AUSTIN (Nexstar) — A “steep increase” in Texas teachers leaving. More than 20% of teachers enter schools with no certification. Salary increases not keeping up with inflation.

Those are just a few of the challenges described in the long-anticipated report from the Teacher Vacancy Task Force. That’s a group of 45 Texas teachers and administrators Gov. Greg Abbott ordered to take on the growing teacher shortage in the state.

“This is not a new trend. This has been a 30-year trend, and this is not specific to Texas. This is education in the United States,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in an exclusive television interview with KXAN.

The report recommends lawmakers increase the amount of per-pupil funding allocated to school districts in the state – which hasn’t been done since 2019 and require school systems to spend a larger percentage of that money on teacher compensation.

Right now, Texas districts are required to pay new teachers at least $33,660 – although most school districts in the state pay much more. It could take, by law, more than 20 years for an educator to make more than $54,000 in Texas.

The task force is recommending lawmakers raise the minimum salary schedule to help small, rural school districts that frequently pay at or above the minimum – and change it to reward effective teachers.  

It also recommends districts provide financial incentives and help pay for required exam costs for special education and bilingual teachers – two areas experiencing critical staffing shortages across the state.

“It involves compensation. It involves issues related to work-life balance and working conditions, generally, the kind of training and support that we offer,” Morath said. “It is critical for us to get this right and it is very difficult to get right.”

The report also highlights issues with the state’s teacher retirement system saying on average Texas school districts contribute $330 to healthcare. Significantly lower than the $827 calculated monthly average employer contribution in Texas.

Task force members recommended the legislature increase the state’s contribution to health care premiums for current – and retired teachers.

According to Morath, in the last several decades the average experience of Texas teachers has significantly decreased.

“The teacher that you were most likely to run into in 1985 had 10 years of experience,” Morath said. “For about the last decade, the teacher that you’re most likely to run into is in his or her first year.”

The report quoted one Texas superintendent in the report who said, “We are faced with the economic struggles that many staff face and the new challenges to their health that can make a teacher prospect reconsider their decision.”

The task force said state lawmakers created a challenge for local school districts to hire back retired teachers when it passed a law requiring school systems to bear the costs of pensions and healthcare surcharges.

It is asking the legislature to temporarily help districts pay the additional costs of hiring retirees until the rate of teachers leaving the professions is more manageable.

“The number one priority that we have operated under for the last six or seven years is the priority of recruit support retain teachers and principals,” Morath said. “We know that teachers are the single most important in-school factor that impacts student outcomes, and we have to be pretty relentless in our efforts to try to support them.”

One big issue at the Legislature this session is the push to let parents use public funding to pay for private schooling. Opponents of the idea point to the likelihood that school choice will lead to funding cuts for public schools. But in our interview, Morath had an optimistic take.

“Over the last 10 years, per pupil spending in the state of Texas on public education and total spending in Texas on public education has increased pretty significantly every single year. And I don’t have any reason to think that that trend is going to change in the near in the near future,” Morath said.

College campus voting sites would be banned under proposed Texas bill

A proposed bill would ban voting sites on Texas higher education campuses, one of the latest filings that would change Texas voting laws.

State Rep. Carrie Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, filed House Bill 2390 Thursday. Isaac represents Comal County and parts of Hays County.

Isaac said it is a matter of school safety.

“Here in Texas, we have one of the longest early voting periods of any state in the nation, two weeks of early voting,” Isaac said. “I don’t believe it’s wise that we invite people onto our campuses that would not otherwise be there.”

In her proposal, counties would be prohibited from designating a polling place on the campus of an institution of higher education within the county.

Isaac said there are other options like voting by mail. Additionally, he said some universities bus students to polling locations.

“I have the utmost confidence in our young adults here in Texas to vote, even if the location is not right there on their campus,” Isaac said.

If passed, it would go into effect Sept. 1.

College students like Jacob Graybill said he is concerned. Graybill is one of the thousands of Texas State University students who vote at the campus’ polling location.

He said it is a resource for so many in the community.

“It’s not just the students. It’s the faculty, the staff, like every single level of Texas State and San Marcos,” Graybill said. “Our neighbors come to vote at this location for convenience.”

He said he worries it will lead to some people just skipping voting.

“There would be so many people that want to vote who care about these issues but just can’t,” Graybill said. “So the fact that they’re trying to take away a community asset for not just San Marcos, but for every college town… it just is a blatant expression of voter suppression.”

