In a recent op-ed, “The myths of the underpaid and overworked teachers in Pa,” the authors argue that because teachers make more than some workers in Pennsylvania, we should be prepared to take cuts. In reality, an enormous number of Pennsylvania’s workers, not just teachers, are underpaid and overworked, and none of us should be asked to take pay cuts.
As public school teachers, we see the realities of the underpaid and overworked every day. The United States has one of the highest rates of child poverty among developed nations, and in Pennsylvania, forty percent of children are growing up in low-income families. Almost all of them attend public schools. We know parents who care deeply about their children’s education but can’t help with homework or make it to conferences because they work two or three low-paying jobs. We know kids who are smart, curious, and passionate but cannot stay awake in school because they have too many responsibilities at home. The challenges of the working poor in Pennsylvania make it harder for our students to learn and harder for us to teach. We know Pennsylvania’s families deserve better, and that’s why we are fighting for more funding for public education as well as for housing and healthcare.
While some on the right suggest that teachers are getting a “sweet deal,” the numbers tell a different story. If teaching in Pennsylvania were such a sweet deal, we wouldn’t be facing a looming teacher shortage. The reality is that there aren’t enough qualified people who want to take on the social, intellectual, and financial challenges of our job.
The demands on teachers are higher than ever, especially in high-poverty areas like Philadelphia, Lancaster, Allentown, and Reading. In our classrooms, we address some of America’s most pressing issues—from poverty and homelessness to bullying and suicide to racial injustice in an increasingly diverse society. And like many Americans, teachers struggle under crushing student debt and often take on second jobs in order to make ends meet. Research has shown that countries that invest in teachers are able to build some of the best education systems in the world. Pennsylvania could attract talented teachers by making robust investments that would benefit students and teachers alike. Instead, our state ranks in the bottom five states in contributions to students’ education.
Demanding sacrifices from teachers will only hasten the demise of our already-shrinking middle class. Instead, Pennsylvanians should demand higher wages and a fairer system of taxation. Economic studies have shown that, over the past 40 years, working families across America have been taking home less and less of the wealth they help to produce. As the rich become richer, the middle class is shrinking. States like Pennsylvania exacerbate this trend with a regressive tax code that unfairly burdens the poor and middle class. Lower-income Pennsylvanians pay nearly three times as much of their income in taxes as higher-income residents (those making more than $426,000/year). The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy has ranked Pennsylvania as the 6th most unfair state tax system in the country. In other words, Pennsylvania’s poor and middle class families are already paying more than their fair share. When a stock market crash destroys pensions, we should not be the ones to take cuts.
As members of the Caucus of Working Educators, we refuse to take part in a race to the bottom. Blaming teachers—or any other group of workers—for Pennsylvania’s budgetary woes only leaves working families with a smaller and smaller piece of the pie. Instead, we stand with all of Pennsylvania’s working families in demanding fair economic policies and well-funded public schools in our state. We are proud to belong to a union caucus that fights not just for teachers, but for the students, the families, and the communities we serve.
Kathleen Melville and Steve Petro are Philadelphia teachers and members of the Caucus of Working Educators.