Chapter 1: ‘My favorite teachers quit’
By Kelly Wiley
AUSTIN (KXAN) — Hundreds of students and families crowded into the Toney Burger Center June 2 for the McCallum High School graduation. Only one other person, besides herself, knew what valedictorian Alysa Bijl-Spiro was about to do.
That school year, three of Bijl-Spiro’s favorite teachers quit. The superintendent of Austin Independent School District sat right behind her as she approached the podium and pulled out an unapproved version of her speech.
The auditorium erupted with applause as she raised her voice and said, “Teachers are the heart and soul of schools and it’s time that the state and district start treating them with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
Nikki Northcutt, Bijl-Spiro’s English teacher at McCallum, who resigned at the end of that school year, said she cried as she listened to the speech in her car.
“It was so good,” Northcutt said. “To hear it come from her was just really powerful.”
McCallum is considered by parents, students — and teachers — as a haven for educators. Even teachers who have resigned in recent years speak highly of the community of students and parents at the fine arts academy. But even it was not immune to the mass exodus impacting Texas schools.
During the 2021-22 school year, records show seven McCallum teachers quit in the middle of the year. The entire district saw more than 1,000 educators retire or resign during that time: 30% more than the previous school year.
The surge in Austin ISD resignations mirrors the rise in teachers leaving across Texas.
KXAN Investigators obtained exit forms from hundreds of Austin ISD teachers who quit their jobs in the middle of the school year since the pandemic began, and similar data from several other districts across the state, revealing how inflation, stagnant salaries and last-minute legislative mandates led to state-wide teacher shortages.
The result across the state was classrooms at times left with permanent substitute teachers for weeks at a time, who were less familiar with the curriculum.
“I had my biology teacher quit halfway through the year, so for about six weeks I had a sub,” Valedictorian Bijl-Spiro said. “I would just sit in my biology class for a few weeks and just not really do anything because I did not really have the resources to do anything.”
One McCallum science teacher wrote on her contract release form in December 2021 that she left to take a job outside education for higher pay. Another teacher said she was leaving the fine arts academy for a position “outside the classroom” after five years in education.
Another left in March 2022 for a better work-life balance, records show.
Allison Kashdan resigned from McCallum in the middle of the 2021 spring semester. It was before COVID-19 vaccines were widely available. She’d just had her first child.
Kashdan said she found out the school district’s policy would not allow her an accommodation to teach virtually.
“To trust my family’s safety — and my students’ safety — It was just kind of the last straw, and I did not want to put up with it — especially for the pay. It is not livable,” Kashdan said.
With 9 years of experience, and a master’s degree, tax records show Kashdan made a little more than $42,000 in 2019.
Northcutt made it through the virtual days of the pandemic and was excited to teach in-person after years of teaching through her computer, but she decided she, too, would not return to teaching after this last school year.
She had been at McCallum for 11 years.
The deciding factor for her was the district considering changing the high school schedule, taking away a teacher planning period. It meant every other day she would go without a break.
“I was the teacher of the year in 2017. I feel like my [McCallum] families value me, at the end of the day,” Northcutt said. Still, when it came to teaching, she said she felt “Nobody really cares. I am just a replaceable babysitter, honestly, and that feels terrible.”
A ripple effect of problems come quickly after a teacher resigns in the middle of the school year, according to McCallum Principal Nicole Griffith, including larger class sizes, students stuck with long-term substitutes in tested subjects like math, science, and English — and a bowling ball of responsibilities rolling over the teachers who are left.
“Permanent subs cannot do everything we ask teachers to do. The subs are not going to go home and grade papers on the weekends. They are not going to do lesson planning, so the team of teachers that the teacher was on must take a whole lot of that load,” Griffith said.
Though Griffith, like many Texas principals, was left to adjust to her staff quitting — she understands why they are leaving.
“You want to make a difference, you want to make an impact on young people, but they also want to be able to provide for their own families and live a comfortable life in the community they serve,” Griffith said. “That’s not possible in many areas of Austin.”
Chapter 2: ‘No longer afford’ teaching
Among Austin ISD teachers who quit in the middle of the school year, KXAN Investigators calculated 20% said they left to change careers, while 9% said they were leaving to take a job with a different district.
