Every morning, I start the school day by watching the news with my students, so we can both keep up with current events and understand how these relate to our own lives.
For the past few weeks, the news media has been covering the stories of the educators from Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Arizona who are protesting for a livable wage within their state. While watching, one of my students turned to me and asked, “Mr. Piña, why are the teachers walking out of their schools? Don’t you guys get paid a lot of money?” I told him that although teachers in Texas earn more than teachers in Oklahoma, the amount of money that we make isn’t that much, especially since so many teachers use part of their salaries to fund things for their classrooms.
Over the years, I’ve often gone out to buy materials for my students. As a bilingual education teacher, I frequently find myself buying books in my students’ native language. These books, which my school doesn’t provide, are essential for my students to have if they’re to apply good literacy skills in their daily lives.
In 2016, teachers nationally spent an average of $530 on their classroom, according to a survey by Scholastic. Teachers within a low socioeconomic status area spent an average of $672. For Texas, a teacher-led survey found that Texas teachers spent $700 a year on average on their classrooms. What teachers spend their own money on can range from school supplies to books to sponsoring students who can’t afford to go on field trips. Doing this throughout the year starts to add up — and many teachers, myself included, must find creative ways to earn income — like tutoring or driving an Uber before and after school to supplement our pay to continue funding activities for our kids and afford our cost of living.
These issues impact both teachers and students. Teaching is a process that requires patience, energy, passion and a constant focus on engaging students in their learning. When I am not feeling 100 percent, it affects my ability to teach. This, in turn, affects my students’ ability to learn. When teachers spend time working other jobs, it detracts from the time we can use to plan a more extensive and efficient lesson.
We now have an opportunity to do something about it: This year, the School Finance Commission will establish recommendations for the next legislative session. As a teacher, I see several things the commission should focus on:
• First, the commission should address the state’s so-called “Robin Hood” program in which districts that have high property wealth are required to pay money to the state — which is called “recapture.” This money is then redistributed among other districts within the state. Originally, this program was designed to create equity between property-rich and property-poor districts — but with time, it has largely impacted cities such as Austin, Dallas, and Houston. Austin Independent School District, for example, is projected to send over $500 million of its property tax revenue to the state. This, along with many other factors, puts a strain on our district, which trickles down to a strain on teachers and students. Moving forward, we need to address this program in a way that is equitable to ensure every district has the resources needed to help their students succeed.
• Second, the commission should examine how we allocate funds to districts, and rewrite the formula for teacher-to-student ratios. Currently, the number of teachers allocated to a specific grade level is based on the number of students who are enrolled in that grade. Students in fourth grade though kindergarten are capped at 22 students in a class. This changes drastically once students enter fifth grade, when the cap is raised to 32 students per class. Additionally, schools that operate specialty programs, such as dual-language instruction, often end up with mixed classes — classes with students in the dual-language program, and students who are not, which affects the integrity of their programs.
• Finally, we need to focus on special education and high-poverty students. These children are usually our highest-need students, which means that teachers need the proper professional development to help them succeed. We should focus our dollars on high-quality, research-based training for teachers to fully equip them with the tools needed to lower the achievement gap. As a state, we need to add additional dollars to enhance these programs rather than take away from some of our most vulnerable students.
I urge the commission to find ways to put money back into education — and to support our teachers and students. Find a way to ensure that teachers can focus all their time on their classroom, so that we can truly give our students the quality of education that they deserve. Then, perhaps, my students will cheer as they watch the news.
Piña teaches fifth-grade at Perez Elementary School. He is a Teach Plus Texas Teaching Policy Fellow.