The paychecks of 17 Somerset Independent School District teachers will increase by thousands of dollars this year because of a new State program that pays high-performing teachers more if they work at rural campuses or teach low-income students.

Somerset ISD, located in far southwest Bexar County, is one of 26 school districts and charter networks in Texas eligible for the teacher incentive allotment’s inaugural year. State legislators funded the program in 2019 as part of the omnibus school finance package, House Bill 3. Its purpose was to provide the most effective teachers a way to earn up to six-figure salaries while serving school systems that often struggle to recruit and retain educators. If chosen for the program, educators could earn between $3,000 to $32,000 more each year.

On Tuesday, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced that 3,650 teachers would receive $40 million from the initial round of incentive allotment grants. Somerset ISD and Harmony Science Academy San Antonio, a charter school with three campuses in San Antonio, were the only local school systems the state included in the initial rollout.

“It really is going to help with teacher retention, because I don’t know how many districts out there are paying the teacher $80,000,” Somerset ISD Superintendent Saul Hinojosa said.

Statewide, the average teacher salary was $54,122 in 2018-19. The difference between the average beginning teacher’s salary and the average salary for a teacher with more than 20 years of experience was less than $15,000.

When Somerset high school biology teacher Sierra Molina learned her paycheck would increase by $23,000 for the coming academic year, she was in disbelief.

Molina never intended to be a teacher. She grew up wanting to be a doctor, but through some life changes, found a passion for teaching when she began as a substitute in Somerset close to a decade ago. After getting her alternative teaching certification, Molina thought of education as her calling and accepted all the circumstances that surrounded the profession, including limited growth opportunities and a somewhat stagnant salary.

“I feel like to select this job, this lifestyle, it does take a lot out of yourself,” Molina said. “The growth in the end, and now on top of that the extra money, I think [this program] is going to tell teachers, ‘Look, the pay is not there right now and not there every month, but in the end if you can push yourself and strive and push your students, there is something out there that you can be [rewarded] with.'”

Somerset ISD, a rural 4,000-student district that straddles the Atascosa and Bexar county line, was one of the first districts in line for the state funds because it already operated an incentive pay program for high-performing staff. The district will receive $352,783 for the 17 educators.

The district launched its Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP, about a decade ago. TAP used student growth year-over-year, campus performance on the state accountability system, and classroom assessments to identify the top-performing educators. Somerset leaders used the infrastructure of TAP to apply for the state money.

Under the program, districts submit proposals for evaluation systems that designate high-performing teachers as recognized, exemplary, or master. The TEA reviewed plans and forwarded the most promising to Texas Tech University, the school in charge of approval.

The TEA anticipates folding more districts into the program in future years.

In Somerset, 70 percent of the money will go to the 17 teachers, 20 percent will go to other high-performing teachers on their campuses, and 10 percent will remain at the district level.

To ensure that talented teachers are willing to teach at schools in rural communities or low-income areas, the highest-performing teachers at the highest-need campuses could earn up to $32,000 in incentive pay.

The designations of recognized, exemplary, or master stay with a teacher for five years. Should a master teacher leave a district with an approved teacher evaluation system for one without, the money would follow the teacher.

With a legislative session set to begin in January 2021 and lawmakers preparing to formulate a budget during an economic recession, the incentive program’s continued existence is in question.

“Will there be cuts? Of course,” San Antonio State Rep. Diego Bernal said earlier this year of education funding. “Can we be smarter and strategic about it? Is there some room to maneuver? I actually believe so.”

Somerset ISD leaders hope state lawmakers will spare the teacher incentive allotment.

“It’s been a priority for them, but it is hard to predict,” said Sheila Collazo, Somerset’s associate superintendent of instructional services. “My hunch is that teachers that are at least designated now would continue to receive their funds over the five-year term. Whether they add new ones to the pool is yet to be determined.”

Somerset received one-year provisional approval for its participation in the program, but leaders believe they will be able to get the go-ahead from the State for the full five-year term.

Elizabeth Sanchez, a third grade teacher in Somerset, is hoping the program continues. Somerset and the state designated Sanchez as a master teacher through the initiative and is getting a boost in pay.

Coming from a family of educators, Sanchez said she is familiar with the constraints of the teaching profession. Growing up, she learned that once you become a teacher, there’s little opportunity to grow within the career path.

“To know that we have the status of an exemplar teacher, a master teacher, it just solidifies all the hard work,” Sanchez said. “It’s like them saying, ‘We appreciate you, we acknowledge you. And we’re still going to keep going. It’s not the end yet. There’s more to do.'”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.