In Pflugerville ISD, 38.6% of teachers who left said they either accepted another job, received better pay elsewhere, changed careers or cited poor working conditions.
Mark Reed used to teach science at Murchison Middle School in Austin ISD. The husband and father quit his job over the summer in 2021.
“As long as I could pay the bills, I was fine,” Reed said. “But, as soon as I started not being able to pay the bills — you know.”
Reed was coaching football and tennis and doing other jobs to make more money.
“I was having to work so many hours and I realized that I was missing a lot of my family’s life because of it,” Reed said.
Reed signed a new contract with AISD in the middle of the school year, unsure if the jobs outside education he was applying for would pan out.
When he found a new job, he filled out the district’s resignation form and said: “it became economically infeasible to continue working on a teachers’ salary.”
He apologized for not resigning sooner — and asked the district to honor his 13 years with the agency and release him from his contract.
The average base salary for Texas public school teachers between the 2020-21 school year and the 2021-22 school year, Texas Education Agency records show, went up 2%.
Meanwhile, from 2020 to 2021, the average cost of a home in Texas surged 18%, according to the Texas Real Estate Research Center. The same researchers found Austin and Dallas were two of the most expensive places to own a home.
In another exit survey from Austin ISD, a middle school teacher said she “could no longer afford to live in Austin.” She said her rent went up $600. Another teacher from that same middle school, who resigned in the middle of the year, told the district “the cost of living in Austin has increased to the point I can no longer afford to be a teacher and keep my house.”
In nearby Fredericksburg ISD, a high school teacher told his district in May he was leaving because of his property taxes increasing. He told the district he “worked multiple other jobs to make it work.”
“We have been struggling with this for many, many years. It is a big concern,” said Texas State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, who authored a bill increasing teacher pay back in 2019. “It does not surprise me, but we have to figure out a way to get more teachers in the classroom.”
Rep. Huberty said lawmakers should consider increasing the allotment to help increase teacher pay but added districts can increase pay now.
“We have put billions of dollars back into the school system over the years. We did significant increases in pay for teachers in 2019. Teachers have continued to get pay increases,” Huberty said. “We have the teacher incentive allotment that has been identified. Teachers can get additional money not just from their performance but their ability to get a certification and get paid more. They can get up to $30,000 more a year — I mean, those programs exist. We need the districts and the teachers to participate.”
The teacher incentive allotment is not the same as districts increasing base salaries or giving year over year raises. It is performance based — and requires extra work on the teachers’ end. TEA records show fewer than 2% of teachers in the state are participating statewide.
“I was never interested in jumping through any more hoops,” Reed said. “I always felt like the only opportunity for a bump in pay had to do with jumping through other hoops and I didn’t have the bandwidth to do anything extra.”
Reed said the pay bump because of the 2019 SB3 was helpful but not enough to keep him in the profession.
“I’m not a teacher anymore, so it didn’t do what it was supposed to do,” Reed said. “I mean, they are going to have to spend more money, because there is not going to be enough teachers. The question is, ‘Are you going to spend just enough to get it back to where it was, or are you going to really solve the problem?’”
While state lawmakers have some impact on teacher salaries through legislation, it is up to school districts across the state to build on state-mandated salary minimums for teachers.
Manor ISD, Del Valle ISD and Dripping Springs ISD have the highest starting salaries in Central Texas — between $53,800 and $54,590.
Three school districts in the Austin area — Lometa ISD, Mason ISD and Richland Springs ISD — use the minimum starting salary set by the state: $33,660.
Richland Springs ISD Superintendent James Womack said the district is small, rural and yields a low tax base. He said it cannot afford to run the district and offer higher pay scales right now.
Despite the district offering one of the lowest starting salaries in the state, Womack said it is fully staffed heading into the new school year, unlike many of the state’s larger school districts.
Lometa ISD Superintendent Rob Moore said although his district pays the state base in terms of contracted salary, the district has been able to provide signing and retention bonuses through local stipends and federal COVID relief funds — Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER.
“The ESSER funding, however, will be exhausted by 2024-2025. At that point, if we are to maintain the pay level, we will have to find additional funding. This is the reality for rural schools,” Moore said. “Despite our pay level, we typically have low turnover.”
