The state of Texas is currently debating how best to spend a historic $32 billion dollar budget surplus. At the same time, policymakers are also debating how to fix a serious teacher shortage and ensure that Texas teachers reflect the full diversity of the state. 

Part of the teacher shortage in Texas comes down to a ‘pipeline’ that’s creating fewer and fewer teachers. The 20-year trend in new teacher certification is negative; public universities, which have long been the largest providers of new teachers for Texas, graduated fewer than 10,000 new teachers in 2019–before the pandemic devastated the teacher workforce. For reference, Texas has about 370,000 public school teachers–so if even 1% of current teachers retire or leave the profession every year, public universities would need to triple the number of new teacher graduates to keep up. Fortunately, they don’t need to expand quite that much–other routes to teacher certification added about another 15,000 new teachers in 2019, for example. Likewise, Texas struggles with recruiting and keeping teachers that reflect the diversity of its students, with the teaching profession remaining overwhelmingly white and female, per a report from the University of Houston. 

To address these problems, the Texas Teacher Vacancy Task Force (TVTF) recommends that the state build a program for teacher residencies, which they describe as “[a] paid, year-long clinical training/co-teaching experience in a public PK-12 classroom.” 

This is an excellent idea, and should be implemented. However, that implementation is likely to take several years, given that the TVTF envisions this residency model as one requiring close cooperation between districts, teacher preparation programs, and regulating bodies. In the meantime, it is likely that students preparing to be teachers at Texas universities will still need to follow a traditional student teacher model, which is an effective model but one that also presents significant barriers for many candidate teachers. 

That model, per the Texas Administrative Code, requires that potential teachers engage in a student teaching experience which lasts “a minimum of 14 weeks (no fewer than 70 full days), with a full day being 100% of the school day.” In other words, a traditional student teaching model requires that student teachers 1) pay tuition at their university, 2) work full-time or near full-time in a classroom, and 3) do that without getting paid. In essence, a student teacher pays to go to work. 

Student teaching and its associated costs, in other words, can turn an awful lot of potential teachers off from the profession, and makes it more difficult for the state to recruit a diverse educator workforce:  the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank, notes that “[r]ising tuition and the high cost of student loans can dissuade students of color from pursuing careers in education.”

To make student teaching more attractive and equitable, Texas should create a pilot program fund to pay student teachers. The TVTF is already exploring some of these options by examining local efforts to create paid residencies. Consolidating these under a single pilot program would allow for the TEA to see which models work best, and then quickly implement them across the state in the areas of highest need. 

A pilot program like this would allow more students at Texas universities to pursue teaching as a career. Instead of having to pay for a semester where they student-teach, and thus cannot work, student teachers would be on a financially secure footing. It would also make teaching stand out as one of the few careers where you can be paid a real salary as a student–potentially attracting the sort of motivated, go-getter types that will work to improve any system they’re a part of. 

This pilot program fund could also help to attract a more diverse pool of potential teachers. The Learning Policy Institute notes that Minnesota has experienced success in diversifying its teacher workforce by offering stipends for student teachers, so we know that a program like this can work in a large, diverse state. 

This pilot program could be funded with a special dispensation from the current budget surplus. Especially when compared to the overall surplus, the expense isn’t very large. 

The average teacher in Texas earns about $57,000 per year. Let’s say that a student teacher is working for one-third of that year–this works out to a strictly proportional stipend of about $18,000 for a semester of student teaching. 

Let’s assume that about 25,000 student teachers in Texas get this $18,000; that works out to a total program cost of $450 million per year. Let’s round that up to $500 million for extra enrollment, administrative costs, and so on. Maybe we can pay more to student teachers in under-resourced schools, to make sure the kids who need the best-prepared teachers get them. To run the pilot program at these costs for 5 years, you’d need $2.5 billion, out of a $32 billion dollar surplus. That’s only about 6% of the budget surplus. 

Given the benefits to students of creating a larger, more diverse, and better prepared teacher workforce, spending a few billion dollars to quickly implement a pilot program for student teacher stipends is a real bargain. This program would help attract more teachers to Texas, attract a more diverse group of teachers to Texas, and ensure that they’re better prepared when they enter their own classrooms. This makes it a solution that meets the needs of Texas teachers, Texas students, Texas lawmakers, and the citizens of Texas as a whole.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Tristan Reynolds, a 2021 Teach For America Corps Member who teaches 8th grade English Language Arts/Reading (ELAR) at the Academy for Academic Enhancement Middle School in Rio Grande City, Texas. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Reynolds can be reached by email via: [email protected].

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