I’m sure that at one time or another in your life, you were asked to name your favorite teacher. I know I have, and my sixth-grade teacher had a profound influence on my life with her persistence and caring. There are millions of Americans who have had the same experience, and attribute part of their success to that special person.
While we occasionally pay tribute to a single educator, the sad fact is that most of us ignore the plight of teachers today. The strike in West Virginia highlighted the fact that starting teachers in that state were earning an annual salary of $33,684, and the average salary for all other teachers was $45,701. The charitable legislators in West Virginia offered the teachers a 1 percent pay raise and a freeze on insurance premium increases.
Some people might view that offer as generous, but the teachers who were working two jobs to survive didn’t think so. They shut down all of the state’s schools and demonstrated at the state capitol to get their message across. It didn’t take long before the legislature gave in and voted for a 5 percent increase. That story is being repeated in other states where unions have no clout and public employees are at the mercy of elected officials, who favor tax cuts over poorly paid teachers.
The latest demonstrations are taking place in Kentucky and Oklahoma. Kentucky’s teachers get a starting salary of $36,494, and the average salary for all teachers is $47,984. Oklahoma is even worse. Their starting salary for teachers is $31,919, and the average is $45,245. There’s no doubt that in the months ahead, strikes will probably occur in numerous states, including Arkansas, Colorado, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont.
In the states that have teachers unions, it’s a much different story. In New York, as of 2017, the starting salary for teachers was $44,935 and the average salary was $79,637, the highest in the country. The state with the second-highest teacher pay is Massachusetts, with a starting salary of $44,726 and an average of $77,804. So there are better numbers in a handful of states, but overall, teachers in this country are treated as second-class citizens by many state legislatures.
A close look at the states that pay teachers very little reveals that most state officials seem to go out of their way to inflict pain by reducing educators’ benefits. Some might ask what the federal government does for education. The answer is that roughly 10 percent of all the money spent on public education — school taxes and state and federal aid — comes from Washington, and that number shrinks every year. Ask most members of Congress about support for schools and you’ll get a blank stare. The secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has yet to visit any public school in America, and admits it, so don’t expect her to be much help.
Recent stories about teacher pay have also revealed that there are numerous schools with textbooks that are at least 10 years old, and in some cases even older. Many teachers in those states pay for supplies out of their own pockets so they can give every child the benefit of a positive teaching experience.
While public school officials in New York state complain about the amount of aid they get annually from Albany, considering the state’s current fiscal picture, the public schools are doing quite well. The problem for our local schools isn’t the state’s commitment to education, but rather the archaic aid formula that shortchanges the poorer schools and helps many districts that need no help. And despite an occasional lawsuit, that formula is unlikely to be dramatically overhauled.
Every so often, I come across a story about some famous corporate executive or elected official who pays tribute to a favorite schoolteacher, enthusing about how one person changed his or her life. But it’s time for the nation’s leaders to speak out for the teaching profession. Our educators need a little more love, but would be happier to get a pay raise to reward their dedicated service to our children.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.