“Our district flourishes regarding staff and students because we have established a familial district culture on which staff and students are appreciated, resulting in a dynamic workplace,” Womack said.
Chapter 3: ‘Workload is not realistic’
Texas has long struggled with keeping teachers in the classroom, according to Rep. Huberty — but this year, he said, the burden was significant.
Months before the school year began, lawmakers passed House Bill 4545. It required districts provide 30 additional hours of tutoring for any student who failed or did not take the state’s standardized test the previous school year.
It was an attempt to improve standardized test scores in the state that had taken a nosedive during the pandemic.
The law mandated the tutoring be limited to groups of three students per teacher. A total of 512,554 students in Texas required tutoring plans under this law, according to the TEA. Some of those students needed additional lessons in both math and reading.
Just within Austin ISD, district data showed 31,074 tutoring plans were needed.
It was one of the main reasons Akins High School teacher Ryan Thomas put in his resignation after the Christmas break in 2022.
“It was, in my opinion, literally impossible to do that,” Thomas said. “There was nothing in the schedule for any extra time for this — so we were expected to teach our class just as we normally would, but we were somehow expected to give 30 hours of extra instruction to everyone on this list.”
Thomas, and other teachers across the state, said the policy was overly cumbersome on teachers and overwhelmed students who were already struggling academically.
“They ramped up in response: ‘You have to teach this faster, and you have to cut some things out,’” said Nikki Sorto, McCallum’s Science Department chair. “It became stressful trying to play catch up here — what was perceived as catch up — rather than just building and moving towards.”
At McCallum High School, Principal Griffith recruited willing teachers — and paid them to do the mandated tutoring using ESSER funds.
“We were sort of left having to figure out how to do this state mandate that came down very last minute and just added one more thing to very overloaded people,” Principal Griffith said. “We would have been able to do it had money been put behind it. We would have been able to do it in a better way — in a more effective way.”
Each Texas school district implemented the new legislative requirements differently, according to TEA Deputy Commissioner Kelvey Oeser.
Some school districts, according to TEA, built in time for tutoring into the school day schedules, hired additional tutors, and used virtual tutoring for HB 4545.
“I do think we are hearing from teachers across the state that they are overwhelmed with the requirements, with the time, with many of the things that are on their plate,” Oeser said. “So, the districts that are really thinking about that and re-designing the teacher experience, building in additional time — are the districts we are seeing having higher retention of their teachers.”
Lawmakers had an opportunity to make changes to HB 4545 to improve the workload for teachers.
During the third special session in 2021, Rep. Huberty introduced a bill that would have lessened the requirements of HB 4545 and given school districts additional funding to implement the law.
The bill did not pass.
“It has been a significant burden,” Huberty said. “We are dealing with that now in the public education committee. We are going to talk about ways to fix that.”
Test scores in Texas public schools did go up, according to TEA data, but the number of teachers quitting statewide was surging, too: 12% either quit or retired that school year.
One contract release form from an Austin ISD high school teacher said “the demand of teaching multiple subjects has taken away from the student learning experience and led to my inability to be as effective.” An elementary school teacher who left in January 2022 said on her form she “resigned because the district cut special education staff, longer hours, more responsibility, the lack of pay, online training on teacher’s personal time, and lack of district support.”
“Every time we got a notification from a teacher, it was like, ‘Deep breath,’” said Sapna Patel Duchesne, who left her job as a magnet director at Kealing Middle School in January 2022. “We had vacancies from the start of the school year, and it just felt like it never stopped.”
School districts have the option to submit a written complaint to the State Board of Educator Certification any time a teacher quits in the middle of their contract. Many, according to the TEA, choose not to.
But, since September 2022, the number of educators reported by school districts surged 96% from the previous year. In that same time, 205 teacher certificates have been suspended for one year.
Pflugerville ISD, according to a district spokesperson, said it would start reporting teachers who quit in the middle of the year to SBEC because students were being left without a teacher.
“Moving forward, we will be holding staff accountable because we are — it’s causing harm to students,” Pflugerville ISD Trustee Jean Mayor said during a January 2022 board meeting.
