It began with West Virginia – nearly two weeks of protests by teachers across the state, demanding higher wages and objecting to rising monthly insurance costs. Ranked 47th in the United States for teacher salaries at an estimated $45,622 per year, West Virginia is already facing a teacher shortage crisis that is resulting in high student to teacher ratios, canceled classes, and the hiring of non-certified or inadequately qualified teachers. And while the state’s shortage has proved to be a tool of leverage for educators to pressure lawmakers into approving a 5 percent salary increase, their protests’ success have struck a match that has lit the torches for teachers across Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina.
The teachers’ protests across Oklahoma officially ended last month, after nine days of walkouts. Despite a $50 million increase in education funding and pay raises for teachers and support staff, protesters went home without their demands being met for full raises or sufficient classroom funding. But Oklahoma’s fight for public education is not over just yet — protesters plan to take their grievances to the polls for the 2018 midterm elections.
In Kentucky, teachers rallied for increased funding for public education at the state’s Capitol in Frankfurt. In response, lawmakers in Kentucky overrode Gov. Matt Bevin’s veto of legislation that would raise spending for public education within the state.
And in Arizona, amidst rallies, sit-ins, and echoes of protest by the state’s educators, lawmakers have presented a budget package that would restore $100 million of the nearly $400 million in budget cuts endured by state’s public education system during the recession. But teachers, administrators and support staff say this isn’t enough. In addition to low wages, educators are calling for more funding for books, buses, buildings, and equipment that are broken, outdated, and insufficient.
In a 2015 study by the Economic Policy Institute, teachers’ average weekly wages across the country have been decreasing by roughly $30 per week since 1996 (when adjusted for inflation). And when measured against the wages of other professionals with a college degree, teacher pay is relatively low. Given these long-term trends, why are teachers marching now?
“There was a disinvestment in education and in teacher salaries, which didn’t keep up with inflation,” said Danielle Gonzales, Assistant Director for Policy with the Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program. “There were cuts in 2008-2009 as a result of the recession, and state legislatures haven’t re-upped the funding levels to where they were in 2008-2009, so there’s a need for increased investment in education merely to catch up.”
Gonzales added that a growing need for teacher agency and “the emergence of social media as an organizing tool” have spurred the movement of protest by educators across the nation.
“I think that schools and systems should be thinking about teachers as professionals, valuing them for the intellectually demanding work that they do, and ensuring that they have the agency to advocate for their needs and the needs of their students,” said Gonzales. “Teachers have to develop new assignments, are doing a lot of development of instructional materials and curriculum, have to support students’ social and emotional needs, have to help students with supports that had typically been outside of school, like housing and nutrition and clothing. Recognizing all of that, I think, is a challenge for many folks in elected office. That’s hard, then, for teachers to get their voice heard.”
The issue is a complex one – a debate that straddles the balance of a range of budgetary obligations by states and the need to prioritize education. Beyond that balance, Gonzales said that “supporting teachers’ compensation based on progression” could allow educators to govern their own profession like lawyers and doctors do. She added that teachers should be compensated for the greater responsibility that they undertake in developing high-quality curricula, training other teachers, and teaching students in larger class sizes.
It’s unclear how many states will feel the domino effect of teacher protests. For now, though, teachers are on a roll as educators in Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina raise their picket signs.