When right-wing extremist and attention-loving tweeter Michael Quinn Sullivan said that “‘public education’ is child care provided at the convenience of government employees” and how “public education in Texas is about employing otherwise unemployable adults, not educating children,” he was met with immediate backlash. Leaders and education advocacy groups across the Lone Star State chastised the message. And they should have.
But while state lawmakers have expressed support for public education, their actions, by and large, do not match that. In other words, they don’t walk on foot. For example, public education funding cuts from the 2011 special session have not been reinstated, Texas ranks in the bottom ten in the nation in funding per student, teacher compensation is at best poor, the student-teacher ratio for grades five through 12 is non-existent, and instead of raising the base salary as part of a cost-of-living adjustment, retired teachers received another “thirteenth check” , which is equivalent to placing a bandage on a broken neck.
Let’s also understand that Texas is in the midst of a teacher shortage. Teachers leave the profession due to “lack of respect, burnout and poor pay”, among other reasons. Texas Monthly interviewed several teachers for an article that aired last month in which those sentiments were echoed.
It seems that teacher morale is at an all-time low. So low that the Texas Tribune reported about 500 teachers left the profession midway through the school year in the past six months. If a teacher commits such an act, they lose their teacher’s license, according to state law. In the current context, teachers prefer to lose their license rather than pursue their career. The situation, as presented, places the profession in an almost hopeless situation.
Since this is Texas and polls suggest that people think their public schools provide a quality education, why is this disaster happening to our public servants? Well, quite frankly, lawmakers allowed this to happen because it was not a glaring issue for them. Issues such as abortion, marriage, gender identity, library books, public restrooms, guns, “saving” Chick-Fil-A and saying “Merry Christmas” became focal points of several legislators. These legislators, however, like to brag that they can “walk and chew gum at the same time”; which means they can continue the culture war while paying attention to necessary issues. This self-proclaimed balance remains to be seen.
Also, the added stress from Texas lawmakers hasn’t helped. Culture warriors like state representatives Matt Krause and Jared Patterson have thrown teachers and, oddly enough, librarians into the growing war. Instead of improving the schools and professionals working to shape the future, these crusaders, and those who signed their agreement, continue to spend their time in the interim session attacking education professionals with phantom issues. .
As usual, there are skeptics about the teacher shortage situation. Commentators and the media argue that the shortage is exaggerated, for one, and for two, overstated in the media. They point to a Texas Education Agency data sheet on teacher attrition indicating how low it is. To quote the conservative news site The Texan, “the proportion of teachers leaving the workforce was the lowest in 10 years.” Because of this Perry Mason factoid and its amplification in conservative circles, cynics struggle to grasp the reality of the situation. Although criticizing the information presented is a definite trait of our American nature, it is, however, sheer folly to misinterpret obvious facts.
So what can be done to solve this problem? While Gov. Greg Abbott hasn’t really helped fill the shortage, his recent move to form a task force is a step in the right direction, but he can’t be trusted. Its outcome cannot be predicted as this action may be nothing more than a political stunt. The solution really lies in two places. One is the vote and the other is the legislature.
As I once wrote, teachers are the sleeping giant of Texas politics. With that in mind, one way to end the teacher shortage is for them to wake up from their slumber, register to vote, and vote. Not just vote for the sake of voting, but to vote for pro-public education candidates. Advocacy groups like Texans for Public Education and Pastors for Texas Children are gearing up for a great teacher to step out of the ballot effort in the May primary runoff and November midterm elections. The result of such an effort should produce a productive legislative session for teachers, public education and higher education. If the November election results go the other way, teachers, professors and education at all levels will not be on the table, but rather on the menu.
Drew Landry is Assistant Professor of Government at South Plains College.