Unionized Or Not, Teachers Struggle To Make Ends Meet, NPR/Ipsos Poll Finds

May 2, 2018
Originally published on May 3, 2018 12:03 am

More than 9 in 10 teachers say they joined the profession for idealistic reasons — "I wanted to do good" — but most are struggling to some extent economically.

Those findings come from a nationally representative survey by NPR and Ipsos of more than 500 teachers across the country. The poll was conducted in April amid widespread walkouts in several states, including Colorado, Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia, and currently Arizona.

While the story in each state is a little different, calls for better compensation and more school funding are common, as is the mood — fed up.

We wanted to gauge how widely these sentiments are shared.

Here's what we found:

  • To make ends meet, 59 percent of teachers have worked a second job.
  • 46 percent have run up debt to make ends meet, and 36 percent have done so in the last year.
  • More than 8 in 10 have bought school supplies with their own money.
  • And 69 percent say they've devoted time in the past year to helping students, even when not on the clock.

"I've done tutoring, I've done babysitting, I've cleaned houses, at one point, I did some office cleaning in the evenings," Dayna Smith, a high school English teacher in Gilbert, Ariz., tells NPR in an interview. "I think all teachers at one point or another have done that."

In addition to looking at teachers' everyday economic struggles, we looked at the role of unions in their lives.

One might assume that with teacher walkouts in the news day after day, that the national teachers unions, like the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, would be growing in membership and reputation and gaining political capital going forward.

But they don't get all the credit for what is happening.

In fact, most of the teacher uprisings, with the exception of Colorado, have taken place in right-to-work states, meaning employees do not have to pay dues to a union to be in a workplace covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

In these states, as you might guess, unions tend to be smaller and have less power. Teachers have organized within unions and also outside them, using social media and other means. And they've often used sick days and other leave to walk out, instead of technically going on strike.

"This is not a union strike," Larry Cagle, of the grass-roots organization Oklahoma Teachers United, told NPR.

A little fewer than half of the teachers in our sample belong to a union. This is representative of the teaching workforce nationwide. And what we found was that, not surprisingly, nonunion teachers had lower opinions of organized labor.

  • Fully 90 percent of unionized teachers said they "approve" of their local teachers' union. Just 44 percent of nonunion teachers approved.
  • Just half of nonunion teachers approved of national teachers' unions and just 36 percent liked their state teachers' union leadership; three-quarters of unionized teachers approved of both.

Eva Shultz, a fifth-grade teacher in New Haven, Conn., and an AFT member, responded to our poll. "I really appreciate my union — they really do have teachers' backs," she told NPR in an interview.

We asked teachers whether they believe public school teachers have the right to strike, and 82 percent of our respondents agreed. That number included 81 percent of nonunion teachers, and was higher than the general public we polled last week.

But Smith, the Arizona English teacher, stayed at home while thousands of teachers marched through Phoenix last week. She agrees with the reasons behind the strike in her state — but says, "My problem is that we're public employees. We're not hurting a nameless, faceless corporation. We're hurting the people we're supposed to be here to serve."

Schultz, in Connecticut, supports the teachers who are walking out — but, she says, "It shouldn't have had to get to that point for these teachers to be heard." And she said, "it's going to be difficult for those students."

Just 47 percent of nonunion teachers approve of how their local union handles issues like negotiating salaries and benefits. And just 42 percent approved of their advocating for teachers in politics.

When it came to the impact of unions on education in general?

  • 77 percent of unionized teachers agreed that teachers unions improve the quality of education.
  • Just 49 percent of nonunionized teachers felt the same way.

Finally, we asked nonunion teachers whether they would like to join a union. Just 19 percent said unequivocally yes.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Teachers in this country are fired up.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHERS: (Singing) We're not going to take it. No, we aren't going to take it.

KELLY: That is from a teacher walkout in Oklahoma last month. Today, schools in Arizona are closed because teachers are on strike there. We've also seen walkouts recently in West Virginia, in Colorado, in Kentucky. A new NPR and Ipsos poll of teachers from around the U.S. shows most of them support teachers' right to strike. The poll also finds that 59 percent of teachers have had to work a second job at some point to make ends meet.

NPR's Anya Kamenetz is here with more about these poll results. Hey there.


KELLY: So 59 percent of teachers - that's kind of amazing for having to work a second job on top of teaching.

KAMENETZ: Yes. And again, this is a representative sample of teachers from all 50 states. And on top of that, almost half said they had to run up debt to pay the bills, and most said they had at some point worked a second job. One of them who told us this was Dayna Smith, a 15-year veteran high school English teacher in Gilbert, Ariz. And she talked to our producer Clare Lombardo.

DAYNA SMITH: I've been tutoring. I've done babysitting. I've cleaned houses. At one point, I did some office cleaning in the evening.

KAMENETZ: And of course that's on top of the demands of the job itself. More than three quarters of teachers told us they'd help students outside of school hours. And more than 8 in 10 had bought school supplies out of their own pockets.

KELLY: Wow. So does - do those numbers help explain some of the support that you're finding, that this poll is finding among teachers for these teacher strikes?

KAMENETZ: Yeah, I think so. You know, 4 out of 5 of these teachers told us they're at least somewhat supportive of the right to strike for teachers, and that's a little bit higher than the general public. However, these feeling are nuanced. I mean, teachers feel a real sense of responsibility, I think, towards their students. So Eva Schultz, who's a fifth grade teacher in New Haven, Conn., told us...

EVA SCHULTZ: I see the long-term goal. But short-term, I think it's going to be difficult for those students.

KAMENETZ: And Smith, our teacher in Arizona, felt the same way. In fact, we reached her during the walkout, and she wasn't on the picket lines. She said she was very sympathetic to the cause, but...

SMITH: My problem is that we're public employees, and we're not hurting a nameless, faceless corporation. We're hurting the people we're supposed to be here to serve.

KELLY: That's interesting to hear, and I wonder if - Anya, if you can put this in context for us in terms of what may be coming next, where we are in the arc of these strikes and walkouts.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, so, you know, a little less than half of teachers nationwide are actually in a union. And most of these walkouts have occurred in right-to-work states where unions are smaller and weaker. And so with so much of this organizing happening grassroots, over social media, it really raises the question of whether there's enough political structure in place to keep this movement rolling.

KELLY: All right, thanks, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thank you.

KELLY: Anya Kamenetz with NPR's Ed team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.