States Are Flooding Schools With Cash, But Teachers Are Missing Out

By Daarel Burnette II — January 22, 2019 7 min read
After a five-day teachers’ strike last year, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, pictured here at his inauguration ceremony, promised to provide teachers with a 20 percent pay raise by 2020.
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The push to boost teacher pay was a big factor in the flood of money states pumped into school districts in recent years, but much of that money has been soaked up by competing school budget priorities, rather than landing in teachers’ pockets.

That’s drawing the ire of a growing number of teacher activists across the country—and frustrating governors and legislators who are looking to deliver on campaign promises they made to make statewide teacher pay increases.

Since the end of the recession in 2009, many states have increased K-12 spending. Last year, for example, states provided more than $294.8 billion in K-12 dollars, a 4 percent increase from last year. But the average teacher pay in 39 states declined between 2010 and 2016, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that pushes for more education spending.

In the vast majority of states, new money that comes from the state is mostly subject to district officials’ discretion.

In many cases, chief financial officers, superintendents, and school board members have decided to use the extra cash to pay down pension obligations, backfill support staff laid off during the recession, or hire more teachers to decrease class sizes. Districts can ill-afford to give teachers across-the-board raises, administrators in states including Washington and Wisconsin, have told teachers.

“There are a lot of news stories and a lot of buzz around teacher pay, and many state policymakers have been wanting to jump on that,” said Michael Griffith, a senior school finance analyst for the Education Commission of the States. “But when they put more money into education, they’re not seeing a jump in teacher pay. Or they’re seeing it in some districts and not in others. In most instances, you supply the money to districts and hope they spend it the right way.”

A Sticking Point

Teachers across the nation have staged massive protests to demand that states spend more money on textbooks, technology, school construction, and reducing class sizes. But increasing teacher pay has proven both costly and difficult to achieve.

Negotiations between teacher groups and district officials have turned especially hostile this year in states where governors last year gave hundreds of millions more dollars to schools, earmarked in some cases—at least rhetorically—for teachers.

See Also: Teacher Pay: How Salaries, Pensions, and Benefits Work in Schools

Teachers in seven Washington state districts went on strike at the beginning of this year after district administrators said they couldn’t afford to deliver on Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s promise to boost teacher pay with the $1 billion in extra money provided by the state to end a long-standing lawsuit that was partly over teacher pay.

In California, where districts mostly have free rein to spend state money as they’d like, thousands of Los Angeles teachers walked off the job last week after district officials refused to bump their pay by 6.5 percent, decrease class sizes, and add nurses, librarians, and counselors. California has, since the recession, provided districts with more than $19 billion in extra money, though the state’s K-12 spending has yet to reach pre-recession spending levels.

And teachers in Chicago and Denver last week threatened walkouts over their pay. Both Illinois and Colorado provided districts with hundreds of millions more dollars last year.

In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey spared his re-election bid and ended a five-day statewide strike last year after he said he’d set aside more than $644 million to boost teachers’ pay by an average of 20 percent by 2020. Teachers, he said, would receive a 10 percent raise this fall.

Where's the Money?

Even if governors and state lawmakers promise pay raises to teachers, local school boards and district administrators often have competing priorities that keep some of that money from finding its way into teachers’ pockets.

After a five-day teachers’ strike, Gov. Doug Ducey last year promised to provide teachers with a 20 percent pay raise by 2020, with teachers receiving a 10 percent raise this school year. But some estimates show that many of the raises across the state were uneven with some teachers only getting 5 percent raises this year while others received a 15 percent raise. Ducey this year proposed to put much of a $900 million surplus into savings, while many teachers across the state have said districts need even more money to stave off a teacher shortage.

California slashed dozens of spending requirements when it created a new funding formula in 2013, allowing the state’s many school districts to effectively spend money from the state however administrators would like. The state also required that districts by 2020 pay up to 19 percent of its pension contribution. Because of rising fiscal demands across the state, many districts have put much of the $20 billion in extra spending on pensions and other obligations. Teachers in Los Angeles have demanded a 6.5 percent raise, smaller class sizes, and more support staff. The district says it can’t afford all those things and Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has proposed to pay part of the district’s pensions to stave off other cuts.

Teachers in seven districts went on strike earlier this school year when district administrators refused to provide teachers with the sorts of pay raises they envisioned when the state provided $1 billion more over the next four years as part of a court ruling involving teacher pay. Many of the districts are going to voters this spring to ask for more money to avoid having to make millions of dollars in cuts.

