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Teachers fight for their right to fair pay

While educators strike elsewhere, Mac teachers argue that low wages have reached a crisis point

Photo supplied by Murr-Thompson.

Photo supplied by Murr-Thompson.

“I protested by being at the [Oklahoma state] Capitol, holding signs, talking to legislators, informing the community and one day attempting to walk the 20.5 miles to the Capitol,” Oklahoma teacher Shirlene Murr-Thompson said. “Many news stations and the highway patrol commented that they were astonished at how nice and polite the teachers were and how well we cleaned up after ourselves. I thought that was pretty funny, because teachers are used to picking up after everyone else, so of course we were that way.”

By Sophie Ryland, McCallum High School

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When Shirlene Murr-Thompson graduated last year from Oklahoma University with a degree in secondary science education, she wasn’t as carefree as one might expect from a young, recent graduate: she had over $100,000 in student loan debt to worry about, and she knew her new job as a teacher would barely pay enough for the cost of day-to-day living.

In addition to her job as a teacher, Murr-Thompson now has to work two jobs to pay her bills; she often works over 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“When you look at all the work that I have to do just to survive and make ends meet, it is easy to understand why many people are choosing not to become teachers or deciding not to stay a teacher,” she said.

That’s why she joined tens of thousands of public school teachers in Oklahoma who went on strike earlier this month, protesting the fact that they hadn’t received a raise in 10 years; Oklahoma ranks 49th in average teacher salaries. Classes were canceled across the state as teachers in about a third of school districts walked out, which affected about 300,000 out of 500,000 students.

Murr-Thompson says she believes that Oklahoma needs more teachers now than it ever has before, because there are more students in public schools than ever before. She also says that using emergency certified teachers, people working as teachers before they complete the education or training requirements for regular certification, creates heavy teacher turnover, which hurts students by not adequately preparing them for their future education. She stresses that this protest is about far more than just teacher salaries.

“Our school does not have enough special ed teachers,” Murr-Thompson said. “Our science hall needs a new roof; it has seven leaks in it, and I am lucky enough to be the only classroom in our hallway that doesn’t have buckets sitting around my classroom every day it rains. However, I do get to stand in the hallway and remind students not to use a certain stairwell because there is a leak above it, which makes all of the steps incredibly slippery … My students have not done a single lab this year where I did not have to buy at least some of the materials, and unfortunately, sometimes that means we don’t get to do a lab because I can’t afford the $60 in lab supplies we need for the lab.”

Faced with the threat of striking the week before, the Oklahoma legislature passed a bill raising teacher salaries by $6,000 on average and restoring education funding by $50 million, but teachers said that it wasn’t enough and began to protest. They requested $10,000 more per teacher over the next several years and $200 million in restored education funding; the amount per-student funding dropped by nearly 30 percent (when adjusted for inflation) over the past decade, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Twenty percent of schools in Oklahoma have four-day school weeks,because they can’t afford to pay teachers for a full school week.

At the end of the strike, the government struck a deal with the protesters; they won a $6,000 pay raise, with a smaller raise for support staff, and new revenues meant to increase school funding in the future. Murr-Thompson said that she’s not entirely satisfied with the deal made at the end of the protest.

“The two major problems I and many others have with the plan as it is currently is that there was not enough money put back into funding public education–we asked for $200 million and are getting $112 million– and that the funding that is supposed to go into education to pay for those increases is not guaranteed beyond the next year,” she said. “So that means when the budget comes up short, as it often does, they can cut the budget back down to where it was.”

Teachers in West Virginia striked last month as well; as a result, schools in all of its 55 counties were closed for nine school days. The protesters struck a deal with the governor; they will be receiving a five percent pay increase as well as a hold on any increases in health insurance premiums.

