Teachers’ Strikes Are Rattling Washington. This Hearing in the U.S. House Is Proof.

Rachel M. Cohen February 14, 2019

Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., conducts a House Education and Labor Committee hearing in Rayburn Building titled 'Underpaid Teachers and Crumbling Schools: How Underfunding Public Education Shortchanges America's Students,' on Tuesday, February 12, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As Den­ver pub­lic school teach­ers head back to school, end­ing their first labor stop­page in 25 years, it’s hard to dis­miss the impact the nation-wide teacher strikes have had on Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. As Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates rush to voice sup­port for the Col­orado edu­ca­tors, Denver’s strike marks the ninth major teacher upris­ing in the last twelve months, with the anniver­sary of the very first — West Virginia’s — com­ing up next week.

Sur­vey after sur­vey has shown the strik­ing teach­ers have got­ten their mes­sage across: The major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans agree teacher pay is a real prob­lem. The annu­al PDK poll report­ed in Sep­tem­ber that two-thirds of peo­ple say teacher salaries are too low — a new high in its data since the poll start­ed in 1969. Anoth­er nation­al poll released in April found 78 per­cent of adults think schools don’t pay teach­ers enough, and 52 per­cent sup­port­ed those going on strike over wages.

As fur­ther evi­dence of how the teacher protests have shaped the nation­al con­ver­sa­tion, the House edu­ca­tion com­mit­tee con­vened this week for its first hear­ing on K‑12 schools in the new Con­gress, and the top­ic of teacher pay was front and cen­ter. Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats both agreed that teacher salaries were sim­ply too low.

The House Edu­ca­tion and Labor Com­mit­tee hear­ing, chaired by Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Bob­by Scott of Vir­ginia, last­ed three and a half hours, and was enti­tled, Under­paid Teach­ers and Crum­bling Schools: How Under­fund­ing Pub­lic Edu­ca­tion Short­changes America’s Stu­dents.” Top­ics explored through­out the con­ven­ing includ­ed more than just teacher com­pen­sa­tion and school infra­struc­ture. Leg­is­la­tors and wit­ness­es also dis­cussed ade­quate fund­ing for stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties, turn­around strate­gies for low-per­form­ing schools, and civ­il rights pro­tec­tions for stu­dents who attend pri­vate schools.

While law­mak­ers from both par­ties agreed pub­lic-school teach­ers are not earn­ing enough mon­ey, the two par­ties had vast­ly dif­fer­ent expla­na­tions as to why.

Wit­ness Ben­jamin Scafi­di, an econ­o­mist and fel­low with EdChoice, a nation­al school choice advo­ca­cy group, said that while infla­tion-adjust­ed spend­ing on pub­lic schools increased 37 per­cent between 1992 and 2016, real teacher salaries declined by one per­cent in that same peri­od, accord­ing to data from the Nation­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Sta­tis­tics. Scafi­di said this was due to the tremen­dous increase” in non-teacher staff work­ing in pub­lic schools — refer­ring to a 52 per­cent jump.

Repub­li­cans seemed con­tent to embrace the idea that the teacher salary prob­lem was not due to their fail­ure to fund schools prop­er­ly, but because of school dis­tricts’ waste­ful hir­ing decisions.

It scares me when I hear peo­ple in edu­ca­tion com­ing up and ask­ing this com­plete­ly bro­ken fed­er­al gov­ern­ment for more mon­ey when [states] are run­ning sur­plus­es,” said Repub­li­can Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Glenn Groth­man of Wis­con­sin. Why do peo­ple think the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should give more money?”

Yet, accord­ing to the lib­er­al Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­i­cy Pri­or­i­ties, in 2015, 29 states pro­vid­ed less total school fund­ing per-pupil than they had spent before the recession.

Democ­rats and some wit­ness­es pushed back on the idea that schools are chock-full of super­flu­ous staff, not­ing many work­ers includ­ed in this cat­e­go­ry are bus dri­vers, cafe­te­ria staff, para­pro­fes­sion­als, nurs­es, cus­to­di­ans and spe­cial-edu­ca­tion aides.

Ran­di Wein­garten, the pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, tes­ti­fied that the increase in school staff spend­ing also over­lapped with the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act, which was signed into law in 1990. That law, and the Indi­vid­u­als with Dis­abil­i­ties Edu­ca­tion Act, passed in 1975, oblig­ate schools to pro­vide stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties with addi­tion­al sup­port ser­vices. Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Joseph Morelle also not­ed the grow­ing move­ment to pro­vide wrap­around social ser­vices in schools, since that is where stu­dents spend the bulk of their days and where it can be eas­i­er for par­ents to access. That sort of increased invest­ment in com­mu­ni­ty schools, he sug­gest­ed, is not waste­ful spending.

