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Low pay isn't the only reason teachers are going on strike. Maryland, pay attention.

Our view: Low-pay isn’t the only reason teachers are going on strike — and Maryland needs to take heed

On television and across the Internet, Americans have watched in recent days as teachers in Oklahoma have left their classrooms behind to march on the state capital for higher salaries and better funding of education. These are familiar images. On Monday, teachers in Kentucky rallied in great numbers in Frankfurt. Last month, it was West Virginia where teachers went on strike for nine days — and won.

What’s got teachers so riled up? Many of their grievances relate to funding — not just their own pay and benefits (although that’s surely a problem in many states) but also in relation to the schools where they work and the resources they are given. They also want respect. And there are too many signs they aren’t getting much, from the way charter schools are pushed as a panacea in some states to the rise of standardized testing everywhere. While teachers have long been underpaid and overworked, they are sensing a shift in the cultural terrain, a diminishment in their professional status. It’s one thing to live on peanuts, it’s another to be seen as unworthy of those few shells.

It comes as no surprise that Oklahoma’s education spending, as measured on a per-pupil basis, is low: slightly more than $8,000 for each child, according to a 2015 federal survey. Only Idaho and Arizona spend less. By comparison, Maryland per-pupil education spending was $14,192 that same year, which is far better but still falls short of Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wyoming and the District of Columbia. Given that Maryland had the top median household income in the nation that year, the Free State is neither a leader nor a laggard in education funding, it’s closer to a B student.

Teachers are less likely to desert their classrooms and march on Annapolis because of B-level treatment, but they might be inclined to desert their profession. Within the preliminary report of the Kirwan Commission (formally known as the Maryland Commission on Innovation & Excellence in Education) issued in January are recommendations not only to raise teacher pay — to bridge the gap between what teachers and paid and what other “high-status” professionals earn — but to give far greater support to teachers in other ways, too. That would mean, for example, more opportunities for professional advancement and promotion, reforms in teacher licensing and preparation that can help attract high-performing high school students into education majors, more mid-career professional development and support such as peer assistance.

If school systems are going to demand excellence from teachers — and that should surely be the goal — they ought to be prepared to recognize and reward high achievement as well. Teachers aren’t just unhappy because they can’t make financial ends meet on current wages or are forced to pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets, but because they are doing these things while being publicly reviled by elected officials as impediments to student success or burdens on the tax base. In Maryland, teacher union representatives have been called “thugs” by Gov. Larry Hogan for criticizing the adequacy of pension funding.

Improvements in public education aren’t just some noble aspiration but an economic necessity. As the nationwide campaign for Amazon’s HQ2 expansion so aptly demonstrated, the region’s economic future is tied to the quality of its public schools. Education isn’t a luxury, it’s an investment in human capital. What’s worrisome is not that neglecting public education produces unhappy teachers who will gather at the state capital and express their concerns, it’s that it leads to an erosion in quality of life and in the region’s ability to attract prime employers in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. A Maryland site made Amazon’s list of finalists (as did those in a lot of other states with high-performing schools); Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia were shut out.

The key to education? Highly qualified and diverse teachers working in an effective environment and a governance system that is both fair and can be held accountable for performance is a good place to start. As the Kirwan Commission observed, Maryland needs to bring student performance up to meet global competition. Does anyone seriously believe the best way to get there is to shortchange schools and teachers to the point where they are crying out in pain?

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