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Low pay, new laws drain teacher pool
Can I Get a Teacher?

Texas teachers are among the most important players in the state's economy, since their efforts help determine the skills of the Texas work force and, ultimately, the level of prosperity children will enjoy.

Despite their importance, however, many Texas teachers are ill-paid compared to their counterparts in other states. Other factors including recent state and federal legislation make it even harder for schools to recruit--and, just as importantly, keep--qualified, experienced teachers and other school personnel.

These hurdles entail a considerable cost to the state. A December 2004 report by the Texas Comptroller's office, The Cost of Underpaying Teachers, found that teacher shortages produce an ongoing, multi-billion dollar drain on the Texas economy. The Comptroller will update the report in 2005.

Teacher turn over
The growth of the state's school-aged population demands at least 5,000 new teachers each year, and at present the state is not meeting that goal, according to The Cost of Underpaying Teachers.

About 37,000 Texas teachers leave the classroom each year, either to enter other professions or to retire. Many who leave the field are seeking better pay.

A fall 2005 study by National Education Association Research ranked Texas' average teacher salaries for the 2004-05 school year at 33rd among states. Another survey, conducted by the American Federation of Teachers and released in October 2005, put the state 30th in the nation in 2003-04, and noted that Texas was one of 28 states in which the increase in average teacher salaries failed to keep pace with inflation.

The graying population is another factor behind the share of teachers leaving their jobs in a given year.

"We're turning over a whole new generation of teachers as the Baby Boomers are retiring," said Donna New Haschke, president of the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA).

Turnover affects students
The Comptroller's 2004 report found a clear link between teacher turnover and student performance.

In the 2002-03 school year, campuses with teacher turnover of 10 percent or less saw an average of 53.6 percent of their students pass all sections of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). Student performance at other schools declined steadily as turnover increased.

At campuses experiencing more than 30 percent teacher turnover--a group accounting for nearly 14 percent of the state's students--about 44 percent of students passed all sections of the TAKS.

Most disturbingly, these factors may keep kids from graduating. The Cost of Underpaying Teachers indicates that 2002-03 teacher turnover averaged 20.6 percent in high schools with dropout rates of more than 5 percent, versus 19.3 percent in high schools with dropout rates of 2 percent or less.

Dropout rates have a significant effect on the state economy. The nearly 47,000 Texas high school students who dropped out of school in the 2000-01 school year will cost the state economy about $11.4 billion over 40 years due to lower lifetime earnings, according to the report. Other costs associated with dropouts, such as incarceration, food stamps and other social services, will push the tab even higher.

And each year's dropouts add similar costs.

"Front-loaded" salaries
Texas school districts often "front-load" teacher pay, meaning that their resources are used to raise starting salaries rather than to provide regular increases over the course of teachers' careers. While front-loading can help attract more new teacher candidates, it discourages experienced teachers from remaining in the profession.

"One of the problems we're encountering is that we lose so many teachers in the first five years that they teach," said Jeri Stone, executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association (TCTA). "When you look at teacher salaries, particularly in the larger suburban and urban areas, they're very much front-loaded at this point. The potential for salary growth and career growth over the years is fairly negligible."

"Really, there is not a significant disparity between what you make as a first-year teacher and what you might make [with five years of experience]," said Toni Thompson, the San Antonio Independent School District's (ISD's) associate superintendent for Human Resources.

"You don't really experience significant incremental increases," said Thompson. "And I think that probably does discourage teachers who are newer to the profession."

Additional funding for teacher pay would be best spent on those with 10 to 20 years of experience, to encourage them to stay in the field, Thompson said.

A loophole closes
Texas teacher retirements spiked sharply in 2004. The Teacher Retirement System reports that 28,913 teachers retired in 2004, a 32 percent jump over 2003's 21,851. The surge in retirements was driven by a change in federal law.

Most Texas schoolteachers do not participate in Social Security, instead paying into and receiving benefits from the Teacher Retirement System. Until 2004, however, federal law allowed teachers to receive a portion of their spouses' Social Security benefits simply by working in a position that does participate in Social Security for as little as a single day.

Thousands of Texas teachers have spent their last day before retirement working for their schools as clerks or janitors, solely to claim Social Security spousal benefits and increase their retirement income, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Congress closed this "spousal loophole" as of June 30, 2004.

"A lot of people retired before they were really ready to because they wanted to be eligible for their spousal benefits," said Haschke.

A surcharge begins
The 2005 Texas Legislature also took action affecting teacher retirement.

Texas law allows teachers to return to work after retirement, drawing a salary while they collect retirement benefits. This "double-dipping" was intended to encourage seasoned teachers to remain in the field.

Senate Bill 1691, however, placed a surcharge on districts that rehire retired teachers, beginning with the 2005-06 school year. It requires these districts to contribute both the state and employee contribution to the Teacher Retirement Fund, and pay the difference between the employed retiree's health insurance premium and the actual cost of coverage.

This can substantially increase the cost of rehiring retirees. The Texas Association of School Boards reports that the surcharge can cost districts up to $668 per retired-rehired employee each month.

Audrey Gomez, manager of Houston ISD's Human Resources Generalist team, said this surcharge has hurt the district's attempts to retain experienced teachers.

"We have a lot of teachers who, in the past, have retired and then elected to return to the district, and this year, with the surcharge, the district is not able to hire them," said Gomez. "So, in HISD, we've had a lot of disappointed retiring teachers. Many teachers were unprepared for that."

TCTA's Stone echoed Gomez' remarks.

"Many of our people were planning to be rehired and suddenly found themselves basically unemployable as a result of this," said Stone. "They're people in their mid-fifties who intended to continue working for another decade or so.

"I can understand the state wanting to discourage [the practice] as a substitute for salary increases," Stone said. "But at the same time, I think it's had a fair number of unintended consequences."

Stone said that the state's focus should be on creating a teacher compensation system that makes the profession attractive over the long term.

"We're going to have to look at structures that recognize the value of experienced employees and encourage districts to hire them and compensate them well," she said.

Bruce Wright