Teachers express frustration, say they would strike over funding
WASHINGTON - Half of teachers say they have seriously considered leaving the profession, and most said they would strike if given the opportunity, according to a survey released Monday.
The poll found widespread teacher complaints about low pay and poor funding for their schools, and nearly half said they felt unvalued by their communities. Most said they would not want one of their own children to follow them into teaching.
The annual survey was conducted by PDK International, an association of teachers, administrators and other education professionals, which has measured public attitudes toward schools for 51 years. This year's version surveyed teachers as well as parents and members of the public.
It found that nearly two-thirds of all adults supported teaching Bible studies in public schools, a trend taking hold in parts of the country. It also found, as in years past, that Americans rate their local schools far higher than the nation's schools in general. Respondents' views of their children's schools improved a bit, while opinions about schools in their wider communities and across the country fell.
The survey of 565 public school teachers, sampled to be representative of the nation's teaching force, suggests that the discontent that drove teacher strikes in big cities such as Los Angeles and Denver as well as rural areas of West Virginia and Oklahoma is commonplace.
Six in 10 teachers said they are unfairly paid, and more than half said they have seriously considered leaving the profession.
There was strong support for the idea of striking, with 55 percent of teachers saying they would walk off the job for higher pay. There was also support for strikes seeking systemic change: 58 percent said they would strike to achieve higher funding for school programs; 52 percent for more say in school standards, testing and curriculum; and 42 percent for more say in teaching conditions.
Teacher strikes helped make 2018 the biggest year for job actions since 1986, with about 485,200 workers involved in teacher strikes last year.
The unrest stems in part from state cuts that have squeezed school budgets and teacher pay. An analysis last year from the Economic Policy Institute found that until the mid-1990s, teachers were paid nearly as much as other educated workers, but in 2017, they made 18.7 percent less.
The new poll found that nationally, 6 in 10 teachers think they are underpaid, with those in the South and the Midwest most likely to say so. Among educators who have considered leaving the profession, the most common reasons were inadequate pay and benefits, followed by stress, pressure or burnout.
Asked how much they feel valued by their communities, close to half of teachers said "just some" or even less.
At the same time, the broader survey of parents found support for teacher strikes, and in larger numbers than the teachers registered. For instance, 74 percent of parents said they would support teachers who went on strike for higher pay, 19 percentage points higher than the portion of educators who would vote for such a strike. Even larger gaps emerged when parents were asked about potential strikes motivated by other demands.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the results reinforced arguments made by her union.
"Parents and educators agree public schools need far more investment to meet the needs of kids," said Weingarten, whose federation is the nation's second-largest teachers union.
Joshua Starr, chief executive of PDK International, said low teacher morale is to be expected, given the pressures that educators face.
"It's shocking in some ways, but anybody who's been following public education in the last 20 years and the demonization of teachers, the continued low pay, the working conditions, the relentless focus on standardized testing as the only measure of success, would naturally conclude we would reap what we sowed," he said.
Nearly 2 in 3 teachers said discipline in their schools is not sufficiently robust. This comes as civil rights advocates and others argue that children of color are disciplined too frequently. The advocates admonish schools for punishing black and Latino students more harshly than white students for the same offenses.
The poll did not ask about racial disparities in discipline, which are well-documented.
The survey found broad support for "zero tolerance" policies. About 7 in 10 parents, teachers and other adults favored the policy when it was described as punishment for certain violations of drug and weapons policies. But when asked about a typical situation - a student accidentally brings a folding knife to school in a backpack - more than half opposed an automatic suspension or expulsion. Whites were less likely to support automatic punishments in this case than nonwhites were.
The survey also found substantial support for the recent trend of including Bible studies in public high schools. Fifty-eight percent of adults said it should be offered as an elective, with an additional 6 percent saying it should be required for all students.
Support was particularly high among evangelical Christians, at 82 percent, and among Republicans (78 percent) and rural Americans (72 percent).
Support was a bit higher for including classes on comparative religion as an elective. There was also strong support for teaching civics.
Among teachers, support for Bible studies as an elective or a required class totaled 58 percent, and it was even higher among parents, at 68 percent.
Driven by an organized evangelical effort, 10 state legislatures have considered laws in the past year encouraging public schools to teach the Christian Bible as an important work of literature and influence on history. Bible classes have withstood court scrutiny in the past and are popular in many schools, though critics say there is enormous potential for teachers to violate the First Amendment by promoting a religious message.
Starr suggested that support for Bible classes may reflect frustration toward schools' narrow focus on a few topics: "People want school to be more than reading, writing and arithmetic."
The survey was conducted in April among 2,389 adults, including 1,083 parents of school-age children and 556 public school teachers. The margin of error for the full adult sample is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points; for the sample of public school teachers, it is 6.2 percentage points.