Teachers participating in walkouts deserve better pay and greater authority. They shouldn’t have to take part time jobs to make ends meet.
Funding for New York City public schools was inadequate. Teachers had gone years without a raise and were badly underpaid, which made attracting and retaining great teachers difficult. Indeed, in 2002, thousands of teachers in New York City were not certified.
We agreed that the status quo was not acceptable. Graduation rates had hovered around 50% for two decades, and the system was plagued by patronage, dilapidated buildings, insufficient supplies and dysfunctional management.
We had very different ideas about how to improve the schools. That’s the nature of labor-management relations. But our negotiations were guided by a shared principle: Teachers are valuable professionals deserving better pay and greater authority in exchange for greater accountability.
The first contract we negotiated included a substantial raise, a longer school day and greater responsibilities for teachers. In subsequent contracts, we further increased salaries across the board, with senior teachers earning more than $100,000, and extended school time for tutoring struggling students and professional development. We also addressed long-standing complaints — making the often lengthy due process procedures for disciplining teachers more fair, transparent and streamlined; ending the frequent reassignment of new teachers from school to school; and giving principals more autonomy in hiring decisions.
These and other changes helped decrease the number of uncertified teachers, reduce new-teacher attrition, improve student achievement, and create confidence in the promise and potential of New York City’s public schools. By 2013, August graduation rates had risen 20 percentage points since 2002. Of the top-performing elementary and middle schools on the state’s Common Core exams, 22 of 25 were city schools, compared to zero when we started. The city’s schools, viewed as gems in earlier generations, started regaining their luster, and we both were proud of their progress.
Meanwhile, the city’s education budget more than doubled, far outpacing spending by the state and federal governments, and teachers’ base pay increased 43% between 2002 and 2008. And that’s as it should be; teachers play an essential role in our society, and their wages and benefits must reflect that.
Great teachers are critically important to raising student achievement. When Bloomberg Philanthropies looks for school systems around the country to support, one of the factors it examines is teacher salaries. Districts that refuse to pay their teachers adequately aren’t well-positioned to raise student achievement levels.
Teacher salaries vary widely by district and state, but in too many places, teachers are grossly underpaid compared with comparable professionals — a gap that is widening. Before the walkout in West Virginia, starting teachers there made $31,000, with median pay at only $45,000. Teachers in some other states — including Oklahoma, where teachers are now walking out — make even less.
Professionals who have earned college and graduate degrees and do the essential work of educating our children should be able to live a middle-class life — not have to take second jobs or go on public assistance to care for their families. If we want smart, talented and ambitious college graduates to enter the teaching profession — and if we want our children to be able to compete in the global economy — we have to offer salaries that make the profession attractive.
Over the years, we debated, sometimes fiercely, how best to improve public schools, including whether to create community schools, the role of public charter schools, data and standardized testing, and how to fix chronically struggling schools. Neither of us ever got as much as we wanted. But by recognizing that New York City’s public schools would gain from the mayor and the head of the teachers union talking, listening and compromising, we made real and sustainable progress for our kids.
The same principle applies nationwide. Public education is fundamentally a local matter, and states and districts reap what they sow. The federal government can push and prod, but it is up to districts and states — with labor and management working together, bargaining collectively and engaging with community — to drive long-term, sustainable change.
As educators across the country demand better pay and better learning and teaching conditions, elected officials have an extraordinary opportunity to sit down with them to discuss changes that are good for kids, are fair to teachers and benefit communities. That’s the only way we’ll be able to give America’s children the knowledge and skills they need to pursue their dreams.
Michael Bloomberg is the former mayor of New York City. Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
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