New Program Helps Teaching Assistants Pay for School

Mesquite Independent School District has done what few school districts have been able to since the pandemic: reverse the escalating teacher shortage. A major component has been their new program that allows teaching assistants to pay for school while working.

The program is called Pathways Advancing to Certified Educators (PACE), and it’s a new twist on an old statewide initiative aimed at parateachers and teaching assistants. Mesquite ISD employees who have at least 50 college credit hours are allowed to fill teaching vacancies while earning credits toward a bachelor’s degree from partners like Indiana Wesleyan University.

While working, applicants would be able to earn a reduced full teacher salary as long as they continued to be employed by Mesquite IDS. They will receive a full salary starting in year three of the program. Meanwhile, PACE provides online courses to fulfill the rest of the degree requirements.

PACE is one of the reasons Mesquite ISD fell from 145 teacher vacancies at the start of last school year to just 16 this year.

“So many of us want to go into teaching,” Kaetlynn Ruiz, a kindergarten teaching assistant who has taken advantage of the PACE program, told ABC News. “We just didn’t have the means to get there. And so this program truly helped us get our foot in the door. It’s pretty special to be able to do what I love, and also be able to earn that certification and degree.”

Even before COVID, Texas was facing a massive teacher shortage. Teachers in the Lone Star State have one of the worse retirement packages in the country, and the state legislature has been very slow with cost of living adjustments. The state Legislature has vowed to raise teacher pay and retirement benefits, but the matter is tied up with Governor Greg Abbott’s relentless push for his unpopular school voucher program. That bill was once again shot down in flames by Democrats and rural Republicans in the Texas House last week. Abbott has vowed to keep fighting for vouchers, and appears ready to hold teacher pay and benefits hostage to get it.

Low pay isn’t the only thing driving the teacher shortage. Teachers report a wide variety of things that are making them rethink working in Texas classrooms. The horrific massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde is still fresh in many memories, particularly with Texas unwilling to regulate gun ownership further.

Likewise, teachers have been dragged into another Republican culture war; the fight against “woke.” Angry parents have stormed school board meetings demanding to know if their children are being exposed to “communist” and “anti-American” propaganda, as well as accusing school libraries of providing “gay porn.” The hostility of the environment is wearing on teachers.

While those issues are likely to continue for the future, giving teaching assistants a path toward a degree and full teacher certification is at least working in one Texas school district.

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