As the wave of teacher walkouts moves to Arizona and Colorado this week, an NPR/Ipsos poll shows strong support among Americans for improving teachers' pay and for their right to strike.
Just 1 in 4 Americans believe teachers in this country are paid fairly. Nearly two-thirds approve of national teachers' unions, and three-quarters agree teachers have the right to strike. That last figure includes two-thirds of Republicans, three-quarters of independents and nearly 9 in 10 Democrats.
"Our teachers have not been able to have raises for the last several years and I'm certain it's the same issue that's going on around the country," said Marla Hackett of Queen Creek, Ariz., who responded to the survey and said she has a daughter who is a teacher. "They are underappreciated, underpaid and they work ridiculously long hours."
Just over 1,000 Americans were surveyed in the second week of April, when teachers were marching in several mostly red states.
Arizona, where Hackett lives, is one of the latest states where teachers are walking off the job in protest of low pay and inadequate school funding, after Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia. Colorado teachers, too, have scheduled demonstrations, and schools are closing this Thursday and Friday.
In the NPR/Ipsos poll, a little less than two-thirds of the respondents said they had recently seen media reports on teacher unions.
Gloria Weathers, of Louisville, Ky., was personally affected by the walkout in that state. She said her daughter, a middle schooler, had been out of school for two Fridays. Nevertheless, she said, "The teachers are in the right for fighting for their pensions. I think most people support them. I think the governor of my state is in the wrong."
Despite broad support for the right to strike, the public's view of unions wasn't all roses. Just half of respondents overall agreed that "teacher unions improve the quality of education" and that "teacher unions improve the quality of teachers."
There were deep partisan divides on these two issues, with Democrats being far more favorable towards unions than Republicans, and independents in the middle. Marla Hackett said that in her community in Arizona, "we have really mixed feelings," over unions.
Another of the respondents, Angela Lee, of Baltimore, expressed qualified support for unions. "I only approve if the unions work toward the teachers getting the finances they need to support their families," she says. "If they're not doing that, it's a waste of time."
Lee, a mother of three public school graduates, said she had trained Baltimore public school teachers as an HIV educator, and many confided in her about being underpaid and even needing to rely on public assistance. "They're overworked and understaffed, if you ask me."
While sympathetic to the unions, 63 percent of respondents, including 53 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans, saw a drawback as well, agreeing with the statement "teacher unions make it harder to fire bad teachers."
Still, the 63 percent approval rating of "national teachers' unions" among the general public was 21 points higher than the approval expressed for "the U.S. Department of Education leadership."
That difference was driven by Democrats, 80 percent of whom approved of the unions, while just 37 percent supported the Department of Ed. Among Republicans, 55 percent expressed support for unions and 54 percent supported the Education Department.