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Harvard EdCast: The Complexities of Teacher Strikes

Martin West looks at the many factors contributing to the wave of teacher strikes around the country and discusses why some issues — such as salary — may be more complex than they appear.

Teacher StrikeThe recent wave of teacher strikes across the United States doesn’t surprise Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Martin West — and he believes we’ll continue to see more in the future.

The fact that the teacher strikes are happening throughout the country — from West Virginia to Oakland, California — shows the breadth of this issue. It has long been a struggle in the U.S. to attract and retain qualified teachers to the profession. And one reason for this, says West, is clear.

“Teachers’ salaries have been stagnant for nearly a quarter of a century, and even declined by 2 percent after adjusting for inflation since 1992,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we are spending less on teachers’ total compensation, but it does mean teachers’ take-home pay, what they presumably care most about in real time, has fallen well behind other college graduates.… It makes sense teachers put the issue of pay on the table.”

Raising teacher compensation is difficult, says West, considering the rising cost of benefits and what he describes as “structural factors placing downward pressure” on pay, such as benefits associated with retired teachers’ pensions. “Young teachers are receiving less in their paychecks,” he says. “That situation is a common factor that’s hanging over the entire national school system and one policymakers need to be thinking about.”

The recent strikes have been mostly perceived as having positive effects for teachers, says West, but it isn’t so cut-and-dried.

“The broader question is whether the strike and whatever resolution it produces is successful for students,” he says.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard Edcast. 

Education policy researcher Marty West won't be surprised if we continue to see more and more teacher strikes. What seemed to catch on rapidly in the past year from West Virginia all the way to Oakland, California is really a short glimpse at a long standing problem in the profession. Teachers need to be paid more. Of course, it's not as easy as just throwing out a few dollars into a paycheck every week. 

Marty spoke to me about some of the structural challenges with teacher compensation. But first, I asked Marty about what I suspected many of us might be wondering, which is why all of a sudden are so many teachers striking now? 

Martin West: Well, I think the first and most important factor is simply that teacher salaries have been stagnant for nearly a quarter century. And they've even declined by 2% after adjusting for inflation since 1992. And that doesn't mean that we're spending less on teachers total compensation. But it does mean that teachers take home pay, that they presumably care most about, in real time, has fallen well behind that of other college graduates. And we're now in the midst of a decade long economic expansion. Wages are increasing elsewhere in the economy. And it makes sense that teachers would put the issue of pay on the table. And a strike is one way to do that. 

And I think we can get a sense that this is the most important factor by looking at where the activity started. So last spring, in March 2018, teachers in West Virginia, statewide, went on strike for nine days. And salaries in West Virginia rank 48, nationally. That activity spread to other states, where teacher salaries are quite low, including Oklahoma Kentucky, North Carolina, Arizona. And so, I think we sort of can see that being the pivotal factor by just looking at where the activity began. 

I think a second factor that explains why it has continued is simply the perceived success of those early efforts. So all of them yielded notable increments in teacher pay and overall school spending. And some polling work I've done suggests that the strikes were also successful in the Court of Public Opinion, which is really critical for whether they're going to succeed, going forward. 

So last year, the Education Next poll that I conduct found a big jump nationally in support for increasing teacher pay. And that jump was largest in these six states that experienced statewide walkouts. And so I think that success has been a signal to others that maybe this is a strategy worth pursuing. And then, finally, a third factor I'd mentioned, it's a bit harder to pin down precisely. 

But it's the Supreme Court's 2018 Janus decision, which barred public-sector unions nationwide from collecting representation fees from nonmembers, those who choose not to join the Union, but are represented by it. And I think this has made unions more eager than ever to visibly display their power to potential dues payers. And so I think all of these factors are combining to produce this wave of activity, which really is a change. We've been in a couple of decades where teacher strikes have been few and far between. 

Jill Anderson: One of the things when I was trying to research is I kept seeing, well, isn't it illegal? And I think you maybe just mentioned that, that ruling at the Supreme Court is what makes it feasible now, right? For people to strike. 

Martin West: Well, the recent ruling of the Supreme Court didn't change the legality of teacher strikes. And it is the case that technically, teacher strikes are illegal in most states. That doesn't mean that those provisions are actually enforced in practice. Generally, the penalty that's envisioned in state law banning teacher strikes is firing all of the teachers who participate in them. 

And that generally isn't a viable option, and so these bans are on the book. But they have been very difficult to enforce in practice. And one of the reasons maybe they are difficult to enforce, in practice, our public opinion data suggests that there's broad support for teachers having the right to strike. 

