- Over the course of the recent state legislative sessions, educators around the country won pay raises, defeated school privatization schemes, and made valuable connections with state legislators.
- When educators made their voices heard, it made the difference. They shared their stories with legislators, rallied, made calls, sent emails, and educated the public.
Public school educators in New Mexico took to the state capitol in Santa Fe earlier this year to rally for a sorely needed salary hike. Like much of the country, the state faced a growing teacher shortage crisis with more than 1,000 vacant teaching positions, and nearly 1,000 additional unfilled public school positions.
The Jan. 23rd “Rally at the Roundhouse”--so called because of the unique shape of the state capitol building--brought together hundreds of public school advocates determined to make their voices heard by their elected officials.
“A lot of educators told me this was the most uplifting thing they had done all year,” said NEA-New Mexico President Mary Parr-Sanchez. “They felt like no one was listening to them, so getting everyone out there and marching around the Roundhouse got us quite a bit of attention.”
NEA-New Mexico was one of dozens of NEA affiliates that worked hard for legislative victories, defeating the efforts of privatization advocates and radical ideologues looking to manufacture outrage over culture war issues.
New Mexico’s Pay Raise: No Desert Mirage
The Roundhouse rally was the most visible advocacy effort led by NEA-New Mexico, but the work began well before that day.
Beginning in 2021, NEA-New Mexico conducted a survey of members across the state to determine what educators needed to stay in the profession. This feedback helped NEA-New Mexico form its 2022 legislative priorities as well as a statewide organizing campaign centered on addressing those needs.
The affiliate collected two-minute testimonials geared toward policymakers that allowed individual members to tell their stories. It also included a series of local “art builds,” funded through an NEA grant, that allowed educators to create artistic banners and signs showing the importance of investing in public education.
These advocacy efforts came to fruition in February when the New Mexico legislature unanimously passed Senate Bill 1, which gave all school employees 7 percent raises and boosted the minimum tiered salaries for public school teachers. Set to take effect on July 1, the legislation increases the base pay for level-one teachers to at least $50,000, at least $60,000 for level-two teachers, and at least $70,000 for level-three teachers.
The pay raise is even more significant for educators in the Bernalillo Public Schools, where members were able to negotiate tiered raises of $6,000 for the district's educators prior to the bill’s passage. Jennifer Trujillo, the president of NEA Bernalillo, said these combined efforts are life-changing for her members.
"Some of the teachers in our district have part-time jobs, so when they leave school they have to go to another job,” Trujillo said. “What this means for them is that they can quit those second jobs and they can spend more time with their families.”
Public Education Wins Big in Statehouses Across the Country
In at least 19 states, educators mobilized to ensure the passage of bills giving teachers pay raises, additional pension funding, and expanded health insurance coverage, while also defeating legislation that would have limited what they could teach in the classroom, expanded voucher programs, and diminished their collective bargaining rights.
In Iowa, educators scored a massive win by defeating a school voucher program that would have diverted $55 million in public school funding to private school scholarships. Led by the Iowa State Education Association, members were able to effectively mobilize and stop House passage of the voucher scheme, which was one of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ top priorities for this year. Despite threats from the governor to support primaries against the Republicans that opposed the bill, at least 20 House Republicans joined Democrats in blocking the legislation.
Educators in South Carolina also scored twin victories, successfully lobbying in support of a pay raise for teachers while also defeating a major school voucher expansion. The South Carolina Education Association (The SCEA) has long fought for educators to receive a pay raise, and the recently passed $14 billion state budget does just that by raising teachers’ minimum salaries by $4,000. The SCEA also helped keep up the pressure on major voucher expansion legislation that would have used public school funding to send students to private schools. Although both legislative chambers in South Carolina passed separate versions of the legislation, educators and allies continued to voice their opposition to the legislation, which effectively died after a conference committee failed to reach agreement on the bill.
And in Idaho, educators won a raft of significant legislative victories for the profession. The heavily Republican Idaho Legislature approved seven percent pay raises for teachers and school employees, expanded health insurance coverage for educators, and passed an 11 percent increase in K-12 funding—the largest increase in funding for the state’s public schools in over a generation. State legislators also passed legislation strongly supported by the Idaho Education Association that incentivized educators to teach in rural schools, while also largely ignoring a host of dangerous policy recommendations from Lt. Gov. Janice Mc Geachin’s disturbingly named "education indoctrination task force." And legislators on the House Education Committee also voted down school voucher legislation that would have diverted public school funding to private schools.
These state-level victories were made possible by the tireless advocacy of educators, many of whom spent their precious free time speaking with their legislators, testifying before legislative committees, and rallying for pro-public school policies.
Mississippi Teachers Secure Largest Pay Raise in State History
After struggling to keep teachers in the classroom as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers in many states finally gave teachers long overdue raises this year.
One of the most significant pay bumps was secured in Mississippi, where educators advocated for legislation (House Bill 530) that raises teachers’ salaries by more than 10 percent—the largest pay raise in the state’s history.
The pay raise, which increases teachers’ annual salaries by an average of roughly $5,100 and includes $2,000 salary increases for teachers’ assistants, was made possible in large part by the tireless advocacy of the Mississippi Association of Educators (MAE). MAE worked to engage members early on in the legislative process, while also connecting them directly with state legislators to explain the benefits of the pay raise.
