Skip to main content

Teachers Asked to Swallow Concessions to Get Pay Hikes

Resistance grows to unpalatable add-ons to long overdue raises

printer friendly  
Protesters turn out against a bill in the West Virginia legislature that would have bundled teacher pay raises in a bill that would also expand charters and other elements unpalatable to many teachers in the state., Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP

Fiscally conservative politicians in states such as South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia this year are telling teachers that in order to get the pay raises they've been clamoring for, they'll need to make some hard-to-swallow concessions.

Among them: allow for charter schools and vouchers, have teacher pay tied to test scores, let districts hire more noncertified teachers, and even have the powers of their union curtailed.

Frustrated with stagnant academic outcomes and skyrocketing costs, state legislators are arguing that, with the billions of taxpayers' dollars they're forking over toward schools, it's about time teachers start proving their worth.

Teacher activists reject the premise that they're slackers and say their pay, also stagnant, is an entirely separate matter and should not be tangled up with school improvement legislation. Politicians' strategies, they say, are misguided, cruel, and retaliatory.

The tough bargaining has caught teacher activists riding a wave of public sympathy off guard, muddied their messaging, and forced them to fight on multiple fronts in recent weeks.

Tough Tactics

In West Virginia, Republican state senators introduced a bill this year that would provide teachers with a $5,000 raise—but only if they allowed for the expansion of charter schools, the use of vouchers, and the elimination of teacher seniority. Teachers there staged a two-day statewide strike last week that resulted in the state's House of Delegates killing the compatible version of the Senate bill.

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said in his State of the State address this year that any pay raise teachers get down the line should be on the condition that they boost academic outcomes or work in one of the state's many impoverished schools.

And South Carolina's Republican legislators as of late last week were still pushing an omnibus, so-called "education reform" bill that will provide teachers with up to a 5 percent raise if they allow the state to institute a controversial teacher pay structure, tilt the power structure in the state so that legislators, rather than the state's elected superintendent, have more say over school accountability, and give the state the power to hand failing schools over to charter operators.

Hundreds of teachers decked in red packed the state capitol's galleries earlier this month and threatened to stage a strike if the bill moves forward.

"That was them throwing us a bone," Sherry East, the president of the South Carolina Education Association, said about the pay increase. "They told us, 'Here. You're getting your little 5 percent raise. Y'all need to calm down and let us do all this other horrible stuff.'"

With states' coffers this year flush with surplus dollars, more than 18 governors so far have said in State of the State addresses that they would will push to raise teachers' pay, according to an Education Week analysis.

Of those governors, four said they will raise the minimum pay scale, and the rest of them are calling for millions more dollars for districts to give across-the-board pay raises to teachers.

But in a handful of states, politicians have said that if teachers want more money in their paychecks, there will be strings attached.

West Virginia has been on the front lines of the conflict.

With the collapse of the coal industry, West Virginia has struggled to pay for its school system, and thousands of families have left for jobs in other states, resulting in districts shuttering schools and laying off teachers. Last year's strike, which inspired strikes in other states, resulted in teachers receiving a 5 percent pay raise, but many teachers said it wasn't enough to make a dent in the state's widespread teacher shortage.

At the beginning of this year's legislative session, as teachers again began to advocate on the pay issue, legislators looking to overhaul the education system said they were "tired of being 50th" academically ranked, a slogan they shared around the state in press conferences and on Twitter.

On the one hand, state senators added another 5 percent pay raise and an additional $24 million for student support services to a series of proposals tucked in an omnibus bill.

But the bill also would have increased elementary school class sizes; given flexibility to local politicians to raise and decrease taxes for schools; and eliminated teacher seniority during layoffs and required them to annually sign off on union dues, which many fear will result in decreased membership.

Most notably, the bill would have allowed for the expansion of charter schools and the use of vouchers, a historically divisive issue in West Virginia, one of the last holdout states in the nation without charter schools or vouchers. If any portion of the bill were to have been removed by the House, all the other parts of the bill—including the prized teacher pay raise—would be null and void.

