The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Activist teachers aren’t just fighting for themselves. They’re fighting for their students.

Striking teachers understand that we must fund schools better.

Teachers lead a picketing line outside a school in Ridgefield, Wash., on Aug. 29. (Alisha Jucevic/Columbian/AP) (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian/AP)

It's back-to-school season. Kids mourn the end of summer and excitedly meet new classmates. Parents rejoice for the end of the summer child-care scramble. And teachers set up their classrooms, finish lesson plans and, increasingly, protest.

This last step has become more visible with the wave of #RedForEd protests over the course of the past year in such places as West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma and North Carolina. These protests have continued into the new school year, as teachers went on strike in southwest Washington state and educators in Los Angeles and Seattle considered following suit. These educators are protesting not just for better pay, but also for increased funding for public education to benefit students and communities.

These protests remind us that our government and the social safety net are failing. The result: Teachers have been forced to triage the symptoms of economic inequality. In addition to planning and providing academic instruction, teachers are often tasked with serving as social workers, counselors, nurses, food pantries, technology support specialists, accountants, facilities maintenance staff and janitors.

As the first responders to the needs of children, teachers are leading the fight to increase funding for education. Activist teachers have always faced charges that their organizing was selfish, hurt students, diminished learning or harmed taxpayers. But in reality, when teachers organize collectively, their advocacy for better teaching conditions has improved public education more broadly.

Teachers have long organized on behalf of themselves, the students they serve and the communities in which they work and live.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Margaret A. Haley led the Chicago Federation of Teachers in filing a lawsuit that forced Chicago corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, to provide more funding for public schools. In a 1904 speech to the National Education Association, Haley argued, “The public school, as a branch of the public service, is not receiving from the public the moral and financial support it must receive to accomplish its purpose.” By organizing collectively, these Chicago teachers successfully forced corporations to pay taxes to increase teacher pay and also better fund public schools.

One thing that educators like Haley realized and others did not: Advocating for teachers could also mean advocating for students. In 1904, Haley noted that corporate and political leaders “think of any organization for the bettering of the teachers’ conditions as something selfish and wholly apart from the interest of the children and the people, if not positively opposed to the latter.” To Haley, however, better-paid teachers, in better-resourced classrooms, could fully focus on providing quality instruction and care for the children they served.

But instead of accepting this linkage, policymakers and school officials continued to place teachers under siege. During the 1930s, state and local officials across the country dramatically decreased funding for public education, slashed teachers’ pay and implemented mass teacher layoffs, while outlawing public-sector unions, including those for teachers.

But groups of teachers fought back, leading campaigns for equal pay, collective bargaining and racial equality. Female teachers, who dominated the ranks of the profession, were paid a fraction of their male counterparts. This prompted female educators in Chicago to successfully organize to back state legislation requiring equal pay during the 1940s.

Actually achieving pay parity would take years of advocacy, but these initial struggles propelled educators to wage more militant campaigns for collective bargaining rights after World War II. Watching their teachers organize for change provided students with a firsthand education on the workings of democracy, with some students joining the protests.

During the civil rights era, black teachers worked with parents and students to force districts to desegregate schools, implement community control, provide better funding and battle administrators and other teachers over curriculum and policies.

Their activism worked. In cities like Chicago, it led to a marked increase in the number of black teachers and administrators and changes in curriculum. Research indicates that this more racially representative and diverse teaching force improved students’ social development and civic engagement. Moreover, the increase in black teachers and the improvement in their material conditions profoundly affected black communities, in which black female educators served as anchors and relatively stable middle-class workers during a period of economic volatility.

And yet, these gains continued to be undermined by new rounds of funding cuts. In many districts, per-pupil spending did not keep up with the instructional and social support needs of students. Stagnant teacher salaries and raises — if granted at all — also could not compete with rising costs of living. A recent survey of Maryland educators revealed that 41 percent of those surveyed had to take on a second job to make ends meet.

Nearly 70 percent of these teachers agreed that their schools are not adequately funded to support student success. And so, teachers are on the front lines, once again, organizing to demand changes to their working conditions and students’ learning environments — which are inextricably linked.

Notably, in 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike, partnering with established community-based organizations to call for increased wages, benefits and reforms that explicitly benefited the majority black and Latinx students and communities served by the public schools: smaller class sizes; reinstatement of the arts, physical education and world language; adequate wraparound support services and professionals in all schools; improved school facilities, air conditioning, new books and supplies; community gathering spaces within schools; and, importantly, greater funding.

During the strike, CTU President Karen Lewis, a veteran black educator and former student activist, echoed Haley’s 1904 position that advocating for teachers is also advocating for students. Teachers gained modest increases in compensation, workplace protections and greater professional autonomy, while demonstrating the power of teachers’ collective action to advocate for their students, fight back against austerity policies and reshape the terms of public education debates.

In short, protests and strikes worked. And we should follow the lead of this activism today.

Teachers are organizing for pay increases and running for public office to fight for equitable school funding and increases in services and educational opportunities for students.

The public is rallying behind these efforts. Just last week, Republican primary voters in Oklahoma ousted lawmakers who voted against teacher pay raises. In union strongholds and right-to-work states alike the seas of red-clad educators remind us that we all win when educators organize collectively to demand better pay, improvements in classroom conditions that affect students and more equitable funding for public schools.

Margaret Haley’s words in 1904 would seem to still be the rallying cry in 2018: “At no time in our nation’s history have the need and opportunity for such co-operative effort been so great.”