Two Texas state senators—both democrats— filed an opposite bill in November, which would require at least one main campus polling location for higher education institutions with at least 5,000 students. It would also require two campus locations for institutions with at least 10,000 students plus another voting site for every additional 10,000 students enrolled.

State Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, and Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, filed the bill.

That proposal, Senate Bill 118, would go into effect Sept. 1. It was referred to the state affairs committee.

Isaac said she is drafting another bill similar to HB 2390. It would remove polling places from K-12 public and charter schools.

Water concerns bring thirst for bipartisan solutions

One topic that appears to bridge partisan divides at the Texas Capitol is water. That singular issue is uniting a broad coalition of House lawmakers during this legislative session.

At least 67 state representatives are now officially a part of the newly-formed Texas House Water Caucus. Members include legislators from the state’s largest cities to its rural communities — with 38 Republicans and 29 Democrats among its ranks. This caucus, according to its organizers, will work this session to not only prioritize building up the state’s water supply but also invest in Texas’ aging water infrastructure.

State Rep. Tracy King, D-Laredo, will serve as the water caucus’ first chairman. He represents House District 80, which includes Atascosa, Dimmit, Frio, Uvalde, Webb and Zavala counties. He is also chairman of the House natural resources committee this session.

“I want people to understand that the legislature in the state of Texas takes water needs very, very seriously,” King said, “and that we’re going to do whatever we can to try and make sure that Texas is secure when it comes to their water resources.”

Each week the Texas Water Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit, plans to hold educational information sessions for the water caucus members so that they can learn various aspects of policy. Sarah Rountree Schlessinger, the group’s CEO, said this would help create “water champions” at the Capitol, especially among the newer lawmakers there. She added water should remain atop any legislator’s priority list, not just when natural disasters, like floods or prolonged drought, happen.

“Water is one of those things that is just the lifeblood of the state. It’s a baseline topic that always needs to be prioritized,” Schlessinger said. “Particularly in a session where we have a budget surplus — and there are going to be a number of competing priorities, we want to make sure that there are legislators who really recognize and appreciate the critical investment needs that are available for water security and that it’s at the forefront.”

The new year began with an announcement from the U.S. Census Bureau that Texas’ population now exceeds 30 million people. When looking at the percentage change, Texas is the fourth-fastest-growing state. That accelerated amount of growth illustrates to lawmakers, like State Rep. Cody Harris, the need to bolster water infrastructure.

“None of those folks are bringing more water or pipes with them,” Harris said. “So we’ve got to make sure that we do everything we can to plan ahead to make sure that the future generations have enough water supply and water security down the road. That’s why I think the water caucus brings together members — whether they’re on the committee or not — who share in that same goal.”

Harris, a Republican representative from Palestine in east Texas, said joining the first-ever water caucus is already having an impact on solely raising awareness.

“I’ve done probably five or six news interviews on the water caucus in the last three days, and maybe two on water policy in the last four years just being on the natural resources [committee],” he said. “So it’s drawing attention to this issue, and I think that was the whole hope of what it would do.”

Harris added he hopes his work with the water caucus will include attracting private partners to work with the state on desalinating brackish groundwater in places like Fort Worth, which would be part of a costly effort to grow the water supply. Meanwhile, King said he’d like Texas to make funds more easily accessible for water infrastructure improvement projects.

“Our hope is that we can create a fund of money, a pool of money, that would be available to help people match the grants and loans and things like that that are available,” King said, “particularly for the communities that find themselves with a low tax base or just are not financially able to do that.”

On the other side of the Capitol, State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, put forward two pieces of legislation — Senate Bill 837 and Senate Joint Resolution 43 — that would set aside a portion of the state’s record budget surplus to fund development projects of new water supply sources. According to the bill, those projects could include things like acquisition of water rights from another state, infrastructure to transport water from another state, desalination efforts of marine or brackish water and research into new technology.

In an interview, Perry said the drought gripping the state coupled with population growth only add to the “perfect storm” happening for Texas to make some major infrastructure investments.

“We never let a crisis go to waste, so to speak, and we’re actually fortunate that the state is seeing the surplus in dollars,” Perry said. “This is an infrastructure session for me…so water is a infrastructure item — no different than the grid, no different than our communications through broadband networks. We need to make sure we have a water supply.”

One of his proposals would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot this November so that voters could sign off on creating this additional fund for projects that the Texas Water Development Board would ultimately oversee.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listed “addressing Texas’ future water needs” as one of the 30 bills he will prioritize passing in the state Senate this session. Perry said he appreciates that acknowledgement, which he added shows water as being part of the state’s critical infrastructure needs.

