The first organization of teachers in Texas was an association formed at Austin in December 1871 with William Carey Crane as president and Sebron G. Sneed, Jr., as secretary. The group seems to have been somewhat inactive until 1879, when it was reorganized as the Austin Teachers Association and Crane was again chosen president. In 1877 the North Texas Educational Association was organized in Dallas with J. M. Richardson as its president. The expressed purpose of both of these associations was the advancement of education in Texas. In 1880 Crane and J. R. Malone, then president of the North Texas Association, agreed that the cause of education in the state could best be served through a union of the two groups. Accordingly a joint meeting of the two organizations was called at Mexia for June 29, 1880, and the Texas State Teachers Association was organized with Malone as its first president. In its early days the Texas State Teachers Association was a loosely organized body with few powers. It was not authorized to own property; it was not recognized by the courts as a legal entity; it had no credit and very limited financial resources. In 1923 the organization was incorporated under the laws of Texas. In 1994 it had a permanent fund of $4.5 million and an annual operating budget of $11 million. It was headquartered in Austin and published a monthly newspaper, the Texas State Teachers Association Advocate, for its membership.
During the first years of the organization's life, its membership was composed of only a few hundred white teachers, each of whom paid one dollar per year dues. As of 1994 membership to TSTA was open to all teachers of Pre-K-12. The organization also offered membership to teachers in higher education as well as students planning to become teachers. Members pay $300 a year in dues. In 1994 membership stood at 96,000 with 631 chapters throughout the state. With a staff of 129 TSTA operated twenty-two regional offices in various metropolitan areas.
The Texas State Teachers Association works for the progress of education in Texas by seeking to improve the quality of instruction by raising the qualifications of teachers, studying the educational problems of the state, and making the results of these studies available to members. Through the circulation of its publications and through its annual conventions it seeks to develop among its members a professional consciousness and a sense of social responsibility. Through its department of public relations it informs lay groups, including members of the legislature and other state officials, concerning the educational needs of Texas and promotes legislation for the removal of illiteracy and for the development of the state's human and material resources. Since its beginning the Texas State Teachers Association has been closely identified with all phases of educational progress in the state. At its first meeting in Mexia in 1880 a committee, of which Oscar Henry Cooper was chairman, was appointed to draw up a plan for the organization of a state university. The twelve recommendations of this committee were embodied in Governor Oran M. Roberts's message to the legislature, which in 1881 passed the law establishing the University of Texas. In 1883 leaders of the association, aided by Roberts, secured the passage of a constitutional amendment providing for a district school system and for the levying of local taxes for school support. In 1884 the association led the educational forces of the state in securing the passage of a law establishing the office of state superintendent of public instruction. In 1887, through the organized efforts of the teachers of Texas, a law was passed providing for a county superintendent of schools.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the organization's primary goals were to secure retirement benefits and to improve the pay scale. In 1949 TSTA supported the passage of the Minimum Foundation School Program, which provided for a $2,403 minimum salary and reorganized the Texas educational system. In 1953 the association secured the passage of four bills improving the Teacher Retirement System of Texas; in 1954 it cosponsored legislation establishing an across-the-board increase of $402 in the minimum foundation salary schedule. The association sponsored a major legislative program in 1955, which, after its enactment into law, provided additional benefits for teachers and strengthened the teacher retirement system. In 1957 the association sponsored legislation that secured a $399 per year increase for teachers and increased allowances for administrators. In 1961 the association secured the enactment of a bill that provided an $810 base salary raise and increments for public school teachers based on teaching experience. Legislation improving the teacher retirement program was sponsored and passed in 1963, followed by another salary increase in 1964. By 1965 the association had gained a teacher pay raise bill that provided a monthly increase in salary for teachers, a new increment schedule, and an additional amount to be used by local school boards to supplement salaries of some teachers. By 1969 the association had obtained a three-year teacher pay raise bill and a retirement bill.
In the 1970s the association continued to lobby the legislature for better wages for teachers but it took a more active position by endorsing and supporting candidates through its political action committee, TSTA-PAC. In 1974 its membership reached a record high of 162,000, comprising 90 percent of all Texas teachers. That number dropped in 1975 when the group affiliated with the National Education Association, at which time 65,000 members walked out of TSTA. Central to their concerns over affiliation was NEA's support of collective bargaining, which would allow teachers to strike. A major success of the organization in the 1980s was the passage of Senate Bill 341, the Term Contract Nonrenewal Act. This law provided that a school board give a teacher written notification on or before April of nonrenewal for the following school year. The notice must also include the reasons for dismissal. Under the new law a teacher had a right to a hearing before the board with his or her legal representative present. When the education reform movement, headed by H. Ross Perot, pushed through House Bill 72 in the mid-1980s, TSTA took a neutral position. They recognized the need for reform but were apprehensive about the restructuring of the teacher pay scale that the bill provided. The organization also voiced concerns about the ways in which the law held teachers and students accountable. After HB 72 the group lobbied for full funding of the career ladder and for improvements in teacher appraisal procedures. They also sought to have class size limitations extended through the twelfth grade.