Let’s honor our teachers and pay them fairly

With the passage of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the new year of 5782 is upon us.

It is a good time to consider carefully the vital role of teachers in our community and the importance of respecting those who have dedicated their lives to the mission of teaching.

Judaism teaches that there are two great roles necessary for the continuity of the Jewish people — the role of parents and of teachers. Jewish heritage passes from parents to children. So, too, Judaism accords fundamental respect to teachers who are vested with the sacred mission of teaching our heritage, its values and its reverence for knowledge.

In Jewish tradition, as the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, wrote “Moses [was] the great example of a teacher; to this day we call him Moshe Rabbenu — Moses our teacher.”

The beauty of the Torah is accessible to those who seek its ways. The treasures of Torah, and knowledge afforded by education, are imparted by teachers who guide students toward the gifts of enlightenment and understanding. Love of learning Torah provides a vital example of the critical role that teachers undertake in instructing students. Just as students of Torah benefit from capable instruction, secular students profit from dedicated teachers.

Recently, in Texas, a new law has fettered how public school teachers fulfill their missions. The new law, which Governor Greg Abbott has signed, targets “critical race theory” as abhorrent to public school education in Texas. The new law is vague and imposes awkward limitations on classroom teachers by banning discussion of current events unless a teacher “strive[s] to explore those topics from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”

Moreover, the new law requires that teachers balance class discussions. It states that “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”

This law is inherently dangerous because it prevents teachers from directing students to the undeniably troubling history of America and the State of Texas.

One troubling problem with the new law is that it arguably limits full instruction about racial prejudices embodied in the United States Constitution as originally drafted. While the Constitution is clearly a complex and brilliant opus, it failed to recognize African-Americans as citizens.

On June 21, 1788, the Constitution became our supreme law when New Hampshire became the ninth of the original 13 states to ratify it. Nonetheless, the Constitution, as originally drafted, preserved slavery and contained the so-called “Three-fifths Compromise,” found in Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the charter. The compromise provided that only three-fifths of each state’s slave population would be counted to determine the number of representatives each state would have in the House of Representatives.

As originally ratified, the Constitution did not embrace full equality between the races. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, superseded the Three-fifths Compromise, yet American history is replete with incidents of rank racial prejudice. Segregated public schools were abolished by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, but Texas, and much of America, resisted implementing equal public education.

Numerous other examples of challenges for today’s teachers are hamstrung by Texas’ shallow new law. These include the role of women in society, the Jim Crow laws that propped up racial segregation, gender equality and equal opportunities in higher education, the arts and the professions.

In order to honor our teachers, we must trust them. Dedicated teachers have the potential to whet an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. To accomplish their mission, teachers must not be shackled by bogus bugaboos that students will somehow be indoctrinated by dangerous information if they are taught both the beautiful and the profane that are part of history and evolving society.

It is also critical that teachers be recognized, honored and valued for their dedication to education. One way of honoring teachers is to compensate them properly for their dedication and the importance of their work.

Based on teacher salary schedules in the Houston and Dallas school districts, the average base 10-month salary for a teacher with 25 years of experience is less than $75,000 with benefits. Additional compensation may raise pay to approximately $100,000 based upon measuring student progress, teacher certifications and incentives.

Still, compensation for Texas’ public school teachers remains inadequate. Teachers fill multiple roles. Besides classroom teaching, today’s public school teachers spend countless hours preparing lessons, counseling students and documenting their efforts in required state and federal paperwork. Simply put, under the best of circumstances, compensation for public school teachers is inadequate.

Rather than laboring over critical race theory, Gov. Abbott and the Texas Legislature should direct their attentions toward adopting a compensation system that will attract and reward excellent teachers. This is just one way of showing respect for our educators. By improving pay for public school teachers, Texas can make a meaningful investment that will yield a real bounty for students and the public good.

A version of this editorial appeared in the Sept. 16, 2021, issue of the Jewish Herald-Voice of Houston.

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