Teacher Strikes Make Claims About "Justice," But What Does that Mean?


Did you follow the teacher strikes that recently took place in several states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona? Did you think their demands for higher salaries were reasonable? Many Americans agree that teachers, especially in these states, deserve higher wages. These states had some of the lowest pay rates for teachers in the country, and a wage adjustment may have been in order.

During these strikes, one of the claims that many made was that teachers deserve a pay raise as a matter of justice. But what exactly does that mean? Education Scholar Frederick Hess, who has written extensively on these strikes, has an image of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride saying “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I’m puzzled by claims that calls for raises and related demands advance the cause of “justice.” Rather, I see them as a matter of sensible, self-interested public policy. Indeed, I’m not sure what “justice” calls for in these disputes. Does “justice” require that teachers make $52,000 a year? $56,500? $66,000? $96,000? (And should a state’s cost of living factor into that determination?) Does “justice” dictate an alteration in the state’s capital gains tax and added staff for state agencies, per Oklahoma’s teachers? Does it demand rejecting plans to shift future teachers to a hybrid retirement plan, per Kentucky’s? To say such things is to do fundamental violence to any serious notion of “justice.”

What they are really saying is that they would like the state to spend more money, and adopt certain policies that would benefit them. So what is actually going on with adding "justice" to their platform? It lends to their demands a moral claim, and what many would see as a compelling one. But by introducing this moral claim in the argument, it is generally dismissive of opposing views and complexities.

[T]he funny thing about moral claims is how they proliferate in response to one another. There are plenty of taxpayers, for instance, who see themselves as having a “just” moral claim to the money they have earned. They see taxation beyond the most incontrovertibly essential as an “unjust” expansion of government. And there are state and local employees other than teachers—such as police, firefighters, road maintenance workers, sanitation employees, librarians, and bridge inspectors—who see themselves as providing critical public functions. If they see their funding being cut in order to boost K-12 spending, they, too, can regard their compensation as a matter of “justice”—and start shutting down fire departments, libraries, and bridges until they decide “justice” has been done.

When moral claims like this get thrown around in policy debates, decisions turn into a "carnival of clashing absolutes," as Hess describes it. It then becomes harder to find common ground, because the other side is viewed as believing in something unjust, and more problematic is the fact that our views of what is just often differ.

Hess concludes by stating that teachers in some states have a legitimate claim: their pay rates are very low and they would like to have higher wages. There's an argument to be made for paying teacher better, as communities can be healthier and perform better when teachers are paid good wages. But when making the case for that, adding in certain types of moral claims, like "justice" can muddy the waters and make progress more difficult to attain.