Seventh-eight percent of Arizona teachers involved in Arizona Education Association and Arizona Educators United, a group of teachers who organized independently on Facebook, voted late Thursday in favor of a statewide walkout. They declared that the walkout would happen on April 26 if legislators did not meet their demands for an end to tax cuts and raise for teachers and school support staff. The governor responded by promising teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020 and that he would restore school budgets to their pre-Recession levels within five years. Other proposed solutions to raising the budget have been increasing the education sales tax to a cent from six-tenths of a cent or closing corporate tax loopholes/raising corporate taxes.

Arizona, which according to data from the National Education Association in 2016 reported some of the lowest per-student spending in the country, educators want a 20 percent pay raise and the restoration of funding cuts. But so far state policymakers have shown little willingness to heed the demands. Teachers in Arizona have been advocating for a 20 percent pay raise, the reversal of recent funding cuts and a ballot measure that would increase the sales tax for education.

Murr-Thompson said it was disheartening to see how politicized the issue of school funding had become firsthand.

“It was very frustrating to talk to… the legislators who were making decisions about education, because for some of them, they had never been in a public school, and for others, the last time they were there was when they were a student. Many educators felt very frustrated because they were making huge decisions on our behalf, and we did not feel that they were representing our wishes, or that they were informed on the topic, or that they wanted to become more informed about it. Unfortunately I got to see that far too [many] government decisions were made based on if it was a ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ idea and not based on facts or experiences.”

Educators have also been demonstrating in Kentucky, where in 29 districts teachers staged a “sickout”– where teachers all call in sick, as striking is illegal for teachers in many states– and assembled at the state Capitol. They have primarily been focusing on changes to their retirement benefits, but the leaders have firmly stated that they support better teacher pay and believe it is closely linked to school quality.

When asked for advice on how districts and governments can best support their teachers, English teacher Thomas Watterson says he doesn’t know where to begin.

“Stop taking money from the budget. Stop balancing the budget on the backs of teachers and school districts. Stop balancing the budgets on the backs of the homeowners,” he said. “Institute a state-wide income tax that is progressive as opposed to regressive, and prioritize the budget to make sure teachers have the resources they need, that they can attract and retain teachers, and that the buildings and facilities remain in good condition that are conducive to a positive learning environment.”

School districts are seeing a dearth of funding, stemming from the Great Recession, when tax revenue dried up and lawmakers slashed state budgets. In some states, it only got worse after the economy recovered as lawmakers cut income and business taxes. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, in 2015 29 states were still providing less total school funding per student than they were in 2008. Texas is spending 16 percent less per student than it did to 2008, the sixth-biggest decline in state spending in the country, according to the Washington-based think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“What kind of upside-down world do we live in where society even considers cutting corners on the education of its youth in favor of weaponizing its military?” coach Thomas Gammerdinger wrote in survey by The Shield. “History has proven unkind to societies that have made this mistake.”

Since 2009, adjusting for inflation, teachers in Texas have had their pay cut by around 2.7 percent, comparable to the average of three percent nationwide. According to the National Education Association, Texas is ranked 27th out of 50th in terms of best teacher pay.

Critics argue that teachers only work 180 days a year and that teachers knew what they got into when they went into teaching. Additionally, their methods have been criticized as harmful to the students in their classes, who were left without all their teachers or with school canceled.

“There is a common misconception that teachers are paid for the whole year even though we only work 9 months … while it is true that our pay is divided into 12 paychecks, we only get paid for the days that we work,” Social Behavioral Skills teacher Margaret Smith wrote. “I understand that I’m off for a lot more time than other professionals, and I don’t expect to be paid to sit at home. However, I do think teacher should be given the same professional courtesy as other professionals in salaried positions, and be paid for national holidays… We also aren’t compensated for being in specialized positions, and aren’t compensated for the number of hours we work; some teachers can get a ‘stipend’ for working extra hours, but the stipend is significantly less than their normal pay.”

Something unique to the American school finance system is that a huge portion of schools’ funding comes from local property taxes. Less than 10 percent of school funding comes from the federal government, a share that has been shrinking further in recent years.

