Larry Cagle is angry. At 54 years of age, he makes $34,500 a year teaching critical-reading skills to public high-school students in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “I do construction and lawn maintenance in the summer” to make ends meet, he said. “I moved here from Florida five years ago, and in Florida I made $25,000 a year more.”
He talked about the number of public-school teachers he knew working second jobs on nights and weekends, flipping burgers or hauling luggage at the airport. Teachers digging into their own pockets to pay for students’ basic needs and classroom supplies. Teachers living in cars, taking out loans, panhandling for more money, struggling to pay their own bills. “My school is one of the highest-performing schools in the state,” he said, estimating that two in three of the teachers he had worked with in the past half decade had left for other jobs or retired. “These are primary positions, not ancillary positions. This is math, science, foreign language, arts, history. We had two teachers who just walked out [and quit] recently.”
The successful two-week-long strike of public-school workers in West Virginia—as well as the imminent strike of teachers in Oklahoma, led by grassroots activists, including Cagle—has thrown into relief the financial difficulties that thousands of education professionals face. Yet those difficulties are not unique to those two states. Despite the perception that educator jobs are unionized, pay decently well, and are guaranteed-tenure, hundreds of thousands of American teachers have seen their wages and benefits erode in recent years, more so than for many other types of workers.