The Real Reason Behind Recent Teacher Strikes -- And Why They're Likely to Continue

It's about much more than low salaries.
May 10, 2018
Teachers protested outside the Colorado state Capitol in Denver last month. (AP/David Zalubowski)
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

In the first few months of 2018, long-simmering teacher anger has already resulted in a series of strikes, walkouts and protests in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia. Teacher pay and education underfunding issues have also sparked controversy this year in local governments including Milwaukee, Jersey City, N.J., Clark County, Nev., and a slew of Florida counties.

To be sure, a big part of the problem has been relatively low teacher pay. But the situation is much more complicated than that.

In 26 states, average teacher salaries, adjusted for inflation, were less in 2016 than they were at the end of the 20th century, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Two years ago, an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report documented the dive in weekly wages for teachers compared to other workers with comparable education requirements. In 2015, an average teacher made 17 percent less than comparable workers in salary. Back in 1994, the salary gap was 1.8 percent.

Traditionally, fringe benefits helped compensate for lower teacher salaries, and teacher benefits are still far richer than in the private sector. But reforms have dramatically eaten into the pension benefits for newer workers at the same time that both employee and employer contributions have risen. In fact, when taking pensions into account, EPI concluded that teachers were lagging in total compensation by 11 percent.

 “The compensation cost is going up, but actual compensation is not going up,” says Cory Koedel, an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri. “Everybody is mad. States and school districts feel like they’re raising compensation for teachers, and teachers are feeling like they’re not getting more money.”

In Arizona, employer contributions have risen two and a half times over the last 15 years; in Colorado, they have doubled over 10 years, according to Chad Aldeman, editor of Teacherpensions.org and a principal at Bellweather Education Partners, a nonprofit focused on changing education outcomes for underserved children. “There is a growing disconnect between what employees receive and what employers pay for compensation,” he says. 

An analysis by Aldeman shows that teachers’ pay, on average, has risen 1.4 percent a year nationwide over the past 10 years. Meanwhile, teacher health insurance costs have risen 4 percent a year, and retirement costs have increased 7.8 percent a year.

As Aldeman points out, those increased costs don’t translate into better benefits for today’s teachers. They’re merely being used to pay for past underfunding of beleaguered pension systems.

And many teachers won’t be in their jobs long enough to take advantage of retirement benefits anyway. Thanks to the lower salaries, says Aldeman, “about half of teachers won’t stick around to vest. They get nothing out of the benefit because they’re not sticking around.” 

In 2016, a Bureau of Labor Statistics working paper looked at the impact of Oregon’s past pension practices on its annual pension contributions, on the amount of school spending devoted to salaries and on teacher turnover. These practices were reformed in 1996 for employees hired after that point. But there are still many employees and retirees who benefit from the old system, which has widely been acknowledged as very generous. The working paper used data from school districts on the Oregon and Washington border to compare the impact of Oregon’s much more generous pre-1996 plan.

The upshot: Oregon pension contributions were higher -- an average of 21.2 percent of payroll compared to 14.8 percent in Washington -- and the percent of education spending devoted to salary was lower. Salary costs made up 52 percent of general fund spending for education in Oregon and 61 percent in Washington, according to the study. In four out of five years studied (in the years surrounding the Great Recession), the quit rates for early-career teachers were about twice as high on the Oregon side of the border than on the Washington side. 

The protests this year resulted in some salary victories. For example, Arizona lawmakers last week held an overnight session that resulted in a 9 percent raise for teachers this fall and a 5 percent increase in the next two years for the funds used by school districts to give raises, fill vacancies or meet other classroom needs.

Despite increases like those, teacher protests are likely to continue, thanks to education underfunding in general.

Teachers in Oklahoma still worry about the dangers to student education of going to a four-day school week in some districts. In Kentucky, there’s been no money for teacher professional development, extended school services have been cut and schools haven’t been able to spend money on textbooks.

Arizona school districts will still struggle to fund all the needs that have piled up. Years of cuts have, for example, left the school transportation budget severely underfunded. And the ratio of guidance counselors to students in the state has risen to 1000 to 1, according to Expect More Arizona, an advocacy organization working toward a “world-class education” in Arizona.

“There are an enormous number of positions that are left vacant, and students are in classrooms with long-term substitutes and some without bachelor’s degrees or certification,” says Christine Thompson, president and chief executive officer of Expect More Arizona. “There’s been a diminishing respect for the profession. It’s going to take more than just pay to get people who are excellent teachers back into the classroom.”

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