A wave of teacher strikes that hit last spring has been the education story of 2018. And the strikes aren’t stopping any time soon. Before September was a week old, the United Teachers of Los Angeles had voted to authorize a strike in the nation’s second-largest school district. And the first day of classes was scratched in more than half a dozen Washington State school systems as teachers struck because of standoffs with school districts over how to allocate $2 billion in new court-ordered spending for teacher pay.
The strikes began last February, when West Virginia teachers staged a nine-day walkout. It wasn’t technically a strike (it’s illegal in West Virginia for teachers to strike). Rather, teachers announced an intent to walk off the job and — in a development that has since been repeated time and again — superintendents shuttered schools in order to avoid confronting or sanctioning teachers.
West Virginia teachers were demanding a 5 percent pay raise at a time when their average yearly pay of $45,555 ranked 49th in the nation. Between 1992 and 2014, real teacher pay in West Virginia fell 3 percent, even as real per-pupil spending increased 39 percent. After nearly two weeks of shuttered schools, the legislature acceded — boosting average pay by a little over $2,000 a year.
West Virginia’s teachers triumphed, won glowing coverage from the press, and faced no obvious backlash from parents or politicians. That served as catnip to teachers across the land. After years of feeling scapegoated by reformers, abandoned by the Obama administration, and ignored by Republicans, teachers found the taste of victory thrilling — especially when it came in the heart of Trump country.
Imitators soon followed. In Oklahoma, where pay ranked 50th in the nation, at $45,292 per year, teachers won a 16 percent raise and additional school funding before a walkout even began. The teachers proceeded to walk out anyway, seeking added dollars and various other concessions. Those hopes were rebuffed, but, even after the walkout proved pointless, teachers returned to work buoyed by a wave of goodwill. In Arizona, a threatened walkout prompted Republican governor Doug Ducey to preemptively meet the teachers’ demand by offering a 20 percent pay bump; again, the teachers walked out anyway.
Teacher success fed on itself, with the resolution of one strike becoming the opening bid in the next. There were also a number of more-limited job actions in places such as Kentucky, North Carolina, and Colorado. Teacher gains in these locales were far more modest, but none was seen as a defeat for teachers.
Meanwhile, few governors or legislators, Democrat or Republican, were eager to challenge the teachers. In fact, many seemed eager to support the walkouts, legal or not. West Virginia’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, said: “We have reached a deal. I stood rock solid on the 5 percent teacher pay raise and delivered.” In Arizona, Governor Ducey enthused: “This is a real win for our teachers, for our kids, for our educators in the classroom.”
Easy to miss is that much of the activity was driven more by grassroots action than by union bosses. In West Virginia, teachers ignored their union’s call to return to school until legislators ratified their raise. Education outlet The 74 reported that walkouts in Kentucky and Oklahoma mostly lacked the support of union leaders, who were “gun-shy about provoking state authorities.” The Arizona walkout was orchestrated by Arizona Educators United, a private Facebook group that rapidly evolved into an organization of 50,000.
News coverage of the strikes was fawning and showed a subtle but distinct pro-strike bias. As my analysis for the American Enterprise Institute revealed, major newspaper stories included pro-strike quotes five times as often as critical ones, almost never quoted families, largely ignored the cost of teacher pensions and health care, and offered no sense of how teachers’ pay compared with that of other households in the same state.
All of this had the nation’s teachers feeling more empowered than they had in a long while. Indeed, public support for teachers is the highest it’s been in years. Education Next’s annual poll found that two-thirds of respondents thought teachers in their state deserved a raise. Fifty-three percent supported the right of teachers to strike, while just 32 percent were opposed. And respondents rated 56 percent of the teachers in their local schools “excellent” or “good.”
Then, in June, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that states could no longer require non-members to pay agency fees to public-sector unions, striking down laws in 22 states. The nation’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, projected that, over the next two years, it would lose 300,000 members (10 percent of its membership) and $50 million in revenue. In recent years, when individual states have abolished agency fees, teachers’ unions have seen dramatic drops in membership — from 21 percent in Michigan to 52 percent in Wisconsin. Yet the ramifications of Janus are far from clear: Some blue states have signaled plans to resist the Court’s decision, hoping that a future Democratic administration will find a way to mitigate it, and the weakening of union authority may increase the odds of wildcat actions from radicalized teachers organized via social media.
Given where things stand, what’s the right way forward?
