OP-ED: Get Schooled: The Fight to Save Public Education in Texas

Words by Clarissa Riojas 

Edited by Abigail Vela

I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher. 

Growing up, I’d sit my younger brother in front of an old Fischer Price easel and teach him to spell sight words using colorful alphabet magnets. My mother, an English teacher, provided unlimited access to manipulatives and crates of used school supplies. Sitting on my bedroom floor, I’d fumble through pages of outdated activity books, fantasizing about how I’d teach nouns and verbs to an imaginary fourth-grade class.

I pose for a photo at my Kindergarten Art Night, 1998.

My plans to become an educator never wavered. In 2014, I returned home after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in English Literature and Mexican American Studies. That summer, I was hired at a local middle school to teach 6th-grade Reading Language Arts. It felt like a dream. 

My students and I pose for the camera, 2016.
My first year teaching, 2014.

My first few years of teaching proved to be an adventure. When I am asked why I’ve held out for as long as I have, my answer is straightforward: I love working with children. I love their innate curiosity. I love the initiative they assume when fired up and passionate. I love the way they derive meaning from the world. Most educators would agree that to be only a small part of their learning journey is an honor.

But in 2020, my vision of what it meant to work in Texas public schools soured. The inequities in our inequitable system surfaced like oil in water for the world to see. As I clumsily maneuvered the trenches of pandemic instruction, many of my colleagues who doubled as parents struggled to attend to both their students and children. My eighth-grade students, muddling through an eight-hour virtual school day, struggled to make class and communicate with their teachers. I spent hours of my day attempting to make contact with families to locate students or connect caregivers to resources providing broadband, educational tools, and mental health. Unfortunately, it became increasingly apparent that our public schools, once positioned as centers of the community, were ill-equipped to respond to this crisis.

By the end of the school year, my colleagues and I were exhausted and demoralized. And while for a time it seemed that school employees were recognized as frontline workers soldiering on through the pandemic, we were christened lazy when we pushed back against the return to in-person learning without adequate safety measures.

It is 2023 now, and the teaching profession is crumbling under the weight of fabricated culture wars, severe underfunding, excessive standardized testing, and safety concerns. In the Charles Butt Foundation’s 2022 Texas Teacher Poll, it was reported that over 77% of educators considered leaving the profession in 2021. Out of that number, 93% of educators took at least one step to secure other means of employment. This could have looked like initiating a job search, preparing resumes and recommendation letters, or interviewing for other positions. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include myself in this group. 

In mid-February, I traveled to Austin with a group of educators for Raise Your Hand Texas’s South Texas Teacher Advocacy Day. We met with state legislators to discuss our experiences in the classroom and share our priorities for the 88th legislative session. I listened to stories that felt all too familiar: working multiple jobs to get by, paying out of pocket for classroom resources, and struggling to tend to students’ mental health needs. By the end of the day, the resounding consensus from my colleagues was clear: we cannot have a quality public education system without adequate funding.

Participating in Raise Your Hand Texas's South Texas Teacher Advocacy Day, Feb. 2023

Currently, Texas ranks in the bottom 10 states for per-student funding, nearly $4,000 behind the national average. While the country navigates inflation and prices soar, local school districts are faced with the difficult decision to raise taxes or cut programs in order to avoid financial crises. 

So what has the potential to change in the next few months?

This legislative session, with the Texas economy as strong as ever, officials are sitting on $32.7 billion that can be used towards state operations. As they convene to discuss how that funding will be allocated, an average of 1,000 education bills will be filed. From that number, about 100 will be passed into law. Readers may have heard about Representative James Talarico’s HB 1548– legislation that, if passed, would increase teacher salaries by $15,000. While as an educator and union member, I fully support any efforts to increase teacher pay, the key to keeping quality educators in the classroom isn’t just about raises– it’s about investment in public education across the board. 

Meaningful investment requires increasing the pay of bus drivers, custodians, and paraprofessionals. It means divesting from exorbitant district police budgets and hiring additional nurses and mental health counselors on every campus to meet the needs of students. It means helping paraprofessionals earn their teacher certifications by providing tuition-free programs. It means ending the expansion of charter schools so that our public schools– children’s best chance at an equitable education– aren’t robbed of over 3 billion dollars year after year

Most importantly, it means including our community’s school employees, students, and families in the decision-making process. While in Austin, I was unsettled by the amount of representatives who claimed to be on my side but had not worked with local educators to create solutions that would make a difference in my profession. I left with a deeper understanding of the importance of advocacy for public education: educating the community, educating elected officials, building a base of support, and taking action together. 

Providing testimony at Raise your Hand Texas's Measure What Matters press conference in Harlingen, 2023.

Sometimes I am asked what I might have pursued if I hadn’t become a teacher. I reflect back on the younger versions of myself that sat on rainbow rugs singing songs or reading Romeo and Juliet for the first time. Since childhood, I have been drawn to the magic teachers create in the classroom. And if I am being honest, the road was always going to lead me here. I believe in public education, and I believe that it is possible to create systems that will better support learners and future educators. What’s more is that I believe that we can do it together. 

This legislative session, let’s use our teacher voice to demand that our students and school employees stay safe, healthy, and thriving. Join our fight for respect here.

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