It’s widely understood that the results of Kentucky’s most recent gubernatorial election was effectively determined by the commitment of each candidate, in word and in action, to ensuring high-quality public education and fair teacher compensation. Former Governor Matt Bevin—most infamous for his policy attacks on public welfare programs, including the passage of a bill that inequitably reimagined teacher pension plans—narrowly lost the November 2019 race to incumbent Governor Andy Beshear. In a deep-red state that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 by a 30-point margin, the collective shift of the commonwealth’s voters towards Democratic statewide leadership is worthy of attention, particularly in anticipation of this November’s general election results. Kentucky voters have demonstrated that securing equitable public education transcends party-affiliations, and electorates across the country are beginning to reach the same conclusions.

In 2018, teachers all across the country took to the streets, entered boardrooms, and flooded the halls of their local and state governmental buildings demanding funding increases for educational resources and fair compensation for school staff members. From West Virginia to Oklahoma, Colorado to Hawaii, and many other states in between, these protests were broadcasted widely across news and social media platforms, accompanied with the hashtag #RedforEd. In Arizona, where lawmakers cut per-student funding by 36.6 percent between 2008 and 2015, teachers demonstrated their critical role in the everyday demands of public education by organizing a six-day strike in 2018 of approximately 75,000 educators—what is believed to be the largest educator walkout in history. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed the #20by2020 plan into law that year, “providing a 20 percent boost in teacher pay over the next three years and a significant increase in flexible dollars to Arizona schools for new textbooks, technology, infrastructure, and support staff.”

While the RedforEd movement brought about several successful legislative responses, such as five percent salary raises in West Virginia and 6.2 percent increases in North Carolina, it’s necessary  to understand why public school teachers, administrators, and staff members deserve a more demonstrative show of respect from school boardroom executives and elected officials in the first place. When decision-making entities at the state-wide and local levels display their lack of priority for this essential public service through the passage of education funding decreases, the negative impacts are compounded for students and school systems that continue to grapple with generational poverty. 

According to Bay Area native Josephine Cureton ‘24, “San Francisco living costs are through the roof,” and “the majority of [her] teachers don’t live in San Francisco proper.” Cureton serves on the San Francisco Youth Commission, a chartered local government body advising elected officials and city departments on the unmet needs of San Francisco youth. In an interview with The Politic, she spoke about the experiences of some public school teachers in the greater San Francisco Bay Area community. Cureton described that the price of housing within city limits surpasses that which a primary or secondary school teacher can afford—as a result, these educators, on average, commute times of up to two hours to make it to their places of work.

Unfortunately, fears of housing and financial insecurity are causing many to steer clear of the teaching profession. People who enter college from historically underserved backgrounds tend to be low-income and are often the first generation in their family to receive a complete higher-educational degree. The promise of social mobility that accompanies post-secondary education often innately rules out occupations with lower starting-salaries, and right now, teaching in public schools is not a profession balanced in opportunity cost. Often times, the income that a first-generation student receives is invested into their immediate and extended families who are trapped in living circumstances plagued by generations of poverty and systemic discrimination. This is yet another modern-day manifestation of various 20th century federal policies, like redlining and housing discrimination, which are now recognized as historical wealth inequality that predominantly negatively impact Black and Brown communities and their access to public welfare, education, and healthcare resources.

The deeper issue here is the fact that, quite inherently, people from generationally-affluent backgrounds are able to pursue the teaching profession because their families and communities will not be as dependent on the educator-hopeful’s income. When students from low-income, historically marginalized backgrounds go to elementary, middle, and high schools where few, if any, teachers are able to relate to such an upbringing, those students begin to internalize a sense of displacement. Seth Gershenson, a public policy professor at American University, was quoted in a Washington Post article saying, “Representation absolutely matters and it matters for…almost every educational outcome you can think of.” The Post analyzed data from schools in 46 states and Washington D.C. and found only seven percent of Black students “were enrolled in a district where the share of teachers matches or exceeds that for students.” For Asian Americans, the rate was 4.5 percent, and for Latinx students, just a tenth of one percent. In contrast, 99.7 percent of white public school students attended schools where their teacher’s racial identities reflected their own. 

At face value, legislation that negatively targets teacher salaries is individually detrimental at best, and systemically harmful at worst. It’s imperative that policy-makers tangibly represent to this generation’s educators and generations to come that their careers are among the most transformative in any given society. Without attentive teachers that serve as a positive reflective presence in their students’ lives, today’s youth will have greater difficulty understanding the personal and social value of pursuing higher education and relating it to their perceived potential. 

With this in mind, voting advocates of equitable public education and welfare programs into office and demanding that pro-educator policies be passed at the local, state, and federal level are some of the most effective ways to ensure our nation’s educators are not disenfranchised of fair compensation. In doing so, we also prevent the cyclical impacts of generational inequity tied to the imbalanced representation of teachers of color in school systems. The sooner we begin to recognize the interconnected nature of the inequities that persist in America’s public schools, and the more fervently we begin to advocate for intersectional progress in every facet of our educational system, the closer we become to leaving public education, this invaluable platform of social mobility, better than we found it.

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