For starters, here’s the bizarre dynamic at the heart of all this: Teachers have a legitimate gripe about take-home pay, even though school spending keeps going up. Nationally, teacher pay actually declined by 2 percent from 1992 to 2014, even as real per-pupil spending grew by 27 percent. This disparity is particularly evident in strike states such as Kentucky and West Virginia, where teacher pay fell even as real per-pupil spending increased by more than 35 percent.
This dynamic is mostly a product of two things. One is that schools have added staff — particularly support staff — at a rate that far outpaces growth in student enrollment. In West Virginia, student enrollment fell by 12 percent between 1992 and 2014 even as the number of non-teaching staff grew by 10 percent. In Kentucky, over that period, the non-teaching work force grew by 41 percent — six times as fast as student enrollment. Nationally, between 1992 and 2014, student enrollment grew by 20 percent, the number of teachers by 29 percent — and non-teaching staff by 47 percent.
The second reason salaries have fallen despite increased spending is that teacher pensions and health care have cannibalized paychecks. Between 2003 and 2014, even as teacher salaries declined, the per-teacher cost of benefits rocketed from $14,000 to $21,000. An outsized share of this spending flows to retirees and to propping up underfunded pension systems — doing nothing for those working in classrooms today. As former Obama-administration official Chad Aldeman has calculated, West Virginia teachers could receive a salary boost of more than $11,000 each, tomorrow, if the state had no pension-debt costs.
Teachers have a strong case, but they’ll do well not to overplay their hand. Their public support is more fragile than the poll numbers and walkout wins might suggest. That’s because the public thinks teachers earn a lot less than they do, and that schools spend less than they do. In the 2018 Education Next poll, respondents guessed that the average teacher in their state earned just over $40,000 — whereas, in 2015–16, it was actually over $58,000. The average respondent also guessed that schools spent $8,600 a year per pupil, when the real figure (back in 2013–14) was $12,900, or 50 percent higher. When the public is provided the real numbers, support for increased spending on schools declines from 59 percent to 47 percent. For increased teacher pay, support plunges from 67 percent to 48 percent.
There’s a win-win lurking here. But it requires a willingness to rethink how teachers are paid and school dollars are spent. After all, real K–12 spending has grown by 400 percent over the past 50 years — yet few would argue that it has delivered satisfactory teacher pay, much less the hoped-for outcomes. Reform without dollars isn’t practical or politically viable, but dollars without reform is a failed recipe — one primed to sow the seeds of taxpayer rebellion. Given that, a serious deal must have four parts.
First, it will require a willingness to acknowledge that teachers are woefully underpaid in many states. In one-third of the nation, the average teacher earns less than $50,000 a year. Teaching is important work and, if they wish to attract and retain talented professionals, schools need to pay teachers like talented professionals. In many states, this means a serious deal will require some additional revenue.
Second, new funds should not subsidize outdated pay systems that reward seniority and overpay lousy teachers. Too many terrific teachers spend their summers tending bars or painting houses. Some educators are especially gifted instructors, leaders, curriculum designers, and mentors. Compensation should reflect that, and should explore models that turn teaching from a ten-month gig into a genuinely year-long profession.
Third, pay for teachers has to be paired with a commitment to trimming bureaucratic bloat. Eighty percent of school spending is for salaries and benefits. So long as inertia-fueled school systems keep adding bodies, it’s a Sisyphean task to dramatically boost teacher pay. On the other hand, trimming a half dozen low-level administrators can fund a $10,000-per-year bump for 50 or more classroom educators. Teachers and state officials need to press districts to downsize the ranks of clerks and coaches and to move those dollars into teacher pay.
Finally, it’s essential to overhaul benefits. This year alone, and with a potential strike looming, Los Angeles is spending $2,300 per pupil on health benefits for teachers. So long as school systems are bound by this status quo, it’s tough to make the math work on a dramatic boost in take-home pay. Meanwhile, today’s anachronistic pension systems penalize young teachers, teachers who move across state lines, and teachers who enter teaching as a second profession. Former Obama hand Aldeman notes that, for every ten dollars that states and districts contribute to pension plans, seven dollars go toward paying down past pension debt and just three to benefits for current teachers. Any serious deal needs to address the cost and design of benefits and help get pension funds on a path to solvency.
Policymakers should be on the side of teachers, but standing with teachers can’t mean betraying the trust of students, families, or taxpayers. If today’s policymakers are willing to tackle administrative bloat and anachronistic compensation systems, it’s possible to boost teacher pay by 20 percent, pay terrific teachers six figures, leave class sizes stable, and do it with a measured, disciplined increase in revenue. That’s a deal that teachers, taxpayers, and solution-oriented public officials should all be able to accept.