The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Teachers are walking out in multiple states. Blame GOP economics.

More than a dozen teachers prepare signs at the home of a third-grade teacher ahead of a planned teacher strike in Oklahoma. (Video: Dalton Bennett, Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

There’s a revolt beginning among the nation’s schoolteachers, one that could well pick up momentum and spread around the country. Or it might be more properly understood as a revolt among teachers in states governed by Republicans, although it’s almost never framed that way in the news media.

But that’s exactly what it is. What we’re seeing is an indictment of the Republican model of taxation, spending and governance. Let’s start with the latest news from Oklahoma, where teachers have had enough:

Oklahoma’s schools and educators have endured some of the steepest cuts in education in the last decade, reductions that are evident in dwindling supplies, aging textbooks and the pay stubs of teachers. Before last week, state lawmakers have not raised the minimum salary for teachers in a decade, making them among the worst paid in the nation.
Monday’s walkout is part of a wave of protests from educators furious over stagnant wages and cuts to education funding. Teachers in West Virginia won a 5 percent raise after a nine-day strike, emboldening educators across the country. Several schools in Kentucky were forced to close Friday as teachers left classrooms to head to the statehouse to protest school pension reform. Arizona teachers, who have been protesting at the state Capitol, threatened to strike, demanding a 20 percent raise and restoration of funding cuts.
The cuts in Oklahoma also had dire consequences for schools. Districts have not been able to maintain buildings, so students shiver through the winter in classrooms with faulty heating, share long-outdated textbooks and become accustomed to a rotating cast of teachers. Many school districts have moved to four-day school weeks because they cannot afford to keep the lights on for five days.

We should note that under this pressure, the Oklahoma legislature just approved a raise for teachers, which they have said is not enough. In Kentucky, teachers marched today on the state capitol after Republican lawmakers pushed through a plan that would shift them away from a pension system and toward hybrid 401(k)s to save money. In Arizona, the 20 percent increase teachers are demanding would still leave them below the national median for pay.

What’s happening in these states isn’t some kind of accident. It’s a direct and predictable result of the Republican model of governing, which dictates low taxes and social services — like schools — that are as minimally funded as possible.

So, my red-state friends: How’s that working out for you?

Oklahoma is a particularly pure example of conservative philosophy in action, since state law mandates a 75 percent supermajority in both houses of the legislature to raise taxes. That’s the result of a 1992 initiative that came in response to a 1990 tax increase passed to increase school funding. Which has led them to where they are today, with four-day school weeks, cold buildings and decades-old textbooks.

If you had school-age kids and you were thinking of moving to Oklahoma, might that give you pause? What if you were a committed, enthusiastic teacher thinking of where you wanted to live? Would one of those states be high on your list?

It’s not just about Oklahoma or Kentucky or Arizona or West Virginia. Let’s look at teacher salaries around the country. I’ve made this chart using Department of Education data, and just to make things clear I’ve colored it to denote blue states, red states and purple states:

The only red state in the top 20 for teacher salaries is Alaska. And that’s in large part because they have a small population and a huge source of funding — taxes and royalties paid by the oil industry — which accounts for a majority of the state budget. The only blue state in the bottom 20 is New Mexico, which is also the poorest of the blue states.

That’s obviously a critical part of this story: The richer a state is, the more money it can collect in taxes, and the more it will be able to spend on education. But it’s also about making choices. If you commit to never raising taxes for any reason, then you’re almost guaranteed to create an underfunded school system that will struggle to attract and retain good teachers. It’s funny that Republicans who are firm believers in market forces and the immutable logic of capitalism don’t seem to grasp that fact.

Or maybe they understand it perfectly well, but just don’t care. Either way, it’s a good bet that as these walkouts and strikes succeed — even if they win only modest pay increases — teachers in more of those red states are going to decide that walking out is the only way to win themselves something resembling a decent salary for the challenging and vital work they do. Which is only going to draw more attention to how Republicans’ tax and budget philosophy has direct and often harmful effects on people’s lives.