American teachers are angry.
They have taken to the streets in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado — and more recently in North Carolina. Dissent is building in Louisiana and Nevada, too.
But while the protests are spreading this year, the underlying conflict between public school employees and policymakers has roots in decisions made during the last recession, when states and local districts short of cash curtailed education spending for the first time in decades.
This had a pronounced effect on school staffing, with layoffs hitting many states. Districts cut support staff as well as regular classroom teachers. In North Carolina, the number of teachers is down 5 percent since peaking in 2009, while the number of teaching assistants is 28 percent lower. And teacher pay stagnated nonetheless.
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For a system that had experienced nothing but spending growth for a quarter-century, the past few years have been a major shock. K-12 spending per pupil rose 26 out of 29 years before 2010, only to tumble three consecutive years at the beginning of this decade. The recession worsened financial problems already widespread in many states, and voters began electing conservative governors and legislatures that promised to rein in budget woes with spending cuts.
But as the national economy recovered, education spending did not return to the historical pattern of steady growth across all states. By 2016, more than half of states controlled by Democrats had restored education spending per pupil to 2009 levels, but the same was true in only 5 of 22 states controlled by Republicans.
Some red states have seen slower growth in state and local revenues, in part because of economic factors but also because of tax cuts. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, notes that seven states with school funding controversies — Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma — cut taxes in recent years.
On top of fiscal policy decisions, a more fundamental concern is the increasing volatility of state tax revenues, says Bruce Baker, a professor of education at Rutgers University who studies school finance.
States cover about 47 cents of every dollar spent on public education, with a further 45 cents raised locally, mostly through property taxes, and 8 cents coming from the federal government. Real estate values swing more wildly now than in the past, and traditional wage income has become a decreasing share of the income tax base, making revenue streams less reliable and harder to predict.
It’s easy to see why teachers are in the vanguard of the protest. Teacher salaries make up the bulk of education spending — so when education spending stagnates or is cut, teachers feel the pain most directly.
In many of the states spending less on education, average teacher pay has fallen sharply. Nationwide, pay is down 5 percent this decade, to an average of $58,950 from $61,804.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean administrators are cutting teacher pay. It also, in some states, signifies high teacher turnover, with older, higher-paid teachers retiring and being replaced by younger, lower-paid ones.
Over all, however, the American teaching force is growing more experienced, not less. And federal data shows that teacher pay nationally has fallen in inflation-adjusted terms. Compared with 2007-2008, starting teacher pay is lower, as is average pay for more experienced teachers.
Protests over these cuts have been directed mostly at state capitols, where overall education policy is administered. Yet in states that have struggled with education funding, local revenues have also played a role, especially in red states.
“Many states will cut state aid for schools and then impose limits on property tax increases as part of a broader package pushing for austerity in spending,” Mr. Baker said.
Recent studies have found that spending disparities matter. University of Pennsylvania researchers showed the impact of the recession was greater on low-income students.
Another paper, by a researcher at Northwestern University, found that students in districts that cut funding the most in the wake of the recession posted lower test scores and were less likely to graduate from high school.
It now seems the pendulum is swinging toward spending growth in states that had been lagging. Teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma protested and won a pay raise. And in Georgia, political pressure forced leaders to fully fund the state aid formula for the first time in years.
Attention has turned to North Carolina, where thousands of teachers protested at the opening of the state legislative session. North Carolina teachers once ranked 19th in the nation in pay, but now rank 37th.