Although technically not over yet, summer is behind us.
And with September comes students and teachers back at school.
But this year might be different for America’s traditionally underappreciated educators.
After teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado, and West Virginia struck at the beginning of the year for better pay, better funding, and the rights they and their students have been denied too long, there have been more headlines focusing on public education in the age of Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
At a time when the public sector is under attack like it hasn’t been in decades, we cannot afford to continue ignoring conditions America’s teachers confront every day, in and out of the classroom.
Let’s talk salaries.
In addition to teaching full time, one in five American educators works a second job.
Despite more qualified individuals entering the profession, teachers are getting paid 5% less than they did a decade ago, according to Michael Hansen, director at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.
“Depending on which data you look at, the drop in teacher salary nationally measures between 2.2% and 4.6%. But the increased qualifications teachers now have, minus other changes, should have yielded a salary increase of 1%.”
This is particularly disconcerting considering 54% of teachers have master’s degrees, a 49% increase since the 2008 recession. The percentage of teachers holding doctoral degrees increased as well in that amount of time, from 2.5% to 4.5%.
Similarly educated professionals in other fields could expect 20% to 30% more pay.
That gap is wider than in any other developed country.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reports that the relative wage gap (regression-adjusted for education, experience, and other factors affecting earnings) for public teachers, has ballooned since the mid-1990s. In 1994, the disparity was 1.8%; in 1996, it was 4.3%. In 2017, it hit a record 18.7%.
Gender disparity continues to play a role as well.
Some will argue that what teachers lack in salary, they make up for in benefits.
Thanks to strong collective bargaining, many school districts are offering better compensation packages than other professionals enjoy; however, those benefits are not enough to offset the expanding wage penalty. Last year, the total teacher compensation penalty hit a record 11.1% comprised of an 18.7% wage penalty and a 7.6% benefit advantage.
Since the Court decided to strip bargaining power from America’s workers, undermining their ability to unify around better wages, benefits, workplace protections and standards for working families, it has basically turned the entire workforce into a “right-to-work-for less” sector, fulfilling a dream Republicans and right-wing groups have shared for decades.
And about those tax cuts…
But not any longer.
Regardless of whether they teach in affluent or poor districts, America’s educators spend an average of $500 a year out of their own pockets on additional supplies their districts cannot or will not provide.
Many spend much more, like Oklahoma teacher Teresa Danks, who was reduced to panhandling after spending about $2,000 of her own money.
Some might regard this change in the tax code as merely being fiscally responsible. That is the Republican position: simplify the code and reduce taxes across the board.
Except it isn’t across the board.
While public sector employees continue to watch their incomes decline, corporations are still allowed to deduct state and local taxes as they always have.
Imagine, literally taking money away from professionals with graduate degrees who dedicate their lives to educating America’s children so the wealthy can continue deducting business expenses.
The ramifications of this are more serious than teachers just having to dole out a little more for stationery, books, and art supplies.
It will affect parents and guardians as well.
Thomas McMahon is the President of the Mahopac Teachers’ Association (MTA) in the Mahopac Central School District, the largest district in Putnam County, New York.
About the deleterious effects this plan would have, he said:
“If teachers can no longer deduct up to $250 in school supply spending for their classrooms, those expenses could be shifted to parents on supply lists. This means cutting a small tax dedication for teachers could impact every taxpayer with school-aged children.”
Sometimes teachers include on their supply lists materials for students whose families cannot afford them, and the list grows every year.
We know how it goes. With less money, we scrimp.
A high school student needs AP study books for the upper-level classes she has decided to challenge herself with, hoping to increase her chances of getting into a good college. She could also benefit from a new laptop computer since most of her teachers are posting their assignments online. But her parents are already struggling to pay rising food prices, put gas in the car, and squirrel away something for her college tuition. She is already working a part-time job to help them. She could always borrow the AP study books from friends or use the local library–if she has the means to get there, and time.
Another example could be of a middle school sponsoring its annual trip to Washington, D.C. for which parents are expected to defray a share of the cost. Some families that may have been able to afford it in the past might find themselves unable to now.
An elementary school is having a book fair. In the past, a family may have had enough money to purchase a book or two so a student can experience the benefit of reading. With the added financial burden, however, perhaps it won’t any longer. There’s always the library, but that requires parents’ time and transportation, also harder to come by.
In more cash-strapped school districts, where resources and technology like computers have always been scarce, teachers and families must lay out more to provide students the basics most take for granted, like notebooks, pencils, and paper.
Some students report to school undernourished, under-clothed, and exhausted because they have to work or have been up worrying about things they shouldn’t have to, like how their parents are going to pay the mortgage or rent, whether they will have to move in with family to help make ends meet, or how their parents are managing cobbling together an existence on minimum wage to–hopefully–send them to college.
As this school year rolls along, remember the professional educators greeting your children every morning with engaging lessons, safe environments, and nurturing hearts.
They don’t do it for the money. They don’t do it for summers off. They don’t do it because they had no other career options.
They do it because they understand the intellectual capital they are investing in America.
They do it because this nation has a future, and they want to have a role in shaping it.
Image credit: NEA