Perhaps the most interesting education policy development to this point in 2018 has been the walkouts by public school teachers in three states (Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia) that have resulted in thousands of schools being closed as teachers descended on statehouses to demand better pay. These job actions (which are technically not strikes in some states due to labor laws, but operate in the same way) have been fairly successful for teachers to this point. West Virginia teachers received a five percent pay increase to end their walkout, while Oklahoma teachers received a pay increase of about $6,000. Kentucky teachers had rather limited success, while Arizona is on the verge of a teacher walkout later this week.
Given the success of these walkouts in politically conservative states, it is reasonable to expect K-12 public school teachers in other states to adopt the same tactics to increase their salaries or education funding in general. But what might these walkouts mean for public higher education? I present four possible scenarios below.
Scenario 1: Future K-12 teacher walkouts are ineffective. It’s probably safe to say that legislators in other states are strategizing about how to respond to a potential walkout in their state. If legislators do not want to increase K-12 education spending and can maintain a unified front, it’s possible that protests die out amid concerns that closing schools for days at a time hurts students. In that case, expect no implications for public higher education.
Scenario 2: Public college employees join the walkout movement. Seeing the victories that K-12 teachers have scored, faculty and staff walk out at public colleges in an effort to secure more higher education funding. While this could theoretically work, public support is likely to be much weaker for colleges and universities than K-12 teachers. Republicans in particular now view college professors far more skeptically than Democrats, while the two parties view K-12 public schools similarly. So this probably won’t work too well in conservative states.
Scenario 3: Future K-12 teacher walkouts are effective—and paid for by tax increases. Oklahoma paid for its increase in teacher salaries by increasing taxes in a number of different areas, although teachers wanted a capital gains tax exemption to be eliminated. This probably reduces states’ ability to raise additional revenue in the future—which could affect public colleges—but the immediate effects on public colleges should be pretty modest.
Scenario 4: Future K-12 teacher walkouts are effective—and paid for by reducing state spending in other areas. This is the nightmare scenario for public higher education. Higher education has traditionally been used as the balancing wheel in state budgets, with the sector being the first to experience budget cuts due to the presence of tuition-paying students. Therefore, in a zero-sum budget game without tax increases, more K-12 spending may come at the expense of higher education spending. West Virginia paid for its teacher pay increase this year in part by cutting Medicaid spending, but don’t expect most states to take that path in the longer term.
To sum up, the higher education community should be watching the K-12 walkouts very closely, as they could affect postsecondary students and faculty. And there may end up being some difficult battles in tax-averse states between K-12 and higher education advocates about how to divide a fixed amount of funds among themselves.