Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Educator Shortages Across Texas: Who Is Driving This Bus?

Educator Shortages Across Texas: Who Is Driving This Bus?

By Jack Densmore

An increase in cost of living, inflation, effects on mental health, and a feeling of loss of respect for the profession has caused many teachers and education staff to leave either the public school system or Texas altogether. In response, districts are trying creative ways to tackle the resulting shortages, including incentives, efforts to ease the strain on employees, and ways to retain education staff. 

Although public education has been approaching a teacher shortage for years, with specific certification areas already experiencing shortages, the COVID-19 pandemic sped up the process, and now, shortages in employees are regularly in the news cycle in Texas and across the country. 

Dr. Ray Perryman, president and CEO of The Perryman Group, discussed with the Texas Teacher Retirement System board the rising concern of teacher shortages, as reported by Texas Education News. 

Perryman reported that Texas will need to fill 50,000 teacher vacancies every 10 years. This is on top of a Charles Butt Foundation survey that says 77% of teachers surveyed have seriously considered leaving the profession in Texas. Often, the feedback displayed that not enough pay, support, and/or respect were the main reasons for leaving. This also includes non-instructional work and having to provide support for individual students without the necessary resources to do so, according to Texas Education News. 

There are a multitude of reasons teachers are leaving the profession. According to a survey from Teachers Pay Teachers, which corroborates much of the Charles Butt Foundation survey, 65% of teachers say that respect for teachers has lessened over the past two years. The same survey also shows 59% of teachers believe the restrictions on teaching certain issues or curriculum have had a definite impact on teachers leaving—while 29% say it has had an impact to a degree. Teachers Pay Teachers also broke down the data by region, with 70% of teachers in the southern U.S. stating there was less respect for teachers. 

The shortages go beyond classroom teachers to support personnel. In Lake Travis ISD, students who live outside a two-mile radius of their school will have a bus service that rotates every other week, meaning the students will go without service half the time. Even though Lake Travis ISD has raised the starting salary for bus drivers to $23 per hour, the shortage continues. 

Cost of Living 

The cost of living is a major contributor to the educator shortage. Both rent and house prices continue to climb, especially in urban and suburban areas across Texas. 

According to SoFi and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average cost of living in Texas was $39,661 per year in 2020. Although Lake Travis ISD’s raise for bus drivers would cover this average, not every district has the funding available for such measures. Plus, this average does not speak to every financial situation. Home prices have also risen, in September of 2021, Zillow reported the average home price in Austin was $520,898. Teachers with families in the Austin area must have other means to pay with these types of prices, leave the area and commute, or move to apartment complexes, where the rent is also high: 

  • Texas median two-bedroom rent: $1,083 
  • Texas median three-bedroom rent: $1,268 
  • Texas median four-bedroom rent: $1,641 

The above rent prices are reflected on a median for the entire state based on 2019 U.S. Census data—cities like Austin and Dallas typically have higher rates. 

To fight a higher cost of living, raising employee pay or providing incentives is often necessary. Much like Lake Travis ISD, Bryan ISD also raised the pay for its staff in 2019. Bus driver pay was raised to $18 an hour, and teachers received an increase that varied based on experience. The largest increase was for teachers with 35-plus years of experience (an $8,100 annual bonus). Special education aides also received an increase of up  to $3,000. 

DeSoto ISD also has a few incentives for both new and returning staff. These include one-time incentives and ongoing incentives. The one-time incentives include a $500 employee referral bonus and a $500 DeSoto alumni bonus. It is also the last year for what is called a “Difference Maker Bonus,” a $3,000 bonus, which is for paraprofessional and auxiliary staff only. Ongoing incentives include up to $29,000 for teachers who earn designations in the prior year under the state’s Teacher Incentive Allotment and a $5,000 incentive for Master Teachers, according to the DeSoto ISD website

When asked what districts can do to retain teachers, former Texas high school teacher Danielle Bell says: “For one, they can pay us, and pay us what we’re worth.” 

Bell taught high school for 20 years. She started in Texas for four years, before moving to Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New York. 

She worked back in Texas for the last 12 years and has worked in six different districts across the state. The last district she worked for was Lamar CISD for five years. Now, Bell works as an adjunct English professor and is a doctoral student in educational studies at the University of Northern Colorado. 

Although Bell spent a long time teaching in public education, the mental toll it took became too much to handle. 

The Mental Strain on Teachers 

Beyond compensation, there is still more to the story. In particular, the emotional and mental health of teachers has been a major contributing factor in recent departures. 

“I think now, the difference is that during the lockdowns and the early months of COVID, when all of the students were at home—with their parents trying to navigate online learning in whatever form their districts put together—teachers were lauded as heroes as they tried their best to finish the year,” Bell says. “Then, as soon as the summer of 2020 ended, and teachers expressed concern for their own health and safety going back fully in person, suddenly teachers were seen as lazy, and people said they just did not want to work. [We went] from hero to villain in the blink of an eye.” 

For Bell, no amount of money would have made her stay in the public teaching profession. This is largely due to the uncertainty and emotional impact of returning to the classroom after COVID-19 closures had lifted. 

“The return in the fall of 2020 was the most difficult ‘back to school,’ and it exacerbated every emotion and stressor and magnified how bad it really was,” she says. “Teachers had to decide if they kept the classroom doors open and made themselves vulnerable to an intruder, or if they kept them closed and thus did not have the ventilation to mitigate exposure.” 

