Teachers across the nation have been striking amid wage and budget cuts despite opposition attacks and even threats of jail time. Yet, Americans overwhelmingly support teachers’ right to strike, according to recent survey by NPR and Ipsos. America’s teachers have reached a boiling point and the public has, too. The question is why now?
“Through a combination of different forces, public faith in institutions has collapsed and people don’t believe that the government, media or big business are looking out for their interests,” says Chris Jackson, vice president U.S., Ipsos Public Affairs. “Consequently, they’re looking for their own solutions like voting for Trump and engaging in these collective actions.”
A riot is the language of the unheard
Jackson believes that this collapse of trust shows up in the #MeToo and #NeverAgain movements and the teacher strikes. It also mirrors how two-thirds of Americans say the country is more divided now than it was a decade ago, according to a separate Ipsos survey on societal division.
Three in four Americans and 82% of teachers polled agree that public teachers have a right to strike, according to two Ipsos polls on teachers. Funding levels have failed to meet classroom needs and 78% teachers said they purchased school supplies with their own money.
Two in five teachers worked a second job in the last year to make ends meet.
“These teachers are horribly paid. They’ve gotten to a point where it’s more valuable for them to communicate with each other and protest and not take it anymore,” Jackson adds. “You have a whole lot of spending priorities at the state and federal level. It’s not our job to say what those should be. But what we see here is that the public doesn’t see teachers being paid appropriately.”
Americans placed gun violence at the top of their concerns while teachers ranked gun violence second only to education. An earlier Ipsos study on gun policies showed that most Americans (59%) oppose training teachers to carry guns in schools and see it as the least effective way to curb gun violence in schools.
The surveys also showed that most Americans approve of teacher unions. Four in five Democrats support unions and more than half of Republicans and Independents. Approval of the U.S. Department of Education leadership, is mixed across party lines.
Seeing both sides
Michelle Barbee of Las Vegas, Nevada, teaches 11th graders at a public high school. She doesn’t belong to a union. She doesn’t agree with the idea of striking since parents count on the schools to care for their kids. But she’s bothered by the working conditions she sees reported at school systems like in West Virginia and Michigan.
“We all came into this knowing we weren’t going to get rich,” she says. “But if someone has a master’s degree and makes $38,000, maybe they have a right to strike. If we had those kinds of conditions, absolutely as a parent I would support that.”
Compensation, retirement and health coverage for teachers and school workers comprises the bulk of elementary and secondary school operating budgets, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
From bad to worse
A big trigger for the outrage now is that school funding has been getting hammered since the Recession, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. States with the deepest cuts also have cut income taxes that are usually the main revenue source for school budgets. Then property values plummeted after the recession, blunting the option of raising funds through property taxes. “Educational funding in some states is very low and has been declining,” says Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
For example, Leachman says that in Oklahoma general fund resources are down 35%. With no raise in 10 years, there is now a teacher shortage as existing educators leave the profession and new graduates look for more lucrative work. He says school districts also must consider pay relative to private sector jobs that may be competing to attract current or potential teachers.
Leachman agrees that this all fits into a larger pattern. “It’s definitely in the context of broader unrest and passion that’s emerging for people who are concerned about the future and their kids’ futures,” he says.