'It's Our Time': Maryland Teachers March for School Funding
Thousands of educators and parents clad in red marched through the Maryland state capital on Monday evening, waving protest signs with slogans like, "The Time Is Now," "Fund Our Schools," and "Schools Just Want to Have Funds."
The purpose of the march, estimated to be the largest in downtown Annapolis in nearly a decade, was to urge legislators to increase school funding by $325 million for fiscal year 2020 and by $750 million in fiscal year 2021. That proposal—which has been introduced by Democratic leaders in the state House—would include money to provide a 1.5 percent average teacher pay raise and expand services for at-risk learners. These are recommendations from a statewide commission studying how to best improve Maryland's public schools.
Teachers and parents marching said they can't wait any longer for an investment into schools. They pointed to stagnant pay, dilapidated school buildings, unwieldy class sizes, and a lack of mental health resources for at-risk students.
"We're trying to do the best we can, but I'm sick of being told there's no money," said Josh Halpren, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher in Silver Spring, Md.
He teaches in a school building that was built in 1951 and hasn't been renovated since the 1970s. "It's falling apart," he said, with classroom doors that don't lock, finicky air conditioning units, and instances of sewage backing up in the hallway.
Erika Meijer, a middle school health teacher in Prince George's County, said she had to wait two years to get five lightbulbs replaced in her classroom. Her colleague Patrick Wilborn, a 9th grade U.S. history teacher in the county, said he had to wait four or five months to get a new projector—and the replacement was a used projector that was five years older.
"We don't have basic resources ... for our students to have what they need," Meijer said.
Maryland spends $13,075 per student, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis adjusted for regional differences. That's slightly above the national average of about $12,500.
Still, educators say school spending varies widely by counties. And according to a 2016 study by consultants to Maryland's education department, public schools in the state are annually underfunded by $2.9 billion. The consultants calculated that amount by asking Maryland educators what they would need to help their students achieve, and then studying how much those strategies would cost.
Many teachers pointed to the need for more school counselors, saying that students today require more trauma-informed services and social supports. Kendra Lee, a counselor in Howard County, said she and one other counselor serve 715 students at their school. It's not enough, she said, and is much higher than the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association.
With additional counselors at school, Lee said she would be able to give more students individual attention, and be "less reactive and more proactive."
Reducing class sizes was another rallying cry for teachers. Chris Wilhelm, an English-as-a-second language teacher, said some of his colleagues have upwards of 30 students in a class, and teach several classes a day. That makes it nearly impossible to build meaningful relationships, he said.
"Every year, we're fighting to make sure our classes are small enough to give kids the attention they need," he said.
Higher Teacher Pay
Teachers were also marching for higher wages. The average teacher salary in Maryland is $68,357, according to the National Education Association. That's higher than the national average of $59,660.
But Melanie Conopask and Tilly Coyle, teachers in Anne Arundel County, said their district froze teacher pay during the Great Recession in 2008. Since then, the district has not funded step increases to bring veteran teachers up to where they should be on the pay scale.
Conopask said teachers are leaving the county or the profession altogether. And Coyle added that members of her school's staff couldn't attend the evening march because they were working another job.
Katherine Luettgen, a music teacher at an early childhood education center for students with special needs in Prince George's County, said she has five side jobs, in addition to teaching and going to graduate school. Her husband is also a special education teacher.
"It's hard to live and teach in Maryland," she said. "We love to teach, but we worry: Is it sustainable? We feel like we spend all day with other people's children, but can we afford to have our own?"
She said they've both considered leaving the profession.
Shae Savoy, a high school English and creative writing teacher in Baltimore County, said she has two master's degrees and still barely makes enough to pay her bills some months. She held a sign at the march that said, "Damn those rich teachers and their '98 Camrys."
Seeing thousands of teachers clamoring for more resources "feels exhilarating," Savoy said.
"There's no way we can be stopped if we stand in solidarity," she said, adding that it feels like Maryland teachers "are on the precipice of great change."
This is the first large-scale protest by Maryland teachers in a year of nationwide teacher activism. Cheryl Bost, the president of the Maryland State Education Association, said she doesn't see a statewide work stoppage or strike on the radar here. Right now, she said, legislators seem receptive to making an increased investment in public education. One of the goals of Monday's march, she said, was to put pressure on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
About 1,500 miles away in Texas, teachers rallied at the state Capitol for increased school funding on Monday, too. The protest was part of the American Federation of Teachers' campaign "Fund Our Future," which is calling for increased federal and state investment in public education. Most schools were closed for spring break, so it was not a work stoppage. (While the Maryland rally was organized separately from the Fund Our Future campaign, AFT does represent a few local unions in the state, including the Baltimore Teachers Union.)
However, last week, at least four school districts in Kentucky—including the state's largest—were forced to close because of a high volume of teachers calling in sick to protest several education-related bills at the legislature. That was the third time this spring that Kentucky districts have had to close because of an orchestrated sick-out.
Marietta English, the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said educators across Maryland have been inspired by the Red For Ed movement around the country. Teachers are ready to fight for what they need, and for what their students need, she said.
"We think it's our time. It's our time for our voices to be heard," she said. "We have been silent for some time."
Images by Kaitlyn Dolan/Education Week