Here’s a question: What is the most pressing need in Texas: improve teacher funding and work conditions as thousands of educators abandon the profession, or continue to fund Operation Lone Star in an effort to usurp the federal government’s mission of policing the Texas-Mexico border?
It’s a multi-billion-dollar question, with the future of the state’s post-pandemic public school system at stake. So far, Gov. Greg Abbott has spent $4 billion in mostly unbudgeted funds on Operation Lone Star, with a U.S. Treasury Department investigation underway into whether he misappropriated $1 billion in federal pandemic relief funds for the border effort.
Perryman Group economists estimated the cost of Abbott’s April order halting border truck traffic in order to subject northbound tractor-trailers to enhanced searches cost the state more than $4 billion in lost economic activity. The week-long operation stalled traffic at all Texas-Mexico crossings, while failing to intercept smuggled migrants or illegal drug shipments.
Meanwhile, little is actually being allocated to address the state’s urgent public education issues.
Reducing class size and raising teacher salaries would go a long way toward addressing some of the issues teachers have with the present system, although political meddling with curriculum and campus safety are serious issues that can’t be fixed with funding alone. The average teacher salary in Texas is $59,000, according to Texas Education Agency data cited in a recent Houston Chronicle analysis, $7,500 below the national average.
Teacher pay is unlikely to rise as long as Abbott and the Republic majority controlling the state budget continue to pour billions of dollars into his border operations. Abbott is openly challenging federal authority to police the border as he derides efforts of the Biden administration, which is mostly overseeing Trump-era policies still in place.
On Thursday, Abbott issued an executive order empowering Texas National Guard reservists and Department of Public Safety (DPS) officers — the same ones issuing speeding tickets on Texas interstates — to apprehend “immigrants who cross the border between ports of entry or commit other violations of federal law, and to return” them to ports of entry on the border.
Members of the Texas National Guard and DPS are not trained to carry out border enforcement operations normally handled by the U.S. Border Patrol and other agents working under the Department of Homeland Security.
What happens next under Abbott’s latest order is unclear. Do federal immigration authorities posted at international crossing bridges take the migrants into custody, direct them to head on foot across the bridges into Mexico, or simply ignore state authorities?
A federal-state showdown in the courts on immigration enforcement seems inevitable, but in the meantime, Abbott appears to be addressing what might be the No. 1 political issue for his base, with some Republicans referring to the continuing immigration crisis as an “invasion.” That false and somewhat hysterical assertion first emerged when President Donald Trump occupied the White House and hundreds of thousands of mostly central American migrants piled up at border encampments.
Meanwhile, school superintendents are struggling to fill classrooms with teachers in advance of the coming academic year, which begins next month. The issue seems to have faded from public attention, but it is just as real now as it was as the pandemic eased and schools reverted to on-campus instruction last year.
With an estimated 10,000 teacher vacancies in the state, Abbott appointed a Teacher Vacancy Task Force headed up by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, which is meeting every other month for one year. Its real value will be measured early next year when the Texas Legislature convenes and task force recommendations come up for review and funding.
About 1,000 teacher jobs in Bexar County are posted on the job search site Indeed, although those include some substitute teacher positions. Still, with an estimated 356,000 students in the county, that is a lot of empty or combined classrooms.
San Antonio Independent School District’s newly-appointed superintendent, Jaime Aquino, recently told a gathering of community leaders that Sam Houston High School on the city’s Eastside, to cite one example, needs to fill 23 teacher-less classrooms before classes begin next month.
According to a Houston Chronicle analysis of teacher pay in Texas, less than 800 out of 250,000 teachers earn a six-figure salary, even after the start of a 2022 state program providing a limited number of school districts funds to increase merit pay for master teachers. The vast majority of school districts in the state have not received program funding, which has been dominated by Dallas Independent School District, which has received $25.8 million of the approximately $38 million paid out so far, according to the newspaper report.
San Antonio ISD received the second-largest allocation for merit pay raises, just under $2.6 million.
It would take $1.9 billion annually to elevate salaries statewide by $7,500 a year, bringing Texas in line with median salaries nationally. The Texas economy is big enough to take such a step forward, but even a growing economy can’t meet the state’s fundamental needs while also paying for political stunts thinly disguised as public policy initiatives.
That’s why the choice now is a very real one: address the teacher crisis, or continue to use state funds to feud with the federal government over intractable immigration issues that exist regardless of which party is in the White House.