Public school teachers across the nation are using social media to expose the broken desks, dead rats and moldy walls that are the standards at their schools.
These horrific working conditions are a visual clue to inadequate education funding nationwide. The problem goes deeper than raggedy textbooks and walls filled with asbestos, however. In an increasing number of states, teachers are participating in strikes and walkouts to advocate for livable salaries and to protest pension cuts.
Demonstrations in Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and West Virginia are opening conversations about teacher wages, but these conditions are not unique to these states. Cost of living in many districts diverge so much from an educator’s salary that teachers are coming forward about having to work second jobs in addition to strenuous 30-plus hour weeks.
In the U.S., K-12 teachers are five times more likely to work a second job during the school year than the average full-time worker, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This does not include leading extracurriculars, coaching or working summer jobs.
Teachers can be found working after school hours and on weekends as cashiers, bus drivers and custodial workers, among other positions. It is unacceptable that what is arguably one of the most valuable professions in the U.S. struggle to support their families or enjoy any time off.
Teachers receive their salaries predominantly from time spent teaching classes. Unawarded is the free labor required to attend meetings, grade papers and exams, pay for supplies out of pocket and often doubling as the class coach or first aid administrator in many school districts.
Through all of this, a majority of teachers are so dedicated to their profession that they have endured these conditions for years, but silence is being broken little by little.
Prior to getting demands of pay raises and protected pensions met, teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona earned $31,919 and $34,068 annually as a starting salary, about $5,000 less annually than the national average income for teachers, which as of last month is almost $38,617 a year for starting pay. Many teachers in these areas have to work ceaselessly for 25 years to reach their maximum pay or see pension benefits.
Teachers are receiving inadequate federal funding to do what 61 percent of people agree is one of the most important jobs in the nation. The education of future leaders and professionals cannot be understated. Teachers are on the front lines of framing our society.
Currently, the U.S. government spends about 2 percent of its total funding on K-12 education. This money doesn’t go to teacher salaries but instead to grants, library resources and textbooks. Teacher salaries come from state and local funding, which are often racialized and divided along socio-economic lines, creating a large disparity between districts.
In California, the average starting salary for a public school teacher is $39,972 a year, according to teachingdegree.org. This is one of the highest in the nation, but when compared to the cost of living in certain cities in California, it can mean the difference between skating by and falling close to the poverty line.
In San Francisco, for example, the required annual living wage for one adult is $40,833, already $1,000 over the average teacher’s starting salary. In Santa Cruz County, the number is $30,509 for one adult, giving only about $10,000 of cushion annually. This isn’t even taking into account the large number of teachers who have families at home.
Historically, education has been one of the lowest priorities for federal funding. The first line of the U.S. Department of Education’s about page states overtly that it is not the federal government’s responsibility to fund education and leaves this enormous expenditure to state and local governments.
Considering the federal government allocates about $700 billion annually for military endeavors, education is grossly undervalued in this country. There is plenty of money to wage wars, but not enough to build healthy learning environments or compensate educators with a living wage.
The effect this has on students cannot be understated. Some school districts in Oklahoma have had to switch to four-day school weeks due to lack of funding. Students in these schools are held to the same standardized testing expectations as affluent areas, calling into question the fairness of nationwide standards.
Oklahoma and Arizona found success, but compared to the perceived value of an educator’s worth, these earnings anywhere in the nation are inexcusable. The staggering majority of people can tie a significant portion of their life to K-12 education, yet credit is not given where it is due.
As has been shown through long hours for low pay and denial of raises, state and federal governments have shown that they will hold a teacher’s “I would do this work for free” mentality against them.
State and federal officials need to follow the lead of successful teacher strikes and recognize the importance of education in our society. Legislation must be drafted to ensure equal opportunity for students and for teachers to earn a livable wage.