Fear of strikes forcing states to give teachers much-needed raises

Fear of strikes forcing states to give teachers much-needed raises
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Last year, teacher strikes and walkouts took state capitols by storm across the country. In these states and far too many others, average teacher pay has stagnated and state disinvestment in education has become chronic.

Last year, teachers reached their boiling point, and the #RedforEd movement was a last resort to remedy a dire situation.

Teacher strikes have continued into 2019, this time mostly in large urban school districts with high costs of living, like Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland. One of the things that these districts have in common is that they are located within states — Colorado and California — that experts say have also chronically underfunded their education systems.

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By and large, the strikes and walkouts have worked. Teachers were able to extract major concessions from states that had historically been reluctant to fund education, including a 5 percent raise for teachers in West Virginia; a 19-percent increase in the school funding formula in Oklahoma; and a 20-percent raise for teachers in Arizona.  

Increasing teacher pay is popular, with three-fourths of adults reporting that they think teacher pay is too low and a little over half supporting teacher strikes.

Support for increasing teacher pay was higher in states that had walkouts in 2018, a testament to the urgency of need in some states where education funding had dropped precipitously since the 2008 recession and never recovered.

Students and families in these states could see what a decade of underfunding meant for their schools: dilapidated textbooks, crumbling classrooms that were too hot or too cold for learning and teachers in poorly-paid states leaving for better-paying jobs.  

The popularity of the first wave of teacher strikes also had a secondary effect. Suddenly, increasing teacher salaries and education funding was good politics no matter your party affiliation.

Notorious budget slashers like former Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) and Gov. Doug Ducey (R-Ariz.) pulled an about-face and ran on their proposals to increase funding in the 2018 election.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md.) ran on a claim of spending a “record amount” on education even though his state’s spending on K-12 education has yet to bounce back to pre-recession levels. 

This year, as governors have begun outlining their priorities through state of the state addresses and budget proposals, plans to remedy low teacher salaries and per pupil spending have been on the agenda — even in deep red states like Georgia, Indiana, and Texas. So far in 2019, 20 governors have called for increases in teacher pay.

This is good news because teachers really need a raise. While it varies significantly by state, the average starting teacher salary in the U.S. in 2016-17 was $38,617, and teachers earn 19 percent below the pay of other college graduates.

To make ends meet, teachers often work second jobs and some who are breadwinners are eligible for public assistance programs.  

It is also heartening that new investments in education are being proposed in unexpected places because we now have a growing body of research that demonstrates the importance of education funding, particularly for students from families with low incomes.

States that experienced significant declines in spending after the Great Recession saw a decline in reading and math test scores and lower graduation rates.

Conversely, when states have made new investments in education, it was associated with increased graduation rates, higher incomes in adulthood and a lower risk of poverty; these benefits were greatest for students from families with low incomes. 

But there is still more to be done. While more than half of all states have now seen funding rebound back to pre-2008 levels or higher, many states that made the deepest cuts have yet to recover.

This means that schools have been expected to do more with less in states like Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama and Kentucky for a decade, the entire school career of most kids currently attending public schools.

It’s also not enough to just raise funding levels overall. A recent study found that predominantly non-white school districts receive $23 billion less than predominantly white districts. States and the federal government must do more to address these massive funding disparities by race and income level. 

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The changing political landscape around teacher salaries and education funding is a shift in the right direction, but there is also reason for caution.

While some conservative policymakers who previously championed budget cuts are now embracing the need to invest in education, others are introducing bills that would punish teachers who walk out, threatening them with a loss of license or even jail time.

There is also a certain irony to a few governors wanting credit for increasing school funding when it was their policy choices — namely tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations — that led to chronic disinvestment in the first place.

Investing in education, including by raising teacher salaries to a professional wage in order to recruit and retain a talented and diverse workforce, is one of the smartest decisions a state policymaker can make.

It is wonderful that the tide has finally shifted in favor of paying teachers better and giving students the resources they need to succeed. But after a decade of too many policymakers choosing tax cuts over investing in schools, now is no time to let off the gas. 

Lisette Partelow is the senior director of K-12 Strategic Initiatives at the Center for American Progress.