This past Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas AFT-endorsed challenger Beto O’Rourke met for a one-hour debate at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus in Edinburg. The debate covered a wide range of topics related to public education, including educator retention, per-pupil funding, and school safety.
The debate over educator retention was kicked off by a startling stat: according to a Texas Teacher Workforce Report, of the 13,373 new Texas teachers at the start of the 2010-2011 school year, only 6,664 remain teaching in Texas classrooms, a remarkable level of attrition. The two candidates’ answers differed when they were asked how they would respond to the retention crisis.
O’Rourke focused on pushing Texas educator pay up to at least the national average, which, as it stands, is over $7,500 higher than the average Texas teacher salary. O’Rourke said he plans to pay for these raises by increasing the state’s share of education funding. Local property taxes currently make up roughly 60% of the state’s education funding, while state funding makes up the remaining 40%.
Referencing Texas educators, O’Rourke said, “I will treat you with the dignity and respect that you have earned and that you deserve. You sacrifice and give so much to our kids and to the state. We need to make sure we’re holding up our end of the bargain. As governor, I will.”
In his answers, Abbott seemed to imply that the problem had already been solved. Abbott referenced the passage of House Bill 3 in 2019, which completely overhauled the school finance system in Texas. However, data shows that, when taking into account inflation, teacher salaries are now even lower than they were before HB 3 was passed.He also touted the teacher incentive allotment, his pay-for-performance compensation scheme.
O’Rourke also mentioned providing retired teachers with a yearly cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to their TRS pension. The majority of states across the country offer a pension plan with an automatic COLA structure, but Texas teachers who have retired since 2004 have never received a COLA.
Abbott did not mention a COLA in his debate remarks and has not supported a COLA during his eight years in office. In lieu of a permanent COLA increase to retirees’ TRS annuity, Abbott has supported sending ad-hoc 13th checks to retirees in past legislative sessions. While these supplemental checks are appreciated by retirees, they do not provide guaranteed or long-term relief and, thus, limit retirees’ ability to adequately plan for the future.
Abbott and O’Rourke debated the issue of gun violence prevention at length. Parents of victims of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, drove hundreds of miles to watch the debate, yet because of Abbott’s terms, they were not allowed in the auditorium.
Abbott said many of the commonsense gun laws that have been proposed, including raising the minimum age to buy assault weapons, were unconstitutional.
When Abbott mentioned mental health care as a solution to prevent gun violence, O’Rourke pointed out that Texas ranks last in mental health care access and pledged to increase state funding to mental health services.
When asked whether he would make school safety an emergency item in the upcoming 88th legislative session, Abbott’s response was simple: “Absolutely, just like I did in past sessions.”
Since Abbott became governor in 2015, 27 students and four teachers have died in school shootings.