The bill sparked a heated debate over how teachers should be given a raise.

"For crying out loud, we have to concentrate on our public schools," Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, said to legislators during an animated press conference. "You're going to take all of the good that we're putting together and ruin it. When you have the opportunity to give, you ought not give and put a receipt in the box."

South Carolina Showdown

But legislators said it was past time for the state's legislature to do something about the state's dismal academic outcomes.

"After years of ruining our state's public education system, the teacher union bosses have finally lost their grip on the legislature and seemingly have lost their grip on reality," Mitch Carmichael, the president of the state's Senate tweeted last week after teachers said they would go on strike over the bill. "Comprehensive education reform that will improve student performance, provide parental choice and empower teachers is coming—because parents, taxpayers, and job providers want our broken public education system fixed now."

The Senate's effort was killed after a House version of the bill died on the floor.

In South Carolina, where more than 5,300 teachers left the profession last year over pay and working conditions, teachers were stunned when legislators earlier this session introduced an 84-page bill that would do everything teachers asked the state not to do. That would include allowing the state to hand over to charter operators chronically underperforming schools and allowing non-certified teachers to teach in some schools in the state.

If the bill was passed, teachers' minimum pay would be raised to $35,000, up from $32,000 a year.

During a five-hour hearing earlier this month, more than 400 teachers, parents, and students denounced the bill as "detrimental" and "ineffective." Many teachers said they were willing to strike if the bill advanced any further.

On the eve of a surprise visit from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last week, political leaders and state elected superintendent Molly Spearman held a press conference and announced several concessions to the bill, including getting rid of a pay structure that would have paid teachers based on outcomes rather than experience and frozen teachers' pay for several years. They also announced that the House of Representatives included in its budget a provision to provide teachers with a 4 percent raise, depending on the amount of classroom experience they had, an effort that would cost the state $159 million annually.

"This is a heavy lift ... because the status quo is hard to move. Habits are ingrained top to bottom," the Senate's education committee chairman, Greg Hembree, a Republican, said at the news conference, according to local reports. "People get nervous about change."

Texas Tradeoffs

And in Texas, legislators are debating three ways to provide teachers a pay raise: give the entire state's teaching force a $5,000 pay raise, place the money in districts' budgets and let district superintendents decide which teachers to give a raise to, or—most controversially—institute a statewide pay-incentive program and provide a pay raise to the state's best-performing teachers and those willing to work in the state's worst-performing schools.

The pay-incentive program is modeled after one started several years ago in Dallas, a district that's managed to get several of its schools off the state's list of worst-performing schools.

The program uses several measures to determine a teacher's effectiveness, and district superintendent Michael Hinojosa said he attributes much of the district's recent success to the incentive program. He said it may not be for every district and can be extremely costly as more and more teachers hit six-figure salaries. The district pays an extra $15 million every year of local tax dollars to fund the program.

"It was very intense and it was very traumatic," Hinojosa said about the early years of the program. But the district today has better test scores, and many of the district's top-performing teachers have stuck with the district. "Money makes a difference. But only if it's used strategically. I don't want to give an underperforming teacher a $5,000 raise, but I'll give a high-performing teacher a $15,000 raise."

But Noel Candelaria, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said the program would force teachers to teach to the test and ultimately be demoralizing. Echoing teachers' frustrations in South Carolina and West Virginia, teachers, he said, have plenty of thoughts on how to improve test scores but their pay, well below the national average, isn't part of the equation.

"It's just doubling down on paying for test scores," said Candelaria. "All the research has shown that it's not the direction we need to go. The impact of having quality teachers in the classroom is important and it's part of the equation but it's not going to be the whole solution. Even if we can get great teachers into the classroom, how do we keep them there? We need a much more holistic approach."

Daarel Burnette II is a staff writer for Education Week covering education policy at the state level.  His is the author of the blog State EdWatch.