Tari Smethurst is no less excited about walking into her fifth-grade classroom today than she was 14 years ago when she left upstate New York to teach in the Clark County School District. She loves the students at her eastside Title 1 elementary school (her principal requested that it not be named), and her passion for making a difference in their lives has only grown.
But recently she’s been wondering whether the district values that passion. In February, when negotiations between the district and the teachers union failed, the district retracted pay raises for educators who had earned higher degrees. Smethurst—one of more than 2,000 teachers who lost the continuing-education raise—recently spoke to us about her experiences and the plight of teachers in an age of tight budgets and political brinksmanship.
Teachers have gotten their share of criticism for fighting to preserve raises when the district is struggling. What does the issue look like from the teachers’ side?
In the 2009-10 school year, I was under a contract that told me I was going to get not only [automatic pay raises based on seniority], but also raises for educational advancement. So, in 2009, I began work toward a plus-32—that’s a master’s degree plus 32 additional hours. Mine was an online program at Walden University that cost approximately $30,000.
What kind of pay increase would that have meant?
Somebody in my situation was supposed to make $58,109 a year—an increase of $6,214—with the degree. I was going to get a raise that was enough to pay for my student loans, plus give me extra money.
Was that why you went back to school—for the extra money?
That’s part of it. I mean, everybody works for a paycheck. I want to provide for my daughters. But the other part was to be more effective as a teacher. When you do these degrees, you’re up on that latest research, and your teaching completely changes.
When did you find out you wouldn’t get the raise?
I was about 60 percent through my program when they began discussing it as a possibility. What would anyone do? You don’t pull out at that point. So, I finished. … When we signed our contract to teach this year, we signed knowing that negotiations were ongoing and it could all be taken away from us. … It’s a $600 a month cut, plus, my student-loan [payments] of about $400 a month have kicked in.
What would you have the district do?
OK, freeze our [seniority raises]. I understand everybody’s suffering. But I would never have enrolled in that college program if I thought I wouldn’t get the [continuing-education] raise. Nobody would. And the cut was so high. I mean, $100 a month, you cut here, you cut there. But $600 a month? I can’t absorb that. I’m a single mother.
In a field that exalts the value of education, pay raises for continuing education have been held up as a prime example of waste. What’s an educator to make of this?
At the beginning of this school year and last year, we were told to put up bulletin boards in our classrooms and display everywhere we went to college. We were supposed to share with our students where we went to college, talk to them about how important it is, how beneficial it is. … I pursued continuing education, and now I’m stuck. Should I tell my students that?