The teacher walkouts began in West Virginia, where public school employees were woefully underpaid and faced spiraling health care costs. They stayed out for nine days and won a 5 percent salary increase. Oklahoma teachers soon followed suit, seeking a raise and increased education funding for their schools and students. They too won concessions. Then came Kentucky teachers, angry because the state planned to restructure their pensions for the worse. Starting Thursday, public school teachers in Arizona will walk out. On Friday several districts in Colorado will be closed.
What is happening? Almost all these states are red states, controlled by Republicans. Almost all are right-to-work states, with weak unions. Yet in these states, teachers have said enough is enough. Typically, it has not been their unions that spurred the walkouts. Time and again, the uprisings were from the grass roots, beginning with a page on social media calling other teachers to get together and protest working conditions.
As educators often say, teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. It is not merely low pay that is sending the teachers into the streets: It is also large class sizes, obsolete textbooks, crumbling buildings and the fact that many teachers — already underpaid — are shelling out $1,000 or more each year to pay for classroom supplies that their schools no longer provide.
In short, teachers are calling on their legislatures to fund their schools and their students adequately.
For years, the red states have been working from a common playbook: low taxes for corporations and budget cuts for schools, universities and other public services.
The result? Many teachers have to work two or three jobs — sometimes even more ― to feed their families, pay their mortgages and make their car payments. Some move in with their parents. Some leave the state and look for work where they can make a living wage. Teacher shortages are growing, especially in hard-to-staff positions teaching mathematics and science and educating students with disabilities.
What started the rebellion? It might have been sheer exasperation from their efforts to obtain fair wages for the important work they do for other people’s children.
Perhaps it was encouraged by the example of the fearless students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who launched a national movement for gun control after a massacre at their school on Valentine’s Day. (The West Virginia walkout began on Feb. 22.)
Most certainly the teachers agreed that they could not continue to live on promises, praise and low wages.
To understand the teacher uprisings, look at the data compiled by researchers at the Education Law Center and professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University in the report “Is School Funding Fair?” The answer is no. Public school funding is not fair. Nor is it adequate in most states.
New York spent the most per pupil in 2015; Idaho spent the least, only about one-third of what was spent in New York. Other states at the bottom of the spending ranks, in ascending order, are Arizona, North Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee, Nevada and Florida. With the exception of Nevada, their legislatures are solidly red. (Although Utah was one of the lowest-spending states, it was tops in the nation for spreading its meager funding fairly among poor and wealthy schools.) Watch these states for future teacher walkouts.
The ability to attract and retain good teachers is crucial to the success of state school systems. When it comes to salaries, according to the report, teachers on average earn about 82 percent of their similarly educated counterparts who enter other fields. The best states in terms of wage competitiveness in 2015 were Wyoming, Alaska and Iowa. The least competitive were Colorado, New Hampshire, Virginia, Utah, Washington, Georgia, Arizona, Missouri and Texas. In those states, teachers earned 69 to 75 percent of what their comparably qualified counterparts in other fields made.
The somber conclusion of this report is that most states have underinvested in education. Most do not provide enough funding for disadvantaged children to achieve even average outcomes.
Americans want good public schools, good roads, well-prepared emergency response departments and other public services.
But we are not willing to pay for it.
Another important study, by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, found that many states were spending less on K-12 education than they were a decade ago, when the depression of 2008 struck. After that bruising economic crisis, public spending on schools never recovered.
Public investment in K-12 schools — crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity — has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade. Worse, some of the deepest-cutting states have also cut income tax rates, weakening their main revenue source for supporting schools.
As of 2015, there were 29 states whose spending on education had not increased since 2008, even as student enrollments went up and inflation increased costs. Several of those states cut income taxes — Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma ― while they refused to increase spending on their schools from 2008 levels. Thus the funding source for schools shrank.
America cannot retain its position as a global leader unless it educates its children well. Investing in our children is investing in our future. The states’ refusal to pay teachers appropriately, as professionals, is an admission by their leaders that they don’t care about tomorrow and they don’t care about the children of their constituents.
The push for charter schools and vouchers is simply a way of changing the subject. Privatization benefits the 1 percent, who don’t want to pay more taxes, but it does not address the funding inequities that rob our students and teachers.
Until now, we have been a world leader in science, medicine, technology, music, entertainment, the arts, sports and higher education. We can thank our teachers for that. Without the groundwork they provide, none of these achievements are possible.
If we kill our future, it hurts everyone. Without well-supported, professional teachers, we are nowhere.
Diane Ravitch is a research professor of education at New York University and the founder and president of the Network for Public Education. She is the author of 11 books, most recently Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, and blogs daily at DianeRavitch.net.