One of the many reasons Bell left Texas public education was due to these emotional stressors. 

“My decision to leave was not an easy one,” she says. “I felt immense guilt—I felt like a failure—I felt like I was letting my former colleagues, my students, and my community down. But I also felt like I had to leave for my own sanity and mental health.” 

Districts are looking for different ways to both recruit and retain teachers. Houston ISD implemented an 11% average raise for returning teachers for the start of the 2022-23 school year, and starting teachers receive a starting salary of $61,500. 

“[It is] one of the most competitive starting salaries in the nation,” Houston ISD said in a statement. “We continue holding job fairs and hiring events, partnering with colleges and universities in and beyond Texas, and welcoming international candidates with certification to teach in critical shortage areas. Where necessary, we seek certified long-term substitutes to fill in where a vacancy is not filled by the first day of school.” 

Shortage of Bus Drivers 

Bus driver shortages have also grown worse. According to a national survey by HopSkipDrive, 88% of respondents said their school’s transportation services were constrained by a shortage of bus drivers. The top reason for the shortage, according to 67.16% of respondents, was difficulty recruiting new bus drivers. 

For now, districts are about 50/50 when it comes to reducing transportation services because of the shortage—55.22% have not reduced transportation, while 44.78% have. The main reduction in transportation services comes in the form of fewer bus routes with around 60% of respondents reporting this. Other options include decreasing the range buses operate, which has students walking farther, or changing bell times. 

The survey also identifies a correlation between access to transportation and attendance—with 67% of respondents stating this and 61% reporting chronic absences within their district. 

However, the biggest data point is that 94% of respondents state they have a staffing shortage within their district. These shortages include teachers, school bus drivers, custodians, health professionals, librarians, and administration. 

In order to help with the situation, the Texas Department of Public Safety announced a waiver for select commercial driver licenses (CDL). This waiver expired in March 2022, but it allowed the waiver of the “under the hood” engine training covered by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).  

Lake Travis ISD is among the many school districts hit hard by the shortages. Brad Bailey, Lake Travis ISD assistant superintendent for operations/Title IX coordinator , summarized the situation: “When it comes to recruiting, Lake Travis is often hitting a wall. The main bump in the road is the timeliness with which bus drivers are looking for jobs. It takes about six weeks to become certified to drive a school bus in Texas, but most bus drivers are looking to start the next week or the same week upon being hired.” 

In the state of Texas, school bus drivers must obtain a Texas Commercial Driver License-Class B with a school bus endorsement and pass a DOT physical and drug test, a state license check and criminal background check, and a 20-hour school bus certification course. On top of that, they must be CPR-certified and have a good driving record. 

However, another issue Lake Travis has run into is retention. 

“We hire someone for a couple of weeks or a month, and they’re like, ‘oh this is not for me,’” Bailey says. “And the ones we’ve lost, some have left for family, to leave to be in a different area, or to go into private industry and make a lot more money doing different things.” 

Lake Travis has also experimented with earlier drop-offs for parents to provide an additional option for weeks when the bus does not service their route. 

“We have opened our campuses up at seven o’clock in the morning for early drop-offs,” Bailey says. “That seemed to help a lot with families who can drop off, then go to work.” 

Bailey says the main thing he asks the community to do is spread the word about the open positions. 

“It just comes down to trying to recruit drivers,” he says. “We’ll interview everybody, and if they meet the criteria for the position, then obviously we want them to join our team. We train everyone in house, so if they have not driven a bus before, they don’t have to go downtown or anywhere else to drive a bus. We have a program in place here.” 

Shortages are not just occurring in big districts but in the smaller districts as well. Teresa Millard, a bus driver in a small district and who represents Region 7 on the ATPE Board of Directors, explained that substitute bus drivers are becoming increasingly hard to find. 

“We do not have anyone that is ‘just a bus sub,’” she says. “Our sub drivers consist of coaches and (agriculture) teachers. We had to add two bus routes and extend one route due to the addition of the neighboring district. We had employees working to obtain their certification over the summer to fill these new positions and replace one driver that retired.” 

Millard also discussed the issue of pay for the bus drivers within her district. 

“We have also had some questions among drivers over the fact that the new routes are paying more per route because they are a little longer,” Millard says. “But we were not given the option to switch to a higher paying route.” 

The issue of paid time off has had a huge impact as well, especially on female employees. 

“We receive five paid days off to match the five we receive in our other district positions,” Millard explains. “The only difference is that those five days do not roll over from year to year. So, we have a hard time finding subs if we do want to use our days—but if we don’t use them, we lose them. This has been especially detrimental to some of our female bus drivers who had days saved in their teaching position for when they needed to take maternity leave.” 

Districts across the state and country have looked at all these aspects to retain and recruit teachers. Stipends, incentives, and raises in salary are some of the most common ways districts have tried to tackle the staffing shortages, but there are also the unfavored options including increasing workload on teachers. 

Some districts are adopting four-day work weeks with positive results. Time will tell if this solution finds its way to larger districts and if the same results are seen in larger populations. But for small districts facing their own staffing shortages, the four-day work week has been a viable option.

Bonus Section:
Read about one of the staffing strategies school districts are adopting: four-day school weeks.