Susan Seaton is at home in her elementary school classroom. She is a veteran of 12 years teaching, and for 10 of those she has also served with the San Marcos Educators Association. Photos by Garrett McGinley
Teachers find success in advocacy
Teacher activism in America had a moment in 2018. Across the United States, teachers and other education workers alike took to the streets to protest stagnant pay, decreased benefits and budget cuts, among other pressing issues. In one instance, West Virginia had all of its public schools momentarily closed due to a teacher walkout.
Graphic by Colton Ashabranner
The mood in Texas was not nearly so inspired though. Despite a study by the National Education Association ranking the Lone Star State 28th in average teacher salaries in 2017, Texas teachers did not join in on the wave of social unrest, and with good reason: they can’t.
“If you were to strike in Texas, you could be fired on the spot,” Susan Seaton, president of the San Marcos Educators Association said, referring to Texas’s status as a right-to-work state. “It’s considered insubordination.”
Seaton has worked in the San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District for 12 years now. According to data collected by the Texas Tribune, San Marcos CISD lags behind the state average for teacher salaries by $2,444.
Individual instruction is still key to successful classroom education.
Right to What?
Dr. Thomas Alter, labor history lecturer at Texas State University, defines right-to-work as a law that “prohibit contracts between union and employers that require workers to pay fees, also know as union dues, as a condition of employment.” Though right-to-work laws don’t outright ban labor unions, they do significantly reduce union participation and financial power by stripping them of the ability to collect compulsory dues.
“We advocate for, not only salary, but health insurance, working conditions, making sure that Texas Education Code is being followed, making sure teachers arenʼt being asked to do excessive things that go against the Paperwork Reduction Act, making sure they follow special education law.”
Texas’ right-to-work law explicitly prohibits public employees, such as public school teachers, from striking or participating in an organized work stoppage. The punishment for disobedience of this law is a forfeit of “all civil service rights, reemployment rights and any other rights, benefits, and privileges” granted by public employment. Theoretically, teachers could lose their jobs and or pensions by participating in a strike.
Advocacy Not Bargaining
For over a decade, Susan Seaton has done what she loves more than anything else: teach elementary students. Seaton is in her 12th year at Crockett Elementary, and for 10 of those years, she has worked with the San Marcos Educators Association, a local labor union that advocates for all public education employees in the San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District.
“We advocate for, not only salary, but health insurance, working conditions, making sure that Texas Education Code is being followed, making sure teachers aren’t being asked to do excessive things that go against the Paperwork Reduction Act, making sure they follow special education law,” Seaton said. “We can kind of run the gamut.”
Instead of direct collective bargaining, the SMEA turn to lobbying the San Marcos CISD Board of Trustees for change. Thankfully for the SMEA, Clementine Cantu, president of the San Marcos CISD Board of Trustees, is more than willing to listen.
“I’m a firm believer in professional associations because they give you that support you need and you have an advocate on your side,” Cantu said. “(Seaton) may have to advocate, but she is doing it to very sympathetic ears.”
Cantu is a retired educator and has been the San Marcos CISD Board of Trustees president since 2016. Under Cantu’s reign, teachers in San Marcos CISD have seen significant raises. SMEA and Fight for 15, a global labor activist coalition, partnered together to advocate for hourly workers to receive a “livable wage.” This partnership resulted in hourly workers pay increasing from $9.62 per hour in 2016 to $12.60 now. In all, the raises added over $2 million to the district budget.
Susan Seaton at work, alone in her classroom at Crockett Elementary School.
The Uphill Battle Continues
Despite the SMEA’s best efforts, San Marcos CISD still lags behind the state’s paltry average on teacher salaries. San Marcos CISD is also behind several area districts, such as Hays CISD and New Braunfels ISD, in entry-level pay.
“We’re still not where we need to be in terms of those districts around us,” Cantu said.
Low entry-level pay can make it difficult for San Marcos CISD to attain and retain new teachers. With Texas State University, once exclusively being a teaching college, and now boasting a total of 5,755 students enrolled in the College of Education for the fall 2018 semester, it is important for San Marcos CISD to remain a competitive option to potential new teachers.
To compensate for this issue, San Marcos CISD developed a compression schedule problem, where entry-level teachers make a salary so high that it compresses the salaries of mid-range teachers. This compression makes wages for mid-range teachers stagnate, and can lead to experienced teachers leaving the district.
“In order to keep some of those new teachers, (San Marcos CISD Board of Trustees) kept having to up the entry salaries,” Seaton said. “Last year, as a 11th year teacher, I made 36 cents a week more than a first-year teacher did.”
The San Marcos CISD Board of Trustees under Cantu, has made corrective raises to the compressed midranged salaried teachers.
Other significant issues Seaton and the rest of the employees at San Marcos CISD face are skyrocketing healthcare costs, a school voucher system that strips funding from public schooling and San Marcos’ alarmingly high 35.8 percent poverty rate.
“Somebody like me who spent their whole life trying to become a teacher, and trying to afford a college degree, for teachers to be mistreated and their rights to not be protected, it just became so apparent to me that this was kind of my calling,” Seaton said referring to her position as SMEA president.