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At House Education Hearing, Lawmakers Differ Sharply on Why Teachers Are Underpaid

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 12, 2019 6 min read
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At the first House education committee hearing on K-12 schools this Congress, Democrats in control of the committee pushed Tuesday for more resources from the federal government to raise teacher pay and repair schools. But Republicans said that education spending increases have failed to adequately address these issues or to help students academically.

Democrats took control of the House in the November midterms for the first time since 2011, and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., now the committee chairman, chose to highlight “underpaid teachers and crumbling schools” in his first hearing. He and other Democrats, as well as American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and two other witnesses, argued that a variety of crises in public schools, from broken heating systems and pervasive mold to teachers forced to take second jobs, called for a greater federal investment in buildings and educators.

But ranking member Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., and other Republicans pushed back on this premise. They said that a huge spike in spending on administrative staff over several decades had deprived teachers of better salaries. Instead, they indicated that school choice, rather than relying on more funding from Washington, would drive innovation and market competition and help teachers’ ability to get better salaries.

The federal government has provided relatively small spending increases to the U.S. Department of Education during the first two years of the Trump administration, despite President Donald Trump’s push to cut federal school spending.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was not a witness at the hearing

‘Robust Public Education System’

Scott said in prepared remarks that the lack of strong federal support for various programs had led to a variety of negative consequences. He said these include:

  • an estimate that schools are underfunded by $46 billion annually when building industry standards are considered;
  • the U.S. Department of Education’s recent estimate that it would cost $197 billion to bring schools into a “good condition";
  • inequitable funding of schools that leans too heavily on local property taxes;
  • the decline of average nationwide teacher pay by $30 per week from 1996 to 2015 after adjusting for inflation.

“Rather than seeing the urgent need for a robust public education system,” Scott says, “some see an opportunity to cut funding and expand the role of private schools and voucher programs.”

Late last month, Scott and other Democrats introduced legislation to provide roughly $100 billion in infrastructure spending for schools. Although Trump has spoken often about the need to fix up infrastructure, he hasn’t emphasized schools, and the bill could face an uphill battle.

Sharon Contreras, the superintendent of Guilford County, N.C., schools, told the committee that her district has 469 mobile classrooms, 58 percent of which are more than 20 years old, and an annual maintenance budget of just $6 million to deal with an estimated $800 million maintenance backlog.

“I think it is obviously preferable that [students in mobile classrooms] were in the building with the rest of the students,” Contreras said, although even there, she noted, buckets are routinely used to catch the water leaking from roofs into classrooms. She later told Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., that things were bad enough in her district that the school security cameras did not work.

Anna King, a National PTA vice president, said teacher protests in states like Oklahoma highlighted how states continue to underfund education, forcing teachers to take other jobs to make ends meet. “We can’t continue to repeat this vicious cycle,” she said. “Our schools should be equally resourced.”

And Weingarten said that spending more money on infrastructure would free up other resources to pay teachers more.

“When schools are leaky or there’s this much mold or this much respiratory illness, you’re going to hear teachers and everyone say: ‘Fix that first,’” Weingarten told lawmakers.

Too Many Administrators?

Republicans and Ben Scafidi, an economics professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, stressed that they appreciated teachers and that they should be paid appropriately. However, they said that despite decades of increased spending on schools in general, much of that money had paid for a sharp rise in the number of school administrators and other non-teacher staff, and not competitive salaries for those in the classroom. This led Foxx to criticize the idea that more money, especially from Washington, would solve the problem.

“Democrats have not had a new idea in decades” when it comes to improving schools’ performance, Foxx said. She later sarcastically asked Scafidi for the “magical” level of education funding that would unlock a surge in students’ academic success.

Scafidi shared data from the National Center of Education Statistics showing that teachers’ salaries had declined by roughly 0.6 percent from 1992 to 2016, while the number of nonteacher school staff grew by 52 percent over the same period.

“If we keep the same system, I don’t know why it would change,” Scafidi said. “It’s not clear we are getting a return on that.” He added later that if it were up to him, “I would give a bigger subsidies to low-income students and let [families] choose schools.” (Scafidi later clarified to lawmakers that the nonteacher staff in his calculations include people like counselors and school bus drivers.)

And more broadly, Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., said “it scares me” when educators who sometimes discourage parental involvement in education ask the federal government for additional funding when Washington is trillions of dollars in debt.

“It absolutely amazes me that anybody would do that,” Grothman said.

Teacher of the Year

Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., the 2016 National Teacher of the Year who was elected to Congress last year after scoring an upset victory in the Democratic primary, zeroed in on the purpose of teacher strikes and civil rights protections.

The new committee member criticized the view that recent strikes and walkouts had narrow motivations on the part of self-interested teachers: “If you think this is just about salaries, that’s not how it works.”

Hayes then questioned Scafidi as to whether he thought federal laws like Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX, and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act inhibited school quality, safety, and integration. Scafidi argued that well-designed school choice programs would promote integration better than the current trend in public schools, for example.

In response, Hayes said that she had sent her children to a Title I school with a relatively high share of disadvantaged children, and said that for many parents, that was their only choice. “Exporting the high-performers out ... will not work,” Hayes said.

In subsequent remarks, she criticized some of the dialogue in the committee hearing for the drumbeat of praise for teachers but the simultaneous refusal to treat education funding as an investment.

“Why aren’t we looking at it as an investment?” Hayes asked. “We are thinking that it’s one or the other: Pay teachers or improve facilities. I want both.”

In an interview after the hearing, Hayes said she would press for additional special education funding in this Congress.

“Education needs a serious bailout,” she said.

Photo: Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., the 2016 National Teacher of the Year who was elected to Congress last year, attends a House education committee hearing on school funding and teacher pay. (Andrew Ujifusa/Education Week)

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