Pay Teachers Better and Don't Stop There

Teachers have been striking across the country for better pay and benefits since early this spring.  The strikes began in West Virginia and were followed by more in Oklahoma and demonstrations in both Kentucky and Arizona.

The focus in the wake of the strike in West Virginia has largely been on gains for teachers but there are other issues that matter.  Protecting teachers from being fired, providing for health insurance, and giving real raises for teachers with experience are enormously important, but they are but one part of the puzzle.  They will almost certainly necessarily require expansion of state funding for schools (perhaps widespread demonstrations will put pressure on the Federal government as well), but how much it increases overall funding depends as well on how much states are willing and able to cut in other areas.

Left-wing publications heralded the strike in West Virginia as a victory for labor.  That, it was, but focusing purely on the labor side of the equation can also obscure the purpose of the strikes in the first place.  

The goal of a strike on a factory floor is to improve working conditions, the ability of the workers to do their jobs and build cars or can vegetables or sew clothes for the employer can only increase.  Except at the margins, the management cannot stop maintaining machinery or buying steel or vegetables or leather to fund the demands of labor because they will have nothing to sell. The purpose of a traditional strike is to withhold labor from the employer until declining to improve conditions is less profitable than acceding.

But the government has no immediate financial interest in well-educated first graders.  The price they pay during a teacher strike is political. When that cost becomes too high, the government will acquiesce.  The difference is that there is no immediate cost if the administration meets the demands of the striking teachers by diverting money from the “machinery” of education.  Students still show up. Students still leave. The government still pays what it pays. The theoretical cost in future tax revenue from a decline in the quality of education is so obscured by the long time-horizon as to be irrelevant.

To be clear, teachers have a right to a livable wage and deserve a wage commensurate with the amount of work they do and the importance of their job.  Teachers can and should strike for the respect inherent in a reasonable wage for their work. Teacher pay, however, is an incomplete consideration. Teachers are paid to teach students.  They should be paid well to teach well and great teachers are utterly indispensable. A good teacher can overcome extraordinary deficits in materials and facilities, but even an extraordinary teacher can only do so much.

My concern is that political courage begins and ends with teachers and that teachers will win victories from resistant legislatures because those legislatures are willing to pay for raises by hocking whiteboards, printer paper, and crayons.

Arizona appears to be the next state in line to strike for better teacher pay.  It ranks 48th out of 50 states in spending per pupil. But more to the point, per student state spending has decreased by almost 13% over ten years.  Moreover, New York and Alaska spend nearly three times per student what Arizona does.  The precipitous decline in Arizona’s school funding outpaces even their abysmal teacher pay and suggests that Arizona is missing more than just well-paid educators.

Teacher strikes are admirable, but they only address part of the problem.  Teachers should have more flexibility with curricula, high stakes testing should be reformed, and there should be more trade and specialized schools.  But teacher pay is only part even of the more narrow issue of funding in public education.

For example, State and Federal funding still account for only about half of most public education budgets; in some states much less.  Most funding is derived from local property taxes. Even in the best-funded states, this structure can lead to radical inequalities from one district to the next.  In New York State, for example, median spending per student was $23,370 per student. The worst-funded areas, however, spent only about 60% of that while a dozen of the best-funded were easily able to spend that amount two or three or four times over.  Better school systems, then, correlate with higher property values, which in turn produce higher property tax receipts, which put more money into schools.

While teacher salaries vary inside an individual state, the swings in overall funding even from county to county are vertiginous and self-perpetuating.  The inequity, not only of the disparities in spending, but of the way that the system is set up to entrench them is staggering.

Teachers should continue to strike for better pay.  I hope Arizona continues and I hope that more follow.  But unless there is some other form of massive movement to demand structural changes to the way that school budgets are determined in the first place, it won’t lead to enduring improvements in education for students.  I don’t know what that movement looks like and equalizing school funding, increasing school funding, and improving the learning experiences of students will require the political will of parents, uncles, cousins, and concerned citizens as well.  But in the meantime teachers have given us a damn fine start.