The wage gap between other professions and teachers is increasing; in 1994, public school teachers made two percent less than college graduates in other fields, but in 2015, that gap had risen to 17 percent.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 17.9 percent of public school teachers surveyed worked another job during the 2015-16 school year. This is the largest such percentage reported in more than a decade, slightly higher than it was at the peak of the 2008 recession. Public school teachers are about five times more likely than the average full-time worker to hold an additional part-time job. A study conducted by Northwestern and California State Universities found that teachers working extra hours at an outside job had a higher likelihood of burnout and a lower commitment to teaching. Teachers also often taken extra job duties or work overtime hours for no additional pay.

“It is unfair to ask teachers who take on extra work to do this for free, yet that is the expectation,” social studies teacher Lucy Griswold said. “Many first-year teachers are working 70 plus hours a week–on par with early career investment bankers, but are compensated at an alarmingly lower rate. If you were to use the hours worked rather than the scheduled hours worked to calculate hourly pay for many early career teachers, then most baristas in this city make more than we do.“

A study in Texas that used over 15 years of data found that a 10 percent salary increase led to a 1.6 percentage point drop in teacher turnover, which mostly affected the least-experienced teachers. The researchers suggested that higher pay leads to more experienced and effective teachers that stay in their schools, with students performing better on tests as a result.

Griswold, who said that she has to pay more for extra school supplies out-of-pocket than she can write off on her taxes, also said that the burden Texas places on cities like Austin to fund their schools is too great.

“Many top pre-service teachers who graduate from UT and St. Edwards leave the district because of the low pay relative to the cost of living in this city,” she said. “Pay is especially bad in rural districts and in the border region. Texas is a notoriously anti-worker, pro-business state and that climate needs to change. A one percent state corporate tax increase could fully fund public education and only trivially impact private investment in the state.”

Many point to 2011 as a source of trouble for school funding. The state Legislature cut the education budget by $5.6 billion, and they’ve yet to restore the money from the cut. Eleven thousand jobs were cut and class sizes were increased across thousands of schools. In 2016, Texas educators earned roughly $6,500 below the national average for teacher pay.

Teachers in Texas are not allowed to strike. A statute in the Legislature says any employees who “strike or engage in an organized work stoppage against the state or a political subdivision of the state” will lose all their “civil service rights, reemployment rights, and any other rights, benefits, and privileges the employee enjoys as a result of public employment or former public employment.” Essentially, teachers who protest could result in having their teaching certificates and Teacher Retirement System benefits permanently revoked.

Teachers can protest as individuals, through methods like contacting their legislators, testifying at the Capitol and writing op-eds on their positions.

“I think that it is a deplorable state of affairs in a state like Texas that teachers may not participate in their own salary negotiations in such a way that we are only limited [either] to sucking it up and taking it or writing letters to the newspaper,” Watterson said. “It really compromises any leverage or power or tools that other states have, and I hate to say it, because I love aspects of this state, but I think it’s fairly typical of the political environment of Texas.”

Griswold says that she hopes other teachers will follow other states’ example in demanding better wages and teaching conditions.

“All of these strikes are happening in Republican strongholds that voted for Trump,” she said. “If they can do it there, why can’t we do it here? Teachers deserve dignity and fair compensation. I have already seen so many brilliant teachers leave the profession due to low salaries and insufficient benefits. This is a shame, and we will only continue to see an exodus from the profession as long as working conditions remain strained.”

Watterson agrees that teachers should stand up for what the believe in, and points to a current wave of civilian protesting as an inspiration and example.

“I think that the student protests over gun control are starting to energize the population and making people realize that we do have a voice,” he said. “To finally see teachers in red shirts marching on Capitals and getting raises they’re asking for is very inspiring, and I hope we see some real change on a nationwide basis as far as teacher salaries are determined.”

Read the original story in its entirety here

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