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In the aftermath of teacher strikes, more Americans support educator raises, poll finds

Mark Keierleber | August 28, 2018

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Teachers from across the state of North Carolina march in Raleigh in May. (Photo by Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images)

Following strikes this spring in which teachers in six states demanded higher salaries, a new poll finds a sharp uptick in Americans’ support for increasing educators’ pay.

The national poll, last week by the journal Education Next, which has been surveying Americans on high-profile education issues for more than a decade, also found growing support for charter schools after a plunge last year, and a lack of support for federal intervention in school discipline reform. The shift in opinion around teacher pay was the survey’s most “striking finding,” said Marty West, editor in chief of Education Next and deputy director of Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance.

“There is certainly stronger support than there has been in the past for increasing teacher pay,” West said. “In those states that experienced the walkouts, I think you saw elected officials of both parties feeling pressure to address the concerns that were raised.”

After being informed of average teacher salaries in their states, 49 percent of poll respondents said education pay should increase, while just 7 percent said it should be cut. With a 13-percent jump over last year’s results, support for teacher pay raises increased among both Democrats and Republicans, though overall enthusiasm was much higher among Democrats. When poll respondents weren’t provided information about teacher salaries in their areas, they were even more likely to support pay raises.

In California, when told that the average pay in their state was $72,842 — the third-highest salaries in the nation — only 41 percent of respondents said they would raise teacher salaries — 9 percentage points below the national average, as EdSource reported.

And in the six states that experienced teacher strikes or walkouts this year — Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia — respondents were more likely than those from other states to support teacher raises, with 63 percent in favor. While several factors were likely at play, including an improving economy, West said teacher protests likely played a part in public support for pay raises nationwide.

States that experienced teacher strikes this year also showed up in Education Next’s polling results from last year as having above-average support for educator raises, suggesting those states were “fertile ground for the protests,” West said. In those states, support for teacher raises continued to rise this year, while the poll didn’t identify any backlash against the teachers’ activism. Rather, West said, the poll found strong support among the public for teachers’ right to strike.

“I think those two explanations, the walkouts and the strength of the overall economy, may work together,” West said. “The fact that the economy is growing and Americans’ wages are finally inching upward may have emboldened teachers to demand higher pay and also made the public more receptive to that appeal.”

Strikes this year appeared to play a larger role in public opinion than they have in the past, West said. Although teachers have hit the pavement to protest working conditions in the past, including over teacher pay, those movements didn’t appear to affect outcomes in Education Next’s previous polling data. But past teacher movements haven’t been as widespread, West said, and have often focused on a range of grievances including school closures or testing.

Both teachers and the general public expressed support for educator salary bumps in this year’s poll, but the two groups differ on details. Among the broader public, 48 percent said teacher pay should be “based on how much their students learn,” compared with 36 percent who oppose merit-based pay. Among educators, however, just 22 percent expressed support for merit-based pay, while 73 percent opposed the practice. The data were similar regarding perspectives on teacher tenure: Just 33 percent of the public supports the practice, compared with 62 percent of educators.

“It would benefit teachers and unions to keep the conversations focused as much as possible on the level of pay as opposed to how pay will be allocated,” West said. “But members of the public would be even more enthusiastic about supporting pay increases if pay were tied in some fashion to performance.”

Support for charters begins to rebound

Beyond teacher pay, the Education Next poll offered insight into a handful of contentious education policy issues, from private school vouchers to the way schools discipline students.

Last year, Education Next’s opinion poll found a significant drop in public support for charter schools — a shift attributed in part to negative attitudes toward President Donald Trump, who supports choice. But this year’s results found that support for charter schools has begun to rebound, a shift driven primarily by Republicans as the debate becomes increasingly polarized along party lines.

“The news is certainly not altogether good for the charter school community, but I think it’s much better than a continued decline in overall support,” West said.

This year, 44 percent of respondents say they support charter schools, a 5 percent increase over last year — but just a dent in the 13 percent hit support for the movement took in last year’s poll. Among teachers, support for charters took a 7 percent plunge this year, with 33 percent saying they support the schools.

In analyzing the dip in support for charter schools, West pointed to both Trump and former president Barack Obama — both of whom have supported the schools. With the departure of a popular Democratic president who supported charter schools, West said, it is possible that left-leaning constituents who oppose them were more willing to be “forceful in their critique.”

Meanwhile, support for universal private school vouchers has also experienced growth, according to poll results. Among respondents, 54 percent said they support universal vouchers that allow parents to “enroll their children in private schools … with government helping to pay the tuition,” a 9 percent increase over last year’s results, while opposition to vouchers has fallen from 37 percent to 31 percent. Again, growth in support was concentrated among Republicans. Approval for vouchers geared toward low-income children, however, remained unchanged at 43 percent.

The poll also focused on racial disparities in school discipline, another high-profile education debate. As school districts decrease their reliance on suspensions and expulsions, the Obama administration sent districts a “Dear Colleague” letter in 2014 encouraging them to reduce their reliance on punitive discipline, noting that policies could violate federal civil rights laws if students of color are punished disproportionately.

As Education Secretary Betsy DeVos considers rescinding that guidance, an Education Next poll question dug into the issue. Pollsters asked respondents whether they support school district or federal government policies that “prevent schools from expelling or suspending black and Hispanic students at higher rates than other students,” and results show that Americans overwhelmingly oppose such policies.

But as is frequently the case with opinion polling, the wording of questions can affect the way people respond. Although the guidance said disparate discipline patterns could be cause for concern, it didn’t explicitly “prevent” schools from punishing students at different rates.

Asked about the way the prompt was worded, West said it mirrored language from previous years’ surveys but “it’s an entirely fair question” as to whether it “exaggerates what the guidance actually says.” Still, West stood by the question in the poll.

“Being informed that a pattern in the data is going to place you at risk of being found to have violated students’ civil rights is clearly a strong push to take action to ensure that students are not punished at disparate rates,” West said. “I certainly think school districts have experienced it as an attempt to prevent them from doing just that.”

The polling firm Knowledge Networks administered the Education Next poll in May to a nationally representative sample of 4,601 adults. The survey had a margin of error of 1.4 percentage points on questions administered to the full sample.

This article was published in partnership with The 74.

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