Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Large Teacher Salary Increases Reveal the Depth of States’ War on Teachers, Not a Commitment to Make Things Better

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Are the raises that states have given teachers recently fair?  The size of the raises ought to disturb the public not because teachers are reaping windfalls, but because they reveal just how dismissively states have dealt with education in recent years.  And these raises—large though they may be—do not indicate that states will act differently in the future. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, for instance, supports a 20 percent pay raise for the state’s teachers by 2020, but also touts a school voucher referendum that could drain millions of dollars out of the public education system.

The raises started at five percent in West Virginia, then jumped to 15 and 20 percent in Oklahoma and Arizona.  Teachers in other states are now expecting something similar and those states are surely asking themselves how much is enough.

Given that very few Americans have ever seen a raise of 15 or 20 percent, some are criticizing them for holding states hostage for salary increases that they don’t deserve. Others might think the raises are fair might and give states credit for “doing the right thing.” Neither is true.

These salary increases should not even be called raises.  They are not pats on the back for a job well done, cost of living adjustments, or estimates of teachers’ market value.

They are closer to being compensatory damages that states are willing to pay now rather than the verdict that the jury of public opinion would award if it heard all the facts.  The full picture of what states have done to public education and teachers, in particular, is shocking.  The mistreatment of teachers stretches well beyond salaries to include changes to tenure, union rights, and statistical evaluation systems.  Magazine covers called it a war on teachers. 

Teacher salary increases don’t grapple with these other issues.  They are just a partial payout to teachers.  The teachers who are protesting have been underpaid for so long that they are far below their peers in neighboring states.  But that understates the problem because teacher salaries have fallen nationwide.  That’s why teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma continued to march even after their states initially offered increases that would look generous to the outside world. Those raises would not repair the damage done. 

The question the broader public should ask is what boss would give any of us a raise of 15 or 20 percent tomorrow.  We might be a leader in our fields and doing a bang-up job, but most bosses would refuse the request for a variety of legitimate reasons.   

That state leaders have conceded to teachers in relatively short order is a testament to how bad education policy has been over the past decade.  State leaders knew what their policies had done to teachers.  They knew they had already caused a nationwide teacher shortage that could only get worse. 

But the most troubling fact is that states knew that, at just the hint of a strike, they had the capacity to say yes.  And they have had the capacity to treat teachers fairly for several years.  Rather than do it, they spent their cash on other projects and tax cuts. 

This raises the serious question of whether states are committed to public education. All fifty state constitutions obligate their states to provide for and support a robust public education system.  Education is special in this respect.  Transportation, health care, prisons are not in state constitutions.  Low tax rates certainly are not.  This makes education not simply the first among equally important programs, but the obligation that states must fulfill before they think about doing anything else.

The latest salary increases demonstrate that states have done everything but put education first over the past decade.  While new salary increases may put education somewhere closer to even with other state priorities, teachers, parents, and students should continue protesting until states put education back in the place that their constitutions initially demanded a century and a half ago.

     --on Twitter @DerekWBlack  

    The above essay is a longer version of the shorter one recently published in Education Week as We Shouldn't Call Teacher Salary Hikes "Raises."

    Photo by  Alucy001 at English Wikibooks.

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