MARY REICHARD, HOST: From member-supported WORLD Radio, this is The World and Everything in It for Thursday, April 12th. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.
Most people would agree that teaching in public schools is a difficult and demanding job and that teachers should receive a fair wage for doing it.
The ongoing wave of protests and strikes across the country shows teachers don’t feel they are.
REICHARD: Yes, and that wave may spread. WORLD Radio’s Jim Henry has our story.
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JIM HENRY, REPORTER: The state-by-state procession of teachers demanding higher pay began last month in West Virginia. There teacher salaries ranked among the lowest in the nation.
During a nearly two-week long strike, educators demanded the state legislature take action. Here’s Christine Campbell with the American Federation of Teachers.
CAMPBELL: We’re playing with people’s emotions, their livelihoods and it directly affects our students. This is unprecedented, it’s confusing and it’s just really again, I think they’re disheartened by the process.
Lawmakers eventually passed— and West Virginia Governor Jim Justice signed— a 5 percent pay raise for all state employees. That meant a $2,000 raise for teachers, and an annual $110 million bill for taxpayers.
It was an effective compromise for West Virginia— but it only seemed to stoke teacher discontent in other states. Soon Kentucky— Oklahoma— and Arizona teachers followed suit.
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In Kentucky, teachers wanted a pay raise but two weeks ago found themselves fighting to preserve their pensions. The state has a nearly $40 billion unfunded pension liability so legislators attached a pension reform plan to a sewer bill and passed it without public comment.
This week, Republican Governor Matt Bevin signed it into law.
The legislation converts teacher retirement plans into what some call a pension-401k hybrid.
Teachers are planning a “Day of Action” in Frankfurt tomorrow. At a news conference— Governor Bevin warned them not to strike— and blamed the union— the Kentucky Education Association— for recent scattered walkouts.
BEVIN: It’s illegal for them to strike in this state and I think that would be a mistake. The issue isn’t the teachers. Teachers want to teach their children. The KEA has been a problem. They’ve been very vocal, very loud, refusing to be a part of the solution even though in reality their members are going to be the beneficiaries of us getting this right.
In Oklahoma— teachers have now been on strike for almost two weeks.
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Bowing to demands— the legislature gave Oklahoma teachers a substantial pay increase and $50 million more for textbooks and other class materials. But it didn’t end the strike and teachers are demanding $200 million in additional education funding. Teacher Sarah Tannehill at the state capitol.
TANNEHILL: Yes we got a raise and we’re truly grateful for that. We’re not up here for ourselves. We’re here for our kids.
But Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin says the well is now dry.
FALLIN: It’s a $6,100 average increase in teacher pay for our teachers. It’s 50 million new dollars going into textbooks. Is it everything they wanted? No. We know they want more, but it’s what we can do for right now and I think it’s a giant step forward.
In Arizona— teachers yesterday staged a “walk in” — rallying at schools before going in to teach their classes. The union is demanding a 20-percent pay increase for teachers— and threatening walk outs next.
Arizona teachers rank 43rd in the country for pay— averaging $45,000 a year— while the national average is around $58,000.
In an op-ed piece in the Arizona Republic last week— education writer Jon Gabriel was sympathetic to teachers— but not walkouts.
GABRIEL: Despite my article, I believe teachers are underpaid here in Arizona. It’s a difficult job and they deserve to get paid what they deserve. However, a lot of these protests and strikes seem to be more hurting the students and hurting the parents of those students.
Gabriel and other critics say inefficient school districts need to consolidate to cut administrative overhead— something unions oppose because they represent non-teaching staff as well as teachers.
From 1950 to 2015— non-teaching public school staff has increased 700 percent. Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute.
HESS: Part of it is compliance with federal and state laws and requirements. Part of it is just bureaucratic bloat.
Hess says nearly 40 percent of public school staff are now non-teachers— and average per pupil spending continues to rise faster than inflation— now about $13,000 a year.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jim Henry.