Teachers seeking higher pay and more school funding walked out of classrooms in half a dozen states this year. Now, three national polls report that most Americans agree that educators don't earn enough. And two of the surveys found that at least half of Americans said they would pay higher taxes to raise educator salaries.
The national polls were conducted by the New York Times, the Associated Press and NPR, and each found that Americans overwhelmingly believe public school teachers are underpaid.
The salary issue for teachers - who in some states are paid so little that many have to take second and even third jobs to pay their bills - is hardly new. U.S. teachers earn less than 60 percent of what similarly educated professionals make, according to a 2017 annual report on education around the world.
But the subject received renewed attention when teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina walked out demanding higher salaries and more funding for their schools, some of which are starved for basic resources.
The strikes were largely in Republican-led states with weak union laws, and it was teachers - not their unions - who planned and carried out the walkouts. The "Red for Ed" movement in these states surprised the education world - and even some union leaders. The organic nature of the strikes may have helped shine a different light on issues ignored for years by lawmakers and the public.
The New York Times wrote Thursday, May 31:
"A survey conducted in early May for The New York Times by the online polling firm SurveyMonkey found that nearly three in four adults - 71 percent - considered teacher pay too low, while just 6 percent felt it was too high. And two-thirds said they supported increasing the salaries of public-school teachers even if it meant raising taxes.
"Backing for teachers cut across demographic, regional and partisan lines. Even a majority of Republicans - 56 percent - said they would favor raising taxes to increase teachers' pay."
An April poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago found similar but not identical results: 78 percent of adults said public school teachers earn too little (with 6 percent saying they earn too much and 15 percent saying their salaries are fine). The 78 percent figure was up from an AP-Stanford poll taken in 2010, which found that 57 percent of Americans thought teachers did not earn enough for their work, AP said.
Half of those surveyed said they would support higher taxes to increase teacher pay and school funding (26 percent opposed it and 23 percent had no opinion).
Another poll released in April, by NPR, found that 75 percent of Americans think public schools teachers are underpaid. This survey also asked about national teacher unions, and nearly two-thirds of respondents said they approved of them - though about the same percentage said unions make it harder for bad teachers to be fired. Fifty-one percent said teacher unions improve the quality of education and teachers. Democrats were more supportive than Republicans (two-thirds to less than half).
The NPR poll also found that three-quarters of those surveyed agreed that teachers have the right to strike. The breakdown went like this: Two-thirds of Republicans said teachers should be allowed to strike, while three-quarters of independents and nearly nine-tenths of Democrats agreed with that proposition.
A state poll in North Carolina found similar results. A High Point University survey conducted in February, just before West Virginia teachers went on strike, found that 85 percent of North Carolina residents believed public school teachers earned too little. And 75 percent said they would be willing to pay more taxes to raise average teacher compensation in the state to the national average within five years. In the poll, 72 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of Republicans - yes, the same percentage for both - agreed with a tax increase, along with 76 percent of unaffiliated residents of North Carolina.
But will the polls and the actions of teachers change anything in state legislatures?
Some of the striking teachers succeeded in winning pay hikes and additional school funding - but not exactly what they were seeking. And in North Carolina, a measure likely to become law would raise teacher pay through salary hikes and bonuses for qualifying teachers. But it's not as much as educators had sought.
We'll have to wait until the next school year to see if the strikes by teachers are over, or just starting.
Story by Valerie Strauss. Strauss is an education writer who authors The Answer Sheet blog. She came to the Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. She also previously worked at UPI and the LA Times.