Map to the Middle Class

Are teachers losing their grip on the middle class?

Red-state teachers are walking out, not just over low pay but the erosion of their profession as a valued, white-collar occupation

Mitch Askew, a history teacher at Flagstaff High School, marches with his two-year-old son.

Mitch Askew, a history teacher at Flagstaff High School, marches with his two-year-old son.

Editor’s note: This story is part of Map to the Middle Class, a Hechinger Report series exploring the middle-class jobs of the future and how to prepare young people for them. 

FLAGSTAFF, AZ. — As a boy in rural Idaho, Mitch Askew would tell his father that he wanted to go into the construction business. His father, who’d worked construction himself and was the head custodian at Askew’s small K–12 public school, pointed him in a different direction. “You should do something where, when you’re my age, you still like doing it,” he said. “Maybe teaching.”

Askew became a teacher, and his wife, Jennie, became one, too. Together, they took jobs in Colorado, Haiti, and, eventually, Flagstaff, Arizona, where, in 2009, Askew enrolled in a master’s program in history at Northern Arizona University, and Jennie got a job teaching science at a local middle school. But it was the recession, and Jennie was soon laid off. The couple went back to Haiti for a year, until they both got job offers from Flagstaff High School. They’ve been in Arizona since.

Flag High, as it’s known, has a large, verdant campus and sixteen hundred students — a mix of white, Native American, and Latino kids, from both rich and poor families. The Askews love their work, but not their salaries, which have barely increased since they arrived at Flag High. Between them, Mitch and Jennie have two master’s degrees and nearly two decades of teaching experience, yet their salaries add up to just eighty thousand dollars a year. For extra pay, Jennie teaches an additional chemistry class and has tutored at a local enrichment center; Mitch has chopped logs and sold firewood.

Their second child, a boy, was born in November, 2015, and, because the school district provides no paid parental leave, they refinanced their house and took out a loan to buy time with their newborn. Now that they’re back to work, in addition to their mortgage, they have child care costs and a fresh monthly pile of student-loan statements, medical bills and credit-card notices. Their car has a screaming fan belt and two hundred thousand miles on the odometer.

When Mitch first went into teaching, he saw the profession as a way up in the world, but he’s no longer so sure. “Every year, we think about quitting, but we’ve put ourselves on a five-year plan,” he said. “Because our kids are so young, we’re going to just stay put for a while.” Earlier this year, when teachers went on strike in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky — states, like Arizona, where unions are weak and Republican lawmakers have made decades of cuts to public education — Mitch and Jennie took notice.

In early March, they joined a new, rapidly growing Facebook group called Arizona Educators United. With the support of the Arizona Education Association, the union to which the Askews already belonged, the group put together a list of demands, including a twenty-per-cent pay raise and large increases in district budgets, and its members began to consider the possibility of their own big strike. In Flagstaff, Mitch and Jennie spent whatever time they could making posters, texting co-workers and attending organizing meetings.

Last Thursday, an estimated seventy-five thousand fellow-educators and supporters, the Askews among them, descended on Phoenix, the state capital, for the first full day of the strike. The protesters wore red shirts, carried red signs, and chanted “Red for Ed”— a slogan that had been adopted by teachers in West Virginia and in education protests of the past. Nearly every school district in Arizona was forced to close, and they remain closed. On Tuesday night, the strike leaders announced that teachers would return to work on Thursday, provided that lawmakers “do their job” and pass a budget bill addressing the teachers’ demands before the morning bell.

Related: Out of poverty, into the middle class

In Arizona and other states where teachers have recently gone on strike, pay is a central issue: the average American teacher earns five per cent less than he did in 2009. (In Arizona, the average teacher salary fell from fifty-three thousand to forty-seven thousand dollars in that time.) But the protests are about more than salaries.

