Public support for increased teacher salaries has risen to the highest level in at least the past 15 years, although Republicans are less likely than Democrats to think that teachers should get a raise.
That’s according to an Education Next survey of public opinion on education policy, an annual poll released by the journal, which is published by the Education Next Institute and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The poll findings unveil a deep partisan divide on many of the salient issues in education policy. And over the last two decades, public opinion has grown more partisan on teacher pay, teachers’ unions, and even respondents’ assessments of their local schools.
“Looking across the poll as a whole, you see signs that Democrats are more satisfied with and supportive of public schools than Republicans are,” said Martin West, the academic dean of and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He’s also the editor-in-chief of Education Next.
Part of the rise in partisanship may stem from Americans’ viewpoints of how schools responded to the pandemic, he said. Republicans are much less likely than Democrats to support school mask mandates, for instance.
Also, schools have been at the center of several politicized debates, such as how teachers should teach about race. The survey found that 51 percent of Republicans say their local public schools place “too much emphasis” on slavery, racism, and other challenges faced by Black people in the United States. By contrast, 54 percent of Democrats say schools put “too little emphasis” on these topics.
The survey was administered in May to 3,641 respondents. The researchers surveyed two overlapping samples that are both nationally representative—one general population sample of adults and one of parents of school-aged children.
More support for teacher raises
The Education Next survey randomly picks some respondents to receive information about average teacher salaries in their states or average per-pupil expenditures in their district before asking them about their views on teacher pay and education spending in general. As was the case in previous years, respondents who are informed about current expenditures are somewhat less supportive about raising teacher pay and overall spending.
This year, 72 percent of Americans who were not told their state’s average teacher salaries said that public school teacher salaries should increase. About a quarter of that group said they should stay the same.
Out of the respondents who were informed about teacher salaries in their state, 60 percent said they should increase, and 36 percent said they should stay the same.
In both groups, support for raising teacher pay is at an all-time high since Education Next began conducting this survey in 2007. The last major surge of support occurred in 2018 and 2019, after teachers in a half-dozen states and several big cities walked out of their classrooms in protest of low salaries and cuts to school funding.
Lately, “there has been lots of coverage of the challenges teachers have faced in their roles over the course of the pandemic, which could have increased sympathy for raising teacher pay,” West said.
And for the respondents who received information about average salaries, their opinion might be influenced by the state of inflation, West said: “The numbers that we provide don’t sound as high right now.”
Forty-six percent of Republicans who had salary information provided to them said that teachers should get a raise, compared to 70 percent of Democrats. Among those who didn’t review salary information first, 56 percent of Republicans say teacher salaries should increase, compared to 86 percent of Democrats.
Parents tended to be slightly more supportive of teachers getting a pay raise than the general public.
The average teacher salary for the 2021-22 school year is $66,397, according to an estimate by the National Education Association. But salaries differ dramatically by state: The average teacher salary in New York, for instance, is $92,222, while teachers in Mississippi are paid an average of $47,162.
A generally supportive view of teachers’ unions
Education Next also asked respondents if they think teachers’ unions have a generally positive effect or a generally negative effect on schools. The responses from the general public and parents were nearly identical.
Overall, 43 percent of the general public—and 42 percent of parents—said unions have a generally positive effect. About a quarter of both groups remained neutral, and 32 percent of both groups said they have a negative effect.
Democrats were much more likely to support teachers’ unions: 60 percent of that group said unions had a positive effect on schools. Just 22 percent of Republicans said unions had a positive effect on schools. Meanwhile, 53 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats said teachers’ unions had a negative effect on schools.
Teachers’ unions have weathered some vocal criticism for their role in influencing school reopening decisions during the pandemic. Many unions pushed for a more conservative approach to getting teachers and kids back in buildings; some encouraged teachers to refuse to work in person until safety measures were enacted.
But public support remained steady. Last year, Education Next asked people whether they thought teachers’ unions were acting as an obstacle for schools resuming in-person instruction, and a little more than half of people either said they weren’t sure or that unions were supporting the reopening of schools in the nation as a whole.
West noted that the national unions framed the conversation by saying they wanted schools open, even though they had a list of conditions for that to happen. (Many of the conditions, such as improved ventilation in school buildings, benefit students as well as teachers.)
“That messaging was effective in positioning the unions as at least not an obstacle,” he said.
Most people are also supportive of public school teachers’ right to strike, the survey found.
Five more findings
The survey covered a broad range of issues. Here are some other highlights:
- Fifty-two percent of the general public gave the public schools in their community a grade of “A” or “B.” Parents were more likely to give good marks to their local schools.
- Continuing a longstanding trend, people are much more critical of public schools in the nation as a whole. Just 22 percent of the general public and 25 percent of parents gave the nation’s schools an “A” or a “B.”
- When asked how much schools should focus on students’ academic performance versus their social and emotional wellbeing, the public supported a 65 percent to 35 percent split in favor of academics. More Americans favored social-emotional support last year, as students grappled with the toll of the pandemic. This year’s results are nearly at pre-pandemic levels.
- Support for homeschooling has risen over the course of the pandemic, with 54 percent in support this year, compared to 45 percent in 2017.
- Although school board meetings have become hot spots for public complaints and outcry over controversial issues, just 10 percent of parents said they attended a local public school board meeting this year.