After several high-profile teacher walkouts across the United States that began in the spring of 2018, teacher activism continues to be a pressing issue that has gained the attention of presidential candidates and state policymakers. Teachers have reached a boiling point because their pay and working conditions are inadequate and unsustainable as a result of years of funding cuts. Protests have been effective at getting policymakers to pay more attention to teacher salaries as well as education funding, and school leaders have a vested interest in working alongside teachers in efforts to increase funding for schools and to create better teacher working conditions.

Compensation and Working Conditions

One reason for teacher dissatisfaction that most school leaders are familiar with is that teachers are underpaid and have been for decades. While it varies significantly by state, data from the National Education Association indicate that the average starting teacher salary in the United States in 2016–17 was $38,617. According to a 2018 report, “The Teacher Pay Penalty Has Hit a New High” by Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel, teachers earn 11 percent below the pay of other college graduates, even after accounting for benefits.

To make ends meet, teachers are more likely than other professionals to work second jobs during the school year—more than 1 in 5 do so in states with lower teacher compensation. The Center for American Progress notes that even with 10 years of experience, teachers who are the primary earners in their families often qualify for programs designed for families in need, such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program or the National School Breakfast and Lunch Program. For nonwhite teachers, this problem may be compounded because of how structural racism has created a wealth gap and because black and Latino teachers, on average, face a greater student loan debt burden.

In addition to low pay, teachers also experience working conditions that are out of line with those of other professionals. For example, teachers often receive inadequate training for the realities of the modern classroom in their preparation programs and are forced to learn on the job. In other professions, one may start in an entry-level position and be given more responsibility gradually—whereas beginning and experienced teachers are held to the same expectations (for good reason; all students deserve a teacher who can effectively guide their learning). This can make the first years of teaching a grueling experience. As a result, teachers tend to be the least effective and most likely to leave the profession during their first years on the job.

The inverse of this situation is that experienced, skilled teachers are not routinely given opportunities for advancement, in terms of both responsibility and pay, that allow them to share their knowledge and expertise. While many such opportunities do exist, this kind of advancement is much more routine in other professional workplaces and it is one of the reasons why the pay of midcareer teachers begins to fall significantly behind that of other college-​educated workers, according to the Center for American Progress. Opportunities to provide and receive mentorship or to have leadership roles that give them a say in school or district decision making can be especially important for teachers of color, who tend to leave their schools at higher rates because they feel unsupported or pigeonholed or because they experience racial bias.

Root Causes of Teacher Strikes

States have not funded schools at the levels needed to support a high-quality education. Following the start of the Great Recession, many states had to make deep cuts to K–12 education funding. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that school budgets suffered for a decade as a result, an effect that was worsened in some states by deliberate policy choices such as cutting taxes as revenue rebounded, thereby preventing education funding from returning to prerecession levels.

As a result of this chronic disinvestment in education, teacher wages stagnated, school budgets were strapped, and expenses such as building repairs and learning materials were deferred year after year. By 2018, reports of crumbling schools, students learning from decades-old textbooks, and teachers in poorly paid states leaving for better-paying jobs became common. Schools that serve primarily nonwhite students are at a further disadvantage financially: A recent study, “$23 Billion,” from EdBuild found that predominantly nonwhite school districts receive $23 billion less than predominantly white districts.

This is unfortunate because we now have a growing body of research that shows education funding can make a big difference for students. For example, the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University found that in states that experienced significant declines in spending after the Great Recession, reduced spending was correlated with a decline in reading and math test scores and graduation rates. In contrast, when states made new investments in education, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, it was associated with higher graduation rates, greater adult income, and a lower risk of poverty. These benefits were greatest for students from families with low incomes.

While more than half of all states have now seen funding rebound to pre-2008 levels or higher, the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities reports that many states that made the most severe cuts have not yet reached the level of education spending that they had a decade ago. In addition to raising funding levels overall, states and the federal government must do more to address funding disparities by race and income level as they work to reinvest in education.

Teacher Protests and Public Opinion

By and large, the strikes and walkouts have worked. Teachers were able to extract major concessions from states that had historically been reluctant to fund education, including a 5 percent raise for teachers in West Virginia, a 19 percent increase in the school funding formula in Oklahoma, and a 20 percent raise for teachers in Arizona.

Increasing teacher pay is popular, with three-fourths of adults in a New York Times poll reporting that they think teacher pay is too low. An Education Next poll found that a little over half of the public supports teacher strikes. Support for increasing teacher pay was higher in this poll in states that had teacher walkouts, a testament to how dire the funding situation had become in these states.

The popularity of the first wave of teacher strikes also had a secondary effect. Suddenly, increasing teacher salaries and education funding have become good politics. Education funding was a top issue in the 2018 gubernatorial elections, with pro-education candidates winning in states that had had funding struggles, such as Wisconsin, Kansas, and Michigan. In 2018, voters also approved 11 out of 15 education-funding ballot measures that would bring additional revenue to schools.

A Center for American Progress analysis shows that of the 10 states with the lowest average teacher salaries in 2018—adjusted for cost of living—seven had had teacher strikes, walkouts, or rallies. In three states, legislation addressing teacher salaries has been introduced or passed within the past two years. At the district level, the Center for American Progress reports that 13 of the 25 lowest-paying school districts in the United States—adjusted for cost of living—had direct teacher action, and another nine districts were in states where statewide teacher or legislative action had occurred.

What School Leaders Can Do

Very unusual among labor actions, the teacher walkouts were often supported by school leaders and administrators. This is partly because school leaders also suffer when states are not investing in education: They don’t have the resources they need to serve students, and they have to make tough budget choices.

To be sure, some school leaders may have mixed feelings about teacher walkouts. Having an entire school miss a day of instruction is no small thing. However, if missing a day or two of school means a more sustainable school budget, and students’ favorite teachers don’t have to work a second job or move out of state for higher pay, the tradeoff may be worth it.

Whether or not school leaders are interested in or willing to support teacher walkouts, they can play a big role in supporting teachers in their work to increase investments in education. They can advocate alongside teachers for greater overall funding, as well as improved funding equity at both state and local levels. School leaders are often the personnel in the school with the most firsthand knowledge of the difficult budget choices that schools have to make when there are insufficient funds, and so they are in a position to make a compelling case for both the negative repercussions of funding cuts and the positive impacts of new investments.

School leaders can also play an important role in improving teacher working conditions, even if they don’t have direct control over salaries or other aspects of teachers’ job requirements. They can advocate for funding from their district for research-supported programs that increase teacher retention, improve teachers’ skills, and improve student achievement while also providing opportunities for leadership, such as high-quality induction. Barring a formal systemwide investment in such programs, school leaders can work to create a culture of collaboration within their school, such as instituting high-quality professional learning structures focused on shared student learning goals. Such a culture of collaboration is correlated with reduced teacher turnover and gains in student achievement.

Teacher protests have been effective at highlighting the need to pay teachers more, improve their working conditions, and reinvest in schools—and school leaders can play an important role in this movement.

Lisette Partelow is the senior director of K–12 Strategic Initiatives at the Center for American Progress.