The late Mike Rose, a professor who educated teachers, wrote a book about a three year journey across the United States back in the mid-1990s to visit and observe the classrooms of teachers who had been identified to him as excellent. In that book, Possible Lives, and later in an article for The American Scholar, Rose very carefully defines fine teachers:
Their “classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”
I wish I thought the rest of us reflected so profoundly about what teachers do. Creating engaged, challenging, and respectful classrooms like the ones Rose describes requires academic scholarship, training in child and adolescent development, and a whole lot of management skill. In my most cynical days, I imagine that instead of valuing excellent teachers, many Americans celebrate the people with the tech skills to create phones with better apps. I worry that a lot of people define the purpose of schools as keeping our children out of sight and out of mind. And I am pretty sure when legislators sit down to lay out state budgets, they mostly figure out how to cover all the functions of the state with the revenue available without considering what a tax increase might accomplish. Actually, these days it seems legislators are prone to cut taxes permanently or at least provide a one-time bonus tax refund.
These are the reasons why teachers strike, as they recently did in Minneapolis and Sacramento. State dollars invested in public education pay for concrete basics: enough teachers to keep the student-to-teacher ratio barely manageable, counselors, school psychologists, bus drivers, education support professionals to assist students in special education, and maybe also music teachers and librarians. When there isn’t enough money, districts cut out the extras and begin shaving down the basics by making classes bigger and delaying cost-of-living raises for teachers and aides and bus drivers. In settlements following both recent strikes, teachers won better salaries for themselves and for the under-paid hourly workers who serve as education support professionals, lunchroom cooks, and bus drivers. Teachers in Minneapolis also won class size caps.
In Minneapolis, a school district with 28,700 students and 4,500 teachers, the Star Tribune reported that the union agreed to “wage increases for education support professionals that boost the starting hourly wage from $19.83 to $23.91, an increase in the number of school counselors, and layoff protections for teachers from ‘a population underrepresented among licensed teachers’… Teachers will receive $4,000 (a one-time stipend) on April 8 and pay raises of at least 2%… Both new contracts run through the end of the 2022-2023 school year.”
In Sacramento, the issue has been a shortage of teachers, substitute teachers, and education support professionals. The Sacramento Bee reported, “District and union officials said Sunday that an agreement had been reached between the district, the classified employee union SEIU Local 1021 and the Sacramento City Teachers Association… The… agreement with the teachers union includes ongoing 4% salary increases, 3% one-time stipends for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years; one-time payments of $1,250 in the current school year, 25% rate increases for substitutes… The SEIU union said in a separate email that the agreement ‘makes strides to address the causes of the classified staff shortage through a 4% ongoing cost-of-living adjustment… retroactive to July 1, 2021.’… SEIU represents bus drivers, custodians, instructional aides and other workers in the district.”
For two school years now, teaching and working in public schools has demanded more than the academic study, skill, and hard work Mike Rose describes as the routine qualifications for teachers. School districts have been short on staff, and after the COVID disruption, students are presenting enormous academic and emotional challenges. Los Angeles Times columnist Anita Chabria reports: “A few weeks ago, Sacramento teacher Kacie Go had 56 kids for second period. That day, there were 109 students at her eighth-through 12th-grade school who were without an instructor because of staff shortages. So she crammed the students into her room and made it work, but ‘its not sustainable,’ she said… Like Go… teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and instructional aides are fed up with being asked to do more with less. It’s a problem that goes beyond the Sacramento City Unified School District, with 48,000 students in 81 schools. Frustration among teachers and school workers is rampant across California—pushed to a breaking point by the pandemic and a shortage of more than 11,000 credentialed teachers and thousands of support staff… It’s the same story playing out in hundreds of other districts not just in California but across the country. Minneapolis teachers just ended a 14-day strike that shared some of the same issues of pay and support, underscored by the same teacher chagrin that we talk a good game about supporting public education but don’t always come through with actions.”
Chabria profiles Katie Santora, a cafeteria worker who has worked for 13 years at the district and who has been making $18.98 an hour “for what is essentially a management role.” “Santora is the lead nutrition services worker at a high school, expected to churn out 1,500 meals a day between breakfast and lunch—with a staff of nine people (though they started the year with only five). Most are part-timers because the district doesn’t want to pay them benefits, and they make about minimum wage… She’s in charge of ordering, planning, receiving, and keeping the joint running.”
I notice that both the Minneapolis and Sacramento strike settlement agreements involve one-time stipends for this year and, in Sacramento, retroactive bonuses for work during other years of the pandemic. One year stipends are one way school districts can use money from the 2021 American Rescue Plan (COVID-19 relief). School districts are unlikely to turn that money into permanent raises, health care increases or other long term benefits because the COVID relief money won’t be replaced permanently in upcoming state budgets. It is good to see both school districts recognizing the challenges school personnel have been handling in the past two years as staff shortages intersect with students’ rising stress as they return to school.
For the Minnesota Reformer Nadra Nittle adds that in Minneapolis an added burden falls on education support professionals: “The low wages education support professionals receive also make it difficult for them to pay for their district health insurance plans, which cost them the same as administrators who earn five times their salaries…. Some education support professionals pay more than $700 monthly for their family health insurance plans, leaving them with little money to pay for other expenses.”
There is a deeper cause to which teachers have been calling attention in the recent strikes. In his newest (December 2021) annual school funding report, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker documents that over the past two decades, many states have diminished their overall tax effort for public education. Baker explains that tax effort for K-12 schooling is a measure of state spending on K-12 schools relative to state fiscal capacity as measured by gross state product (GSP) and the ratio of state spending to aggregate personal income. “In 37 states, effort is lower than it was, on average, during the four years before the 2007-09 recession. Even after their economies recovered, most states failed to reinvest in their schools.” “States, on average, are devoting smaller shares of their economies to schools than at any point in the past two decades, and the revenue they do raise is in many cases distributed inequitably.”
For The Nation, Eric Blanc concludes: “Public schools were in crisis well before COVID-19. Especially in predominantly non-white, working-class school districts like Minneapolis, decades of underfunding, privatization, high-stakes testing, and low educator pay made it increasingly difficult for teachers and support staff to provide the education their students deserve. To overcome such conditions, an unprecedented upsurge in strikes erupted from West Virginia to Los Angeles in 2018 and 2019. ‘Red for Ed’ succeeded in energizing educators, capturing headlines, and challenging the bipartisan consensus in favor of privatizing education, but its progress was abruptly checked by the pandemic… In the Twin Cities and beyond, the past two years have reversed Red for Ed’s political momentum and exacerbated structural stressors and inequities, resulting in increased educator outflows from the profession… Schools have lacked basic resources necessary to address students’ mental distress in the face of pandemic conditions.”
In 2022, many school districts continue to face the same financial challenges that the Red for Ed wave highlighted. If we value our children and if we want to attract extremely talented and well prepared young people to the profession of teaching, we must meet our obligation as citizens to tax ourselves adequately to serve the real needs of our nation’s 50 million young people enrolled in public schools.