Striking teachers earn high grades, poll shows
WASHINGTON – An escalating number of teacher strikes across the country last spring, now erupting again as school resumes, has sparked a remarkable reaction from most Americans: support.
By close to 3-1, those surveyed by USA TODAY and Ipsos Public Affairs said public school teachers have the right to strike, a view held even by the parents whose lives are most disrupted when teachers walk off the job. Six in 10 said teachers aren’t paid fairly, even though higher salaries for them might well mean bigger bills for taxpayers.
Those views by the public bolster the power of teachers to make demands of school districts and state legislatures in what may signal a new era of teacher activism.
The survey of more than 2,000 adults nationwide launches a USA TODAY project through the 2018-19 school year that will explore the work, the demands and the future of teaching in the United States. It is a profession that faces evolving challenges, from the imperative to raise scores on standardized tests to the need to protect students from the threat of mass school shootings.
“We criminally underpay teachers, and I think that they are not really as respected as they should be,” said Daniel Galluppi, 39, a data manager from Pittsburgh whose children attend public school. He was among those who
participated in the poll. “They’re not just child care for children, but they’re teaching these kids how to be successful and productive members of society.”
Frederick Wendt III, 72, a retired hotel manager from Zephyrhills, Florida, agreed. “I basically think that athletes are overpaid and teachers are underpaid,” he said in a follow-up interview, a sentiment echoed by others surveyed.
Just 34 percent said public school teachers were paid fairly; 59 percent said they weren’t. Nearly eight in 10 said teachers have to spend too much of their own money on school supplies.
And poll respondents saw education funding as money well spent. More than two-thirds said public schools were worth the tax money that goes into them.
The online poll, taken Aug. 9-13, has a credibility interval of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Earlier this year, teachers staged statewide strikes in West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma, and they rallied in Kentucky, North Carolina and Colorado, closing some of the biggest schools. Teachers in about a dozen Washington state districts walked off the job as classes resumed, though many have since gone back to work.
In Los Angeles, the nation’s secondlargest school district, teachers have voted to authorize a strike if negotiators can’t come to an agreement. A walkout there could come as early as next month.
Most of the strikes this spring came in conservative states that tend to have weaker unions and lower spending on education.
That red-state revolt pushed some Republican officials to defy party orthodoxy by endorsing increased spending and higher taxes.
In a nation that sometimes seems split along partisan lines on everything, Democrats and Republicans have similar outlooks on most issues involving teachers – even on the controversial question of strikes. Democrats by an overwhelming 78 percent to 17 percent said teachers have the right to strike. Most Republicans agreed, albeit by a closer 56 percent to 35 percent.
That said, some opposed the blunt weapon of a walkout, which costs children classroom time and often leave parents scrambling for day care. “I went through two strikes with my kids,” recalled Carol Kulman, 76, a retired medical researcher from New York City. “I really don’t think that’s the answer.”
The support expressed for teachers doesn’t necessarily translate to their unions.
Those surveyed were divided on whether teachers’ unions improve the quality of education: 48 percent said they did; 35 percent said they didn’t. On that, there was a sharp partisan split. Democrats by 43 percentage points said teachers’ unions improve the quality of education; Republicans by 14 points said they didn’t.
Even among Democrats, who tend to be more supportive of organized labor, six of 10 said teachers’ unions make it harder to fire bad teachers. So did three of four Republicans.
“I think there are bad teachers that are allowed to continue in education when they shouldn’t be allowed to,” said Lanaya Gore, 39, a mother in San Antonio, Texas, who home-schools her children. The unions “keep the bad teachers in,” she said.
That said, teachers’ unions got a high overall approval rating, 60 percent, just about the same as the 61 percent that local school district leaders received. Views of the leadership of the Department of Education were much less favorable: 44 percent approved, 43 percent disapproved.
Most positive of all were assessments of teachers themselves. Three of four Americans, 76 percent, approved of the teachers in their local district; just one in 10 disapproved.
Teaching is among the most revered professions in the United States.
A previous USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll this year, pegged to the Fourth of July, asked respondents to rate what was best about America. School teachers ranked third, trailing only nurses and “kindness to strangers,” and ahead of the Founding Fathers and police officers. (Way down the list: politicians, bankers, actors and journalists.)
Among those with kids younger than 18 years old, six in 10 parents said they would encourage their children to become teachers.
“They have quite the job, trying to take care of everyone and being with our children for eight hours a day,” said Leslie Bailey, 33, an event manager from Ohio who has one child in preschool. “
“The attitudes of kids nowadays is especially terrible,” said Aaron Slepko, 37, of Norton, Ohio. “Teachers get the blunt end, and if they say anything, suddenly parents jump down their throats and they’re in trouble.”
The attrition rate for beginning teachers underscores the difficulties of the job. The nonprofit Learning Policy Institute estimates that 20 to 30 percent of teachers leave the field within their first five years.
In the new USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, just one-third agreed with the statement, “It is easy to become a teacher.” But nearly six in 10 agreed with this: “If I wanted to, I would be an excellent teacher.”
A poll found support, by close to 3-1, for public school teachers having the right to strike.