Local, state, and federal government administrators are eager to reopen schools and restart classes as early as possible to help support the struggling economy, and to bring a sense of normalcy back to the lives of Americans. State and local boards of education, for their parts, have been working nonstop on drafting school reopening guidelines, such as the 104-page reopening plan released by the New Jersey Board of Education. But first, they will need to discuss a long-standing debate on teacher salary.
But teachers unions around the country are putting up the warning signs, declaring that teachers are lacking training, funding, and compensation for taking on front-line responsibilities fighting a pandemic that the top scientific minds in the country are still struggling to fully understand.
Sounding the Budget Alarm
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the nation’s largest teacher’s unions, warned that safely reopening K-12 public schools in the fall will require an estimated $116.5 billion investment from the federal government. The report, titled Reopening Schools During a Time of Triple Crisis: Financial Implications was released as the U.S. Senate Helth, Education, Pensions, and Labor Committee (HELP) held a hearing on “Going Back to School Safely.”
In addition to the warnings of dire funding shortfalls was a risk of losing an estimated 750,000 jobs throughout the nation’s education system unless the funding gap could be remedied.
Addressing the complexity of the crisis from the local school level, AFT president Randi Weingarten said, “America is facing a triple crisis: a health pandemic, a racial justice crisis, and an economic crisis—and they’re all interrelated. Public schools are centers of their communities and essential to repairing our nation’s fraying social fabric. And the economy won’t recover fully unless school buildings reopen.”
Economic Slowdown Crippling School Funding
K-12 public schools throughout the United States are heavily dependent on State and Local taxes for funding. In stark contrast to many other developed nations around the world, the Federal government only supplies around 8% of public school funding. With unemployment rates having surged into the 20% range following the nationwide shutdown, state and local taxes have seen significant declines.
As budget forecasts from governors across the nation predict increasingly dire revenue shortfalls, school districts are pressuring the federal government to step in and help reinforce the school system, a pillar of local communities.
Teacher Salary Already Under Attack
For 40 years, teachers have endured a gradual loss of earnings in comparison to similarly educated workers. As of 2018, teachers average a nearly -19% earnings potential compared to similarly qualified workers. The wage penalty for male workers is especially severe at nearly -27% compared to similarly qualified male private sector workers. This reflects the larger societal wage penalty that female workers have compared to male workers.
Both public and private sector jobs endured significant economic downturns following the dot-com bubble, the 2008 financial crisis, and now the Coronavirus pandemic. And as each crisis hit, both public and private sector jobs saw incomes decline. However, unlike private sector workers, teachers never saw the incomes recover as the nation pulled itself out of one crisis after another.
Wyoming, Rhode Island, and Alaska provide the most competitive teacher salaries, averaging a -4.5% wage penalty for teachers. However, despite these states coming close to matching private sector wage comparisons, all states have a negative wage comparison for teachers compared to private sector workers.
The ongoing erosion of teacher salaries has led to teachers taking drastic, and many times unhealthy actions to supplement their teaching salaries to pay for basic daily living expenses. Stories of teachers working two or even three jobs to make up for their wage penalty have become increasingly common.
Recently, teachers have begun using sharing economy services as an additional means of earning much needed income. Airbnb even reported in 2018 that nearly 10% of its total bookings were done at teacher’s homes, with a shocking 45,000 teachers being hosts on the Airbnb platform.
Wage Penalties in Every State
With 92% of K-12 education funding coming from state and local governments, it is no surprise that the wage penalties for teachers vary state by state. While the wage penalties do vary significantly, there is no state where teachers do not have an existing wage penalty going into the budget crisis from the pandemic and shutdown.
For decades, state and local governments have cut funding from schools as a tool to fill in budget deficits. As funding was reduced, often on “temporary” budget cuts, it was rarely replaced or adjusted for inflation. So temporary budget cuts often became permanent. Currently, there are 8 states with a teacher wage penalty of greater than 30%. The state with the highest wage penalty for teachers is Arizona, with a -36.4% wage penalty.
Overall, teachers are averaging a -23.8% wage penalty compared to other college graduates. In addition to the increasing wage penalty, teacher salaries, adjusted for inflation, have actually decreased since 1994. At the same time, Americans are increasingly concerned about cost of living increases, with 47% of Americans identifying Cost of Living Increases as the #1 threat to their financial security according to T.D. Ameritrade’s 2019 Financial DIsruption Survey.
Hazard Pay For A Hazardous Job
Hazard pay means additional pay for performing hazardous duty or work involving physical hardship. Work duty that causes extreme physical discomfort and distress which is not adequately alleviated by protective devices is deemed to impose a physical hardship. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not address the subject of hazard pay, except to require that it be included as part of a federal employee’s regular rate of pay in computing the employee’s overtime pay.
-U.S. Department of Labor
Now, before getting into the debate over whether teachers should or should not qualify for a temporary, or even a longer term Hazard Pay salary adjustment, it is important to not the U.S. Department of Labor’s definition of conditions surrounding the use of Hazard Pay. For the purposes of understanding this extraordinary situation that we society is about to push teachers into, it is first necessary to understand just how hazardous a teacher’s work environment is.