In 2022, Del Valle ISD and Bastrop ISD each reported at least four teachers to the SBEC for breaking their contracts.
TEA Deputy Commissioner Oeser said the practice is supposed to serve as a disincentive for teachers to leave mid-year, leaving a class unattended without a full-time teacher. It has also meant the state is losing hundreds of certified teachers during a teacher shortage.
“The [SBEC] has weighed that with a lot of stakeholder feedback from teacher associations and districts administrators, trying to find that right balance of how we incentivize teachers to stay and not break their contract mid-year and not make the penalty so harsh that we are preventing a good teacher from being in the classroom,” Oeser said.
School districts, even those who are not reporting teachers to the SBEC, are still warning educators who leave in the middle of the year it could impact their ability to get another job at the same school district in the future.
Former Akins High School teacher Thomas received a letter following his resignation warning him that he could potentially be reported to the SBEC — and would not be able to get another job within the district after he quit in the middle of the school year.
“I think the short term, maybe people are afraid to lose their educator certificate, especially if they do not plan to leave the profession entirely, but you better believe you want to leave more,” Thomas said. “How many of those people do you think are going to stay after you only stayed because you threatened them?”
Chapter 4: ‘Wait and see’ a future fix
Texas school districts are scrambling to hire enough teachers — and in some, more than they need in case more teachers quit in the middle of the year.
Austin ISD started the summer with more than 1,000 teacher vacancies — an all-time high. Three days before school begins, there are still 249 vacancies. Students might start the year with a substitute, according to district officials.
One month before the start of the 2022-23 school year, Round Rock ISD had 325 and Leander was looking to fill 118 teacher positions in its district.
A recent Texas State Teacher Association survey found in Spring 2022, at the end of the last school year, 70% of teachers were seriously considering leaving the profession. The TSTA surveyed 688 Texas teachers and according to the organization, it was the highest number ever recorded in 40 years.
Meanwhile, school boards, lawmakers and the Texas Education Agency are trying to figure out how to keep those already there.
The House Public Education Committee is discussing making legislative changes to laws that impact teacher workload — and pay.
In February, the Teacher Vacancy Taskforce is set to present recommendations to lawmakers on teacher retention, and all summer long, districts across the state have been voting to raise teacher salaries and provide bonuses.
Austin ISD Board of Trustees increased the starting salaries for teachers by 2%, which is about a thousand dollars more than the year before. It is also offering sign on bonuses up to $1,500 for special education teachers and educators who go to hard-to-staff areas.
The AISD school board is also considering helping teachers get affordable housing. At one point, the school board was considering a bond proposal that would allocate $50 million towards affordable housing options for up to 400 teachers, but trustees removed it from the proposal.
“To be able to give a compensation increase, we had to cut deep and so that is exactly what we did,” Austin ISD Chief Financial Officer Eduardo Ramos said at the board meeting on June 23. “Without a compensation increase, we would begin losing our employees to other districts.”
In Dallas ISD, new teachers will make $3,500 more than they would have last year. The district has placed a billboard in Austin, off U.S. Highway 290, advertising jobs with its school district for anywhere from $60,000 to $102,000 salary.
Some school districts, like Harper ISD and Johnson City ISD, did not increase starting salaries for next school year at all.
“I do think there is no way to say ‘Let’s just increase salaries, let’s pump more money into the system,’” TEA Deputy Commissioner Oeser said. “It’s really about changing behaviors, structures, systems across 1,200 school districts.”
“I do think this is also an issue that the legislature is going to take a look at, but of course, they don’t convene until January. We will have to wait and see what they do,” Oeser added.
Many of the teachers we interviewed say they have no intention of coming back to education unless “radical” change happens among Texas public schools.
“The kids are scared — and they are heartbroken,” Northcutt said of the students she left behind at McCallum. “‘I have lost so many of my favorite teachers. I have lost my coaches. What is next year going to be like?’ – and I get it.”
Digital Data Reporter Christopher Adams, Investigative Photographer Richie Bowes, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Graphic Artist Aileen Hernandez, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Lead Editor Eric Lefenfeld, Investigative Photographer Chris Nelson, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims, Investigative Intern Sam Stark and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.