This article appeared in the Winter 2017-18 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

It’s a fact that cannot be denied. It also sounds great on the campaign trail. But the devil is in the details, and the sound bite does not match the proposals we’ve seen in the Texas Legislature.

While teacher salaries did not get the attention they deserve during the 2017 regular session, they were a hot topic during the special. Included in Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session call: “legislation to increase the average salary and benefits of Texas teachers; and legislation to provide a more flexible and rewarding salary and benefit system for Texas teachers.” This resulted in several salary proposals, including Senate Bill 19 by Sen. Jane Nelson and House Bill 198 by Rep. Travis Clardy, two vastly different approaches to addressing teacher salaries. And two proposals you are likely to see again in 2019.

SB 19 was a straightforward approach that chose to recognize that experience does, in fact, count. It directed the Texas Education Agency to provide an annual bonus to each classroom teacher with at least six years of teaching experience. The amount of said bonus could vary depending upon the teacher’s experience. SB 19 also provided that an amount equal to $1,000 multiplied by the number of classroom teachers working for a district must be spent to increase salaries in a manner determined by the district’s board of trustees. The legislation did not provide additional state funding for this salary increase, leaving districts to reallocate existing funds.

While this attempted to address the fact that teacher salaries are compressed, with salaries relatively high for many first-year teachers, but little growth over a teacher’s career, it was inadequate. At a recent presentation, members of the Dallas ISD board of trustees were told the average salary of new teachers in nearby districts was $52,125 while the average salary for teachers with 24 years of experience in those districts was $61,156. That is only $9,000 difference in recognition of nearly two and a half decades of experience and commitment. 

HB 198, as introduced, was a more complicated piece of legislation seemingly modeled after the evaluation and salary system devised by Dallas ISD, the Teacher Excellence Initiative. Dallas ISD developed and implemented this system in 2015 after months of stakeholder input (including classroom teachers) and buy-in. It still has many shortcomings and problems, such as long-term affordability. Trying to pass such a complicated piece of legislation in a 30-day special session was overly ambitious, a point that Clardy later conceded. 

It is likely that the main components of the bill will be incorporated into new legislation in the 86th legislative session, which begins in January 2019. The most notable elements of HB 198 included a requirement that starting with the 2021-22 school year, school districts and charter schools must ensure that the average annual pay for their teachers is at least $1,000 more than the average salary for teachers who were employed at the district the previous year. However, if a school district’s average teacher salary is at least $51,000, this $1,000 increase is not required. According to the Texas Education Agency’s 2015-16 Snapshot (the most recent data available), the average base salary for Texas teachers is $51,891, so this teacher salary increase requirement likely would not have affected many districts. Additionally, increasing the “average” yearly pay sounds as though the problem is being addressed but does not ensure that all teachers will receive an increase. If additional funds are not provided by the state, then it is highly likely that to pay for an increase in average salary, some teachers would receive an increase while others would not, and some positions could actually see a decrease in salary.

HB 198 also created the following designations on teacher certificates:

  • Accomplished — earned through obtaining a National Board Certification.
  • Distinguished — earned through evidence of leadership, including a letter of recommendation from the principal and two other teachers; a nomination from the district with student performance information and analysis of student growth; and meeting criteria set by the commissioner and being in the top 25 percent of all teachers in the state who teach in a similar certification area in student growth average over three years.
  • Master  — earned with same criteria as distinguished except the teacher must be in the top 5 percent of all state teachers in a similar certification area.

This plan was touted because it would allow the “best” teachers — as defined above — to earn between $85,000 and $100,000 per year. But the criteria are so complex and convoluted, it would be difficult for teachers to determine what to do to earn a top-tier salary. This is a common complaint about Dallas ISD’s TEI program as well. In fact, under TEI, Dallas teachers can actually improve their performance and still not move into a higher pay category if other teachers improve their performance as well. Furthermore, student growth is often code for student performance on standardized tests, and tying teacher pay to student test scores is perilous. 

Moving forward, TCTA’s lobby team will be proactive in working with legislators to propose solutions so that teacher salaries are not just raised, but raised in a way that promotes and benefits the entire profession.