School & District Management

How Coronavirus Is Jeopardizing Teacher Pay Raises

By Daarel Burnette II & Madeline Will — March 26, 2020 6 min read
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Just as the movement to pay teachers more money was gaining political steam, the economic fallout from the coronavirus is jeopardizing most of this year’s statewide initiatives to increase salaries, according to an Education Week analysis.

State lawmakers predict that the spread of the coronavirus and the extraordinary efforts to bring it to heel will send sales and income tax revenue into a tailspin next fiscal year. And they’re doing all they can now to brace for the coming storm.

In recent weeks, lawmakers in Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, many citing a potential recession, have significantly reduced the pay bumps that teachers were expecting to get. In Kentucky, a much-anticipated $2,000 raise might get scrapped altogether. And in at least five states, proposals for teacher salary increases are in limbo as legislatures have either suspended their sessions or are retooling state budgets to account for the economic crisis.

“In the midst of a pandemic, you try not to put too much focus on that, but educators are very concerned about this decision,” said Tikeila Rucker, the president of the United Education Association, which represents teachers in Memphis, Tenn., of the governor cutting the proposed bump in the state’s contribution to teacher salaries from 4 percent to 2 percent. “It feels like a disservice to the people. … We’re already underappreciated, overworked, underpaid, and undervalued, and when there’s a need to make a cut, it feels like we’re dispensable.”

Over the past two years, teachers across the country have called attention to their stagnant paychecks, staging multi- or single-day walkouts and protests in at least 10 states. Rallies for higher wages and more school funding were planned at state capitols across the country for this spring, until the coronavirus pandemic squashed gatherings.

To maintain social distancing, Tennessee teachers canceled their March 16 protest in Nashville, while South Carolina teachers canceled their second-annual statehouse rally, which was scheduled for March 24 and expected to shut down some schools. In Kentucky, teachers have resorted to driving around the state capitol building in Frankfort in their cars, honking in protest of lawmakers’ proposed changes to their pensions.

Teachers Asked to Do More

The freeze on pay proposals comes just as teachers must radically change how they work—transition their lessons to a remote-learning platform, soothe students’ fears about the pandemic from afar, and bring a sense of normalcy to the disrupted school year.

Parents, now tasked with supervising their children’s learning, have exclaimed in memes, social media posts, and notes to district staff that it’s past time for teachers to get a pay raise. “Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week,” tweeted television producer Shonda Rhimes on her first day of homeschooling her children.

“Having parents at home who struggle to complete the work that their children are supposed to do will fuel a little more respect for the everyday lives of teachers,” said Thomas Easterling, an English teacher at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. He’s hoping that the state legislature, which has suspended its session, doesn’t forget about the $1,000 teacher pay raise proposal that is still pending.

But in state capitols, lawmakers worry they’ll see a significant dip in revenue next year when they reconvene to craft the 2021 fiscal year budget. Many of their fiscal analysts have advised them to spend conservatively this year in order to avoid more drastic budget cuts next year.

District school finance analysts, meanwhile, are encouraging district superintendents to save any extra dollars they have to spend rather than bump their teachers’ pay during negotiations this year. The costs of salary increases this year will compound during a recession as more and more teachers qualify for step-ladder raises and fewer employees leave their jobs, said Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University school finance professor.

“It doesn’t take much to destabilize district finances during a recession,” Roza said during a webinar for district administrators and school funding advocates earlier this week.

Of the 13 governors who proposed teacher pay raises in their State of the State speeches, only the governors in Arizona, Idaho, and New Mexico have so far been successful in getting their entire proposals across the finish line. Even so, New Mexico lawmakers are expected to head back into a special session to adjust the budget, which includes a 4 percent teacher pay raise, to reflect the new economic reality.

In Arizona, which saw a statewide strike over teacher pay in 2018, the legislature included in a streamlined budget earlier this month a 10 percent bump in pay this year. But Anabel Aportela, a K-12 fiscal analyst for the state’s school board association and school budget officers’ association, is concerned about future cuts in the state, which is heavily reliant on sales tax revenue.

“It’s a fluid situation,” Aportela said. “I’m really concerned about what this is going to do to the economy.”

Many teacher-pay initiatives now hang in limbo as state legislatures have promised to reevaluate next year’s budget after reviewing sales and income tax receipts this month and next to see the impact of so many people being laid off their jobs and locked up in their homes for weeks at a time.

In Georgia, the House of Representatives, citing the threat of a looming recession, cut in half a proposal to provide teachers with a $2,000 pay raise earlier this month before going into a temporary recess. While it’s yet to be determined what the state Senate decides, Joe Fleming, a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Educators, a group that represents teachers, said it has put his members on edge.

“There are two ways to look at it,” Fleming said. “Yes, state revenue could be down substantially this time next year but, at the same time, I think our teachers are doing amazing work. … You can make an equally strong argument that it’s more deserved now than ever before.”

‘A Tough Spot’

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, had made raising teacher pay a hallmark of his campaign last year and has credited teachers with his election. He had proposed a $2,000 pay raise for teachers—their first in years.

In early March, the state House had passed a budget that gave teachers a 1 percent pay raise each year of the biennium. That was slightly less than Beshear’s proposal, but it also spread the pay raise to school support staff, too.

But the state Senate’s proposed budget cuts teacher pay raises entirely, though it includes a 1 percent raise for support staff. The legislature will reconvene on March 26 and April 1 to hammer out the details and finalize the budget. If Beshear vetoes all or parts of the budget, legislators have until April 15 to consider any veto overrides.

But Kentucky lawmakers are bracing for a financial crisis. According to the Courier Journal, state Sen. Tom Buford said that instead of a projected surplus through the end of the fiscal year, “we could be down $1 billion in revenues—and I think that’s a conservative estimate. We’re really in a tough spot.”

Even so, teachers are urging state legislators not to forget about them.

“Yes, we are in an unprecedented crisis—no one has ever imagined living through this kind of pandemic that shuts down states and nations,” said Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown.

Still, she added, “we have to acknowledge Tennessee does have a very large cash surplus. So, while we’re disappointed that this proposal for teacher [raises] has been reduced, it’s a step back, but it’s not the end of our fight. …. As we recover, let’s not forget the problems that were already there before COVID-19 hit us.”

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