In recent years, educators have been blamed by politicians and parents for an array of social problems, from bankrupt municipal pensions to low graduation rates in poor neighborhoods. Standardized testing has constrained teacher autonomy and creativity, and charter and private schools have competed more aggressively for government funds. The strikes are thus partly about reclaiming a sense of professional pride and middle-class stature. “Watching what happened in West Virginia, in Oklahoma,” Jennie explained, “we learned something — and from the kids, with the school shooting, how fast they can turn it around. We asked ourselves, ‘Can we do it, too?’ ”

Derek Born (right) is a teacher at Coconino High School and the president of the Flagstaff chapter of the statewide Arizona Education Association. After years of organizing on a small scale, he's delighted to see the energy of Red for Ed. His coworker, Aarin Clovenas, loves teaching English in Flagstaff, but is paid only $35,000 per year. He has given notice, and is looking for a teaching position in higher-paying Washington state. 

Derek Born (right) is a teacher at Coconino High School and the president of the Flagstaff chapter of the statewide Arizona Education Association. After years of organizing on a small scale, he’s delighted to see the energy of Red for Ed. His coworker, Aarin Clovenas, loves teaching English in Flagstaff, but is paid only $35,000 per year. He has given notice, and is looking for a teaching position in higher-paying Washington state.

Few would dispute that the Arizona schools are in crisis. Per-student spending has fallen fourteen per cent in the past decade, and some two thousand classrooms have no permanent instructors. Between 2010 and 2015, Arizona’s rate of teacher turnover was twenty-three per cent in traditional public schools and thirty-three per cent in charters, according to Jeanne Powers, an associate professor at Arizona State University. Flag High, where the Askews work, has had trouble recruiting and retaining talent. “I just hired two science teachers, but one backed out because of housing costs. Two years ago, I hired a woman from New York. Once she saw the cost of living, she said no,” Tony Cullen, the principal, told me. “Teaching is one of the most humble employment opportunities. It’s so selfless, it’s a giving profession. But teachers are saying, ‘I didn’t know I was going to be a pawn for the legislature.’ ”

Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, was elected in 2014, after running a campaign based on a promise to cut taxes. His critics say he’s done that — to the benefit of corporations and the state’s many childless retirees, and to the detriment of schools. “There’s a lot of public support for education,” Powers told me. “But it’s not reflected in what the state legislature is doing.” Two weeks ago, as it became clear that the state’s teachers could go on strike, Ducey promised to boost teacher pay by twenty per cent and restore education spending to pre-recession levels, all without raising taxes. He called it his “20 x 2020” plan. Ducey’s press secretary, Patrick Ptak, told me that K–12 education was the governor’s “top budget priority,” and that he has been in near-daily talks with legislative leaders to try to address the teachers’ concerns.

Some teachers and school officials, including the superintendent of the state’s largest district, voiced support for Ducey’s proposal. But most teachers rejected the “20 x 2020” plan for being short on details and offering nothing to school support staff such as bus drivers, lunchroom workers and classroom aides. In a paper ballot organized by the Arizona Education Association union and the Arizona Educators United Facebook group, an overwhelming majority of teachers voted to walk out.

Related: Jobs in cybersecurity are exploding: Why are women locked out? 

Last Wednesday, on the eve of the strike, I met with three women who teach at Settler’s Point Elementary, in the town of Gilbert, just east of Phoenix. They worried about their students — the ones without proper clothes, the ones in foster care, and the ones who constantly asked about food — but were in full support of the Red for Ed movement. Tina Marie Rey, who has a master’s in education and earns forty-one thousand dollars a year, said, “I grew up believing that teachers were respected. I grew up hearing about, if you became a teacher, you’d have a good career. You’d be able to support yourself and have a retirement you could live on.” That was no longer the case, she told me.

Tracey Carleton, who teaches second-, third- and fourth-graders with emotional disabilities, lives paycheck to paycheck and drives an old car that lacks air-conditioning, which many Arizonans consider a necessity. Jenifer Vetter, a single mom who went to night school to earn her graduate teaching license, had decided to quit and resume her first career, as a dental-office manager. “I have two degrees now that I don’t even need for the job,” she told me. She’ll miss the classroom, but will double her take-home pay.

At Arizona’s three public universities, enrollment in undergraduate and graduate teaching programs has dropped by nearly twenty per cent since 2008. Over the same period, nationally, the number of college students majoring in education declined by fourteen per cent. Mitch Askew’s teaching intern, a senior at Northern Arizona University, has decided to go to law school. The Askews, too, fantasize about making a change — teaching in a better-paying state or abroad.

