House Committees on Public Education and Higher Education Convene for Marathon 12-Hour Hearing

Texas AFT member Rebekah Ozuna (left) testifies late in the evening at the joint committee hearing

This Tuesday, the House Committee on Public Education and the House Committee on Higher Education held a joint hearing to discuss solutions to the teacher retention crisis. The marathon hearing lasted 12 hours and included 14 panels of invited testimony discussing the teacher recruitment pipeline, retirement benefits, certification requirements, and compensation.

The hearing was specifically called to address the impact the pandemic had on teacher retention and recruitment. However, both invited and public testimony quickly revealed that the seeds of the teacher retention crisis in Texas and the nation were planted long before COVID-19, though the pandemic certainly exacerbated many issues.

Among the invited witnesses were representatives of the Texas Education Agency (TEA), the State Board for Educator Certification, and the state’s own Teacher Vacancy Task Force. Three key challenges dominated the conversation:

  • compensation
  • working conditions
  • the quality of teacher preparation

Several panels discussed the ‘teacher pay penalty,” the fact that teachers are paid significantly less than similarly educated professionals who work in other fields. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the teacher wage penalty rose to 23.5% in 2021. Committee members agreed that this penalty discourages people from becoming educators.

Committee members, including Rep. Diego Bernal, pointed out that a variety of restrictions and requirements the state imposes on teachers also dissuades many from becoming educators. Bernal specifically cited laws that restrict sex and gender education, target LGBTQIA+ students and their families, and the overemphasis on the STAAR exam as some of the many undue burdens placed on teachers.

Teacher Specialist JoLisa Hoover, representing education nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas (RYHT), testified that a recent RYHT survey shows 77% of Texas teachers have seriously considered leaving the profession. Hoover called this figure a “tally of broken dreams” of all those who entered the field excited to pursue a career in education.

After hours of invited testimony, the committee began accepting public testimony late in the evening. The committee hearing took place on a school day, so few active classroom teachers were able to testify, but two Texas AFT members who are no longer in the classroom waited to make themselves heard. 

Rebekah Ozuna, a grant specialist in Austin ISD who formerly taught in San Antonio ISD, testified that a variety of factors including high student-to-teacher ratios and inadequate resources and support pushed her out of the classroom. Dixie Ross, a retired nationally recognized teacher from Pflugerville ISD who now serves as a substitute to lessen the burden of teacher vacancies, testified that the lack of respect received by educators is pushing them out of the classroom.

Texas AFT Government Relations Specialist Alejandro Peña also testified about the importance of respecting educators. Peña shared data collected by Texas AFT that pointed to compensation and working conditions as the primary factors pushing teachers out of the classroom.

This is expected to be the last interim hearing for the House Public Education Committee before the start of the 2023 session. Texas AFT will continue to meet with legislators and their staff to make sure they have the valuable research we, along with AFT, have conducted throughout the past year. 

You can read Ozuna’s testimony below, as well as a written statement from Northside AFT President Wanda Longoria, who was unable to attend the long hearing in Austin.

Rebekah Ozuna: Testimony to the House Public Education Committee & House Committee On Higher Education

Delivered Sept. 20, 2022

Hi all, I’m Rebekah Ozuna. I was a pre k special education teacher in San Antonio ISD for 9 years. I left the classroom after spring 2020.

I took on a large amount of secondary trauma while teaching. My students experienced homelessness, food insecurity, chronic illnesses, mental health breakdowns, PTSD, a high number of ACEs, and it all became too much for my heart to bear.

When I moved to Austin I made the difficult decision to no longer be a classroom teacher. I have stayed in education but leaving the teaching profession was incredibly hard for me. I would’ve loved to stay in the classroom if we had taken the lessons learned from the pandemic and used them to reimagine public education.

Things like expanding the learning environment beyond classroom walls, smaller class sizes, more 1-1 time with students so we truly know them, high expectations for all students, and lessons that align with our students interests and are co created with them so they see themselves in the classroom.

Instead, we continue to feel the effects of the pandemic like high resignations and early retirement, staffing shortages that result in larger class sizes, polarizing politics around education practices, and continued inequities in public schools. We should be building the capacity of our communities to support, reach, and teach every child together.

Lastly I’ll add, you’re going to hear many stories after mine. Educators are trusting you as we share our personal experiences about what’s truly happening in our schools. This isn’t some act. It’s a reflection of our souls. Truly listening to us today and the outcomes that follow will be a reflection of yours. Thank you.

Wanda Longoria: Planned Testimony to the House Public Education Committee & House Committee On Higher Education

Written on Sept. 20, 2022

As a retired educator who worked 36 years as a classroom teacher and enjoyed every moment teaching my students, I have to say the same was not true regarding other components of the job.

When I began teaching in 1983, the majority of our time was spent planning for lessons, working on teams to create engaging and interactive project-based learning, planning for student-led conferences, and working with our parents on ways to help their students at home. While we had some after-school student duties, they were maybe once a week and certainly not excessive. I loved all aspects of teaching and resolved to make it my purpose-filled career.

By the time I retired, the work had become unbearable. We had moved away from that classroom-focused model to more paperwork, more mandated administrative weekly meetings, more TEA-mandated training, more duties, more days on duty watching students before and after school, as well as during duty-free lunch.

There were more after-school events mandated on campuses, more district and administration stress on testing, more pressure to tutor two to three times a week or more without compensation, attending ARD’s, 504 meetings and staffings during our conference time, as well as before and after school, answering parent emails by the hundreds within 24 hours, having to conduct professional learning community meetings every week anywhere from one to three times a week during our conference periods, documenting student academic and behavior goals and progress on various forms of electronic databases duplicating our work, following up with parents for attendance issues, dealing with extending the school day for interventions, all while campus administrators and district personnel supported us less and less when it came to resources and respect of our time.

Fighting the abuse of taking away our conference times and duty-free lunches was also a constant debilitating and time-consuming struggle.

I saw this progression get much worse the last 10 years of teaching and when I retired, it was truly unsustainable. Even exemplary teachers with years of valuable experience were buckling under the pressure. I know I was. I saw us shifting away from what really matters in the classroom: allowing teachers the time and energy to teach engaging interactive lessons with informal assessments and tracked improvement. And that moving away from the core of our work and our passion left teachers and students demoralized.

What needs to change? Give teachers and public school employees the dignity and respect they deserve. Give them the tools and ability to make the best decisions for their students. Give them voice in the policies of the district and respect their autonomy. Let them soar with their creativity and be there to support them and to understand teachers are not machines. We are people who love to “teach.” Just let us teach!

Fully fund education so that districts can hire more personnel to assist their districts at the campus levels. Campuses could then:
— provide coverage for teachers during ARDs
— hire outside tutors to assist with interventions
— hire more reading and math specialists so that students can get one-on-one instruction they deserve
— hire instructional assistants to better assist our special needs students to meet their goals
— hire social workers to meet the needs of our students and parents
Districts need funding to implement programs to provide wraparound services to our students and parents, and this cannot be done without proper funding. Our state has counted on teachers to do it all, and it simply is not possible.

This has to change.

This change starts with fully funding public schools, teacher-friendlier TEA policies and guidelines, and for administrators to make work environments more sustainable and supportive. Without this, the bleeding continues and our children will suffer tremendously for it and, eventually, so will our society.