Article by Meghan Beakley
While most public schools in America were opening the doors to the start of a new school year last month, nine public schools across Washington remained closed. The start of school was canceled while teachers continued a month-long protest at the capitol, demanding higher wages and refusing to go back to work until their demands were met.
The teacher strikes in Washington kept schools closed for about two weeks in most places. The school year finally began after teachers were granted double-digit raises: anywhere from 10.5 to 16.7 percent depending on the district.
While the strike in Washington was comparatively smaller in scope, it is reminiscent of a trend started late last school year in West Virginia. For nine days at the end of February 2018, West Virginia schools closed while teachers were on strike. In early April, Oklahoma and Kentucky followed suit. Close to five percent of teachers in the U.S. have gone on strike in 2018 alone and a total of nine states have seen statewide strikes or protests of some form.
The wave of discontent that swept schools across the nation raised many questions about what it is like to be an educator in America. It brought to the forefront issues that teachers and other school employees face on a daily basis. For several months earlier this year, the news cycle was dominated by stories about low teacher salaries, minimal benefits, and a lack of resources in public schools all over the country.
But now that a new school year is underway, just how much is different? Did the strikes change anything? Can we expect more strikes this year? And just how difficult is it to be a teacher in America?
The answer to these questions are complicated. In the U.S., teaching conditions vary widely by state, city, and region. For example, a teacher in Philadelphia is likely facing very different working conditions than a teacher in State College. While this is to be expected given the vast fluctuations in wealth and socioeconomic status among different areas of the country, there is another culprit that has an even bigger effect on teaching in America: the decentralized nature of our education system.
While some countries are characterized by highly regulated education systems, the U.S. is not one of them. In America, the bulk of the responsibility for regulating education falls on state and local governments rather than on the federal government. This means that the requirements established and amount of funding distributed vary greatly between states and school districts.
In Pennsylvania, for instance, less than one third of all education funding comes from the federal government. The other two thirds is divided between state and local government, and the money from local government comes almost entirely from property taxes. As can be expected, this causes huge disparities among districts as some areas have much higher tax rates than others, allowing wealthier communities to receive more education funding.
So what does this matter in the ongoing battle between teachers and governments across the U.S.? It means that teaching in a poorer state like Oklahoma is comparatively more challenging than teaching in a wealthier state like New York.
This is evident in data from teachers’ salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for an elementary teacher in the U.S. is $55,490 a year. It’s $58,030 a year for high school teachers. The average salary for all occupations across the U.S. is $48,642 a year. Looking only at these numbers, it would seem that teachers are doing pretty well, salary-wise. But by digging deeper into the data, problems that were not evident before begin to emerge.
In Oklahoma, teachers make an average annual salary of roughly $42,000. The average annual household income in Oklahoma is about $48,000. By comparison, in New York – one of the wealthiest states in the U.S. and the highest paying state for teachers – the average household income is about $61,000 a year, and teachers in New York report an annual salary of about $79,000. This means that teachers in New York are making nearly $20,000 more than the average household income for their state, whereas in Oklahoma teachers are making about $6,000 less than the average household income. This sweeping inconsistency demonstrates the vast differences in salaries for teachers in different parts of the country.
In many of this past year’s strikes there were some victories in the fight for higher teacher salaries. In Arizona, teachers won a 20 percent pay raise after a six day strike closed more than 1,000 schools. Likewise, West Virginia saw a five percent pay raise for all state employees, including teachers. Colorado and Oklahoma also saw minimal raises.
But salaries aren’t the only thing teachers were protesting. Issues such as pensions, benefits, and classroom funding were also major talking points in the strikes last spring. In West Virginia, one of the biggest reasons teachers were on strike was for better health insurance benefits. Teachers in Kentucky protested about their pensions. And it seems that teachers in many states are asking for more classroom funding.
In mid-April, teachers in Colorado rallied at the state capitol for increased school funding. Colorado teachers make roughly $55,000 a year, about the national average. However, the Colorado Education Association claims that schools are still underfunded by over $800 million dollars. This money is typically used for resources such as books, supplies, and technology.
After the upheaval of last year’s teacher strikes, should we expect to see similar events this year? To answer that question, I talked to Dr. Mimi Schaub, Assistant Professor of Education at Penn State.
“What’s unusual this year is that it’s whole states,” said Dr. Schaub. “We’re seeing teachers rallying as a whole group. It’s an amazing thing.”
Dr. Schaub noted that while last year was not the first time teachers had gone on strike, it was one of the first times strikes occurred on such a large scale. Previously, they had been largely isolated to specific cities and school districts, such as the 2012 strikes in Chicago and the 2015 strikes in Seattle.
Another aspect that made last year’s teacher strikes unique was the call for increased funding. According to Dr. Schaub, that is something that’s ordinarily demanded by parents, not educators.
“It’s unusual to see that fall to the teachers,” said Dr. Schaub. “Teachers don’t normally take the lead on that.”
Despite the unrest though, many teachers still love their jobs, and even look forward to starting a new school year. For many it is a “labor of love,” and they wouldn’t dream of doing anything else.
“You won’t get rich, but it’s pretty neat,” said Jill Broderic, an English language arts teacher and newspaper advisor at Palmyra Area High School in South Central Pennsylvania.
Broderic, who has taught at Palmyra for 24 years, explained that despite the challenges teachers face from the constantly “changing nature of education,” she still enjoys her job.
“I think the best way to deal with challenges is to…remain true to why you went in [to the field] in the first place,” she said.
Indeed, when most teachers are asked why they went into the profession, they almost always talk about making a difference in the lives of students. Nonetheless, the issue of money is still important. As Broderic put it, teachers are people too, with families to support and bills to pay, and if you want high quality teachers, you have to be willing to compensate accordingly.
“There has to come a time when people pay for what they want,” she said. “We have to remember that lawmakers are people too, and unless they’re pushed, unless they’re pressured, they’re not going to budge.”
Feature Image: Tacoma Teachers Strike. Striking teachers in Tacoma Public Schools gather on September 13, 2018. Image Credit: Ted S. Warren/AP Photo