A casual reading of the headlines over the past few months might lead to the conclusion that teachers just want raises in pay and are willing to place the learning and well-being of students at risk to get them. Certainly, pay is one of the issues driving such drastic actions. Yet, behind the headlines is a much broader story with implications that go far beyond this single issue.
It can be argued that the raises for which teachers are demonstrating are overdue and will help to restore losses in pay over the past several years. Nationally, average teacher salaries are down four percent since the 2008-2009 school year. Meanwhile, other pressures have resulted in even lower take-home pay for teachers. Premiums for health insurance have grown significantly. The costs of pension programs have led to greater paycheck deductions for retirement, or states and school districts to cut current and future retirement benefits. A large and growing portion of mid-career educators are finding that they cannot survive on their teaching income alone to meet expenses and are working two or three jobs to support themselves and their families.
Beyond this obvious strain, many states that cut their education budgets at the beginning of the recession have not moved to restore financial support. Consequently, not only has compensation for staff suffered, building repairs have been delayed and facilities now need major attention, textbooks and equipment are worn out and out-of-date, and class sizes have continued to grow beyond what was even imagined prior to the recession.
Often hidden in the debate are the consequences of loss of job security, weakening of employee rights and protections, and other aspects of teaching that in the past have made it an attractive career option even without high levels of compensation and opportunities for rapid advancement. Further, many states have moved to reduce the power of teacher unions, but have not addressed issues that led unions to play historically necessary roles.
Meanwhile, schools of education are reporting significant and growing decreases in enrollment. Further, a significant portion of those who pursue a degree in education are not choosing a career in education after graduation. A lack of adequate pay, low respect and limited hope for future improvement in working conditions combine to make education a less than attractive career option. Without an adequate supply of well-prepared teachers, we cannot hope to meet the challenge of preparing today’s students for the economic and societal challenges they will face in coming decades.
In a larger context, failure to support education is risking our collective futures. Demographic trends in our nation point to the importance of an employed, productive workforce to pay for social programs that our aging population has been promised and on which it depends. Failure to educate the next generation adequately risks our ability to support these programs and maintain a robust economy.
The crisis we face is much bigger than current salary increases for teachers. Yes, they are urgent and necessary, but the teacher pay issues receiving the majority of media attention are part of a much larger and dangerous picture facing our nation and society. The support we give to the education of our youth will set the path for our collective future. We must deal with the larger more complex issues enmeshed in educational policy and priorities if we hope to secure our future and prepare today’s youth for the future they deserve.