Running the Numbers
Cuts to education funding are hurting our nation’s educators now; researchers say the long-term picture isn’t so bright, either.
By Ilana Kowarski and Cindy Long
Educators across the country can tell you first-hand how lost jobs and slashed or stagnant wages have left them struggling to make ends meet.
“I can’t afford to buy anything that isn’t a necessity,” says first-grade teacher Lysa Sassman, one of many California educators whose salary was cut. “Every teacher I know is making sacrifices,” she says. “Some have lost homes and cars.”
Photo: Edward Honda
And it’s not just educators who are hurt by budget cuts, furloughs, and layoffs. Recent research by the Economic Policy Institute shows how low educator pay leads to long-term economic damage. First, it leaves educators with less spending power; and by reducing school resources and increasing class sizes, it leaves students less prepared to compete in the workplace, ultimately diminishing their earning power.
“There’s much discussion about the importance of teachers,” says EPI President Lawrence Mishel, “but given that teachers already suffer a wage penalty, making further cuts is going to move us in the wrong direction.”
The education jobs outlook isn’t as grim this year as it might have been. After months of lobbying by NEA, Congress passed the education jobs/FMAP bill by a vote of 247-161. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that some 161,000 educators who had received pink slips headed back to school this fall as a result.
But educators and kids deserve long-term commitments, not stop-gap measures. Until then, we will hear stories like these.
Money Matters: A Tale of Two Teachers
Peggy Swann has been in the classroom for 25 years; Nikole Kiley has only been on the planet that long. But from opposite ends of their teaching careers, they’re both struggling to make ends meet.
Like most parts of Arizona, Sierra Vista, where both women teach at Buena High School, is struggling to recover from a drawn-out recession and years of painful budget cuts, many to education funding.
Swann, a veteran English teacher, earns extra money teaching a night class at the local college. She used to further supplement her salary teaching “Saturday School,” a weekly program for chronically tardy and truant students. But the program was cut, and now she’s on a waiting list of teachers hoping to proctor ACT tests for extra cash.
Both of Swann’s parents were teachers, and she never considered another career path. She knew she wouldn’t get rich—but she didn’t imagine that after decades of devotion to the classroom, she’d still make only $34,000 a year.
“That is truly sad for a 26-year career,” she says.
Swann can’t afford the major dental work that she needs, she rarely buys new clothes, and she works to stretch her food dollar. But the worst part, she says, is not being able to visit her son because she simply can’t afford the gas.
Still, she puts in long hours, arriving at least an hour-and-a-half early in the morning and staying late to grade papers and prepare lessons. An extra 15 to 20 hours a week is the norm for Swann and her colleagues, though they’re not paid for overtime.
“Everyone I know in teaching is struggling,” she says. “Despite what we do, teachers are not seen as important, or as professionals.”
Nikole Kiley is a fourth-year social studies teacher. She recently earned a master’s degree in educational technology to advance her career. Instead, because of budget cuts, she’s making less now than before—and she has a $200-a-month student loan bill to boot.
“Between having to pay for my benefits now and losing my coaching stipend, I make $200 less a month this year than I did the previous three years,” she says. “I do not have an extravagant lifestyle. I eat Ramen noodles and I’m still barely getting by.”
Reluctantly, she’s had to turn to her parents for financial help.
“It’s embarrassing to have two degrees, a full-time job, and still not be able to support myself,” says Kiley. “I love what I do, but I would also love not having to worry about where the money for the water bill is going to come from.”
Why I Deserve a Living Wage
By Melodee A. Turk
Paraeducator, Fairbanks Alaska
I’m a teacher’s aide in a classroom for severely emotionally disturbed fourth through sixth graders at Denali Elementary. I have a second job working with emotionally and physically challenged adults, from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.
I can only physically handle three night shifts a week. Otherwise it’s not fair to my daytime kids. But it’s an on-call job and I don’t often get three shifts a week. Sometimes I don’t get any.
And I desperately need the money.
On March 7, 2010, my husband asked me to leave our home and changed the locks before I could get any of my belongings. I had no way of paying for an apartment and it was still too cold to stay in my car.
I stayed with friends here and there, or house-sat when I could. I lived in my car over the summer, with a cooler of food and a box of clothing. I showered at friends’ houses or at my work sites.
In September I found a small place to rent—a 10 feet by 12 feet cabin with no running water. My rent is $200 a month, plus fuel and electric. A living wage would help me afford a place with running water and maybe a bit more space.
As a social worker with a degree, yes, I probably could find a higher paying job. I used to be a case manager for a children’s mental health agency. But then my 11-year-old son died following an accident, and my whole world went dark. I couldn’t function. Mercifully, I got an offer to be a teacher’s aide for a very understanding educator who understood that I needed to leave the classroom sometimes to cry.
It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the students and the job. I’d found new purpose, and a new calling. It’s hard work, but I understand these children, and I am continually rewarded by them. I also receive a lot of respect from my students and my colleagues. Honestly, I need that.
I’m also the Chair of the Fairbanks Living Wage Campaign, fighting for a living wage not only for myself, but also for the many others struggling to support themselves and their families.
We all know we could probably get higher paying jobs, and some of the best Education Support Professionals are leaving to do just that. But high turnover makes an unstable environment for students, especially those with emotional problems like the ones in my classroom.
I choose to stay, and to fight for a living wage. It’s what we all deserve.