After decades of largely ineffective attempts by American teachers to raise salaries and improve teaching conditions, American teachers have changed their ways. In 2018, they were organizing, striking, or simply leaving the profession.

Until recently, polarized state governments have been unable or unwilling to address the problem. Parents are often unaware of the seriousness of the crisis, which could leave many American students without access to an effective education.

A History of Decline

Teachers’ salaries have been declining for years — in some states by as much as 15 percent from 2000 through 2017. This isn’t widely understood, because the decline has been in constant dollars rather than through actual pay cuts. In other words, the salaries may have remained the same, but the purchasing power of that salary has declined because of inflation.

This constant dollar decline is in addition to a very longstanding gap between the salaries of teachers and other college graduates. Teachers in Arizona, for example, make about 63 percent of the average graduate with a B.A.

Limitations on Unionizing

Teachers are also limited in several ways when it comes to organizing through the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the largest and most effective teachers’ union. In part, this limitation is a byproduct of a larger struggle between capital and labor over workers’ rights.

Legislation has made teachers’ unions illegal in five states (North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Georgia and Virginia). Right-to-work laws in 23 more states make unionizing difficult. A 2018 Supreme Court decision limiting the rights of unions to spend money on political activities has further hampered union organizing.

The Historical Consequences

Teachers’ inability to effectively organize to achieve higher wages is only part of the story. Almost all teachers also feel powerless to improve working conditions and believe their profession lacks both support and respect.

Emphasis on "teaching to the test" has further eroded working conditions for most teachers, many of whom view the current educational system as "punitive and abusive." Tellingly, 94 percent of U.S. teachers spend their own money to buy their students’ necessary school supplies.

Until 2018, the result of low salaries and bad working conditions has been high teacher dropout rates and early retirements, leaving many schools understaffed, particularly with the experienced teachers needed to support and mentor new staff. This has been particularly true for teachers in the lowest income school districts, where the teacher dropout rate is 50 percent higher than in the most affluent schools.

The connection between state laws limiting or prohibiting teachers from organizing for higher wages and better working conditions and subpar educational outcomes is strikingly direct. Four of the five states where teachers’ unions are illegal have the lowest SAT/ACT rankings. The fifth, Virginia, ranks 44th.Test scores for American students rank 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science.

A Year of Change

2018 has been a fateful year for teachers, when many thousands responded to low salaries and unsatisfactory working conditions simply by walking off the job. While the consequences aren’t fully known, there are signs that state governments realize the current low tax-low teacher salary environment isn’t tenable.

The Arizona walkouts culminated in most teachers getting a 20 percent pay raise. Similar walkouts also resulted in higher salaries in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Colorado.

In early 2019, it’s not known whether this recent activism among teachers will spread and result in real change, lowering the teacher dropout rate and improving educational outcomes for U.S. students.

Relevant statistics showing increasing teacher shortages and dropping teacher preparation enrollments support the idea that the crisis has become sufficiently acute to force state governments to improve salaries and working conditions. If they do not, the present crisis in American education will almost certainly worsen.