Back to school: Times have changed

Photo by Jennifer Whitney

I remember as a child getting ready for back to school; it was like the beginning of all the fun things that were about to happen. I would find out who my teacher was, get new supplies, and go shopping with Mom for my one back to school outfit. This special outfit instilled the idea of “dress for success" in me at a young age.

My mom was a teacher and my dad was in the Army. They came from the land of student loans that had to be paid after entering the workforce. They were working class people. I didn't understand what this meant as a child. I knew my parents both worked, and I knew that we had a nice, happy life. That’s all that mattered. But times have changed. Part of being in the working class meant you had a job, and with that one job you could afford to live. Yet, for many Texas teachers this is not the case. Often, one salary does not equal being able to survive.

Each year as I get my own children ready to go back to school, I am faced with the reality of paycheck to paycheck. I can’t imagine what it must be like for Texas teachers, those brave souls who line up each year to greet each and every student at the door at Meet the Teacher Night. All the new Texas students excited (or not excited) to be going back to school. The teachers are there regardless, with big welcoming smiles, while their paychecks are not inspiring big grins.

Texas teachers’ salaries are stagnant; from one year to the next, their annual raise nets to about $23 a month. As I calculate the cost of the shoes my middle son has picked, I realize that raise wouldn’t even pay for one half of that pair of shoes. And this is a discount store for reference; I'm not shopping off the runway. I’m on a budget and so are teachers.

Then I glance down at my youngest son, who has just had surgery and is undergoing more healthcare as he recovers. Healthcare costs are crippling our country and especially our state. We are the least insured of all states in the U.S. When I worked in the private sector as a bankruptcy paralegal, I saw thousands of cases of people at the end of their road, looking at bankruptcy as their only option. The top two reasons for filing bankruptcy in our firm were a medical crisis or divorce.

Texas is on the brink of a healthcare crisis for those “too poor to have healthcare.” A Houston-area teacher died last year from the flu. She was healthy, she was the mother of two young children, and she died because the cost of Tamiflu was too much for her to consider.

I reached out to some teachers I know and asked about their healthcare costs. For many, healthcare takes more than half of their paychecks.

They shared stories of second jobs they have taken to supplement their income, stories of healthcare issues, stories of trying to support their families on one teacher income. They shared their frustration at having what amounted to a barely minimum wage job after working to earn a college degree, and sometimes a master’s degree.

One teacher messaged me and shared this story: “I pimp out my uterus as a surrogate to make ends meet.” I was shocked, but then she let me in on another secret: she’s not the only one. She knows of several teachers who are also surrogates to support themselves.

I’ve been there. After my divorce, I worked three jobs and I could barely keep my head above water. But I was fortunate; my mom and a dear friend helped me while I pulled myself up, inch by inch.

I realize however, that not everyone has this support system.

Many of the teachers who contacted me are surviving not on one extra job, but multiple jobs. One teacher shared that he works as a teacher, a real estate agent, a ride-share driver, and an online tutor. In 1940 Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to a 40-hour work week and yet our teachers are working far more than that — even before counting hours worked at  their extra jobs.

We teach our children that to be successful you have to study hard, do well in school, and go on to college or learn a trade, and you will live a happy life. But what are we teaching them if our teachers are too poor to live?

A tax-free weekend to buy school supplies is nice, but that's a drop in the bucket of an ocean of inequality. Annual 3 percent raises and small step increases are also nice, but they’re another drop. All these drops are not filling the cracks of our leaky Texas public education vessel. Our teachers have been treading water for too long in a sea of poverty. This is not who we are in Texas. It's time to make changes, and those changes begin with your vote in November.

Gina Calanni

Democratic candidate, HD-132