The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teachers have had it. Why they’re revolting against low pay and inadequate school funding.

Saying they've been pushed to their limit and are fed up, Oklahoma teachers are walking out over school spending cuts. (Video: Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post, Photo: Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

Public schoolteachers in the entire state of West Virginia went on a nine-day strike recently, shutting down schools to demand livable wages. They won a 5 percent raise.

In Arizona, thousands of teachers took to the streets in Phoenix, Tucson and other cities last week to demand a 20 percent pay hike and increased school funding — and are threatening a strike if their demands are not met.

In Kentucky, thousands of teachers and supporters marched Monday to the Capitol to protest school funding cuts and changes to their pensions. That was after the Republican-led legislature attached a pension plan to a sewage bill. The Lexington Herald-Leader quoted art teacher Jeffrey Peeno saying: “When they pass this with the sewage bill, it tells us exactly what we need to know about what they think of us.”

And in Oklahoma, teachers walked out across the state Monday seeking better classroom conditions and higher pay in a protest that, remarkably, has the support not only of the teachers union but also of district officials, including the Tulsa schools superintendent.

‘It just hurts my heart’: Low pay, big classes are the plight of Oklahoma teachers

Underpaid and under-resourced teachers have had enough. Tired of struggling to pay their bills and educating students without sufficient resources — or, in some places, heat to keep kids from freezing in the winter — teachers are suddenly rebelling in places not known for union activism.

The protests are coming in states that have seen the country’s deepest funding cuts for public education by Republican legislators, including West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. But possibly presaging similar action by educators in other places, a recent report from the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found:

Most states cut school funding after the [2008] recession hit, and it took years for states to restore their funding to pre-recession levels. In 2015, the latest year for which comprehensive spending data are available from the U.S. Census Bureau, 29 states were still providing less total school funding per student than they were in 2008.
In most states, school funding has gradually improved since 2015, but some states that cut very deeply after the recession hit are still providing much less support. As of the current 2017-2018 school year, at least 12 states have cut “general” or “formula” funding — the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools — by 7 percent or more per student over the last decade, according to a survey we conducted using state budget documents. Seven of those 12 — Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma — enacted income tax rate cuts costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year rather than restore education funding. One of these — Kansas — repealed some of the tax cuts earlier this year and increased school funding, but not enough to restore previous funding levels or satisfy the state’s Supreme Court, which recently ruled that the funding is unconstitutionally inadequate.

For years, teachers have felt as if they were under assault by policymakers. Teacher pay has been linked to student standardized test scores, an evaluation that assessment experts say is not valid. Republican-led legislatures have voted to strip or eliminate tenure and the right of teachers unions to collectively bargain. Funding for traditional school districts has in many states been diverted to school choice options.

As a result, teacher surveys show extremely low morale, and teacher shortages are common. Many teachers have to take a second job to pay their bills, and funding cuts have resulted in dire school conditions for students and educators.

In Oklahoma, for example, where per-pupil funding has dropped nearly 30 percent over the past 10 years, many school districts can’t afford to keep schools open five days a week, so kids go to class only four days a week. And teacher pay is nearly the lowest in the country: In 2016, the average compensation package of an Oklahoma teacher was $45,276 a year, according to the National Education Association, a figure that includes a health plan and other benefits.

How much (or little) teachers earn — state by state

Funding for education has become a politically charged topic in the past few decades.

Conservatives often say the United States spends more money per pupil than just about any other country but has little to show for it, and that teachers are not underpaid and have easy jobs, with long holidays and summers off. (Ohio Gov. John Kasich said in 2015 that “if I were not president but king in America I would abolish all teachers’ lounges where they sit together and worry about how ‘woe is us.’ ”)

The United States does spend more than nearly all other countries, but it also has a unique aspirational goal of educating every child in an appropriate manner, and education spending is an indication of a country’s wealth. Assessing the overall effectiveness of the public education system is tricky; public schools, for example, get bashed when the economy is doing poorly but not praised when it is doing well.

Many districts are so starved for cash that teachers spend their own money to make sure their classrooms have basic supplies, such as pencils and paper. The United States has a school funding system unlike any other in the world, which has resulted in wealthy areas having far better schools than poor areas.

Teacher activism has been strong in Chicago, where a 2012 teacher walkout may have helped pave the way for today’s rebellions. According to the book “A Fight for the Soul of Public Education,” the strike started as a compensation battle but “developed into a challenge to a national education reform movement that, teachers charged, was systematically destroying public education and using Chicago as its test case.”

Unlike in past strikes, tens of thousands of teachers, clinicians and paraprofessionals marched repeatedly in Chicago’s neighborhoods and downtown. Thousands of community members and parents joined the demonstrations. Crowds swelled, shutting down streets in the city’s Loop district. Instead of accepting the loss of classroom control and corporate style-management of schools, which teachers had been told for decades was “inevitable,” the [Chicago Teachers Union] reinvigorated a national teachers movement by fighting back. The ripple effects of the 2012 strike are being felt in school districts and union halls across the country.

That encouraged other teachers to speak out. An example of the growing disgust among some teachers about their working conditions was the 2013 formation of the Badass Teachers Association by educators who said they were tired of being blamed for problems beyond their control. Tens of thousands of teachers joined.

In 2015, Seattle teachers went on strike for a week with contract demands — the first cost-of-living raises in six years, for example — but they also sought less traditional items. Among other things, they won 30 minutes of guaranteed daily recess for all elementary school students and an end to the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate educators.

The latest teacher walkouts come at a time when the country seems to be moving into a new era of organized protests against a host of issues, including racial injustice, gender inequality and gun control.

It is also a time when public education is as highly charged as ever. Public school advocates accused Education Secretary Betsy DeVos of working to privatize the public education system, which she has denied. But she has also said traditional public schools are “a dead end” and has spent decades promoting alternatives to traditional public schools.

Striking teachers say they are not only trying to boost their salaries but also ensure adequate funding in public schools, something that has not typically been part of contract negotiations. It suggests we may be moving into a period of sustained teacher activism that is as much a defense of the public education system — which many believe is this country’s most important civic institution — as it is a demand for higher pay.

Some Republican governors have started to back away from their previous bashing of public school funding and instead promise to provide more money for children’s education. They include Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has over years slashed funding for public schools and expanded programs that use public money for private schools tuition. But governors such as Walker have engendered such poor relations with angry teachers that it isn’t likely modest funding increases would assuage the educators.

Labor actions by public workers generally need support from communities to sustain themselves, which is one of the factors that made the Chicago strike successful. If a Tulsa schools official’s support for a walkout is any indication, teachers seeking better school conditions and higher pay may find allies in places they never thought possible.

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