Teachers Get Sick – All The Time
For a moment, let’s not focus on the once-in-four-generations sized pandemic that we are currently facing. Instead, it is important to put the general work environment of teachers into context. One often overlooked job hazard that teachers must endure on a daily basis is the overwhelming presence of germs compared to other jobs.
Teaching, as a profession, is the #1 most hazardous germ environment, and a recent study of professions and germ contamination found that “Teachers had six times more germs in their workspace than accountants, the second-place finisher, with slightly cleaner desks but five-and-a-half times more germs on their phones, nearly twice as many germs on their computer mice and nearly 27 times more germs on their computer keyboards than the other professions studied.”
In the context of the national and global Coronavirus pandemic, the school reopenings are about place teachers in the highest risk category of front-line workers. So much so that state Boards of Education need to be thinking through Hazard Pay not only for primary teachers, but for substitute teachers as well.
Coronovirus infections result in a 14-day quarantine period. Teachers, already placed in the most germ-friendly environment of any profession, will now be required to self-quarantine each and every time they come into contact with a child or parent who has tested positive for the virus. Quarantined teachers will increasingly be able to support their classes through online technologies. However, the children will still be going to school in most situations. So substitute teachers will need to fill in and tack care of the physical classroom while teachers are on mandatory quarantine absences.
Special Needs Students Need Their Teachers
One of the tragic non-stories of the Coronavirus pandemic has been the feelings of near total-abandonment that the families of special needs children have felt as schools shut down and classes moved online. Drawing attention to the immense challenges facing special needs students and their families has been an upward struggle for decades. Public K-12 schools nationwide struggle to recruit and retain specialist teachers to meet the requirements of special needs students.
For special needs teachers, students, and family, the situation is never fully under control. There are periods of improvement, periods of decline, and requirements to pivot educational strategies when the unique needs of the student require more personalized attention. This very fragile balance allowing special needs students to get the support then need at school collapsed with the school closures following the Coronavirus pandemic.
For special needs students, routines can take years to develop, and the approach to communicating through to the students is often very close contact. Teachers who work with children on the autism spectrum disorder will routinely spend 70%-80% of their day on the floor, sitting in close contact with the children, helping them to learn basic communication and interaction skills by using mouth shapes, exaggerated intonation, and guided gesture movements. Depending on the child’s condition, progress for even basic communicative tasks with autism spectrum disorder students can take months or even years to achieve.
The shutdown set many of these students back months in their progress. Teachers tried their best to train parents to facilitate special needs education at home, but without proper training, most parents were hoping to maintain the status quo before their children were reunited with their teachers in the fall.
While the term “special needs” is commonly associated with the more specialized student care, few people recognize just how common special needs student care is in the K-12 public school system.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, In 2018–19, the number of students ages 3–21 who received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was 7.1 million, or 14 percent of all public school students. Among students receiving special education services, 33 percent had specific learning disabilities.
14% of all public school students are receiving special education services. That means in a normal class of 20 students, roughly 3 students are receiving special education services. These students desperately need the support and oversight of their teachers, and society even more desperately needs these children to receive the proper care to help prepare them for life after school.
No Schools, No Economic Recovery
School reopenings are a fundamental requirement for any type of a sustained economic recovery. There is no argument that can logically be made against that fact.
Ask any politician and they will tell you, “Small business owners are the backbone of the economy.” And that backbone of the economy requires a functioning school system that allows parents to reliably schedule their business objectives around the assumption that their children will be in school and taken care of by a certified teacher during the day.
Without functioning school systems, the local community is economically paralyzed. Single mothers, one of the most vulnerable economic groups, become incapable of leaving their homes to work and provide for their children. Small shops and stores in the community will struggle to reopen as the sole-proprietors are required to stay home and care for their children.
Without schools reopening and STAYING reopened, there is simply no possibility of a true economic recovery.
What happens next?
Society is quickly approaching the proverbial fork in the road. Teachers, for their part, will be driven by passion and a desire to support their students. But passion and desire will come second to personal safety and financial security during a pandemic.
There will be heated debate coming up about teacher compensation, school funding, and school policy compliance for social distancing and PPE In all fairness, states have already taken too much away from teachers. On average, teachers are earning 20% less than their private sector equivalents, and doing it in the #1 most germ infested environment for any profession. So asking even more of teachers during a pandemic than they’ve already given will be challenging once their personal safety is put on the line.
State and local school administrators need to accept two very important realities as we move towards school reopenings:
- Teachers are severely underpaid and need to be properly compensated and recognized as workers qualifying for Hazard Pay as defined by the U.S. Department of Labor.
- Safety comes first. If families are unwilling to sign a pledge to commit their children to follow school policies for wearing face masks and adhering to social distancing requirements, then the students of those families should be required to participate in online learning programs, but not physically be present in the classrooms where their fellow students and teachers are put at heightened risk of infection