Texas public schools are starting the new school year facing a massive shortage of educators and school staff. The Texas Education Agency (TEA), the state agency that administers elementary and secondary education, reported a teacher attrition rate of nearly 12% in the 2021-22 school year. nearly 43,000 teachers, the highest rate ever recorded by the agency. The attrition rate refers to the number of teachers who leave the profession, compared to those who remain.
The teacher shortage crisis is not limited to Texas. According to the National Education Association (NEA), there is a nationwide shortage of more than 300,000 teachers heading into the school year, which is no doubt the result of the dire conditions in public schools, rooted in decades of attacks on public education that have been accelerated by the current COVID-19 pandemic.
For more than a decade, teacher attrition in Texas has remained high. According to the TEA, the state has struggled to retain education personnel since the 2011-2012 school year, with attrition rates hovering around 10% each year except in 2020-2021, when it was by 9%. Retirements also jumped to 8,600 in 2021-22, an increase of more than 1,000 from the previous year.
Rather than respond with major investments in public schools or teacher salaries, authorities are lowering training and certification standards. In Texas, people without an education degree can get certified in one year through an alternative certification program. Even this fails to meet the needs of the state. Despite hiring a record 43,000 teachers last year, districts reported hundreds of vacancies. By early August, Houston ISD had over 800 and Fort Worth ISD had 230.
Additionally, data from the Texas Education Association (TEA) shows that teachers hired through alternative certification programs leave the profession at much higher rates. A State Board of Education meeting in June noted that “if teachers trained in alternative certification programs were retained at the same rate as teachers trained in traditional programs, more than 3,700 fewer new teachers would have been needed last year “. Most educators in Texas are currently certified through the alternative programs.
The lowering of academic requirements for new teachers follows a national trend. In July, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill that reduces the requirement that new teachers hold a college degree. This summer, Florida State, also facing a teacher shortage, launched a program that also allows military veterans without a college degree to receive a five-year temporary certification. Many other states across the country are also looking to address teacher shortages by reducing certification requirements, essentially allowing anyone to stand in front of a classroom.
These measures demonstrate the political establishment’s contempt for public education and make it clear that the return to in-person learning amid the pandemic was never about “educating students,” as claimed by both Democrats and Republicans. Instead, opening schools was a critical part of forcing workers back into unsafe workplaces amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The disregard for the social and educational welfare of students is further exemplified by the far-right reactionary campaigns to arm teachers and ban books. With lukewarm opposition from Democrats, Republican officials in Texas sought to increase the number of armed school employees after the Robb Elementary massacre in May. This has little support among educators, with a recent survey by the Texas American Federation of Teachers finding that 76% of respondents did not want to be armed in school.
Meanwhile, public officials across Texas are engaged in an ongoing campaign to censor books and curricula in public schools. More recently, officials from the Keller Independent School District removed 40 “disputed” books from school libraries while the district “reviews” them. The Purge includes an illustrated adaptation of Anne Frank’s Diary.
The last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have only worsened the conditions faced by educators and led to increased quits and retirements. Already, thousands of educators and students across the United States have died from COVID-19. A recent WSWS investigative report, based on state retirement data, estimates that in the United States about 8,000 active and retired educators died from the virus in 2020 and 2021. In Texas, Teacher Retirement System of Texas produced a report in December 2021 that recorded 2,080 additional deaths during the pandemic.
The CDC’s latest guidelines, which remove recommendations for quarantine, testing, and contact tracing, will be used to further justify the complete abandonment of even the most minimal mitigation measures in schools. The conditions are set for the 2022-23 school year to be even more devastating than the previous two.
The deadly conditions in schools come on top of decades of cuts to public education in Texas. The state spends $9,900 per student annually, compared to a national average of about $13,000, according to the Education Data Initiative. Teachers in Texas, meanwhile, receive poverty wages, with an average salary of $58,887 per year. With soaring inflation, many teachers are struggling to keep their heads above water and are being forced to take on second jobs.
The dire situation facing educators has led to widespread “burnout” among teachers across the state. According to a survey released Aug. 8 by the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA), an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), 70 percent of teachers in Texas are seriously considering leaving the profession altogether. In addition to low pay and benefits, the TSTA survey found that 87% of teachers in Texas feel overburdened and undervalued for their classroom efforts.
Gordon Mock, a former primary school teacher, who had been certified under an alternative program, left the profession after just two years, in 2018. Speaking to KERA News, he noted that the program had left him left unprepared and unsupported: “Why am I going to take care of 25 or 30 children when I have my own family to take care of? The existential anxiety there is really what scared me away.
He spoke of the helplessness he experienced with children arriving at school hungry and other children arriving without shoes. “The classroom is really a microcosm of what happens outside.”
The situation inside public schools and the impact of two years of the pandemic have also had a brutal impact on young people. Dallas High School social studies teacher Diane Birdwell also told KERA News, “Forget learning loss. The loss of sanity that we have had with the children and with the staff has been nothing short of phenomenal this year. And the breadth and depth of it, how many kids I’d passed through, you know, in the hallways or crying in class because they were used to not being in school for a year and half.
Like sharks maddened by the smell of blood, Wall Street profiteers are seizing on the crisis to further privatize public education. Hedge funds, education companies and charter schools look to the annual national K-12 education budget, estimated at around $800 billion to $3 trillion, where every dollar spent on public education is considered by this parasitic layer as potential benefits.
Far from fighting for teachers and public schools, the Democratic Party is an equal partner in the decimation of public education. In major Democratic Party-run school districts, including New York, Oakland, Minneapolis and Chicago, budget cuts, school closures and layoffs are on the horizon.
Democrats have been aided at every turn by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), which for years have strangled educators’ opposition to decades of attacks. This included their betrayals of the 2018 teacher strikes in Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia over cuts, low pay and benefits.
Throughout the pandemic, the AFT and NEA have played the criminal role of enforcing the demand to reopen schools for in-person learning, first under Trump and then under Biden. Thousands of teachers have come out and staged work stoppages in districts across the country in the 2021-2022 school year in the face of mass infection, hospitalizations and record child deaths during power surges from Delta and Omicron. In response, the AFT and NEA worked to isolate educators and promote the fiction that schools were safe.
In the latest show of her dismissive attitude toward the health and safety of educators and students, AFT President Randi Weingarten fully endorsed the CDC’s latest guidance, saying, “We welcome these guidelines…COVID -19 and other viruses are still with us, but with multiple prevention and treatment options available, now is not the time for new mandates.
Now, in addition to the continued spread of COVID-19, teachers and students face the added threat of the monkeypox virus, which the political establishment and public health agencies have already allowed to spread out of control.
The struggle to defend public education and improve working conditions in schools cannot be left to unions or the two corporate-controlled political parties. Educators need their own independent organizations that will connect them with the whole working class to mount a unified struggle to end the pandemic and save public education.