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Expert opinion

Public opinion on teachers and teaching

by Maria Ferguson

As more teachers are going on strike, the latest PDK poll shows strong public support for them, along with awareness of the challenges they face.

This has been a busy year for teachers. High-profile teacher strikes in Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia, and several other states captured the public’s attention as teachers took to the streets to demand better pay and benefits. In some states, their efforts paid off. West Virginia’s strike shut down public schools for nine days until the governor and state legislators finally agreed to a 5% raise and no benefit cuts. Other 2018 efforts were less successful, but no matter what the outcome, the messaging was clear: Teachers are fed up and the public is standing behind them.

Growing public support as unions face roadblocks

This year’s PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools supports that conclusion, finding broad and strong support for issues like increased teacher pay and the right to strike for higher pay. Two-thirds (66%) of respondents said teacher salaries in their community are too low, the highest percentage ever for the PDK poll. Consistently, majorities across survey groups also agreed that the average starting teacher salary of $39,000 was too low.

The poll also showed strong support for public school teachers going on strike to demand better pay. A whopping 73% of respondents said they would support teachers in their community striking for higher pay. The response was even higher among public school parents (78%), despite the fact that they would be among those most affected by a strike. This raises the question that if so many people feel teachers are undercompensated, why aren’t more communities voting for candidates who support fair and equal teacher pay? Recent data from the nonprofit EdBuild show that teacher salaries vary wildly from state to state, especially when the salaries are adjusted for the cost of living. Average teacher salaries, adjusted for cost of living, range from just over $40,000 in Hawaii to just over $70,000 in Michigan. For many young educators, the biggest decision they will make is where to teach.

The support for striking teachers is especially interesting in light of the recent Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision held that teachers unions (and other public sector unions) could no longer require nonunion members to pay fees. Before the decision, payment of these fees was mandatory in 22 states. Now unions will have to rely on member fees only to support their activities. For some, the long-expected decision is a crushing blow to teachers unions that are already struggling with membership. Union supporters are fearful that a drop in fees, coupled with potential lawsuits from nonunion individuals seeking compensation for fees previously paid, could significantly diminish their ability to fight for fair compensation and benefits.

The sheer size of the crowds that came out in support of teachers seems to indicate union solidarity is alive and well.

But the fact that so many respondents would support teachers striking in their own communities belies the idea that teachers unions and everything they represent are on the wane. The number of teacher walkouts and the sheer size of the crowds that came out in support of teachers seem to indicate union solidarity is alive and well. Still, there are those who strongly criticized striking teachers, shaming them for abandoning their students and closing down schools. Others blamed the unions themselves for low teacher salaries, saying the dues they charge eat into teachers’ take-home pay. Nobody knows how the unions will fare in the coming months, but the National Education Association is not leaving anything up to chance. The group announced in July that they will set up a special fund (paid for by a voluntary $3 member donation) to support teacher strikes and protests. That’s a clear signal that more teacher strikes may be on the horizon.

A less desirable career path

The poll also asked specific questions regarding teaching as a career path. It likely comes as no surprise that the news here is not good. For the first time, more than half of respondents (54%) said they would not like a child of their own to make a career out of teaching in the public schools. But being good parents, 46% said they would support a teaching career, a response that is down from 70% in 2009.

An interesting dimension of these findings is how they played out when broken down by race. Nonwhites are far more positive (56%) than Whites (40%) about their kids pursuing teaching as a career, with Latinos showing the strongest support at 67%.

Among Whites, men without college degrees represented the largest group (69%) that would not want their children to pursue teaching. White women without degrees were slightly more tempered (59%) in their responses. I’m not sure why White parents, especially those without degrees, are so much less supportive of a teaching career for their children, but I suspect the answer is rooted in the same issues that continue to challenge our public schools: economic inequality, implicit racial bias, and differing expectations.

To provide some context to this year’s poll results about teaching, I reached out to Paul Toner, a former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the current executive director of Teach Plus Massachusetts, an organization that trains and supports teachers so they can have a stronger, more effective voice in policy decisions that affect them and their profession. I asked him what issues, in addition to salary and pensions, were bearing down on teachers right now. He told me:

[T]he big issue facing the profession is just generally making it a career that people want to enter and stay in for at least a reasonable period of time, like 10 or more years. It is about sustainability of the profession. It is at times a very stressful job depending on your work environment. We are fortunate in Massachusetts to have relatively high salaries, good working conditions, and significant state funding.

Toner also mentioned the intense pressure some teachers are under, especially those who teach in low-income urban districts and charter schools. He said these teachers are expected “to close long-term achievement gaps among our students even while the gaps in resources and funding between our affluent suburban districts and our urban districts continue to grow.” Many of the striking teachers earlier this year reiterated this point, saying not only that their salaries were low but also that their schools lacked the funding and resources needed to support their students’ success.

Does all this momentum and support for teachers really represent a watershed moment for the profession?

With so much media attention focused on unions and striking teachers, I asked Toner, a former classroom teacher and union leader, about the role unions play in amplifying teacher voices. He said that although “many union leaders try their best to bring that voice to the table, you also need the on-the-ground practitioners in the room to add their experience and insight.” And when I asked him whether teachers will play a more active, leadership-oriented role in the upcoming midterm elections and in 2020, he noted that, “All teachers are leaders even if they don’t know it themselves.” He said teachers are realizing that to be successful in their role as educators, they may need to “take on a more activist role in their communities.”

This is exactly what happened in Kentucky earlier this year when a high school teacher defeated an incumbent lawmaker who had supported a pension bill that was wildly unpopular among teachers. Math teacher Travis Brenda surprised everyone with his win over Rep. Jonathan Shell, and in the process may have stoked a “fight the power” movement among teachers. But does all this momentum and support for teachers really represent a watershed moment for the profession and for public education writ large?

In my view, the answer to that question will not be found in Washington. It is up to local communities and states to decide how much they really value teachers and the job they do. As Toner stressed, teachers have an important role to play in making the most of the moment we are in. Teachers are “actively seeing local, state, and national office because they feel public education, the one area we all should be able to work on together, has been at best ignored, or at worst, is being dismantled.”

Originally published in September 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 100 (1), 40-41. © 2018 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.

Maria Ferguson

Maria Ferguson is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., and the Washington view columnist for Phi Delta Kappan magazine. Maria can be reached at mferguson@gwu.edu.

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