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The difficulty recruiting teachers becomes an issue in the governor's race in Texas

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Recruiting and keeping teachers emerged as an issue this week in the governor's race in Texas. Democrat Beto O'Rourke outlined his education policies. And then one day later, Republican Governor Greg Abbott set up a task force to fill vacant teaching positions. From member station KUT in Austin, Joseph Leahy reports.

JOSEPH LEAHY, BYLINE: At a town hall event in Dallas last Sunday, former El Paso Congressman Beto O'Rourke devoted his first public speech since winning the Democratic nomination to supporting teachers and increasing public school funding.

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BETO O'ROURKE: Just to get to average pay in America, our educators in Texas would need to be paid 7,500 more per year. Now that's average. You go to some parts of the state and it's $15,000 more per year. It's $18,000...

LEAHY: The next day, Republican Governor Greg Abbott ordered up a new task force to address staffing shortages in school districts across the state. That's a shift from Abbott's more conservative primary campaign rhetoric. Here he was in January, channeling conservative uproar over mask requirements and teaching about race and sexuality in schools.

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GREG ABBOTT: And that is why I am campaigning on passing a parents' bill of rights to restore parents to their rightful role as the primary decision maker for their children's education and health care matters. Parents matter.

LEAHY: Teachers' unions in Texas have welcomed the governor's new task force.

CLAY ROBISON: We're kind of surprised to hear the governor do this since all we've been hearing from him for the past several months are attacks on teachers and attacks on the public schools.

LEAHY: Texas State Teachers Association spokesman Clay Robison says the pandemic exacerbated teacher vacancies. And recruitment and retention shortfalls have dogged the state for nearly a decade.

ROBISON: Even before the pandemic, you take any given year, you have X number of teachers who start their careers. Within five years, half of them are gone because the pay is just not keeping up.

LEAHY: This is a nationwide problem, says Chad Aldeman at Georgetown University. He says salary increases aren't enough. He says teacher shortages are mostly in specific subjects, such as language, math, science and special education.

CHAD ALDEMAN: Districts and states need to respond accordingly. They need to break the mindset that one size fits all for all of their teachers and all of their employees.

LEAHY: And for Texas voters, O'Rourke and Abbott hope their positions on education policy will help them win in November.

For NPR News, I'm Joseph Leahy in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "ROOTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joseph Leahy