NPR/Ipsos Poll: Most Americans Support Teachers' Right To Strike

Apr 26, 2018
Originally published on April 26, 2018 9:40 am

As the wave of teacher walkouts moves to Arizona and Colorado this week, an NPR/Ipsos poll shows strong support among Americans for improving teachers' pay and for their right to strike.

Just 1 in 4 Americans believe teachers in this country are paid fairly. Nearly two-thirds approve of national teachers' unions, and three-quarters agree teachers have the right to strike. That last figure includes two-thirds of Republicans, three-quarters of independents and nearly 9 in 10 Democrats.

"Our teachers have not been able to have raises for the last several years and I'm certain it's the same issue that's going on around the country," said Marla Hackett of Queen Creek, Ariz., who responded to the survey and said she has a daughter who is a teacher. "They are underappreciated, underpaid and they work ridiculously long hours."

Just over 1,000 Americans were surveyed in the second week of April, when teachers were marching in several mostly red states.

Arizona, where Hackett lives, is one of the latest states where teachers are walking off the job in protest of low pay and inadequate school funding, after Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia. Colorado teachers, too, have scheduled demonstrations, and schools are closing this Thursday and Friday.

In the NPR/Ipsos poll, a little less than two-thirds of the respondents said they had recently seen media reports on teacher unions.

Gloria Weathers, of Louisville, Ky., was personally affected by the walkout in that state. She said her daughter, a middle schooler, had been out of school for two Fridays. Nevertheless, she said, "The teachers are in the right for fighting for their pensions. I think most people support them. I think the governor of my state is in the wrong."

Despite broad support for the right to strike, the public's view of unions wasn't all roses. Just half of respondents overall agreed that "teacher unions improve the quality of education" and that "teacher unions improve the quality of teachers."

There were deep partisan divides on these two issues, with Democrats being far more favorable towards unions than Republicans, and independents in the middle. Marla Hackett said that in her community in Arizona, "we have really mixed feelings," over unions.

Another of the respondents, Angela Lee, of Baltimore, expressed qualified support for unions. "I only approve if the unions work toward the teachers getting the finances they need to support their families," she says. "If they're not doing that, it's a waste of time."

Lee, a mother of three public school graduates, said she had trained Baltimore public school teachers as an HIV educator, and many confided in her about being underpaid and even needing to rely on public assistance. "They're overworked and understaffed, if you ask me."

While sympathetic to the unions, 63 percent of respondents, including 53 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans, saw a drawback as well, agreeing with the statement "teacher unions make it harder to fire bad teachers."

Still, the 63 percent approval rating of "national teachers' unions" among the general public was 21 points higher than the approval expressed for "the U.S. Department of Education leadership."

That difference was driven by Democrats, 80 percent of whom approved of the unions, while just 37 percent supported the Department of Ed. Among Republicans, 55 percent expressed support for unions and 54 percent supported the Education Department.

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Teachers in Arizona and Colorado are joining a long list of educators around the country and walking off the job. Teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia, all protesting low pay and inadequate school funding. NPR's new national poll conducted with Ipsos shows broad support among Americans for these educators, in both blue and red states. For more on this, we turn to NPR Ed team's Anya Kamenetz. Hey, Anya.


MARTIN: Before we get to the poll, Anya, what more can you tell us about these latest strikes?

KAMENETZ: So teachers are walking out today statewide in Arizona. They're using the hashtag #RedforEd. The Governor Doug Ducey has already offered them a pay raise, but they're holding out for more, including more pay for support staff. Meanwhile in Colorado, more than half of the state's students have schools closed today and tomorrow for walkouts. Republican lawmakers introduced a bill that would be docking their pay and even giving them jail time.

MARTIN: Wow. All right. So let's get to this poll now. What was the central question? What were you trying to learn?

KAMENETZ: So our question was how is the public perceiving all of this, you know? And, personally, I'm a public school parent. How would I feel if schools were suddenly closed and they had to make child care plans on the fly? So with Ipsos, we surveyed people across the country, and what was interesting to us was since the teachers in West Virginia started walking off the job back in February, one thing has been notable, and that's that these teacher actions are happening mainly in Republican states. These states historically have not been known for being friendly to unions. In fact, each of these states, except Colorado, is a right to work state. That means people don't have to join unions to work at a union shop.

MARTIN: Right. So what did you end up finding in this poll?

KAMENETZ: Two-thirds of our respondents approve of national teachers unions, and 3/4 agree that teachers have the right to strike. And that figure includes 2/3 of Republicans, as well as 3/4 of independents and nearly 9 in 10 Democrats. And on top of that, they're sympathetic to the underlying issue. Just 1 in 4 of our respondents believes teachers are paid fairly, and that includes just 36 percent of Republicans who think so.

MARTIN: OK. So they're supportive of teachers getting a bump in pay. They're supportive of these walkouts. Does that mean that most of the people you polled are supporters of teacher unions?

KAMENETZ: Well, here the picture is more mixed. So just half of our respondents overall agreed that teacher unions improve the quality of education. And when we asked them whether teacher unions make it harder to fire bad teachers, 63 percent of respondents said they agree. And there was a partisan divide on both of those questions. So as much as people right and left both are sympathetic to the plight of teachers, they may not be feeling the same way about teacher unions. And this is interesting, I think, for what happens with these walkouts going forward because these victories and these walkouts, they're not necessarily coming only from the union.

MARTIN: So it's not just unions. So what is it?

KAMENETZ: Well, we're seeing a lot of grassroots organizing on social media. There's Facebook groups in a lot of these places, and even where unions represent a small proportion of teachers, like they do in Oklahoma, for example, there's a lot of teachers rising up to be heard outside the structure of the union.

MARTIN: All right. So what's the broader message here? I mean, we see all these different states where teachers are maybe not unionizing but definitely walking out en masse. Is it making a difference in any of these states?

KAMENETZ: I mean, we've seen, you know, pay increases go through. We've seen concessions being won. And there's a lot to be overcome when it comes to, you know, things like state budget amendments and other things that keep tax revenue down and sort of starve state services. So I think this is just kind of the beginning chapter of what may be a much longer fight.

MARTIN: All right. Lots to unpack there. NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Thank you so much, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.