Reading, writing and running to a new profession

Photo by Todd Wiseman

As I prepared to enter the field of education, both institutions I attended — Victoria College and Sam Houston State University — told us that Texas had a massive shortage of teachers. This shortage was especially pronounced in critical areas like math, science and foreign language.

After six years behind the desk, I can definitely see this shortage and its causes: Low pay, mediocre insurance and benefits, an emotionally demanding workload, the unspoken requirement of personal investment on a financial level, constantly changing regulations written by people who have not entered a public school classroom since their own high school graduations.

Education isn’t for the faint of heart.  Teachers, especially Texas teachers, endure these things as just the trappings of working in education. However, this year we have had to face two particularly insulting developments that go too far, even for those of us laboring in public schools: Betsy DeVos’s nomination to education secretary and state Senate Bill 1751.

DeVos represents a movement to privatize public education. Supporters tout school choice measures as a way to mitigate what they see as an irrevocably flawed and broken public education system.

To a public educator, this feels like a slap in the face. Not because we feel like public schools exist in a perfect state, but because those same politicians who decry the terminal illness of the public education system caused those flaws themselves — with consistent cuts to public funding as well as obtrusive and flawed accountability and testing measures that strain an already overburdened and underfunded system. The politicians in our state and national legislatures — not the educators in our schools — broke the system.

Until recently, Texas stood with one of the best economies of any state in the union as measured by GDP, or the total value of economic activity in a state. Yet we consistently rank in the bottom 10 for education funding.

If this didn't insult public educators enough, the new state Senate bill 1751 aims to change the Texas Teacher Retirement System (TRS) from a defined benefit program like Social Security to a 401k like program.

In the current defined benefits program, teachers pay into the system every month for the entirety of their careers and when they retire they receive a fixed amount based on their working salary every month for the rest of their lives. A 401k system works like a savings account. The employee pays pre-tax earnings into the account and is able to access the money when they retire. A finite amount of money goes in and the retirees haves only the money they saved, with losses subtracted and gains added.

Most people who have 401k accounts through their non-education jobs also get full social security to supplement their retirement, but most educators in Texas don’t. For those who do, federal law says that teachers collecting both TRS and Social Security must reduce their federal benefits by 60 percent.

According to the Association of Texas Professional Educators website, fewer than 20 of the 1,100 plus districts in the state chose Social Security for teachers rather than TRS, so even if we wanted to supplement this new 401K with Social Security, we can’t because districts can opt out of it. Most teachers in the state make less than $70,000 a year. In rural districts, they make between $35,000 and $50,000 annually. With salaries like that, few of us can afford to put meaningful amounts of money into 401k accounts, even with state or district contributions. Many retirees would find the 401k sufficient if we could supplement it with full Social Security, but we can’t.

State politicians like Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, say the current retirement system costs too much. We can give corporate tax breaks for businesses to come to Texas, we can afford to not have a state income tax and we can afford to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on STAAR testing, but we cannot afford to guarantee the pensions of retired teachers.

For almost two decades, salaries have stagnated, benefits have deteriorated and increased in cost, educators have weathered abuse and denigration from public officials and these same officials lay every new mandate on the backs of educators to bear silently. Now we may have to endure the one-two punch of privatization and reduction in pension benefits.

No wonder we have hemorrhaged teachers for so long. I'm not a politician, but I am a teacher — and this is no way to fix our education system.