Published 6:59 PM EDT Oct 18, 2018
To get a sense of what life as one of America's 3.2 million public school teachers is like, the USA TODAY Network sent 30 journalists into schools around the country. The results were sobering. The teachers they met face daunting challenges, high stress and chronic disrespect.
Teachers play an extraordinary role in educating today’s children to be tomorrow’s community leaders and engines of economic growth. And yet the lack of respect for them is visible in many ways, including declining pay and a lack of recognition compared with police and firefighters.
Clearly, something had to give. And after years of relative calm, teachers went on strike in six states last spring, often without the encouragement of unions.
Lawmakers should take heed of two undeniable facts:
One is that teachers enjoy large and growing support in the general public. In a recent USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, for instance, respondents say by 59-34 percent that teachers are underpaid. They support teachers’ right to strike and even back teachers unions by large margins.
OPPOSING VIEW: Reality doesn’t support paying teachers more
The second is that teachers are underpaid. During the 2016-17 school year, the average teacher made $58,950. This is inflated by a few large states such as California and New York, where both pay and costs of living are higher. In a number of states, including Colorado, Florida, Missouri and North Carolina, the average pay was below $50,000.
What’s more, teacher pay has actually been going down. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the average teacher made 1.6 percent less in 2016-17 than in 1999-2000. Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan and North Carolina have seen double-digit drops.
Despite that, teachers are committed to their jobs. Nine in 10 dip into their own checking account to pay for school supplies. To make up for the low pay and extra expenses, teachers are five times more likely to have a part-time job on the side compared with other full-time workers.
This goes a long way in explaining why teachers have been striking in so many states and localities this year, including a number in Washington state this fall. It also explains why so few parents or members of the public have raised a ruckus over lost school days.
Politicians need to realize that sentiment on teachers is shifting, and one way or another they need to accommodate this. It is not that the public is unaware of how unions have often undermined their own case by standing up for subpar teachers. But the public does see education as an important economic engine. They might be cognizant of the fact that the states with the most innovative economies are not traditional “pro-business” states with low taxes, but are — perhaps counterintuitively — those like California, Massachusetts and Washington that pour considerable resources into education.
Turning around our chintzy approach to teachers won’t be easy. Many state budgets are already under strain from high public employment coupled with extensive benefits packages and low taxes. But there are options, including higher taxes, reforming benefits, and making better teacher pay a higher priority compared with pay for other government professions.
The days when politicians could expect teachers to suffer in silence are coming to an end. And when those teachers speak up, the public is increasingly behind them.
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