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Teacher Pay: How to Vote to Give Public School Educators a Raise

The better the educators, the better the education.

Teacher pay is dismal in the United States. The nationwide average in the country is just over $58,000 per year, just about half of the pay their similarly educated peers are, though more states fall below that average than above it. The starting salary for teachers is around $36,000. In 30 states, teachers who are part of a family of four could qualify for government assistance programs like welfare and SNAP.  It didn’t get this way overnight — only 6 percent of the GDP is spent on education, and teacher pay is a product of education funding. This is both why teachers in blue states get paid more than teachers in red states and why pay has, over the last 10 years, failed to keep up with inflation, leading to a confrontation. Over the past year, union-supported teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona have forced state legislators to increase public school money, freeing up monies for teachers aides and assistants.

Those strikes came after, in many cases decades of revenue cuts that benefited big corporations and killed public schools in the state. Many teachers reported taking home three-digit paychecks, driving decades-old cars, and often, working more than one job just to pay rent.

But the national negotiation on teacher pay has not gone smoothly. In Oklahoma, more than 2,000 unqualified emergency teachers were brought in to fill positions when teachers started fleeing the state to find better jobs elsewhere. The education budget there was slashed by 28 percent over the last decade and teachers had not received a raise in a decade. The problem is now being more actively addressed, but is it simplistic to assume that better teacher pay means better teaching? Probably not. But it will mean that qualified educators can afford to stay in states where students are struggling and not exit the state en masse for greener pastures — a recent study found that just a 1,200 dollar bonus in the state of Florida decreased the rate of turnover by 6 percent, and the longer teachers stay in the classroom, the better they are at their jobs, and the better their students do.

In short, parents should care enormously about teacher pay. Here’s how they can give educators a raise at the polls.

The State of Teacher Pay
Parents need to understand how their home state funds education. Blue states tend to invest more in social programs and education funding than red states (though there are exceptions like Pennsylvania and California), but there are more specific questions parents will want to ask…

Have there been revenue cuts in the past year?
In North Carolina, for example, lawmakers decided to go forward with a $900 million tax cut last year. This is bad news for teachers. Drastic tax cuts may be appealing on a basic level, but can result in real issues for school-age kids. It’s important to understand where the money is coming from.

How much are teachers being paid?
The American Federation of Teachers created a tool that shows the median salary of teachers in each state, the amount of funding per student, where the state ranks on funding per student and teacher pay, and calls out politicians who voted to cut education spending in the past year. 

Have the state’s teachers been on strike?
A wave of red-state strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona led to pretty significant jumps in teacher pay and funding. So while those states squared away funding issues before the midterm elections of 2018, voting for candidates who supported these strikes or support education funding in general will ensure increased, or at least not decreased, funding for the state and for teachers.

Does the funding in place represent a sustainable solution?
Oklahoma approved funding increases, but many educators argue that what they got will not fix the decades of underfunded education systems. In Louisiana, lawmakers passed a temporary sales tax increase in order to avoid a downgrade of the state’s credit rating. That tax will go into the education system. Arizona lawmakers passed a bill that included a 20 percent teacher pay increase by 2020. West Virginia educators got a five percent pay raise for educators. These are welcome improvements and signal that more money, not less, is going into education in your state.

Do Some Easy Research
It sounds simple, and maybe even dumb, but candidates who support increased education funding will broadcast their position on their website. Why? Simply put, they’ll want to cozy up to teacher’s unions. Look up who will be on your ballot ahead of time and familiarize yourself with their policies and positions.

Another way to check if incumbent officials support increasing teacher pay and education funding is to check out their “report cards” from the National Education Association. The most recent report cards are from the 2015-2016 legislative session.

The NEA has also endorsed candidates that are committed to improving conditions for teachers by senate and house candidates. They’ve recommended candidates in 29 out of 35 races. 

Check Out Midterm Ballot Initiatives In Your State
A handful of states across the country have midterm ballot initiatives that could alter education funding and, in turn, teacher pay. If you live in Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Hawaii, or Utah, initiatives will allow you to vote for increased revenue, funding, and teacher pay.

Colorado:
Amendment 73, Establish Income Tax Brackets And Raise Taxes for Education Initiative
What Is It: In the state of Colorado, voters can approve an amendment that would raise an extra 1.6 billion dollars per year in taxes for public schools in the state.
Why It Matters: The amendment has the support of the Educators Association in the state. Also, Colorado’s economy is booming. In the past, Colorado has spent $2,000 dollars less per student than the national average.

Florida:
Amendment 5, Two-Thirds Vote of Legislature to Increase Taxes or Fees Amendment
What Is It: This bill would require a two-thirds vote of the legislature to increase any taxes or fees.
Why It Matters: Oklahoma has the same requirement in order to raise revenue in the state, and over the past decade, it’s proved nearly impossible for Oklahomans to raise revenue for education. This has resulted in education funding cuts over the years that forced some districts to only be open 4 days a week and led to some of the worst teacher pay in the country. This would strange education funding in a state that’s already known for not loving taxes.

Hawaii:
State Bill 2922, Hawaii Surcharge on Investment Properties to Fund Public Education Amendment
What Is It: This bill authorize the state to place a surcharge on all investment properties within the state on properties worth over one million dollars. That money would go towards education! However, this amendment was just ruled unconstitutional by the Hawaii supreme court. A ‘yes’ vote would still show legislators that you support increased education funding in your state.
Why it matters: Hawaii is a land of investment properties. Many people who actually own property there don’t live in the state full time and many who live in the year-round round rent. For many Hawaiians, this bill could level the playing field and provide more funding for public education. Hawaii has some of the lowest teacher salaries in the country and the lowest per capita funding of schools in the entire country.

North Carolina:
Senate Bill 75, North Carolina Income Tax Cap Amendment
What Is It: This bill would cap the income tax rate at 7 percent — a decrease from the formerly constitutionally mandated 10 percent tax rate.
Why It Matters: The income tax cap would drain the state of 3.5 million dollars annually. Coupled with the 900 million dollars in tax cuts that will go into effect in the state, this would starve public education.

Utah:
Nonbinding Opinion Question 1, 10 Cents Per Gallon Gas Tax Increase for Education and Local Roads
What Is It: In Utah, parents will have a chance to advise the state legislature to pass a small increase in a tax on gas. That increase would cost the average driver about 48 dollars per year, and 70 percent of that tax would go to public education, with another 30 going to improving infrastructure.
Why It Matters: The initiative would show Utah voters support of increased education funding and improving roads.