Gov. Greg Abbott is directing the Texas Education Agency to immediately create a task force to develop solutions addressing the raft of teacher vacancies.

Abbott sent a letter to the agency Monday, a day after his Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke outlined several of his own education policies in a town hall in Dallas, repeatedly stressing the importance of teacher recruitment, training and retention.
 
Teacher vacancies have been a national concern over the past two school years as the pandemic added to already difficult work loads and high stress levels. Staff shortages led to many campus closures in the area when COVID-19 cases spiked last semester.

In his letter, Abbott said the task force “should investigate the challenges teacher vacancies are causing for school districts, explore best practices for addressing this shortage, and research the possibility for flexibility of certification, placement, and hiring.”

This group, as well as experts, should develop policy and regulatory changes that could help, he noted.

“Teachers play a critical role in the development and long-term success of our students,” he wrote. “This task force should work diligently to ensure that best practices and resources for recruitment and retention are provided to districts to ensure the learning environment of Texas students is not interrupted by the absence of a qualified teacher.”

A November poll by the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers found 66% of respondents had considered leaving the profession within the past year. Texas AFT represents more than 65,000 teachers and other educational professionals.

Absences brought on by COVID-19 outbreaks have resulted in staff shortages across the country, but there’s been little in the way of national or state data to indicate a mass exodus of teachers. Those numbers, however, typically lag.

Abbott’s letter, though, does not mention the pandemic.

The most current teacher turnover rate from the TEA is from the 2020-21 school year. It shows 14.3% of teachers left the profession, the lowest rate in the past five years.

Texas teacher groups largely welcomed the task force’s creation but not without taking subtle digs at Abbott’s leadership on educational issues.

The Association of Texas Professional Educators, Texas AFT and the Texas State Teachers Association have all criticized Abbott’s recent forays into the culture wars heading into election season on topics such as critical race theory and what some conservatives deem as inappropriate books and curriculum, saying those issues are designed to drive a wedge between educators and parents.

“We applaud the governor’s directive to TEA, and we hope it produces collaboration between education leaders at the state and district levels — something that has too often been missing during the past several years,” Association of Texas Professional Educators Executive Director Shannon Holmes said in a statement. “These staffing shortages are a lingering effect of not only the pandemic but also new burdens placed on districts during the recent legislative session. We urge TEA to include stakeholders such as ATPE on this task force to ensure the voices of educators on the front lines are heard.”

The Texas State Teachers Association appreciates the task force, spokesman Clay Robison said, noting that teacher shortages are nothing new in Texas.

But the pandemic exacerbated the staffing gaps, Robison stressed.

TEA’s task force should look at teacher pay to address retention issues, he suggested.

“Teachers start teaching and, you know, five years later, about half of them are gone. Pay is a big reason for that,” Robison said.

Respect is another key element of ensuring teachers remain in the classroom, Robison added.

“We appreciate this task force now, but it comes after a campaign season in which he constantly attacked teachers in public schools,” he said.

Abbott laid out a platform in Lewisville in January that included requiring schools to provide all classroom materials to parents and targeting the removal of teacher licenses for those who give students “obscene” content.

During O’Rourke’s Dallas stop, he stressed touchstone Democratic points such as increasing teacher pay and school funding.

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