Teachers Find Public Support as Campaign for Higher Pay Goes to Voters

Teachers rallying outside the State Capitol in Phoenix in April on the second day of a walkout. Leaders of the Arizona movement are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to raise taxes on high-income residents to help school funding.

After shutting down schools and shaking up politics in six states, teachers are looking to the ballot box in their campaign for better pay and increased school funding. And their demands are meeting with widespread public support.

A survey conducted in early May for The New York Times by the online polling firm SurveyMonkey found that nearly three in four adults — 71 percent — considered teacher pay too low, while just 6 percent felt it was too high. And two-thirds said they supported increasing the salaries of public-school teachers even if it meant raising taxes.

Backing for teachers cut across demographic, regional and partisan lines. Even a majority of Republicans — 56 percent — said they would favor raising taxes to increase teachers’ pay. Recent surveys from NPR and The Associated Press produced similar findings.

The teacher walkouts began in deep-red states such as West Virginia and Oklahoma, where teacher pay has tended to be lower than in other states, and spread quickly to Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina, racking up a list of concessions from conservative lawmakers. The movement has the potential to influence congressional, gubernatorial and state legislative races, and could catch fire in additional states when the new school year begins.

The issue was prominent in recent weeks in a competitive Republican primary in the Idaho governor’s race; the winner, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, pledged to increase education funding and was endorsed by the Idaho Education Association, an affiliate of the national teachers’ union. And it resonated with Idaho residents like Rondell Nebeker, a self-described conservative Republican who said he believes in limited government and supports President Trump.

Idaho has some of the lowest teacher pay and per-student education funding in the country, according to federal data, and Mr. Nebeker, 61, said he worried that the state was losing educators as a result.

“We never waste our money when we put it there for good teachers,” Mr. Nebeker said.

He hopes the Legislature can raise teachers’ pay by cutting spending elsewhere, he said, pointing to the people leaving California because of its high taxes and moving to Idaho instead. But he added, “Teacher pay is important enough to raise taxes if need be.”

Such broad-based support is unusual. In the Times survey, for example, 84 percent of Republicans approved of the tax law that Congress passed late last year, compared with 19 percent of Democrats. Similarly, 78 percent of Republicans said they favored Mr. Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, but just 27 percent of Democrats did. Partisanship even affects voters’ assessment of the economy: 58 percent of Republicans said they were better off financially than a year ago, versus 17 percent of Democrats.

National Democrats are hoping to capitalize on the education funding consensus during this fall’s midterm elections, especially in states with key House and Senate races, like Arizona and West Virginia. Though most school funding comes from state and local sources, not the federal government, congressional Democrats have released a plan to repeal the Trump tax cuts for the top 1 percent of earners in order to spend $50 billion on teacher pay and recruitment and another $50 billion on school infrastructure needs.

“Teachers have huge impact in their communities, and they are mobilized and they realize the Democrats are on their side and Republicans have not been,” said the Senate’s Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York. “The No. 1 way you can get better teachers is teacher pay. Even some Republicans realize that. It’s sort of a free-market concept.”

In Kentucky, Travis Brenda, a high school math teacher, defeated the speaker of the State House of Representatives, Jonathan Shell, in the Republican primary. Mr. Shell had drawn the ire of the teacher movement by backing a plan to make educators’ retirement plans more like the 401(k) accounts used in the private sector, and by passing a budget that teachers said devoted too little money to prekindergarten programs, textbooks, school transportation and teachers’ professional development.

Support for teachers hasn’t always translated into support for more education funding — at least when that funding meant higher tax bills. Oklahoma, for example, repeatedly cut taxes, leading to stagnant teacher pay, aging textbooks and a four-day school week in some rural districts. In 2016, voters there rejected a ballot initiative that would have imposed a 1 percent sales tax to help fund public schools. The teacher protest movement, which mounted a nine-day walkout, won an average raise of $6,000 per year for teachers, funded through new taxes on oil and gas production, online sales, gambling, tobacco and motor fuels.

The walkout movement first took hold in West Virginia among rank-and-file educators who organized on Facebook, but quickly became closely tied to unions, which provided much of the organizing and lobbying muscle. While the Times survey found broad support for teachers, opinions on their unions were split, with 34 percent of adults saying unions are “part of the problem” with public education, and an equal number saying unions are part of the solution. Views on teachers’ unions showed a clear partisan split, with a majority of Democrats in favor of unions and a majority of Republicans opposing them.

Doug Brown, a firefighter in Phoenix, where tens of thousands of picketing teachers rallied for a week at the State Capitol in April and May, said that educators deserved the raise they had won from state lawmakers, but that they had been too quick to strike.

“Firefighters around the station that I talked to looked at it negatively,” Mr. Brown said. “They don’t believe that the teachers used it as a last-ditch effort.”

Mr. Brown, a conservative who voted for Mr. Trump, said he believed the local teachers’ union was too far to the left. But even as he opposed the walkout, Mr. Brown said he approved of efforts to impose a sales tax in Phoenix to fund city services, including schools.

“It’s time,” he said. “The city’s grown to a certain size, and they don’t have the taxes.”

The leaders of Arizona’s walkout movement are collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would raise income taxes on individuals with income over $250,000 and couples with income over $500,000. Noah Karvelis, an Arizona music teacher and an organizer of the protests, said that such a measure would raise more funds than a sales tax, and that the need for school funding “cuts across a lot of anti-union propaganda that has been steeped into people for decades.”

Arizona, like Oklahoma, is a traditionally conservative, anti-tax state that spends relatively little on education. But new arrivals could change that equation.

Regina Blecher left New York after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and now lives in Maricopa, outside Phoenix — where, she said, the grocery store’s parking lot is full of license plates from California and other states. Many of the teachers come from out of state, too, and have different expectations for pay.

Ms. Blecher, 48, who has a son in fifth grade, said that after class sizes ballooned, her community approved a property-tax increase last year to hire more teachers.

“I was very much for it,” she said. “There’s enough realization that teachers are underfunded, the classrooms are underfunded.”

Arizonans, Ms. Blecher said, might never be willing to pay the $12,000 a year in property taxes that her brother pays in Rockland County, N.Y. But she said she saw attitudes shifting.

“You get what you pay for — that’s the way I think about it,” she said.

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