California’s teachers are fighting for better schools

  • Sara-Hinkley
Sara Hinkley

In an extraordinary year for labor, California’s teachers have been at the center of a revitalized movement that has successfully demanded better working conditions, family-supporting wages, and a seat at the table for important educational decisions. The toll taken by the COVID-19 pandemic, the stress of working in an increasingly strained education system, persistent state underfunding, and inadequate salaries and staffing have all invigorated teachers’ unions to fight for their members and their students. In early December, the Legislative Analyst’s Office issued a stark estimate of the state’s fiscal situation heading into 2024-25, which means teachers will once again need to fight alongside families and students to stave off huge cuts in K-12 funding.

This fall, tens of thousands of teachers and school workers in Fresno and San Francisco won significant wage increases and more resources for their students. Both unions voted overwhelmingly to strike, but settled their contracts without walking out. These contract wins come on the heels of an Oakland teachers’ strike and Los Angeles educators’ solidarity strike with school workers last year and a Sacramento educator strike in 2022. Pre-pandemic strikes by Los Angeles and Oakland teachers that began the wave in 2019 included big wins for students, school staff, and the broader community.  Now, instructors at the California State University system are on strike for similar reasons.

Teachers’ willingness to strike represents not just a resurgence of union power, but also their determination to call attention to the dire consequences of decades of California’s underinvestment in K-12 education. The debate over K-12 education often frames school budgets as a zero-sum choice between teacher pay, student needs, and fiscal solvency. But this is a false tradeoff—the challenges facing California’s education workforce and its students have been fueled by the state’s persistently inadequate funding. The damage done by Proposition 13 property tax reform over the last 45 years has never been overcome—changes to the state’s formula for funding education have simply redistributed a pie that is too small.

As federal pandemic stimulus money runs out and state revenues decline precipitously, the structural inadequacy of California education funding is again jeopardizing the state’s students. Districts—which must adopt three-year budgets that show a minimum level of reserves—are threatening layoffs and program cuts even as they struggle to attract and retain qualified teachers and address persistent achievement gaps. These funding constraints come as the state should be investing more in education to address both the consequences of the pandemic disruptions and significant vacancy challenges across the state.

For years, California has ranked near the bottom of the nation in its investment in K-12 education when adjusted for cost of living. Teachers, parents, and community groups, anchored by the grassroots alliance California Calls, attempted to address this longstanding crisis with a 2020 proposition ballot measure to reform the state’s commercial property tax system. Unfortunately, voters very narrowly rejected the measure. The impacts of this underfunding on students are measurable: California’s high school graduation rate is 23rd in the nation despite having one of the lowest graduation requirements.[1] California students test well below the national average on standardized tests and have some of the largest average class sizes in the country. The state faces persistent inequities in education outcomes that affect future economic wellbeing: 20% of Black students and 15% of Latino students did not graduate high school in 2021.

This underfunding is one cause of persistently low pay for all school employees. Teachers across the country are underpaid relative to workers with similar levels of education and experience by an estimated 14%, and California is no exception. More than half of California’s teachers have at least a master’s degree, yet the average starting salary is just $51,600—low enough to qualify for a housing voucher in most parts of the state. The maximum earnings for teachers—most of whom stay in the classroom their entire careers—are also low relative to other college-educated workers. In 2021-22, the highest paid teacher in an average-size district earned about $105,000. Non-teaching staff are also underpaid relative to similar workers, and often work part-time, below the threshold for receiving health and retirement benefits.

As a consequence, districts are competing for a shrinking pool of qualified applicants. Education researchers have been sounding the alarm for years about impending teacher shortages as enrollment in credential programs declines and the workforce ages. Now, school districts across the country are struggling to attract and retain the staff needed to help students recover from the educational, social, and mental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Only 60% of districts started the 2022-23 school year fully staffed; 70% report significant challenges finding qualified candidates, especially in science, math, and special education. Districts must often fill positions with uncredentialed teachers who are more likely to end up in classrooms with already underserved students, exacerbating educational inequities. The last available year of California state data (2020-21) showed that nearly 20% of classroom teachers lacked the appropriate teaching credential. The difficulty in finding subs and the pressure to cover gaps in staffing both drive up teacher stress levels and workloads, further undermining our ability to attract and retain qualified teachers.

The largest state in the country must face the challenge of funding public schools head-on, if all California students are to receive a quality education and the economic benefits that come with it. Instead, teachers and their unions are left to fight these battles district by district. As we seem poised to enter a budget cycle dominated by school districts saying they have no choice but to pursue austerity measures, teachers continue to demand that we do better for our students and the people who educate them.

This blog is part of a new series on the challenges facing California’s public sector. Half of all union members in California work for a local, state, or federal government employer. Decades of austerity and funding cuts have led to challenging working conditions and deteriorating public services for Californians. We will explore how these trends affect the daily lives of workers and the people they serve.

[1] California is one of three states that require only two years of high school math.