Teacher protests hang over state lawmakers in budget season
SEATTLE (AP) — The shadow of the past year’s teacher protest movement is hanging over state capitals, where officials are piecing together the money to make good on promised pay raises and try to forge a sustainable funding formula for the future.
From Washington state and Arizona to Oklahoma and Texas, state lawmakers are confronting a new political reality that the “Red4Ed” movement left behind.
The walkouts that began in February 2018 in West Virginia and spread across the country forced a national conversation about the value of a teacher and the conditions of public school classrooms.
It also bolstered the political momentum among teacher unions and education advocates who say they suffered the brunt of many cost-cutting budgets over the years and are now unapologetic about demanding more money and resources.
In Olympia, Washington, state lawmakers are scrambling to put out a budget after a wave of educator unrest at many school districts last year led to an unprecedented number of walkouts.
“What it highlighted — not just in Washington but in many states — is that we were shortchanging our students for too long,” said Rich Wood, Washington Education Association spokesman.
The state has been under court order for years to better fund schools following a landmark legal case. Two years ago, lawmakers decided to resolve the court battle with a funding formula that has since infused billions of dollars into the education budget but also raised state taxes while limiting local levies.
But given the way the political dynamics turned in the past year, school districts are now projecting budget deficits in the millions and have warned of job cuts. Lawmakers in turn are now being forced to consider lifting the cap on local levies to help school systems stay afloat.
Seattle public schools want the cap lifted to be able to tap into $145 million in levy money that voters have already approved. Last year, teachers threatened to strike just before the first day of school and won a 10.5% pay raise.
“Like many districts across Washington state, expenditures are outpacing revenues. In the past local levies could be used to make up the gap between what the state provides for K-12 education and what it actually costs,” said Carri Campbell, chief of public affairs in Washington state’s largest school system.
The head of the Arizona Republican Party this week also urged lawmakers to put a sales tax hike on the ballot to help fund education in the long-term. Teachers last year won a 20% salary increase after a six-day statewide strike, which is largely being funded by revenue growth in a strong economy.
“I’ve heard that some donors are upset that a chairman of a political party is taking a stance on policy. But I can tell you I’m standing before you because Republicans are the party of education solutions and of our future,” said Kelli Ward.
And it’s a sign of the times when even the staunchest Republicans in Texas are ready to pay up, attributed largely to party leaders reading between the lines after a tough election year in 2018.
Even though the teacher protests movement hasn’t actually surfaced in the Lone Star State, the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature this session has been juggling bills in both the House and Senate that would effectively fund teacher pay raises.
The House’s $9 billion bipartisan school finance bill gives districts more flexibility in deciding allocation while earmarking at least $2.4 billion for pay hikes for teachers and support staff. The Senate, meanwhile, is pushing a proposal that would give all teachers in Texas a $5,000 salary increase, which will rank as among the biggest in the U.S.
AP writer Clarice Silber contributed from Austin, Texas.
Sally Ho covers philanthropy and education. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/_SallyHo