Janresseger: Red States: Waking Up to Public Responsibility for Educating Children?

This is the first of two updates on this spring’s wave of walkouts by schoolteachers.  Today’s post will examine the fiscal implications.  Tomorrow’s will explore what the walkouts may mean about shifting attitudes across some of the Heartland’s Red-states.

In a fine piece for NPR’s All Things ConsideredCory Turner provides some context for the fiscal crisis beneath walkouts across a number of states: “How did we get here? When you put that question to people who study teacher pay, you’ll often hear something like this: ‘I have been saying, Why aren’t (teachers) in the streets?  What took them so long?‘ says Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley.  She’s compared teachers’ weekly wages to workers with similar levels of experience and education and says teachers consistently earn less.”

In a brief for the Economic Policy Institute, Allegretto’s bar graph displays the nationwide disparities in pay between schoolteachers and other college graduates—but it is a lot worse in some places than others.  Oklahoma’s teachers have been making only 67 percent of the income of their college-educated peers in other fields.  Arizona’s teachers (the lowest-paid) have been making 62.8 percent; West Virginia’s teachers 74.6 percent; and Kentucky’s teachers about 78.8 percent. Across the United States, teachers’ wages average 77 percent what others make with equivalent education, and in not one state do teachers’ salaries exceed what their peers are making.

Turner also quotes Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University: “‘Teachers in Arizona are actually at the bottom of the heap…. And teachers in Oklahoma are pretty near that’… He mentions Tennessee and Colorado as other states with a teacher wage gap.  ‘What’s really so striking to me is that it’s had to get this bad. It was kind of like that slow boil over time.'”

Turner adds: “When you focus on teacher salaries, which make up the lion’s share of schools’ spending, data published by the Education Department show that, after adjusting for inflation, U.S. teachers earned less last year, on average, than they did back in 1990. In Oklahoma, teachers’ wages averaged $45,245 last year, down roughly $8,000 in the past decade. Over the same span, in Arizona, teachers’ wages are down roughly $5,000.”

Turner also addresses the myth of the gold-plated teacher pension: “(I)n many states, teachers don’t qualify for Social Security benefits, either. So they really depend on that pension.”  However, new teachers usually have to teach in a school district for five years even to qualify for the pension system. Turner quotes Chad Aldeman, who edits a publication about teacher pension systems: “In the median state, about half of all new teachers won’t stick around long enough to qualify for any pension at all.”  And while school districts must pay, on average, 17 cents on retirement costs for every dollar in teachers’ salaries, Aldeman explains: “Of that 17 cents, about five of it is actually going in benefits, and 12 cents of it is going to pay down unfunded pension obligations.”

One reason the massive walkouts have exerted so much pressure on legislatures is that huge salary disparities across state borders have fed teacher shortages in states paying less.  Teachers in West Virginia have been leaving for Maryland and in Oklahoma for Texas.  POLITICO’s Caitlin Emma quotesTulsa School Superintendent, Deborah Gist speaking from her cell phone as she marched with striking teachers from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. Gist compared the average teachers’ salary in Texas at $52,575 to the Oklahoma average of $45,245: “I’ve had superintendents in Texas thank us because they hired our teachers. It creates an extraordinarily unstable situation.” Emma adds: “The Sooner State has had to issue emergency certifications to thousands of people in recent years to staff classrooms, raising concerns about qualifications.”

What have teachers won so far through the mass walkouts?  Though teachers have won raises and in some cases school funding boosts, legislators have not been willing to restore cuts to progressive income taxes or to bring back capital gains taxes on wealthy residents and corporations.  Sadly, regressive sales, consumption and sin taxes have prevailed.

Last month West Virginia’s teachers achieved a five percent raise, after the state’s governor had previously offered only one percent. And the state will give the five percent raise to all state employees. It is still unclear where the money will come from as the Governor has promised not to increase taxes.