Source: Education Week

But that money, all of which was placed in districts’ general funds, was spread out in uneven ways, with teachers in various districts receiving anywhere from no raise at all to, in one instance, an 18 percent raise, according to an analysis by the state’s department of education. Many finance experts fear that sort of uneven pay schedule across the state could exacerbate the teacher shortage in the state’s most rural areas.

Some Arizona districts have told their teachers they won’t be able to afford to give them 20 percent raises by 2020.

“We knew when he created this proposal that it was just a promise that was going to create problems and inequity down the road,” said Rebecca Garelli, a 6th grade science teacher at Sevilla West Middle School in Phoenix. Garelli received a 5 percent, one-time pay bump, about $87 in each paycheck, which the district could rescind next year, she said. “What he gave was more of a promise than a reality.”

Flush With Revenue

A large portion of states this year are flush with cash as revenue from natural resources and property and sales taxes have rebounded.

Some governors, such as in Arizona, California, and Colorado, have said in recent weeks that they want to place much of that surplus money into savings. Others, including in Arkansas, Missouri, and Virginia, have said they want to spend much of the surpluses on their public school systems.

Seventeen states, according to the ECS, have statewide pay scales, which, if adjusted, can assure that teachers across the board will receive pay raises. That includes Oklahoma and West Virginia, where statewide strikes last year led to the state’s entire pay scale being adjusted by thousands of dollars. (Most states have a minimum pay amount that districts can’t go under.)

Last week, legislation was proposed in Texas, which has a statewide pay scale, that would provide every teacher in the state with a $5,000 raise. It would cost the state $3.7 billion over the next two years.

But in the rest of the states, districts can mostly spend money however they’d like, a staple of America’s local control mantra.

Perhaps aware of the issue’s sensitivity and complexity, governors in their state of the state addresses have been especially careful when describing how they’ll increase teacher pay. And they have been quick to point out that teacher pay is outside of their control.

Indiana’s Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said last week that he will use $140 million of his budget to pay down the district’s pension debt and then heavily suggested that local school boards, which decide teacher pay, should use the saved money in pension costs to give their teachers a $1,200 pay increase.

“Just like paying off your mortgage frees up money in your personal budget, this state investment will save all local schools $140 million over the biennium with continued savings thereafter,” he said in a statement.

Some governors have gotten creative in order to bypass the messy district negotiation process and dodge the political heat over pay. Some states, such as North Carolina, have tried to issue bonus checks directly to teachers, and others, like Arizona, have published pay increases on state departments’ website in order to spur public accountability.

In 2012, the Washington state supreme court’s McCleary ruling said that the state was not holding up its end of the deal to provide students with a constitutionally adequate education. The court ordered that the state provide all-day kindergarten, expand access to pre-K—and increase teacher pay.

While the state managed to accomplish the first two tasks relatively quickly, it took years to pull off the teacher pay order.

Last year, after threats from the state’s supreme court to shutter the state’s schools, Washington scrapped its statewide teacher pay scale, instituted a new carbon tax, and rejiggered the state’s local property taxes in order to provide schools with $1 billion in new funds.

It was a political victory for Inslee, who recently announced that he will run for U.S. president. But it caused havoc in the state’s 294 districts, all of which this summer went into negotiations with local unions.

“What kind of pay raises are possible?” the state’s union said in a press release distributed to its members last spring. “For certificated staff, 15 percent or more. For classified education support professionals, pay increases as high as 37 percent. That’s right—double-digit pay raises are possible for all of Washington’s K-12 public school employees.”

The union incorrectly said in the press release that the funds were “earmarked” for teacher salaries. District administrators pointed out that the funds were actually placed in general funds and if they provided even 20 percent raises for its teachers and certified staff, the districts would go into debt.

Continued Tensions

At the beginning of this school year, teachers in seven districts in the state went on strike, delaying the start of school.

“With the McCleary decision, we felt it was now time to get the raises, and not try to spread them out in three years,” said Lynn Maiorca, the president of the Vancouver Education Association, referring to the Vancouver, Wash., district’s original proposal to teachers.

While the union managed after the four-day strike to land a raise for its teachers, the district said it now faces an $11 million shortfall this fall and will have to go to voters in the spring to ask to raise taxes or risk program cuts and layoffs. Negotiations with the district’s support staff are ongoing.

“Even after the McCleary investments, the state continues to underfund K-12 education,” Steve Webb, the superintendent of Vancouver said in a statement directed at the district’s staff. “Now is the time for us to come together to put pressure where pressure belongs—with our elected leaders in Olympia.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teachers Missing Out on Flood of K-12 Cash


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