Now what the recent Supreme Court decision did was it said that unions can no longer collect fees, automatically, from nonmembers. So traditionally, unions in about half of states had won the right to do this. They said, look, we're representing these teachers. Regardless of whether they join, they benefit from the representation that we provide. And so, they should be required to pay fees to support the Union's collective bargaining activities. 

And the Supreme Court said, that's no longer acceptable. And so this means that individual teachers have more of a decision about whether they're going to contribute to unions' representation, collective bargaining activities. And as a result, unions have more of an incentive to be responsive, too, to demonstrate their value to potential dues-payers. 

Jill Anderson: So one of the things about these strikes is that they're happening in districts that don't necessarily look like each other and schools that aren't necessarily similar, charter or not charter. So beyond just the bottom line of how much money teachers are making, what would you say are some of the common threads you might be seeing? 

Martin West: The central issue in all of them is teacher's take home pay. And that's where it's important to note that there have been a number of what I'd call structural factors that are placing downward pressure on how much teachers are receiving in their paychecks on a monthly basis. And the most important of those is just the rising cost of the benefits provided to retired teachers through pensions and through retiree health care costs. 

It's now the case that more than $1,000, on average, per-pupil spending goes to paying for pensions for retired teachers. These are benefits that some teachers may eventually receive. But many of them won't because they won't stay in the profession long enough to vest in those systems. 

And as a result, young teachers are receiving less in their paychecks to shore up benefit systems that they may ultimately not benefit from, even if they will ultimately benefit from, they won't for quite some time. And they may be more interested in what's in their paycheck now. And so I think that situation is a common factor that's hanging over the entire National school system and one that policymakers need to be thinking about. 

Beyond that, I think there are some really important differences between the different waves of strikes that we've seen. So last spring what was really unprecedented was the extent to which this activity was statewide. And it made sense because in the six states where we saw this activity, the state plays a much larger role in determining teacher compensation than it does in most other states. So these are states that tend to have statewide salary schedules. So the state legislature is setting at least a minimum amount the teachers are paid across districts. And they are states, in most cases, where collective bargaining is illegal. So the unions play less of a role in determining teachers working conditions and pay. That makes those efforts differ from what we're seeing right now. 

So the recent wave of activity has been in places like Los Angeles, the nation's second largest school system. In Denver and Oakland. And those are more traditional strikes that have pitted the local Union against the local school district, which is the key decision maker about teachers' compensation. 

Jill Anderson: So I want to ask what a successful strike walkout actually it looks like. Is it more than just raising that wage for teachers? 

Martin West: I think we need to ask successful for whom? From the perspective of a Teachers Union, the key question is whether they can get a deal that their members will ultimately ratify. So once an agreement is reached between the Union negotiators and the school district, that agreement is then presented to members of the local unions. And usually, a majority vote is required to adopt it. And so, that's what just occurred this week in Oakland, where by a somewhat slim majority, the teachers were willing to say that we're OK with this deal. 

So that's the bottom line from a teacher's Union leader perspective. You've gotten your members interested in getting a better deal. Can you then come back to them and say, we were successful. And your ability to do that is going to depend on the extent to which you can build support for the Union and its action among the broader public, which is a challenging thing to do. Strikes are very disruptive in local communities. And parents need to make alternative arrangements for their children. And so this is not an easy thing to do. 

The broader question is, is this strike and whatever resolution it produces successful for students? And to me, that comes down to whether the agreement that's eventually reached addresses these structural factors that have been placing downward pressure on teacher salaries. And I'm someone who thinks that we do need to pay teachers more, particularly our most effective teachers, and that that would be worth the costs of that additional investment. But that's going to be very difficult to do without changes in the structure of retirement benefits, in particular. 

It's also going to be very difficult to do in an efficient way or to get the most bang for the buck without changing teacher compensation system, so that we can really reward our most effective and most valuable teachers. 

Jill Anderson: I wanted to come back to something you mentioned just now, that I'm sure a lot of people wonder about. And it probably looks different depending on where it's happening. But what happens to these students when these teachers go on strike? 

Martin West: Well, traditionally the districts have closed the schools. And parents have been forced to make alternative arrangements. And this is one of the factors that puts a lot of pressure on both sides to reach an agreement quickly. And what really matters is where parents in the broader community really decide to place blame for the disruption. That disruption and the risk associated with it helps to explain why after this surge of strikes in the public sector and in education in particular, in the 1960s and 70s, we saw a bit of a lull over an extended period. 