In Oklahoma, teachers also will get a significant raise, though not the kind of increase they’d hoped for to increase overall school funding. The NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein and Elizabeth Dias report: “In a deep-red state that has pursued tax and service cuts for years, teachers won a raise of about $6,000, depending on experience, while members of schools’ support staff will see a raise of $1,250…  To fund the measures, as well as some limited new revenues for schools, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin instituted new or higher taxes on oil and gas production, tobacco, motor fuels, and online sales. The state will also allow ball and dice gambling, which we will be taxed.”

After days of striking, Kentucky’s teachers returned to their classrooms after the legislature passed a budget that increases funding for K-12 education and a tax plan to pay for the increase, but Governor Matt Bevin vetoed the spending plan and the taxes to pay for it.  So, last Friday, Kentucky’s teachers closed school for an additional day and brought their enormous presence back to Frankfort. The legislature responded, according to the Associated Press report: “With the chants of hundreds of teachers ringing in their ears, Kentucky lawmakers have completed an override of Gov. Matt Bevin’s veto of a more than $480 million tax hike that helps pay for increases in public education spending.”

The Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein adds that Kentucky’s funding scheme, important as it is, is the definition of regressive: “The plan would flatten Kentucky’s corporate and personal income-tax rates, setting both at 5 percent. Currently, Kentucky’s corporate tax rates runs between 4 and 6 percent, while its income-tax rate ranges from 2 to 6 percent. The new flat rate of 5 percent for everyone means that small companies and Kentuckians with below-average incomes will face tax hikes, and higher earners will get tax cuts. The bill attempts to make up for those cuts by nearly doubling the cigarette tax and imposing sales taxes on 17 additional services, including landscaping, janitorial work, golf courses and pet grooming.”

Pressure from teachers’ walkouts in all these states and a #RedforEd movement threatening its own walkout in Arizona seems to have awakened Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey, who announced a plan late last week to raise teachers’ salaries 20 percent by 2020. The Arizona Republic reported: “Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday boosted his proposal for teacher raises next year to 9 percent, up from 1 percent he proposed in January, saying lawmakers would work through the weekend to figure out how to fund the plan.  Coupled with 5 percent raises the following two years—and the 1 percent raise given last year—Ducey said his proposal would give teachers a ‘net pay increase’ of 20 percent by 2020.”

Columnist for Tucson’s Arizona Daily StarTim Steller warned, however, on Saturday that it’s too early to celebrate in Arizona: “Everybody was right that the governor’s announcement was hopeful news, but this is no time for teachers or the #RedForEd movement to declare victory and stash away their crimson shirts. The only thing that has gotten them this far is collective action and increasing pressure. They cornered the governor in an election year, and they shouldn’t let him out till they’ve got their raises and increased school funding in hand… Ducey’s dramatic announcement was a great relief, but it was just words. It was a proposal to use money of unclear origin to raise the pay for teachers but not other employees like counselors and teachers’ aides. It’s a good gesture, but so far nothing more.”

Meanwhile on Sunday, April 8th, legislators in Kansas—under pressure from the state’s supreme court which had, last October, set an April 30 deadline for compliance with its earlier court order to increase school funding—passed a $534 million increase in school funding over five years. The state’s funding for public schools had collapsed in recent years as a result of former Governor Sam Brownback’s  failed experiment with tax cutting and supply side economics. However, after some hope early in April that the Legislature has likely appropriated enough money to meet the Kansas Supreme Court’s expectation, it turns out there was an $80 million flaw in the math behind the plan. The Associated Press‘s John Hanna reports: “The bill approved by lawmakers early Sunday was meant to phase in a $534 million increase over five years, and with the flaw, the figure is $454 million or perhaps a little less.” After a two week break, the Legislature will now return on April 26. There seems to be hope that the miscalculation will be fixed.

In these all-Red states across the Heartland, it is clear that a reckoning has begun. But so far there is neither clear agreement that paying taxes is a responsibility of citizens and businesses nor that taxation should be progressive with the heaviest responsibility falling on those who can best afford to support the public. At least, driven by the voices and actions of desperate schoolteachers—and in Kansas by a supreme court enforcing the state constitution—governors and legislators are having to face that their citizens seem suddenly to agree that there is a floor beneath which education services must not fall. And there seems to be an awareness that enough well qualified teachers are at the heart of what is necessary. That is a positive development.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...