Commentary: Teach for America is a Band-Aid solution

The Statesman recently reported that Austin ISD and Pflugerville ISD will be partnering with Teach for America to address the issue of high teacher turnover in low-income schools and to recruit more teachers of color.

Ken Zarifis, president of the local teachers’ union Education Austin, was quoted as saying that teacher turnover results from lack of respect toward teachers. As former teachers and educators, we know how much respect in the profession matters. But the decision points to deeper problems, and Teach for America is not the solution. Addressing this issue by partnering with Teach for America is a Band-Aid solution for a much deeper wound: housing unaffordability for teachers.

Throughout the nation — in cities such as Boston, Charlotte, Miami and the San Francisco Bay Area — teachers can no longer afford to live where they teach. Why are some cities no longer affordable for teachers? When comparing a list of cities’ affordability for teachers with a published list of rapidly gentrifying cities, a curious pattern emerges. Cities that are gentrifying at the fastest rates coincide with those where teachers face increasing strains for affordability.

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Austin is no exception. National Council on Teacher Quality data on teacher salary, qualifications and home affordability reveals that even with five years of experience and a master’s degree, Austin ISD teachers cannot afford the median mortgage payments in the city. Even more shocking, if a local teacher with those qualifications saved 10 percent of his or her income annually, it would take over 10 years for him or her to generate enough for a 20-percent down payment — and that’s with today’s median home price, which is bound to go up as it has steadily in recent years. Meanwhile, the rent is rising, and the competition for quality affordable housing gets stiffer. The teacher shortages we face now are a side effect of the larger injury of growth and diminishing affordability.

As we’ve seen with embattled discussions over CodeNext, the issue of gentrification and how we respond to it impacts the whole city. When developers and more affluent residents move in, families are displaced — and they take their children with them wherever they move next.

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Austin ISD schools have felt the impact of students being pushed out. For 2017-18, Austin ISD lost 1,600 students in enrollment compared to the prior year — the fifth consecutive year of enrollment decline. About half of the students are leaving the city to move to neighboring suburban districts because housing is more affordable. However, teachers get left out of the conversation. Though Austin ISD and the City Council tried to stop the bleeding of students and teachers in 2016 by approving affordable housing for teachers and government workers, this move does not keep up with the rate of teacher turnover and the rising costs of living.

So, what’s a teacher in a gentrifying city to do? It’s no wonder the result is teacher shortages.

One approach is to stop the Band-Aid solutions and consider Austin’s affordability for its public servants — like teachers, who keep our city and society running. More affordable housing plans near schools and educational facilities may serve to attract and retain good teachers in our schools.

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Another approach is to heal the wound itself by having cities, school boards and advocacy groups support: teachers’ advocacy at the state level for teacher salary increases; protections for retirement plans; the movement against high-stakes testing that contributes to teacher turnover. These efforts can stabilize the insecurity of increasingly high costs of living.

We have stuck too many Band-Aids on public education to make up for deep cuts suffered from the state. It is time to align fixes to public education with long-term plans to support our communities by acknowledging that our city growth pushes out our valued and necessary teachers. If we cannot see this now, we will be placing yet another Band-Aid on an even deeper wound.

Ku, Sikes and Edwards are doctoral students in the College of Education at the University of Texas.

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