More recently, a number of districts, like Los Angeles and Denver, have sought to make arrangements that allow students to actually still show up at school, using a subset of administrative employees and those that are not in the Union and participating in the strikes. They're not providing them with traditional classroom instruction. But in some cases, they're trying to take advantage of technology to provide students with some enrichment activities. That's a relatively new development. And we've now only seen it in a couple of places. And I'm not sure that we have enough experience with it to really say whether that's a game changer in terms of the dynamics in a strike. 

Jill Anderson: So I wanted to get back to that other issue that you mentioned, the incentive pay and those types of things, because some of these strikes and walkouts brought up other issues that are pretty divisive in education, like charter schools, like incentive pay, school choice. All these things are kind of getting thrown into the mix of teacher pay. 

Martin West: Yeah, that's right. So you saw that, quite clearly, in Denver, where one of the sticking points in the negotiation was that the district did not want to offer as much in the way of an increment for those teachers, who have earned master's degrees, seeing that as an inefficient way to sort of reward teacher effectiveness. There's not much evidence to support that that's an effective way of getting your most effective teachers more in the way of compensation. 

The Union was pushing to keep that more traditional arrangement that is embedded in most salary schedules, nationwide. So that was just a very limited way in which a district was trying to push in the direction of a more professional performance oriented compensation system. And clearly, the Union was uncomfortable with it. 

You're also right to point to the issue of charter schools. So Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland have all seen a lot of activity on the charter front. Oakland is actually the districts in California with the largest share of its students now attending charter schools. And in the California districts, in particular, the unions were really pushing the district to adopt a moratorium on future charter growth. It's not clear to me what that means because state law in California says that the school district needs to consider charter locations and evaluate them without regard for the fiscal impact on the school district. 

If a charter is denied, charter schools can appeal to the county Office of Education in California, eventually, to the state board. So it's not clear to me what a local moratorium on charter growth in California would actually look like. But that's something that very clearly the Union leaders in Oakland in Los Angeles wanted to see as part of the record of their negotiations. 

Jill Anderson: And then, on the flip side, we also see charter school teacher strikes. And it's like we're all over the place right now with this. And I know that something you've spoken about, what's going on when the charter school teachers are striking. 

Martin West: Yeah, that's right. Last December saw the first strike, nationwide, of charter school teachers. It was at a charter management organization known as the Acero Schools Network in Chicago. And this February, a second strike closed four schools that are part of the Chicago International Charter School Management Organization for as long as two weeks. It's not clear to me yet that this is a national trend. The activity seems to be located in Chicago. What we do know is that the Chicago Teachers Union has really made an effort to organize charter teachers into unions, seeing this as a place to grow in membership. 

And I think the fact that unions are looking for ways to expand their membership, again, reflects this Janus decision that I mentioned at the start of the conversation. I was at an event with the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Jesse Sharkey, last spring. And he said this is very much where we're going to focus our organizing activities, in the charter sector in the city. And I think with enrollment in Chicago declining more generally, this is a place where they can look for growth. 

And so I think that helps to explain what is happening in Chicago, at least. But if you look at the substance of what the charter teachers were striking over, they're very similar in terms of trying to get that take home pay up. And for charter management organizations, that can be a particular challenge, since state funding systems generally give them less funding to work with than is available to district schools. And so, think that's an additional consideration there. 

Jill Anderson: So we're at the start of the year still. Do you think we're going to see a lot more strikes coming in the next year. 

Martin West: I guess they say that making predictions is hard, especially when it's about the future. But I'm on record saying that I do think we can expect continued disruptions. Thus far, the strikes seem to have been successful, from that perspective that I mentioned a moment ago, from the perspective of the Union leadership. Can you secure a increment in pay and/or working conditions that is valued by the members, who you're encouraging to go on strike with you? And that suggests to me that we're likely to see other local unions make this decision going forward. 

And so, I think the real question then facing district leaders is how can they respond? And to me, that is, can they use this as an opportunity to, yes, grant teachers more in the way of compensation, but also, take it as an opportunity to address those structural factors that are really putting downward pressure on teacher compensation in the big picture and also, push for reforms that would try and make teacher compensation more professional, more performance oriented. 

Jill Anderson: Marty West is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is also the deputy director of the Harvard Kennedy School's program on education policy and governance and an executive editor of Education Next. 

I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard Edcast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education Thanks for listening. 

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