Teaching Profession

An Unexpected Effect of Teacher Strikes on How Much Schools Spend

By Mark Lieberman — April 19, 2024 4 min read
An empty school classroom with chairs and desks overlaid with an illustrated professional standing on a percentage mark holding an arrow above it.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Teacher strikes can be stressful for educators, parents, and students—but they can help spur bigger investments in schools beyond the districts where they take place, newly published research shows.

Researchers Melissa Lyon and Matthew Kraft compiled and analyzed a database of more than 500 teacher strikes that took place in the United States between 2007 and 2018. Then they cross-referenced those districts with data on per-pupil spending and advertising for congressional campaigns, in an effort to determine whether and how strikes affected the political position of K-12 education and spending in the communities where they happened and beyond.

They found that, on average, districts where a strike took place saw increases in per-pupil spending of $670 within three years of the strike, or a 6 percent increase relative to a generalized estimate of a typical per-pupil expenditure of $11,195.

Some of those gains likely came from salary and benefits increases negotiated in the contract district employees were seeking during the strike.

But Lyon and Kraft found evidence that suggests a “spillover effect” as well—all districts in states where a strike took place saw increases in per-pupil expenditures from state funds, whether they had a strike or not. Therefore, localized strikes, the authors conclude, have statewide political reach, often prompting a reaction in state capitols.

“I wanted to conceptualize strikes as something bigger than just these contract negotiation tactics,” said Lyon, an assistant professor of public administration and policy at the University at Albany. “I wanted to think about strikes as this broader political signal that was intended to attract attention and convince people that something is very wrong about what happens in schools.”

See Also

Striking teachers hold a rally outside City Hall in Oakland, Calif., on May 4, 2023. More than 3,000 teachers and other workers in the Oakland Unified School District went on strike, saying the district failed to bargain in good faith on a new contract that asks for more resources for students and higher pay for employees.
Striking teachers hold a rally outside City Hall in Oakland, Calif., on May 4, 2023. More than 3,000 teachers and other workers in the Oakland Unified School District went on strike, saying the district failed to bargain in good faith on a new contract that asks for more resources for students and higher pay for employees.
Terry Chea/AP

The paper, published April 8 in the online version of the Journal of Human Resources, also shows that teacher strikes doubled the likelihood that local congressional candidates mentioned education in their campaign ads.

At their most effective, the authors say, teacher strikes can “publicly signal the need for political and economic changes” in ways that lead to tangible outcomes.

Not all teacher strikes are necessarily created equal, though. Lyon and Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University, found that strikes lasting less than a week tended to cause education to take an even more prominent role in political campaigns, and for per-pupil spending to increase even more on average, than strikes that lasted two weeks or longer.

“The longer strikes tend to lead to a sort of political avoidance where political candidates are actually less likely to mention education,” she said. Indeed, candidates in districts that had strikes longer than 11 days were 11 percent less likely to mention education in their political campaigns.

Lyon said she’s still working on a follow-up paper that poses the same questions for strikes between 2018 and the present, including the wave of “Red for Ed” strikes that drew thousands of participants in states like Arizona and West Virginia, where teacher strikes have traditionally been rare. So far, she said, the effects of recent strikes on school funding appear to be similar to, if not greater than, what she’s found previously.

Strikes remain illegal in many places, but still powerful

Thirty-seven states by law prohibit educators from going on strike.

That may change in some places.

Members of the teachers’ union in Clark County, Nev., last September engaged in “rolling sickouts” during an impasse in contract negotiations with their district. A judge eventually ruled the sickouts constituted an illegal strike.

Members of the Clark County teachers’ union are now gathering signatures to solicit voter approval on the November ballot for teachers’ legal right to strike.

It remains to be seen whether the issue will come before voters. For his part, Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo, a Republican, said in March that he doesn’t believe teachers should be legally permitted to strike.

Meanwhile, a recent push to legalize teacher strikes in Massachusetts failed to gain traction.

But restrictions don’t always prevent educators from walking out over concerns about low pay, challenging working conditions, and even adequate district support for students’ well-being.

School staff in more than two dozen districts, including in major cities like Los Angeles and Portland, Ore., went on strike in 2023, according to the Labor Action Tracker from the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Several of those strikes were illegal, including in Andover, Mass., and Camas, Wash.

So far this year, teachers in several districts have gone on strike, including in Flint, Mich., and Newton, Mass. Paraprofessionals in the Port Angeles district in Washington state also went on strike in March.

Lyon and Kraft’s database marks the first comprehensive look at 21st-century teacher strikes. The federal government tracks educator strikes but only counts labor actions that involve more than 1,000 people—and most teacher strikes in individual districts aren’t that large.

Lyon said her research has helped clarify for her that teacher strikes can offer a rare window into the conditions inside school buildings.

They’re viewed by policymakers as credible, she said, in part because they are relatively rare, and require significant resources to pull off.

“My main viewpoint into the public schools is through my 5-year-old, who’s unreliable at best. He’ll tell me there are dinosaurs at school,” she said. “Teachers are uniquely positioned at having this information.”

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Download Downloadable: 5 Ways Principals Can Help With Teacher Burnout
This downloadable gives school leaders and teachers various ways to spot and treat teacher burnout.
1 min read
Silhouette of a woman with an icon of battery with low charge and icons such as a scribble line, dollar sign and lightning bolt floating around the blue background.
Canva
Teaching Profession Massages, Mammograms, and Dental Care: How One School Saves Teachers' Time
This Atlanta school offers unique onsite benefits to teachers to help them reduce stress.
3 min read
Employees learn more about health and wellness options during a mini benefits fair put on by The Lovett School in Atlanta on May 8, 2024.
Employees at the Lovett School in Atlanta meet with health benefits representatives during a mini benefits fair on May 8, 2024.
Erin Sintos for Education Week
Teaching Profession Opinion How Two Teachers Helped Me Weave a Dream
A journalist and debut book author dedicates her novel to two of her high school English teachers.
Anne Shaw Heinrich
3 min read
0524 heinrich opinion keller fs
N. Kurbatova / iStock / Getty Images Plus
Teaching Profession Explainer What Is Doxxing, and How Can Educators Protect Their Privacy Online?
Keeping personal and professional information separate can be difficult for teachers, experts say.
7 min read
Vector illustration concept of a cyber criminal with laptop stealing user personal data while a woman expresses frustration.
iStock/Getty