This spring has been marked by a remarkable phenomenon: the first statewide teacher strikes in recent memory. The strikes have been greeted with glowing press coverage and a remarkable degree of public support. After starting in West Virginia, things spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma, and most recently to Arizona and Colorado. Given all the claims and confusion surrounding these developments, it’s worth taking a moment to explain what’s going on, why both teachers and taxpayers have valid complaints, and how understanding all this can help point the way forward.
First off, the teachers have a legitimate concern. Teacher pay is mediocre for college-educated professionals, and has fallen over time. Teacher pay declined by two percent in real terms (after adjusting for inflation) between 1992 and 2014. According to data tracked by the National Education Association (NEA), in 2016–2017, the most recent year for which data are available, average teacher pay nationally was $59,660. In the states where teachers have walked out, average pay is generally substantially lower than that. For instance, Kentucky’s teachers rank 29th nationally at $52,338; Arizona’s teachers 44th at $47,403; West Virginia’s 49th, at $45,555; and Oklahoma’s 50th, at $45,292.
Second, the notion that stingy taxpayers are to blame for stagnant teacher pay is hard to credit — despite frenzied media coverage suggesting just that. Now, it’s wholly true that Arizona has modestly cut school spending over the past decade and that Oklahoma’s per-pupil spending is flat over that same span, but the notion that taxpayers are defunding schools is just wrong. Indeed, in the two-plus decades between 1992 and 2014, even as teacher salaries declined across the land by two percent, inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending actually grew by 27 percent. In Kentucky and West Virginia, over that same period, teacher pay fell by three percent even as real per-pupil spending increased by more than 35 percent. In Oklahoma, over that same stretch, a 26-percent increase in real per-pupil spending translated only into a four-percent salary boost for teachers. As Grant Addison and I have noted in the case of West Virginia, “If teacher salaries had simply increased at the same rate as per-pupil spending, teacher salaries would have increased more than $17,000 since 1992 — to an average of more than $63,000 today.”
Third, teachers have raced to defend two of the big culprits responsible for their stagnant pay: costly employee benefits packages and added ranks of non-instructional staff. Even as teachers are frustrated by their take-home pay, their total compensation is a lot higher than many realize. That’s because teacher retirement and health-care benefits are far more generous than those of the taxpayers who pay for them. As former Obama-administration official Chad Aldeman has observed, “While the average civilian employee receives $1.78 for retirement benefits per hour of work, public school teachers receive $6.22 per hour in retirement compensation.” Between 2003 and 2014, even as teacher salaries declined, per-teacher average benefits spending increased from $14,000 to $21,000 — much of which goes to paying down pension debt rather than benefits for current teachers. In the case of Kentucky, where teachers have been fighting pension reform, Aldeman has calculated that if the state wasn’t forced to spend vast sums paying down pension debt, teacher salaries would be $11,400 higher today. There’s a big disconnect; taxpayers see dollars flowing out of their wallets, but current teachers don’t see those funds showing up in their paychecks.
Meanwhile, as organizations add employees, it becomes harder to pay them all well. Yet, in West Virginia, while student enrollment fell by 12 percent between 1992 and 2014, the number of non-teaching staff actually grew by ten percent. The story is similar in other strike states: In Kentucky, over that same stretch, enrollment grew by seven percent while the non-teaching workforce grew at nearly six times that rate — by a remarkable 41 percent. And Oklahoma saw a 17-percent growth in enrollment accompanied by a 36-percent increase in non-teaching staff. Nationally, while student enrollment grew 20 percent over that period, non-teaching staff grew by 47 percent. While some of these hires can represent a good investment, many represent little more than administrative bloat — and their sheer numbers soak up dollars that could otherwise fund teacher pay.
While it’s not unreasonable to argue that we should have increased school spending in recent years more than we have, it’s a mistake to blame stagnant teacher pay on a lack of taxpayer support. If teachers want sustainable pay increases and more than stopgap Band-Aids, school spending needs to be tackled in a way that addresses the concerns of teachers, taxpayers, and students. The contours of such a deal aren’t that hard to see, though they’re far tougher to enact. In any event, I’ll try sketch them in my next column.
First published on Forbes.com