These efforts began just after the start of Mississippi's legislative session in January, when MAE hosted weekly virtual events focused on policy-based advocacy. Known as the “Power Hour,” the Tuesday night sessions outlined upcoming bills and then set aside time for members to contact their legislators about proposed legislation, including the teacher pay raise. At the end of the hour, members reported back regarding which legislators they connected with.
Erica Webber Jones, MAE’s president, said familiarizing members with the legislative process and making them comfortable about reaching out to their legislators early on paid dividends.
“This not only engaged our members, but it really helped them have ownership of all of the advocacy work we did around the teacher pay raise,” Jones said.
Educators in Mississippi were long in need of a salary increase. The state had one of the lowest teachers’ salaries in the nation, with first-year teachers in Mississippi earning, on average, $36,500 during the 2019-20 school year—an amount lower than many of the surrounding southern states. This low pay was pushing well-qualified teachers out of the profession, or forcing them to move to neighboring states to continue teaching with salaries they could live on.
To promote the importance of the pay raise, educators participated in rallies and conducted a media blitz to directly engage the public about the need for higher teacher salaries. MAE also hosted a special event that brought together educators and legislators after the association’s lobby day at the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson.
“Mississippi is known for its catfish, so we hosted the event in MAE’s parking lot and invited our members as well as our legislators to come out and enjoy catfish and blues,” Jones said. “Through that engagement, our members were able to talk with legislators before the pay raise bill came up for a vote.”
Suzanne Smith, MAE’s secretary-treasurer and a special education teacher who has been an educator for more than 30 years, said direct engagement with state legislators was critical to secure the raise and also serves as a foundation for future educator-legislator engagement.
“I want every child to have the opportunity to have the best education they can get,” Smith said. “And the only way that’s possible in a state like Mississippi is for us to be hands-on in engaging with our legislators.”
Despite not going into effect until July 1, the pay raise is already helping to keep Mississippi’s teachers from leaving the profession. George Stewart, the president of the Jackson Association of Educators, said one educator he spoke with was on the verge of moving to a neighboring state before the pay raise was signed into law. She’s now staying in the classroom in Mississippi.
“And I can’t even tell you how many parents and community members have come up and congratulated us about how well-deserved this pay raise was for all of us,” Stewart said.
Indiana Educators Defeat Bill Limiting Teaching of ‘Divisive Concepts’
When Indiana lawmakers proposed a school curriculum bill earlier this year that would have restricted classroom discussions about race, gender, and ethnicity, the state’s educators came together and used their collective voices to defeat this harmful legislation.
The legislation, House Bill 1134, aimed to ban the teaching of “divisive concepts” that purportedly cause students to feel discomfort or guilt on the basis of their "sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or political affiliation." The bill was inspired by right-wing agitators who stoke fear and spread disinformation about the teaching of race and history in the classroom. Public school detractors have been using misinformation about the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in public schools to crack down on any lesson plans that deal with race, equity, or inclusion.
Aware of the dangers that the misguided legislation posed to public schools across the state, the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) quickly mobilized to oppose the bill. Erin Braune, an English teacher in the Silver Creek School Corporation who just finished her 15th year of teaching, was one of the ISTA members who became actively engaged in the legislative fight.
Several years ago, Braune and a friend created a private Facebook group for educators and education support professionals in the state to use as an online space for collective action and collaboration. To push back against the bill, Braune used the Facebook group, which now has 20,000 members, as a way to mobilize concerned educators to rally outside the state capitol in Indianapolis as part of an ISTA-led “Pack the Statehouse” protest.
What was initially planned as a one-day event turned into almost four weeks of action at the state capitol. Every day that the legislature was in session, educators protested, met with legislators, and also submitted letters and postcards from members and constituents to let lawmakers know about the dangers of the bill. Braune and other educators also created videos on the Facebook group to help educate members about engaging with their legislators.
“A lot of our state lawmakers don’t necessarily realize what the bills they propose are going to look like when they’re applied in a school setting,” Braune said. “So part of what we did was just get them to realize that this goes against everything that educators know is best for their students.”
ISTA, in turn, challenged locals and districts across the state to send one or two members at a time to come to Indianapolis and protest the bill. Educators who couldn’t attend the rally pitched in by subbing for their colleagues who had gone to rally against the legislation. ISTA President Keith Gambill said that the committed effort from educators across the state made all the difference in defeating the bill.
“We stayed really focused on our message, which was that the history of our state and our country would be erased if this bill became law,” Gambill said. “And it was vitally important that this work took place because we want to approach teaching from an honest standpoint.”
After weeks of pushback from educators, parents, and community organizations, the Indiana Senate at the end of February killed the House bill (similar legislation in the Senate, Senate Bill 167, died earlier this year after that bill’s sponsor received significant criticism for saying it would require teachers to be impartial when teaching about Nazism).
Braune said the successful pushback against HB 1134 can serve as inspiration for educators in other states where ideologically driven legislators are attempting to pass legislation that would undermine public education.
“It’s all about making community connections, meeting with your school’s parent-teacher organization, and getting lawmakers to realize that educators are the experts in their field,” Braune said.
“There is a very vocal minority that wants to dismantle public education, but it’s not most people. So it’s about tapping into those community relationships and our own experiences to let legislators see that.”