Some of the hear­ing was ded­i­cat­ed to dis­cussing the Rebuild America’s Schools Act, leg­is­la­tion recent­ly rein­tro­duced by Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Scott and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­tor Jack Reed. The bill would invest $100 bil­lion in K‑12 pub­lic school infra­struc­ture, and cre­ate an esti­mat­ed 1.9 mil­lion jobs for local work­ers. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Prami­la Jaya­pal, a Demo­c­rat from Wash­ing­ton and the co-chair of the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus, spoke of schools where stu­dents and teach­ers are forced to hold their feet over hot plates to keep warm. Even Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ron Wright, a Repub­li­can from Texas who voiced skep­ti­cism for new spend­ing on edu­ca­tion, admit­ted he nev­er had an air con­di­tion­er in his over­ly warm Texas pub­lic schools until he reached high school; he said he’d be open to sup­port air con­di­tion­ers at least for Texas schools.

One 2016 report on nation­al school infra­struc­ture needs esti­mat­ed it would cost rough­ly $145 bil­lion annu­al­ly to main­tain and mod­ern­ize school build­ings to the point where all were in safe con­di­tion. While fed­er­al spend­ing accounts for about 10 per­cent of school oper­at­ing bud­gets, the feds cur­rent­ly spend vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing on school infra­struc­ture. The bulk of those facil­i­ty costs fall on local gov­ern­ments, which results in a sys­tem where wealth­i­er com­mu­ni­ties can afford to have nicer school build­ings, and can more eas­i­ly make nec­es­sary build­ing repairs. 

At the hear­ing, Chair­man Scott not­ed his school infra­struc­ture leg­is­la­tion would cre­ate more jobs than the Repub­li­can tax bill did, and at 5 per­cent of the cost. The last time Con­gress came close to autho­riz­ing fed­er­al school infra­struc­ture spend­ing was in 2009 as part of the stim­u­lus bill. But Sen­a­tor Susan Collins, a Maine Repub­li­can, said she wouldn’t sup­port Scott’s leg­is­la­tion, argu­ing that school facil­i­ties should remain exclu­sive­ly a local respon­si­bil­i­ty. As a result, com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try lost out on bil­lions of dol­lars to fix their crum­bling schools. 

The Repub­li­can tax bill made two oth­er appear­ances dur­ing Tuesday’s hear­ing. Res­i­dents who live in areas with high­er state and local tax bur­dens had pre­vi­ous­ly been able to deduct those costs on their fed­er­al tax­es, so as to avoid pay­ing twice. But in the leg­is­la­tion Pres­i­dent Trump signed in 2017, indi­vid­u­als can now only deduct up to $10,000 in state and local tax­es, and fresh­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Lau­ren Under­wood not­ed at the hear­ing that res­i­dents in her home state of Illi­nois have been very anx­ious about their sky­rock­et­ing tax bills. We want our mon­ey to go to schools, not tax cuts for cor­po­ra­tions,” she said. Oth­er states feel­ing the brunt of the new SALT cap are Cal­i­for­nia, New York, Con­necti­cut, and New Jersey.

The sec­ond time the GOP tax bill came up was in ref­er­ence to so-called Oppor­tu­ni­ty Zones,” which are fed­er­al sub­si­dies direct­ed toward invest­ment in dis­tressed areas to sup­pos­ed­ly revi­tal­ize the areas. Rank­ing com­mit­tee mem­ber Vir­ginia Foxx, a Repub­li­can from North Car­oli­na, said while she’d like to see teach­ers take home more mon­ey, she’s not inter­est­ed in increas­ing fed­er­al invest­ment in school bud­gets. Not­ing the expan­sion Oppor­tu­ni­ty Zone fund­ing in the new tax bill, Foxx sug­gest­ed that com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment could per­haps some­how lead some­how to increased teacher pay.

Time will tell if Oppor­tu­ni­ty Zones and oth­er new ini­tia­tives will final­ly help us solve the prob­lems of teacher pay and poor school facil­i­ties, but time has already told us that high­er price tags and more bureau­cra­cy in Wash­ing­ton won’t deliv­er results,” she said. The answer is not more money.”

As fed­er­al law­mak­ers con­tin­ue to bick­er over how we got to this point, teach­ers aren’t wait­ing around. Ear­li­er this month, 95 per­cent of Oak­land teach­ers vot­ed to autho­rize their own strike, and they too could walk out of their schools with­in days.

Rachel M. Cohen is a jour­nal­ist based in Wash­ing­ton D.C. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rmc031
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