This is what Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said, according to the Dallas Morning News, about striking Oklahoma teachers while she was visiting Dallas last week:
“I think about the kids. I think we need to stay focused on what’s right for kids. And I hope that adults would keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place, and serve the students that are there to be served.”
What DeVos described as a disagreement and a dispute (and a squabble in a Feb. 27 tweet about the West Virginia teachers’ strike) is a walkout by teachers affecting most districts in Oklahoma. That walkout is supported, not so incidentally, by the superintendent of the Tulsa Public Schools. Educators are demanding reasonable salaries and more funding for public schools.
Oklahoma’s walkout was called April 2 by teachers (not the union) who say they don’t have the tools to serve their students well and, as DeVos said, “stay focused on what’s right for kids.”
So what is right for kids?
Are these teachers’ strikes simply “disputes,” or are they based on an objective reality of what is happening in many of today’s schools?
Massive budget cuts to public education in Oklahoma by state legislators have left some districts able to fund school for only four days a week. That means children are missing one-fifth of the education they used to get because of budget cuts by the Republican-led legislature, supported by the Republican governor.
Schools don’t have enough books, desks, heat, staplers, ink. Many textbooks are falling apart, outdated.
Teachers in the state are among the worst-paid in the country, and many work more than one job to make ends meet. Some drive for Uber before or after school. One teacher who couldn’t afford to make loan payments and buy enough food went to donate blood twice a week.
One doesn’t have to believe in public labor unions, or the right of their members to strike, to recognize that teachers in Oklahoma and many other states are working in conditions that other professionals would not accept and that are objectively unacceptable for children.
The education secretary made a nod to the notion (see tweet below) that teachers deserve to be paid fairly in her February tweet about the West Virginia strike, but has otherwise not acknowledged the depth of the problems that many traditional public schools face because of inadequate funding and attention by policymakers.
That’s why many teachers say she is tone-deaf to their problems for either ideological reasons or because she hasn’t visited enough schools to see what is really going on.
That’s what she seems to be missing about the teachers’ strikes.