The Real Source of Teachers’ Struggles

Striking teachers in West Virginia recently made headlines in their efforts to increase their pay and benefits, which are among the lowest in the country. Teachers in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky have followed suit with similar protests. The dominant narrative, pushed by Democrats and their allies in the labor movement, presents these protests as part of a larger struggle between underpaid educators and miserly state Republicans more concerned with cutting taxes than with investing in children. While politically convenient, this story is largely a red herring distracting us from the real reason teachers in West Virginia and elsewhere are currently underpaid and unlikely to see substantial pay increases any time soon.

The problem is fiscal capacity. This is the ability of governments to raise enough revenues for the provision of basic public goods. Some states have greater total taxable resources (income, wealth, natural resources, etc.) than others. Typically, social scientists discuss fiscal capacity in regard to the inequality that results from the ability of rich suburbs to spend more on education than poor urban areas. While reformers have made great strides in reducing the disparities between urban and suburban school spending, they have paid almost no attention to disparities among states. It is impossible to address the teachers’ grievances without addressing limited fiscal capacity among poor states.

Comparing West Virginia and New Jersey helps us understand the underlying problem. Each state dedicates the same proportion of its resources to spending on education salaries and benefits — about 3.5 percent of its GDP. In other words, they are putting in the same effort. …

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