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Marketplace
Divided Decade

Teacher uprising has roots in recession

Amy Scott Apr 30, 2018
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An Arizona teacher holds up a sign in front of the state Capitol during a #REDforED rally on April 26, 2018, in Phoenix.
Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Schools across Arizona and Colorado were closed for a third day Monday, as thousands of teachers strike for better wages and more school resources. The protests follow teacher walkouts this year in Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia. In many ways, the seeds of the uprising were planted a decade ago, during the financial crisis and its aftermath. In several states, school budgets haven’t fully recovered from cuts made during the recession.

The housing crash and economic downturn hit Arizona hard. Between 2008 and 2015, the state cut funding for schools nearly 37 percent, more than anywhere in the country.

“We lost instructional aides, we lost cafeteria help,” said Kelly Nolan, who teaches first grade in Phoenix. “They cut our crossing guards, they cut the cleaning crew.”

“The art programs, the music programs, the nurses, the librarians — they’re the first ones to go,” said Kathe Beebe, a retired teacher and administrator living in Tempe. “Then they never get restored back to those services that the kids really need.”

While the state has restored some funding in recent years, it’s still down more than 13 percent since the recession. Casilda Espinoza teaches high school government in Phoenix. This year her students have no books.

“The book we had was outdated,” she said in an interview before heading out to join the protests. “I do not believe President Obama was in our book; I think it might have been from 2001 and 2002.”

Casilda Espinoza, right, teaches high school in Phoenix, Arizona, and joined the #RedForEd walkout. Her students have no books this year.

Arizona is one of several states spending less on education than a decade ago.

Adjusted for inflation, “we’re currently spending $500 million a year less than we did in 2008,” said Rachel Lawrence, who teaches high school near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “We’re not prioritizing education, even though we have the money,” she said.  

The recession was just the start, said Nicholas Johnson, who tracks school finance at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“Sales tax revenue went down because people were spending less, income tax revenue went down because people were earning less,” Johnson said. “That was the first hit on state budgets.”

The second hit came a few years later, when emergency aid from the federal Recovery Act ran out.

“Then the third thing that has happened since then is that a lot of states have been cutting taxes,” he said.

That includes Arizona, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, states where teachers have been mobilizing for better pay and school funding. By 2015, Johnson said, 29 states were still spending less on education than they were before the recession. That is based on the most recent data that include local funding from property taxes.

“In the current school year, there are at least 12 states where school funding is at least 7 percent below where it was in 2008, if you’re just looking at state funding,” Johnson said.

Together, state and local funding make up about 90 percent of school budgets, with the rest coming from the federal government. Wealthier districts can make up for some gaps in state funding through property taxes, but many legislatures have capped how much revenue local governments can raise.

“Even though property values are going up in some areas, districts can’t necessarily tap that value because caps have been put on by the state,” said Michael Griffith, a school finance consultant with the Education Commission of the States.

Since the recession, teacher salaries around the country haven’t kept pace with the growing economy. Take Nolan, the first-grade teacher from Phoenix, who’s been teaching 28 years. In the past decade, aside from small cost-of-living increases, she said she’s had only one annual raise, of $800. Arizona ranks near the bottom of states for teacher pay.

“It would be very nice for me if I had a pay raise before I retired,” she said. But Nolan is also concerned about newer teachers just beginning their careers. “They need a living wage,” she said.

Low pay and morale have contributed to a shortage of qualified teachers in Arizona, and in many states. Nolan said she’s hoping for a small sales tax increase that would bring teacher salaries up to the national median.

This story is part of Divided Decade, a year-long series examining how the financial crisis changed America.

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