State Watch

States race to prevent teacher strikes by boosting pay

State legislators across the country are planning big pay increases for teachers in hopes of avoiding politically perilous strikes that embarrassed officials in several states last year.

 

The push for higher salaries in many states comes from an unlikely source: Republicans who have been reluctant to spend state money, especially on employees who belong to Democratic-leaning unions.

 

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), a staunch conservative, has proposed increasing teacher salaries by $5,000 across the board, an expense that would cost the state $3.7 billion over two years.

 

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) has proposed a $3,000 increase, at a cost of $418 million. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) wants to give teachers a 5 percent pay raise, totaling about $155 million.

 

Some Republicans acknowledge that their motives in hiking teacher salaries come in response to protests last year that rocked red states like Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, where teachers forced school closures and descended on state capitals demanding better pay.

 

"We've seen with Oklahoma and their strike last year, it's time to take teachers in general more seriously than we have," said South Carolina state Rep. Neal Collins (R), who backs McMaster's plan. "Legislators are understanding how important" teachers unions have become.

 

Two Southern politicians running for governor this year - Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), who is seeking reelection, and Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R), running to succeed a retiring governor - both say they will make teacher pay hikes a top priority during their 2019 legislative sessions.

 

Arkansas legislators will debate increasing teacher salaries over the next three years, under a bill introduced this week. 

 

In Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) this week proposed using billions in state reserve funds to pay down pension liabilities, saving the state $140 million. He proposed giving all of those savings to teachers in the form of pay hikes.

 

"Teachers are starting to be more vocal about what's actually going on in the classrooms and how it impacts them in their day-to-day lives," said Indiana state Sen. Eddie Melton (D), who wants to boost teacher pay by about twice as much as Holcomb has proposed.

 

"We have to be more competitive in our pay for first-time, starting out teachers, as well as making sure we retain our teachers."

 

The phenomenon is not confined to red states: Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) used his first State of the State address this week to ask the Democratic-controlled legislature to raise teacher pay by 3 percent.

 

Labor policy experts say the proposals come amid a renewed focus on working conditions in public schools, a teacher shortage that is contributing to larger class sizes and unrest among teachers who are at high risk of quitting their jobs and moving to another state.

 

The red-state strikes last year have lent a sense of urgency to lawmakers this year.

 

"There was a real wake-up call about the conditions under which teachers have been working for the past few decades," said Jon Shelton, a labor historian at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

 

"Those spontaneously organized statewide strikes in places like Oklahoma, West Virginia, you shut down the whole state. There's very little the legislature can do except meet the demands of teachers."

 

Randi Weingarten, who heads the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teacher's union, said an ongoing teacher strike in Los Angeles has added to the urgency.

 

Los Angeles teachers have been on strike for a week, demanding higher wages and benefits.

 

"No educator wants to go on strike, but the possibility of using a strike or a walkout to try to address what is a legitimate need has become real in 2018," Weingarten said in an interview.

 

She said the red-state teacher strikes last year "made it clear that this is a viable option if all else has been exhausted."

 

Studies have found that teacher pay has decreased over time. What was once a profession in which workers earned more than similarly-educated peers in other industries has now become a job in which those workers earn less than people with other types of jobs.

 

A September report from the center-left Economic Policy Institute found the average weekly wages of a public school teacher decreased, when adjusted for inflation, between 1996 and 2017, while weekly wages for college graduates in other fields rose. 

 

The recession has made things worse, too: By 2016, half of states were still spending less on education than they were before the recession began.

 

"Our economy's improving, and education in general took a big hit during the Great Recession. We're recovering, and part of that recovery is paying the teachers better," South Carolina's Collins said.

 

At the same time, fewer Americans are choosing to become teachers, and the industry is seen as less desirable than it has been in the past. 

 

In 2009, 70 percent of parents said they would support their children becoming public school teachers, according to a survey by the PDK Educational Foundation.

 

In 2018, just 46 percent of parents said the same - the first time since the foundation began polling in 1969 that a majority of parents said they did not want their children to become teachers.

 

"It's harder to keep people in the classroom because they feel like the job's unstable, the pay's not where it needs to be. And when you have a tighter labor market nationally, there's better jobs in the private sector," Shelton said.

 

Legislators are concerned that attracting and keeping teachers in the classroom will get harder in coming years.

 

Fewer Americans are entering teaching programs, according to the Center for Public Education, and the U.S. Department of Education reports dozens of states have hundreds or thousands of teaching vacancies. 

 

"I hear about teacher pay a good bit, but I actually hear more about quality of life and quality of career," Collins said. "It's a huge issue in South Carolina and it's only going to get worse."

 

"Even a substantial salary increase in a few states is not going to solve this problem," Shelton said. "We're going to continue to see this be a major political issue for a couple of years."

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