Walkouts Led to Big Wins for Red-State Teachers. So Why Are They Still Struggling?

Teachers and demonstrators hold signs during a strike outside the Oklahoma State Capitol building in Oklahoma City on April 3, 2018. Photo: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When teachers walked out this spring, they won. In red state after red state, intractable Republican governors signed overdue pay raises and pension fixes. West Virginia governor Jim Justice signed a bill that gave teachers, police officers, and service personnel a 5 percent raise, and created a task force to devise ways to stabilize the state’s underfunded Public Employee Insurance Agency. Arizona governor Doug Ducey promised teachers a 20 percent pay raise by 2020, beginning with a 10 percent raise for the current academic year. And in Oklahoma, Governor Mary Fallin approved annual teacher pay raises of $6,100 on average, with average raises of $1,250 allocated for support personnel. (Educators in Kentucky also walked out, but over proposed cuts to their pensions and benefits, not pay.)

The narrative that emerged from the walkouts is a triumphant one, and for good reason. Republicans control the presidency, both chambers of Congress, most state legislatures, and most governors’ mansions. The party is no friend to public education, or to labor. By striking, and winning any pay raises at all, educators achieved the legislative equivalent of squeezing water from stone. But older realities persist. Months later, as the euphoria fades and the grind of another academic year sets in, teachers in walkout states are still struggling.

Beth Wallis, a band director in rural Oklahoma who participated in the walkout, says her raise amounts to a little under three hundred dollars after taxes. “I think a lot of teachers are probably in this position where we got the raise, but we’re still struggling so hard to just make ends meet,” she explained.

“It kind of comes off ungrateful,” she added. “And I don’t want to sound that way at all.”

But Wallis has debt. A lot of debt, which she incurred because she earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree before she became a teacher. The master’s degree makes her more competitive in her field, but the expense is a heavy burden. The raise will “stop the bleeding,” she added, but that’s nearly it. “I don’t mean to say the raise is negligible, but in the grand scheme of things, with how much debt that you have to build up just to live whenever your paycheck doesn’t pay the basic bills, it’s going to be a very, very long time before I can get back on my feet financially,” she said.

Wallis isn’t alone. Teachers in West Virginia and Arizona also told New York that while the raises have helped them provide for themselves and their families, finances remain tight. Some kept their second jobs. Others still contemplate leaving their state for a higher paycheck elsewhere.

Nathaniel Rios, who teaches high-school social studies in Arizona, said that his biweekly pay increased from $953 during the 2017–2018 school to $1,102 this fall. When he began teaching in Arizona in 2007, he made $842 per paycheck. Those figures don’t account for fluctuations in performance pay, health insurance costs, or retirement contributions, but the fact remains that until Rios walked out in the spring, his base salary had increased by only $111 over ten years.

Rios has three children with his wife, who is a high-school math teacher and recently participated in a documentary about Arizona’s educational woes. “It felt like we’ve been running in place, if not going backwards, for a while,” he said. Even with the raise, he hasn’t quit his second job. “I scoop ice cream at a local ice cream shop called The Screamery,” he said. “We use the extra money to take our kids out to eat once every two weeks. That extra money, even though we could put it into debt or the other things we have, we use it to try to live, to try to feel like we have a moment to be a family that can do those things.”

He and his wife are now considering a move to Washington State, where they would both make higher salaries. “It’s devastating,” he said. “I don’t want to move. I grew up in Arizona.”

Katie Kuhn, who’s been teaching in the Tucson Unified School District for over ten years and currently works in classrooms as a teacher coach, described her raise as “extremely minimal.” “The walkout did exact change. It did bring to light certain discrepancies in what the legislature is saying that we’re getting,” she said. “I believe it was a very good walkout.” But Kuhn, like Rios, still experiences financial hardship. She has started a business out of her home, and said she works an average of 60 hours per week in order to make ends meet.

“After taxes and everything, [my raise] actually came out to maybe $50 to $60 a paycheck,” said Kristina Gore, who teaches social studies at a public school in Logan County, West Virginia, and participated in the walkout. “Which isn’t horrible by any means. It’s something. It’s better than nothing. However, it’s disheartening. We wanted to move forward and get higher in the rankings as far as what the states are paying their teachers. When West Virginia started the movement we saw other states follow suit, and they got 10 percent pay raises, 20 percent pay raises. Oh well, we’re last again.” Before the walkout, West Virginia ranked 48th in the nation for teachers’ salaries.

Some teachers did fare better, though their circumstances depended partly on their state and on their marital status. Chelsea Cox, who teaches biology at Bixby Ninth Grade Center in Bixby, Oklahoma, told New York that the raise has been “a really nice blessing” for her and her husband. “We are both teachers, so this has put almost $800 more into our household each month,” she explained. “We are actually meeting with a financial adviser tomorrow on our fall break to discuss putting some of our raises into investing for retirement. I’m pretty excited for this, as investing for retirement seemed kind of daunting before — we were able to put a little in, but not as much as we should be.”

Karla Hilliard, who teaches advanced placement English in Berkeley County, West Virginia, said the raise has made a difference — “not a significant difference, but a difference” — in her family’s financial situation, too. “What it comes down to is that it’s still extra money. And every dollar goes towards something someone needs, whether it’s nursery bills or mortgages or student loans or their kids’ day care. I have a lot of colleagues who have children in colleges, so for them it goes to college tuitions,” said Hillard.

