America’s teachers are getting significant pay raises from red state governors who are simultaneously bolstering parental rights in education and, in some cases, letting parents use their tax dollars for private schools.
It’s an unusual policy mix that gives Republican governors from Utah to Georgia a foothold on education issues that are popular with teachers and parents and, when it comes to pay increases, are typically dominated by Democrats.
“What you’ve got here is a potentially really effective package of empowering families, while at the same signaling that you’re taking care of educators and trying to give hard-working teachers deserved raises,” Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Washington Times. “You can argue that’s a really sensible and positive place for governors to be.”
Arkansas’ newly minted Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is the latest red state leader to offer such a package, following in the footsteps of Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Utah, Iowa and other states.
Last week, she unveiled a proposal to boost teachers’ annual minimum salaries from $36,000 to $50,000, a nearly 40% increase. The plan would also provide $2,000 pay raises to veteran teachers who are already earning $50,000 or more.
The Sanders plan links the pay hikes, as well as other funding for education reform, with a host of conservative education policy proposals.
Mrs. Sanders has issued an executive order banning Arkansas schools from teaching critical race theory, an analytical tool based on Marxist studies that has crept into the nation’s public school curriculum. It teaches students that race is a foundational element of American society and government, and is important in understanding and evaluating U.S. laws, policies and programs.
Mrs. Sanders’ plan would also create an “Education Freedom Account,” that would provide parents money to enroll their children in the school of their choice, including private and parochial schools, or homeschooling.
“This is the most substantial overhaul of our state’s education system in Arkansas history, and frankly, it couldn’t come soon enough,” Mrs. Sanders said, announcing the package in Little Rock on Feb. 8.
Mrs. Sanders announced her education proposal a little more than a week after Utah’s Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill providing public school teachers with a $6,000 pay increase. The same measure gives qualifying parents $8,000 to cover the cost of private school if they choose to leave the public system.
The bill, Mr. Cox said, “strikes a good balance” by adequately funding public education while giving parents “additional options to meet the needs of their families.”
In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has secured more than $2 billion in funding for teacher pay since 2020. He’s also led the nation in passing laws to ban critical race theory and the teaching of LGBTQ issues in schools.
Mr. DeSantis’ most recent education proposal seeks $200 million to hike teacher salaries, marking the third consecutive year he has addressed teacher compensation in his budget proposal.
This year’s pay hike proposal also takes a swipe at teachers unions.
The “teacher empowerment” package in Florida would rein in teachers unions, in part by banning them from automatically deducting union dues from paychecks. Union officials oppose the plan and say Florida teachers remain underpaid in spite of the consecutive pay increases.
The state ranks ninth in starting salaries for teachers, and 48th for average teacher pay.
Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar told The Times that the state’s low average pay and the governor’s curriculum policies, which now include an effort to rid classroom books of sexualized or racially divisive content, are hurting public education and leading to teacher shortages in the state.
“It is actually policy on pay and policy on what happens in our schools that are driving people out of the profession,” Mr. Spar said.
But Mr. DeSantis, who is eyeing a 2024 presidential campaign, is implementing education policies that are popular with battleground state voters, a poll found last July.
The survey, commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers, showed likely voters in Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin strongly favored candidates who believed school should focus on teaching core subjects and not issues concerning race. In the same poll, voters by double digits opposed teaching LGBTQ issues to students in kindergarten through third grade.
Mr. DeSantis last year banned schools from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with K-3rd grade students, drawing backlash from the teachers unions, Democrats and LGBTQ advocates.
The criticism has not stopped other governors from following his lead. Mrs. Sanders’ education bill would also prohibit the practice.
In deep-red Mississippi, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in March signed the largest teacher pay raises in decades, lifting salaries by an average of $5,100, or about 10%.
The governor is now asking state lawmakers to pass a “parents’ bill of rights” that would let parents review school curricula and opt their children out of sex education lessons. The governor’s plan would also ban policies that force teachers to use a student’s transgender pronouns.
“There is no room in our schools for policies that attempt to undercut parents and require the usage of pronouns or names that fail to correspond with reality,” Mr. Reeves said.
His proposal comes a year after Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp introduced a similar parental rights measure. Mr. Kemp signed his proposal into law two months later, along with legislation banning “obscene materials” from school libraries and “divisive concepts and ideologies” from school curriculum.
Mr. Kemp has provided teachers with a $5,000 pay raise during his first term in office. Reelected in November by a margin of more than 7 points, Mr. Kemp is proposing an additional $2,000 pay hike in 2023 for public school teachers and additional funding to help increase the number of public school teachers.
Spokesman Garrison Douglas described Mr. Kemp’s dual approach to education policy.
“To continue to grow our workforce, we need to ensure that our students have the resources that they need,” Mr. Douglas said. “And in that process, the governor has always believed in ensuring parents have a voice in their children’s education and that the government is not just indoctrinating our children.”