AUSTIN (KXAN) – Corey Yanez, the mother of a second-grade Austin Independent School District student, asks her son every day during pick-up if he has a new teacher. Her son, Alex, has been enrolled in the district’s dual language program since he was in kindergarten. His grandmother does not speak English. Yanez said it was important to her Alex be fluent in Spanish.

But this year, Yanez said her son started the school year with a substitute in his dual language program. His school has five openings: two are for English as a second language teachers and one is for a certified bilingual teacher.

“To me, it’s a crisis,” Yanez said. “They are already at a disadvantage because of COVID. This is holding them back even more.”

There are at least 800 Austin-metro area classrooms without a teacher, according to data obtained in Sept. from 21 school districts. Many of those vacancies are for bilingual and special education staff.

On Aug. 31, Austin ISD reported 75 vacancies for bilingual classroom teachers and 90 spots open for special education teachers. Dallas Independent School District officials reported it needed to fill 63 bilingual teacher vacancies at the start of September. Houston ISD reported its still looking for 40 bilingual educators.

Dr. Lizdelia Piñón, an education associate for the non-profit Intercultural Development Research Association, told lawmakers during a September hearing on bilingual teacher vacancies her own children had a substitute in their dual language program for several weeks.  

“We cannot do this to our kids, especially our kids that need us most. They are going to be high risk coming from another country. They might not know the language — low economic status,” Piñón said. “These are the students that we should be pouring our resources and time to get those high-quality teachers.”

Piñón said there are financial barriers slowing educators from becoming bilingual teachers: mainly the costs for the required exams to get certified in Texas. There are two additional exams required to be able to teach emerging bilingual learners and dual language programs in Texas that total up to $232 in additional fees.

Districts are not just struggling to hire bilingual educators. Data obtained from school districts in Central Texas and some of the largest in the state show, in many cases, the vacancies are in schools with high percentages of children from low-income families.

School districts, like Austin ISD, are offering stipends for positions they deem hard to fill – math, science, CTE, bilingual education and special education teachers. 

Austin ISD Board President Geronimo Rodriguez said the district also hopes to give its teachers a 3% raise under the next budget.

Rodriguez said that will depend on whether voters pass a $2.4 billion bond package. He believes the package will save the district millions in maintenance costs.  

But Rodriguez said school districts, like Austin ISD, need help from legislature – particularly when it comes to re-examining the state’s Recapture system, which requires property-rich school districts to pay the state some of their collected property taxes to then be re-distributed to lower-income school districts.

Austin ISD projects it will pay $798 million back to the state in 2022-23 school year.

“For us, there are certain things we can do — like advocate for 10% discount on our recapture payment — which means we get to keep some of that money back if we pay it early, increasing the basic allotment — those are things the legislature can do on our behalf and help us,” Rodriguez said.  

Yanez is worried her son could fall behind. She said she is more concerned about immediate solutions.

“Pay the teachers more. Bottom line. They need more money. We need to pay them so that they stay,” Yanez said. “Our kids are the ones being affected by this.”