But Hilliard and Cox both agree that there’s more work to be done. “We hope to keep moving forward and will continue to raise concerns, advocate for ourselves, and organize in order to make sure education truly is a centerpiece in our state and that teachers are compensated at a rate where we can attract and maintain talented teachers,” Hilliard said. She recently contributed to 55 Strong, an anthology of essays and interviews with walkout teachers and allies, and told New York that the social media groups teachers used to organize the walkout are still active. Some educators also formed West Virginia United, which is affiliated with the national United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators, as Sarah Jaffe recently reported for Medium.

Cox, who protested in Oklahoma City for six days of the nine-day walkout, said that Oklahoma schools still experience serious difficulties. “Four teachers from my school, out of a faculty of about 25, left Oklahoma public education at the end of last year, and that was after the pay raises were passed by the legislature and signed by the governor,” she asserted. “For a new teacher position last May, we had only five applicants, only two of whom were actually certified to teach in the subject area. Ten years ago, we would have had double that number of applicants, and they would have already been certified or they wouldn’t be considered.”

Cox’s experience is indicative of a statewide problem. Reuters reported in August that Oklahoma faced such a severe teacher shortage that it approved 916 emergency certifications for this academic year, which put teachers who lack full accreditation in classrooms. That’s an unprecedented number of emergency certifications for the state, and it still didn’t resolve the shortage. Five hundred vacancies remained.

Teacher shortages aren’t unique to Oklahoma, or even to walkout states as a category. Though unemployment is dropping nationally, analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found that the public education sector lags behind other sectors of the labor market. “There are still 116,000 fewer public education jobs than there were before the recession began in 2007,” wrote Elise Gould, a senior economist for the left-leaning organization. “If we include the number of jobs that should have been created just to keep up with growing student enrollment, we are currently experiencing a 389,000-job shortfall in public education.” In 2017, the Washington Post reported that teacher shortages have expanded steadily since the early 1990s, a problem the Post attributed at the time to a combination of low pay, insufficient resources, and standardized testing standards.

In these circumstances, a small raise doesn’t mean as much as it otherwise could. Teachers are still underpaid, still strapped for resources, and still subject to uncertain professional futures. West Virginia’s 5 percent raise didn’t bring teachers’ salaries up the national average, and though the state’s governor, Jim Justice, promised a $100 million fix for the state’s insurance agency for public employees, and another 5 percent raise for teachers and state employees, labor leaders aren’t convinced he’ll deliver. “Governor Justice must think West Virginians are stupid,” Josh Sword, president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, told West Virginia MetroNews. Ninety Oklahoma school districts, meanwhile, can only afford to meet four days a week. The walkouts directed national attention to education crises in these states, but legislative solutions have been limited.

In Arizona, educators worry that Ducey’s vaunted 20 percent raise by 2020 plan might not even come to fruition. As the Arizona Republic reported in July, Ducey allocated $306 million to fund a 10 percent raise for teachers this academic year — but the bill allowed school districts to disperse those funds as they saw fit.

Teacher salaries already differ from district to district in Arizona. “Arizona doesn’t have a statewide teacher salary. We bargain those in every district across the state. There is a strong belief in what is called local control in Arizona, and so the districts tend to compete against each other on first-year teacher salary, mid-year teacher salary, and career earnings,” explained
Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association. That funding system favors districts that can afford to offer applicants higher salaries, and the pay raise works within this system of local control; that means Arizona educators didn’t receive a uniform 10 percent raise.

Though Ducey promised teachers additional 5 percent raises for the next two academic years, that $306 million pot is one-time funding. “What the governor has said is 20 percent by 2020, and he’s on the record, so we’re going to hold him to it,” Thomas said. “But there is no guarantee that any additional funding will come. None. It’s not law. It’s just his word. He could have promised every kindergarten teacher a pony. It would have just as much authority and reliability as him saying, ‘I’m going to give you a raise a year down the road.’”

Arizona’s example is an illustrative one. If states don’t fund public education equitably, raises have limited benefits. Arizona’s pay raises look like patchwork because they’re bounded by the restrictions of a patchwork education system. Educators are up against dramatic inequality — and they know it. No one who spoke to New York said there were immediate plans in their state for another walkout. But everyone said that they’re still dissatisfied with their working conditions and with their legislators, and will continue to organize.

For some, the possibility of another walkout is real, if still distant.

“I don’t have a button on my desk that I push and it says, go out,” Thomas said. The process of organizing Arizona’s walkout, or any walkout, is a long and complicated one that requires the consensus of a state’s teachers and the support of parents and communities. In Arizona’s case, the likelihood of another walkout seems to depend on the contents of next year’s budget. If it lacks funding for Ducey’s promised, second-year 5 percent pay raise, educators have decisions to make.

“I don’t think we’re just immediately going to walk out,” Thomas continued, “but I do absolutely believe it is a strong possibility. We’ll probably start doing the same things again, where we talk to our members and listen to our members about what needs to happen, and what they are willing to risk.”

Despite Walkout Wins, Red-State Teachers Still Struggle