Yes, Trump Jr. disrespected teachers. So does micromanagement and low pay

Denver teachers are striking for the first time in 25 years. The last year has seen a growing demand among American teachers for greater respect and pay.

Credit: Michael Ciaglo

Credit: Michael Ciaglo

Denver teachers are striking for the first time in 25 years. The last year has seen a growing demand among American teachers for greater respect and pay.

No one could miss the disrespect in Donald Trump Jr.’s screed about “loser” public school teachers at a recent political rally for his father in Texas.

What’s harder to spot but far more damaging is the lack of respect in policies that micromanage teachers, undervalue their labor and expertise and then blame them for everything from low math scores to high dropout rates.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that family income and parent education are the strongest influences on academic outcomes, Georgia legislators still rail about failing schools rather than failing communities. Acknowledging the shredded safety nets in low-income communities might force state leaders to address their own complicity in the woeful absence of health care, mental health and human services that would enable more children to thrive.

In a script the General Assembly recycles and is reading from again this session, the villains are not those neglected societal ills but lackluster public schools. So, the solution — this time in the form of House Bill 301 — is "education scholarship accounts," which allow parents to direct state funding to cover the cost of private school tuition or on tutoring, textbooks, technology and other education-related expenses. Another bill targets the retirement benefits teachers earn, long considered a balm for the low pay.

A similar narrative is playing out on the national level, as evidenced at the first meeting of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor by the new Congress earlier this month. Newly empowered Democratic leadership titled the hearing "Underpaid Teachers and Crumbling Schools" and heard testimony about crumbling school buildings, outdated textbooks and declining teacher ranks.

Speaking about her home state of Oklahoma, National PTA officer Anna King told the congressional committee, "About 42 percent of our teachers have zero to three years of experience and most don't stay five years. In contrast, almost one in four of our teachers is eligible to retire. This talent crisis in our classrooms is hurting kids and will be felt for generations if we don't think about teacher training and compensation differently. While recent marches, strikes and protests in Oklahoma City secured more investment from the state, it is not enough."

The Republican members said the solution was not greater investments, but expansion of choice options and wiser spending of education dollars by districts that have bloated administrative pools. Ranking committee member Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said, "If the money we're spending at every level of government isn't buying what students need, the answer isn't more money … perhaps, we need to spend more time thinking about how to reform the system to better use the resources we already have."

Respect for teachers demands more than rhetoric; it requires policies and laws that support and treat teachers as professionals and pay them accordingly. A new study on attracting the brightest minds to the classroom, “The Value of Smarter Teachers: International Evidence on Teacher Cognitive Skills and Student Performance,” found American teachers are paid 22 percent less than comparably experienced and skilled college graduates doing other jobs.

While lawmakers are quick to woo teachers with lists of how I love thee, let’s count the ways, their actions don’t always align, starting with Brian Kemp’s campaign promise of a $5,000 raise.

As governor, Kemp proposed a $3,000 teacher raise in his inaugural budget as a down payment on his promise. However, the raise may be less because overlooked were key educators, including school psychologists, counselors, social workers and media and special education specialists. For their raise, those employees are only getting 2 percent of the teacher-based state pay of around $34,000, or $680. The inclusion of those employees — who, by the way, are the linchpins of the state’s pledge to beef up school mental health services — would require an additional $35 million.

One solution is to lower the raises to teachers so that all these other educators also get a raise. Concerned over creation of two pay scales, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators urged the House Appropriations Education Subcommittee last week to provide the same raise to all certified educators in the state.

With regard to the pay raise and retirement changes, “Legislators have responded with an openness to identifying solutions that support students, public schools, and ongoing teacher recruitment and retention efforts,” said attorney Margaret Ciccarelli of PAGE. “We urge stakeholders to continue to encourage state policymakers to prioritize public schools, which educate 1.6 million Georgia students each day.”

At the end of the U.S. House education meeting, newly elected Connecticut Congresswoman and 2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes asked her colleagues a question the Georgia Legislature would do well to consider: "I hear everyone talk about the level of respect they have for teachers. Everyone has a teacher in their family. If we respect teachers and we respect public education, why aren't we looking at it as an investment?"