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The Key to Predicting the Next Teacher Strike

A new study confirms that the less teachers are paid, the more likely they are to protest. Only a few of the lowest-paid districts have yet to see a strike.

People in red fill the rotunda of the texas capitol
Teachers rallying for education funding in the Texas Capitol in Austin.
(AP/Eric Gay)


  • The less teachers make, the more likely they are to strike, according to a Center for American Progress study.
  • Missouri has three of the lowest-paid districts where teachers have yet to protest.
  • Strikes may have inspired increases in education funding in other states.
Teaching isn't a lucrative profession practically anywhere in America, but what drives some educators to strike over their pay and others to accept it?

It likely won't come as a surprise that, according to a new analysis, most of the places with the lowest pay have recently been home to walkouts or strikes. The data also suggests that the action in some states is having a spillover effect in others.

The analysis, published Tuesday by the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP), shows that seven out of the 10 states with the lowest average teacher salaries in 2018, adjusted for cost of living, experienced statewide teacher strikes, walkouts or rallies last year that have often led to raises. In the other three, legislation addressing teacher salaries has been introduced or passed within the last two years.

A similar trend exists at the district level, says the study’s author, Lisette Partelow. Nearly all of the 32 lowest-paying school districts have seen either teachers or state legislators take action to raise educators' pay.

In fact, just five of the lowest-paying districts haven’t seen any movement, and three of them -- Kansas City, Springfield and St. Louis -- are in Missouri.

Does that mean the Show Me State is the next target for teacher protests? Not necessarily, says Partelow.

"A lot of the action we’ve seen has happened very organically," she says. "So it is hard to predict why certain states have had them and what states will have them next. But the clear trend is that lowest-paying states are having more activity."

Strike or not, a recent Kansas City Star editorial noted that the state is "hemorrhaging teachers" thanks to its average starting salary of $31,842. "Even Mississippi," the authors wrote, "typically the benchmark for lousy services, pays [teachers] more. That’s simply disgraceful for a state led by officials who proclaim the importance of education."

CAP's analysis also shows that teacher protests may be influencing legislators beyond their own states. Even though some form of teacher action only occurred in 13 states last year, bills to increase funding for teachers and education were introduced in 27 states last year.

The teacher strikes over the last 14 months have largely centered upon low pay and school funding cuts since the Great Recession. In fact, it wasn’t until this year that a majority of states even reached their pre-recession funding levels for education. Nearly all of the six states with teacher strikes or walkouts last year also had some of the nation’s most severe education cuts over the last decade.

While teacher pay can be an indicator of unrest, it’s only part of the story, says Partelow.

California, for example, ranks higher in average pay than most states. But in school districts where the cost of living is high, those dollars are stretched. That’s part of why teachers in Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento went on strike this year. Dissatifaction with education policies -- not just funding -- also factored into those protests.

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Liz Farmer is a former GOVERNING fiscal policy writer.
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