor's Mansion during a rally against school vouchers on Oct. 7, 2023.
Hundreds of protesters cross 12th St. and walk towards the Governor’s Mansion during a rally against school vouchers on Oct. 7, 2023. Credit: Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune

But opponents of the bill argue that $8,000 would not cover full tuition at many private schools. The average cost of private education in Texas is $10,400, according to the Education Data Initiative.

Veronica Borrego, an educational diagnostician for Brownsville ISD, works in a district where 26.5% of residents live in poverty. Barely any families would be able to afford to pay the difference between the voucher allotment and potential private school tuition costs, Borrego said.

Drogin said voucher advocates hope to see a bill closer to $10,000 per student on the table during the special session, pointing out that many private schools also offer scholarships for low-income students. Advocates have argued that vouchers would particularly benefit low-income or special needs students whose nearby schools are not serving them.

But as a former special education teacher, Borrego said she particularly worries that, unlike public schools, private schools are not required by law to provide certain educational services to children with disabilities. When students switch into her district’s public schools mid-year, Borrego said, it is often because they have special needs or behavioral issues that are not being adequately addressed at private schools.

“You will often hear doctors and therapists outside of the district referring their people to come to the public education setting because we have the best services for the students,” Borrego said.

Though Borrego also said she would rather see school vouchers snuffed than get a raise, she has begun to contemplate leaving the profession altogether.

“What’s really sad is that I really love my job, but I’m at the point where I’m barely making it financially and I have a master’s degree,” she said. “We’re the profession that makes every other profession, and we are just so shoved to the side.”

Jerrica Liggins, secondary curriculum director for Paris ISD, said she fields questions from teachers at almost every meeting about salary raises. After state funding for teacher raises fell through during the regular session over the vouchers debate, Paris ISD offered teachers a 3% raise earlier this year and went into a deficit budget.

Liggins attended the Saturday rally alongside several teachers in her district.

Jerrica Liggins, second from left, gathers with fellow teachers from Paris ISD at the Texas Capitol on Oct. 7, 2023. Liggins and her colleagues traveled to Austin to protest against school vouchers. Hundreds gathered to protest two days before a special session was slated to begin on Oct. 9, 2023.
Jerrica Liggins, second from left, gathers with fellow teachers from Paris ISD at the Texas Capitol on Oct. 7, 2023. Liggins and her colleagues traveled to Austin to protest against school vouchers. Credit: Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune

“The conversation about vouchers [with teachers] is, ‘Why are they still talking about this? Why are they still tying my worth as an educator to a voucher for students that won’t even benefit in our area?’” Liggins said.

A decline in standing

After the onslaught of the last few years — stalled raises, health worries during the pandemic, the injection of culture wars into the classroom — teachers said they feel respect for their profession is declining. In a 2022 survey, 77% of teachers said they seriously considered leaving the job.

Kristen Harris, a humanities teacher in the gifted and talented program at Walnut Grove High School in Prosper ISD, said it felt like “a slap in the face” when lawmakers did not grant teachers raises this year. Still, Harris said she would not support a bill tying salary raises with a voucher program, and neither would many of her colleagues.

“We want more money, but [not] at the expense of everything we believe in and everything we’ve been working for, and everything we want for our students,” Harris said. “And that’s just an awful, disrespectful place to put us in.”

With the state projecting a $18.6 billion budget surplus for the 2024-25 cycle, some teachers said they feel like lawmakers are holding raises “hostage” for little reason. Lakeisha Patterson, a third grade teacher at Deepwater Elementary in Deer Park ISD, said she doesn’t think a voucher program and raises should come as a package deal — and doesn’t think teachers should feel guilty for pushing back, since the state has the money to fund raises.

“We are asked to be counselors, educators, nurses, therapists, P.E. coaches — I mean, all of it. We are asked to do all of these things,” Patterson said. “And yet when we ask for basic respect, appreciation, compensation, we’re looked down upon.”

Sherry Miller, a music teacher at Skipcha Elementary School in Killeen ISD, said she’s seen teachers leave the profession sooner and sooner over her 39-year career. Her district is facing a large teacher shortage that has only grown worse in recent years, Miller said.

Last year, Abbott assembled a task force to examine the state’s worsening teacher shortage. In February, the group of educators and administrators recommended several policy initiatives, including a salary raise, mentorship programs and more sustainable workloads to respect teachers’ time. Lawmakers during this year’s regular session failed to pass legislation in response to the task force’s recommendations.

When she first started teaching, Miller said, it wasn’t uncommon to encounter educators who had been teaching for upwards of 30 or 40 years. Now, she’s one of the few veteran teachers remaining at her school.

But, Miller added, she’s still proud to be a Texas teacher.

“I know when I was growing up, the teaching profession was a very well-respected profession, and I really would like to see us be able to get that back again,” Miller said. “I think if we could get that respect back, we would be able to keep many more of our teachers.”

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