Teacher strikes highlight widening U.S. pay gap

April 12 (UPI) — As teachers across the country strike, hold walkouts and protest over what they’re calling stagnant pay and poor resources, national statistics indicate the pay gap between public educators and that of other professionals with similar levels of education and experience is widening.

Oklahoma teachers began Week 2 of their strike Monday, to press for higher wages. Kentucky teachers are still mulling their options for another walkout after a rally last week at the state Capitol — some school districts in the state canceled classes Friday in order to allow teachers to rally again. And some Arizona schools are holding walk-ins this week, with supportive parents rallying with teachers seeking raises.

This is all after teachers in West Virginia won a 5 percent raise last month, ending a nine-day strike.

Teachers in these states are among the worst paid in the country — Oklahoma ranked 49th with $45,276, Kentucky was 26th with $52,134 and Arizona was 43rd with $47,218, 2016 salary data from the National Education Association indicates. Before the 5 percent raise, West Virginia ranked 48th with a salary of $45,622 in 2016.

But it’s not just that teachers from some states are upset their salaries aren’t comparable to teachers from other states — it’s that their pay has stagnated over recent decades. In fact, once inflation is factored in, teachers in most states made less in the 2016-17 school year than they did in the 1999-2000 term, data from the National Center for Education Statistics says.

The average American teacher made $58,950 during the 2016-17 school year, a 1.6 percent decrease from a decade and a half previous, when they made $59,944 when adjusted for inflation.

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The biggest offender is the state of Indiana, where teachers made $50,554 in 2016-17, a 15.7 percent reduction in pay from 1999-2000, when teachers made $41,850, or $59,986 adjusted for inflation. It’s illegal in Indiana for public school teachers to strike, but G. Randall Harrison, president of the Anderson Federation of Teachers, a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said he thinks nationwide attention on the problem could have an impact in his state.

“We’re having discussions about getting the General Assembly’s attention,” he said Tuesday. “Yes, we’re monitoring, and yes, we are ready to lobby the special session that’s coming up.”

Colorado isn’t far off. With a salary of $46,506 in 2016-17, teachers there saw a 15 percent reduction in pay compared to 1999-2000 after inflation. California, meanwhile, saw the highest increase in pay since 1999 after inflation — 15.2 percent — with a 2016-17 salary of $78,711.

Compared to other comparable professions, though, there has been a widening pay gap for public school teachers, a study by the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive, union-backed think tank, found. Public school teachers made an average of 17 percent less than similarly educated professionals in 2015, up from a 1.8 percent gap in 1994.

The study found that, when adjusted for inflation, the average weekly wages of public school teachers decreased $30 per week from 1996 to 2015, while the weekly wages of all college graduates rose $124 per week during the same period. And experienced teachers have been the hardest hit — they had a 1.9 percent advantage over entry-level teachers in 1996 and a 17.8 percent penalty compared to entry-level teachers in 2015.

To make up for the shortfalls, Arizona teachers say they’re seeking a 20 percent pay raise and for schools to return to a level of funding not seen since before the recession.

Leaders in Oklahoma have agreed to increase teacher pay, but teachers said it’s not enough. The Oklahoma Education Association said 95 percent of its request for $506 million for teacher and support worker pay, and school funding for fiscal year 2019 has been “secured.” Some school districts in the state have called back striking teachers, but the majority of districts said they would still be closed Thursday.

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