I heard similar things from teachers across Arizona. Though they felt that their profession was a calling, and harbored no fantasies of wealth or prestige, they had gone into their careers expecting a degree of respect and compensation that had not materialized. That expectation has a complicated history: in the late nineteenth century, as public schools became more common, teaching went from being considered valued men’s work to cheap, feminine labor. In an attempt to reverse this trend, twentieth-century labor organizers reframed public-school teachers as skilled professionals belonging to “associations,” creating distance from the industrial unions that represented blue-collar workers. Yet the transformation was incomplete.

“Teachers were never professionals in the sense that doctors and lawyers are,” Leo Casey, the director of the nonprofit Albert Shanker Institute, told me. “But part of unionization was certainly around the fact that, here you have a group of people who are at least college-educated and required to have graduate degrees, and yet they are struggling to achieve a middle-class life.” Today teachers earn seventeen per cent less than comparably educated workers in other professions. Perhaps on account of their advanced degrees, the Askews, like most teachers I spoke with, identify as workers but not as working-class. “There are people who are struggling more than we are,” Mitch was careful to say. The distinction, though, seems increasingly thin.

Related: Can educating kids about unions prepare them for the future of work? 

Two days before the walkout, teachers and support staff from across the Flagstaff Unified School District, two hours north of Phoenix, gathered for an information and strategy session. Everyone took home a Red for Ed yard sign. 

Two days before the walkout, teachers and support staff from across the Flagstaff Unified School District, two hours north of Phoenix, gathered for an information and strategy session. Everyone took home a Red for Ed yard sign.

The day before the walkout, one of Mitch’s students, eyeing his red shirt, asked if it was legal for teachers to strike. “Could you get arrested?” “Hashtag Free Askew!” a kid in the front row joked. Another asked what it meant for Arizona to be a right-to-work state. Mitch could have launched into the technicalities of union dues and the National Labor Relations Act, but he instead talked about power, and why it was useful for individual workers to band together.

“Remember the Wobblies?” he asked the class. The students had just researched and drawn murals to illustrate an infamous event that took place a century ago in Bisbee, Arizona. In 1917, twelve hundred miners, most of whom were Mexican, went on strike with the Industrial Workers of the World. In response, their corporate employers, with the help of local police and vigilantes, kidnapped and deported the men to New Mexico. Would white-collar educators, in 2018, have better results? Would the walkout lift their pay and status, or sour the public to their concerns? For now, at least, the teachers appear to enjoy broad support: a recent NPR poll suggests that most Americans, across party lines, approve of pay increases, union membership and the right to strike for teachers.

On Thursday, the first day of the strike, the Askew family — Mitch, Jennie, and their two kids — marched with other Flag High teachers in Phoenix. Around noon, they reached the state capitol building and wove through thousands of fellow-protesters before settling onto a patch of grass, beneath an enormous red umbrella. They listened to speeches being delivered from a nearby stage, until the unrelenting sun cut the program short. The rally slowly disbanded around two p.m., and the Flagstaff contingent walked to a nearby restaurant, passing at least one red-shirted protester being treated for heat stroke. A news alert came over the group’s smartphones: the state senate had adjourned for the weekend, leaving budget negotiations with Ducey unresolved. The Askews looked defeated — or tired. They’d been making signs and calls, and attending meetings every night for weeks. They could see now that the walkout and budget fight would continue for many more days. “We have to come back Monday,” Mitch said.

He and Jennie returned to their car, buckled in their kids and prepared for the two-hour drive back to Flagstaff. They had to set up for the next day’s “battle of the bands,” an annual fund-raiser by Flag High’s humanitarian club, and Mitch had a meeting with the junior-varsity football team. Though the district was closed for business, teachers had agreed to show up for field trips, sports-team events and junior prom. “It’s important to the students,” Mitch said. Technically speaking, their decision wouldn’t undermine the strike: teachers had never been paid for this extra work, anyway.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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