Jun 13, 2022 - News

A bid to keep Austin teachers happy

Illustration of an apple made of money.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Teaching has become one of the most draining jobs in America as educators navigate the threat of school shootings, a pandemic and intensifying political interference — all while their wages remain stagnant.

Why it matters: Teachers in Austin and elsewhere are questioning whether shouldering those burdens is still worth it — even with a modest salary bump in the offing.

Since July 1, at least 1,027 teachers have left the Austin Independent School District.

  • By comparison, 647 left from June 2018 to June 2019, the last full pre-pandemic year.

What they're saying: "Fewer people are coming in because the pay isn't competitive and the word's out that you're not respected in public education," Ken Zarifis, president of teachers union Education Austin, tells Axios.

By the numbers: The starting salary for an Austin ISD teacher is $51,150, per a January edition of the district's compensation manual. For those who have taught 15 years, pay is only $54,129.

  • Martin Middle School teacher Eric Ramos tells Axios the rent for his East Austin place has increased 30% — and his pay raise may amount to just 3.7%.
  • "How long can you take on that additional cost before you have to move out?" — and potentially find work outside of Austin, he says.
  • "It doesn't help that politicians' solution to the gun issue is to throw it back on teachers again," says Ramos, who is also a union board member. "They're thinking of arming us, doing more active shooter training — but they're talking about treating the symptom, not the problem."

The other side: For its new budget, Austin district officials have proposed new pay incentives for teachers, including up to $2,500 in retention bonuses, as well as a $1,000 boost to their base salary and a roughly 2% raise.

  • "Austin ISD is working hard to have a compensation package that is reflective of our hardworking staff while also managing budgetary constraints," district officials said in a statement.
  • Even as property taxes go up, the district has been forced to send out billions of dollars to poorer school districts as part of the state's "Robin Hood" program, curtailing the amount of money available to spend on everything from supplies to salaries.

It's not just about pay, though — overwhelmed teachers also face work-family balance issues.

  • Stacey Richardson, a 17-year veteran of Austin ISD, tells Axios she left teaching in March because a substitute shortage made it hard for her to be with her own kids.
  • "I had students with the same disability as one of my sons — autism — and just had nothing left for him at the end of the day."

Between the lines: Many Americans don't understand the full picture of what teachers do, and are quick to diminish their importance, Jane Rochmes, a sociologist who studies education at Christopher Newport University, tells Axios.

  • Plus, teachers don't feel they're trusted on "how to teach, to develop rapport with their students, or to delve into complex issues over time," Rochmes says. "That can be undermining and demoralizing."

Still, the education system is filled with passionate teachers who care deeply for their students.

  • "It is not necessarily appealing to just leave a career they are often very passionate about and feel is a calling," Rochmes says.

What's next: The Austin district's board of trustees will vote on the proposed annual budget at its June 23 meeting.

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