(Reuters) - John-David Bowman, Arizona’s 2015 “Teacher of the Year,” considers himself lucky: he can do the job he loves without worrying about supporting his family because of his wife’s higher salary.
Jenny Vargas, an Oklahoma teacher and divorced mother of a 6-year-old daughter, said that after three years on the job she decided to leave her home state for a job in Kansas, where she can earn $8,000 more a year.
Her story is similar to those of thousands of teachers taking part in job actions in the past month in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Oklahoma over long-stagnant pay and school budgets.
Kentucky teachers are also objecting to new limits on the state’s underfunded public employee pension system. In Arizona, teachers have threatened job actions as they demand more spending on schools.
And problems could be brewing in the low-teacher pay states of North Carolina and Mississippi, according to Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The walk-outs are in states where largely Republican-controlled legislatures have cut funding for public schools, primarily as a means of cutting or at least holding the line on taxes.
Porter Davis, a founding member of Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, which seeks more transparent and fiscally responsible state government, said that rather than raising taxes, eliminating bureaucracy and waste would free money for education.
“We’re not going to fight with the teachers. That’s not our beef,” the former Republican state representative said in a telephone interview. “The answer is real structural reform ... with everything in government.”
Vargas, who teaches second grade in Tulsa, joined thousands of Oklahoma teachers who jammed the state Capitol in Oklahoma City this week. Others held sympathy rallies around the state.
They demanded lawmakers pass a tax package that would raise another $200 million for the state school budget to provide up-to-date books and other classroom materials. The protests continued on Wednesday.
“It was never my intention to leave the state of Oklahoma,” Vargas said in a telephone interview. Despite her love for her students, she laments that she made more per year working at Walmart as a student than she does teaching, and said she is moving to give her daughter a better life.
Oklahoma ranked 47th in spending per student, according to National Education Association data. Its average salary for a high school teacher is $42,460, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data.
Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist said few workers in Oklahoma have the generous packages enjoyed by teachers. He said news accounts about protests in Oklahoma and West Virginia focused almost entirely on pay while giving little attention to teachers’ public pensions, summers off and other benefits.
“If Oklahoma is like any other state, the pay for public workers is higher than that for private workers,” Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said in a telephone interview.
Bowman earns slightly over $50,000 a year for teaching social studies at a high school in Mesa, Arizona. He earns more than the $48,020 mean for the state, though that is below the $58,030 national median, according to the BLS.
Over his 11 years of teaching, pay raises have not kept pace with the cost of living in the fast-growing Phoenix area, Bowman said. Many of his colleagues wait tables, mow lawns or drive for ride-share services to make ends meet. He has boosted his pay with extracurricular assignments including coaching baseball, he said.
“I decided to teach because I felt it would be a job I could do for a couple of years and I could give back to my community,” Bowman said. “But I fell in love with the profession.”
He has been able to stay because his wife, a designer, earns considerably more than he does.
Education union leaders have warned that cuts in school spending across the country are scaring away future teachers.
A report last year by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University found that almost a quarter of the state’s teachers hired between 2013 and 2015 were no longer teaching after a year, while 42 percent of teachers hired in 2013 lasted no more than three years.
“We are at a crisis now where if you go to the colleges of education, every single one of them will tell you they are seeing a drop in the number of applicants,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association union.
Realizing that low wages will make it difficult for teachers to pay for the advanced degrees that the field requires, she added, “Parents are telling their sons and daughters, ‘Don’t become a teacher.’”
Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Barbara Goldberg in New York, additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington and Ben Klayman in Detroit; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Frank McGurty