Teaching Profession

Teachers Are Winning Public Support for Pay Raises, Survey Finds

By Madeline Will — August 21, 2018 5 min read
Jennifer Hanner, a first-year teacher from Harts, W.Va., center, joins other teachers and protestors in February outside the state Senate chambers at the Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., as teachers statewide went on strike over pay and benefits.

This spring, thousands of teachers walked out of their classrooms in a half-dozen states, protesting low salaries and cuts to school funding.

Their activism likely made a difference in boosting support for raising teacher salaries, shows a new poll from the journal Education Next. EdNext surveyed a nationally representative sample of 4,601 adults during the first three weeks of May. The survey included representative oversamples of parents of school-age children and teachers.

In the six states where there were widescale teacher strikes and walkouts—West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Colorado—63 percent of respondents favored raising teacher pay. Public support in those states jumped by 16 percentage points since last year.

Across the country, nearly half of those provided with information on average teacher salaries in their state said the pay should increase—that’s 13 percent higher than last year and is the largest change in opinion that EdNext saw on any single policy from last year. Support for teacher pay raises increased among both Democrats and Republicans, although more Democrats are in favor by 21 percentage points.

Enlarge charts.

In fact, public support is the second-highest it has been in the 12-year history of the EdNext survey. The only year with a higher share of Americans supporting raising teacher pay was 2008—just before the recession, the researchers noted.

Buoyed by Economy

“The fact that the economy is growing ... might have made the public more receptive” to increasing salaries, said Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an author of the report.

When respondents were not informed of how much teachers earn, they tended to be more supportive of increasing teacher salaries. Among this segment of respondents, about two-thirds said teachers should get a pay raise.

The researchers wrote that this finding shows most Americans believe that teachers are paid much less than they actually are—respondents, when asked to estimate average teacher salaries in their state, made an average guess of $40,181. In reality, the 2016-17 national average salary is $59,660, according to the National Education Association, although that varies widely between states.

Cuts to school spending were another major factor that led to the wave of teacher activism. Perhaps because of that, support for higher school spending strengthened this year, with 47 percent of respondents who were informed about current spending levels saying that more money should go to public schools. That’s an increase of 7 percentage points over the prior year.

Among those who were not informed of current spending levels, 59 percent supported a spending hike. Residents of the six states that experienced teacher walkouts were more likely to be in support of higher school spending than those elsewhere in the country.

Opposition to Required Fees

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to teachers’ unions by ruling that they could not charge “agency” or “fair share” fees to workers who decline to join the union. The fees, which were collected in 22 states, were meant to cover the cost of collective bargaining. But the justices ruled that collecting these fees violated the free speech rights of nonmembers, who may not support union policies.

The EdNext survey, which was conducted before the ruling, found that only 25 percent of the public and 34 percent of teachers support agency fees. Just over half of both groups oppose laws requiring the collection of those fees. The rest of respondents say they neither support nor oppose the compulsory fees.

When the researchers gave respondents the arguments in favor and against agency fees, support for the fees increased—but the largest portion of the general public, 44 percent, still opposed them. More Republicans than Democrats opposed the fees after hearing the arguments on both sides.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when given the arguments on both sides, only 16 percent of teachers who don’t belong to their union say they are in favor of agency fees, compared to 65 percent of teachers’ union members.

Still, the opposition to agency fees does not translate into a negative view of teachers’ unions, the survey found. The public was split almost evenly on whether unions had generally positive or negative effects, with a strong partisan divide. More than half of Republicans said unions had a negative effect, compared to 22 percent of Democrats.

Most public school teachers think that unions have a positive impact on schools, the survey found.

“There’s widespread support for teachers’ unions, even among teachers who don’t join the union,” said Paul Peterson, a professor of government at Harvard University and one of the authors of the report. “At the same time, the public can be very supportive of unions and be quite opposed to some of the union’s main policies,” including teacher tenure.

The EdNext survey also found that 53 percent of the public supports teachers having the right to strike. Teacher strikes are legal in just 12 states and not covered in statutes or case law in three. But laws prohibiting strikes are rarely enforced—in fact, in almost all of the states with walkouts this spring, striking is illegal.

There’s a partisan divide on the issue: About two-thirds of Democrats support the right to strike, compared to 38 percent of Republicans. The vast majority of teachers support the right to strike.

Support for School Choice Grows

Last year, public support for charter schools plummeted amid high-profile opposition from political leaders and national civil rights groups. This year, charter schools began to regain some support, with 44 percent of the public in approval, up from 39 percent in 2017.

Teachers, however, are more skeptical about charter schools: Only 33 percent support charters, a 7 percentage-point decline from last year.

Public support for school vouchers, which allow parents to use public funding allocated for their child’s education toward tuition at a private school of their choice, is on the uptick as well. Americans tended to favor universal vouchers for all families over targeted vouchers for low-income students—54 percent approval compared to 43 percent.

However, when the survey used the word “vouchers” instead of referring to the program as something that gives families “a wider choice,” support for universal vouchers declined by 10 percentage points. (There was no significant change in opinion when the word was included in the question that referred to vouchers for low-income families.)

Meanwhile, support for tax-credit scholarship programs, which allows individuals and/or corporations to receive a tax credit for donating toward scholarships for low-income students, has remained steady, with 57 percent in approval.

The survey also found that support for the Common Core State Standards has stabilized after falling for the past several years. Support now stands at 45 percent, a slight uptick from last year. Still, when respondents were asked about using standards that are “the same across the states,” the approval rate was 16 percentage points higher than when the name common core was used.

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2018 edition of Education Week as Public Aligns With Teachers on Pay Issue, Survey Finds

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