Teachers’ pay inequities in the spotlight
Forget the apple for the teacher.
They want something a bit more green for their efforts. Cash.
The nation is about to be confronted with a basic question of arithmetic: How much do we value education? And what are we willing to pay those to whom we entrust our children each day?
For the second time in less than a month, a state has been engulfed in a demand from teachers for better pay.
This time it was Oklahoma, where teachers walked out Monday in an effort to shine a light on their pay structure. Schools were closed all week.
This comes just weeks after teachers likewise hit the bricks in West Virginia, shutting down public schools across the state for nine days and forcing the nation to pay attention to education issues — specifically the putrid pay for teachers in many areas of the country. West Virgnia, Almost Heaven? Not if you’re in command of a classroom. Teachers in West Virginia rank 48th in the nation when it comes to their pay.
The average elementary school teacher in West Virginia makes $47,340 a year, as opposed to $59,020 for the national average. That’s a 24 percent difference. In high schools, the math reads $45,240 for a teacher in West Virginia; $61,420 in the nation, a whopping 35 percent difference.
In the face of schools that had been shuttered for two weeks, state officials approved a 5 percent increase for West Virginia teachers.
The spotlight is now on Oklahoma, where lawmakers were feeling the heat – from both sides – after Republicans broke ranks and backed tax hikes to boost education funding and teacher pay hikes.
Meanwhile, teachers in Kentucky marched on the state capitol to protest cuts in their pensions, while educators in Arizona are demanding a 20 percent boost in their pay.
Here in Pennsylvania, where the state ranks 10th in the nation in terms of teacher salaries, the problem is not nearly as acute.
But we do share other common education funding issues.
Approving pay hikes is one thing. Paying for them is another animal altogether.
Politicians find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place, squeezed between children, parents and teachers on one side, and conservatives railing against tax hikes on the other.
In that regard, Pennsylvania is no different than any other area of the country. The state has debated for years the notion of moving away from the basic building block of education funding in the Keystone State, the property tax.
Nothing has done the trick. Property taxes continue to be a massive strain on the budgets of senior citizens who own their homes but struggle to pay their ever-increasing property taxes.
More importantly, the state method of funding education – long attacked as creating an unfair, unbalanced playing field that favors well-todo districts and penalizes a lot of kids in depressed areas for no reason other than their zip code – is once again being challenged in court.
A lawsuit filed by residents in the William Penn School District in Delaware County and several other across the state is seeking to have this antiquated funding formula tossed out.
Caught in the middle are school board members and state legislators who find themselves under the gun from both sides, those seeking increased funding and pay hikes, countered by those who demand they pay attention to the bottom line, and hold the line on taxes.
For his part, Gov. Tom Wolf spent the first three years in the governor’s mansion pushing unsuccessfully for tax hikes, in particular a new levy on the state’s Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling industry, to boost education funding.
Wolf is now running for reelection. Not surprisingly, he has toned down much of his tax increase fervor.
The question is being asked in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and the rest of the nation.
How much do we value education? What are we willing to pay to achieve it?
And that does not even include the raging debate surrounding the correlation between spending, teacher pay and quality of education.
For now the nation is watching.