“We’ve got our platform and party issues, and that’s why there’s two parties,” Perry said, “but when it comes to infrastructure, those are absolutely bipartisanship. I will say: to the 181 members’ credit, when it comes to infrastructure stuff, we all pull the cart in the same direction and get the job done.”

New bill aims to stop another ‘Dr. Death’

A new bill filed at the Capitol could make it easier for patients in Texas to check up on their doctors.

After a yearlong series of KXAN investigations, a lawmaker filed legislation this session aimed at reforming the Texas Medical Board.

It’s been almost a year since State Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Farmers Branch, said “that’s not going to fly” and pledged “to do something about” problems a series of KXAN investigations revealed — including dozens of doctors with medical licenses suspended, surrendered and revoked in other states still practicing, or able to, in Texas. We found doctors with disciplinary actions having “clean” records on the TMB’s website, despite a state law requiring out-of-state discipline be made public.

“My immediate reaction was, well, if the Texas Medical Board isn’t going to do it on its own, I’m going to file a bill,” Johnson told KXAN in March 2022. “I’m going to do something about it.”

This month, Johnson followed through on her promise and filed HB 1998. If passed, it would require the TMB to:

  • Search the National Practitioner Data Bank monthly and make public any disciplinary actions found.
  • Prevent doctors who have had medical licenses revoked in other states from practicing in Texas.

The TMB declined to comment on Johnson’s bill.

“The Board does not have any specific statement on legislative proposals introduced during session,” TMB spokesman Jarrett Schneider said in a statement, “but the Board is happy to work with any member of the Legislature to better serve Texans.”

“That’s a direct result of your reporting,” said Texas Watch executive director Ware Wendell, outside the Capitol.

Texas Watch is a nonpartisan non-profit that advocates on a range of consumer issues, including patient safety.

“Your reporting has shined a light on critical problems with the Texas Medical Board right now,” Wendell said.

Previously, the TMB acknowledged its honor-system approach puts the onus on doctors to self-report and admitted it had not “gone the extra step” to post information online because it would be “staff and time intensive.”

“As far as, ‘Does the [Texas] Medical Board go and review all, you know, 154,000 of our licensees to make sure that they’ve disclosed everything that’s come in?’ That’s something that’s a little more time intensive that the medical board has not in the past done,” TMB executive director Stephen Carlton said a year ago.

Following KXAN’s investigation, the TMB passed a rule change last June requiring doctors to self-report criminal convictions, out-of-state disciplinary actions and medical malpractice claims within 30 days. Previously, it was every two years. The TMB said it would also more proactively update its online profiles of physicians after KXAN identified some out-of-state discipline records kept secret. At the time, Carlton acknowledged “some gaps” that KXAN identified and noted the TMB is “always looking for ways we can improve.”

Wendell called Johnson’s proposals “critical” and said the bill would force the TMB to do its job “better.”

“Passing this legislation, this session, is a top priority for Texas Watch,” he said. “Because it will protect patients all across our state.”

Dr. Robert Henderson agrees. Portrayed in the Peacock miniseries, “Dr. Death,” the Dallas spinal surgeon is responsible for helping stop Dr. Christopher Duntsch, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2017 after leaving more than 30 patients injured or dead.

“I’m extraordinarily pleased that Rep. Johnson is addressing these issues,” Henderson said.

More than a decade after he first got involved in the Duntsch case, Henderson says he’s “frustrated” the system meant to protect patients allowed Duntsch to keep practicing, transferring from hospital to hospital, despite obvious red flags.

“We do need more effective protection for the public,” Henderson said. “I think, certainly, those laws ought to be enhanced. They ought to be strengthened.”

One of Johnson’s proposals would require hospitals report disciplinary actions affecting clinical privileges — like suspensions — lasting 30 days or less, to the National Practitioner Data Bank. The problem is, by law, the Data Bank — a confidential clearinghouse of physician discipline and malpractice lawsuit records established by Congress in 1986 — only collects disciplinary actions that are longer than 30 days.

“According to the law that governs the NPDB, clinical privileges actions lasting 30 days or fewer are not reportable to the NPDB,” said a spokesperson for the agency which oversees the Data Bank, the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Johnson calls that a “loophole” she wants to close on a state level.

“HB 1998 is at the beginning of the legislative process,” Johnson said in a statement. “As the Legislature moves on to committee hearing and debates, the bill will go through many iterations. I will continue working with stakeholders and advocates on the bill language and implementation to ensure patients are protected and the Texas Medical Board has the necessary tools and direction to properly oversee physicians across the state.”