As a boy in rural Idaho, Mitch Askew would tell his father that he wanted to go into the construction business. His father, who’d worked construction himself and was the head custodian at Askew’s small K–12 public school, pointed him in a different direction. “You should do something where, when you’re my age, you still like doing it,” he said. “Maybe teaching.”
Askew become a teacher, and his wife, Jennie, became one, too. Together, they took jobs in Colorado, Haiti, and, eventually, Flagstaff, Arizona, where, in 2009, Askew enrolled in a master’s program in history at Northern Arizona University, and Jennie got a job teaching science at a local middle school. But it was the recession, and Jennie was soon laid off. The couple went back to Haiti for a year, until they both got job offers from Flagstaff High School. They’ve been in Arizona since.
Flag High, as it’s known, has a large, verdant campus and sixteen hundred students—a mix of white, Native American, and Latino kids, from both rich and poor families. The Askews love their work, but not their salaries, which have barely increased since they arrived at Flag High. Between them, Mitch and Jennie have two master’s degrees and nearly two decades of teaching experience, yet their salaries add up to just eighty thousand dollars a year. For extra pay, Jennie teaches an additional chemistry class and has tutored at a local enrichment center; Mitch has chopped logs and sold firewood. Their second child, a boy, was born in November, 2015, and, because the school district provides no paid parental leave, they refinanced their house and took out a loan to buy time with their newborn. Now that they’re back to work, in addition to their mortgage, they have child care costs and a fresh monthly pile of student-loan statements, medical bills, and credit-card notices. Their car has a screaming fan belt and two hundred thousand miles on the odometer.
When Mitch first went into teaching, he saw the profession as a way up in the world, but he’s no longer so sure. “Every year, we think about quitting, but we’ve put ourselves on a five-year plan,” he said. “Because our kids are so young, we’re going to just stay put for a while.” Earlier this year, when teachers went on strike in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky—states, like Arizona, where unions are weak and Republican