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Teacher walkouts and following the money

Jennie Young • May 3, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Recent gains from teacher walkouts are inspiring and should spread, especially in so-called red states where cuts to education funding has been the norm since 1999-2000. I’m encouraged by united and determined teachers besting state legislators who felt smugly secure in their belief that squeezing public schools and staffs would bolster their image of public-minded fiscal conservatism.

They’d assumed the spectacle of teachers walking out, “abandoning” their classrooms for days, would surely offend the public, and opponents could hold moral high ground. Not so.

West Virginia teachers, among the nation’s lowest paid, started it and came away with a still inadequate but much improved salary increase and new classroom funding. Their message was twofold, fighting for their students and fighting for the integrity of their profession.

In Kentucky, when teachers converged on the capitol, the legislature passed bills to protect teacher pensions and to increase school funding. An obstinate Republican governor vetoed both bills, which the legislature promptly and uncharacteristically moved to overturn. 

Arizona teachers, whose school systems currently have near the worst funding and salary levels, gained a significant victory with a 20 percent incremental pay increase by 2020 and much improved classroom funding.

It’s by no means clear why Oklahoma’s teachers, if not the general populace, didn’t spark this movement instead of West Virginia. Pushed by the fossil fuel industry lobbyists, the conservative state legislature enacted deep tax cuts which caused a budgetary crisis throughout the public sector. At present, 20 percent of Oklahoma’s school districts have cut the school week to four days with class size statewide far exceeding the allowed maximum. Poor wages and classrooms weren’t enough to cause earlier resistance, I guess, but many teachers did move south to Texas where conditions are better. Buoyed by West Virginia’s example, teachers have now won at least a 6 percent raise and inspired tax increases with significant education funding promised. Of course the Koch Brothers gang cries foul. The teachers didn’t get all they deserved, but the atmosphere has changed. Education will not be a sleeper issue in the upcoming elections because Oklahoma’s teachers intend to stay informed and active.

Parents and the public seem to be sorting this all out in a refreshing way. If we value education, then we respect the teachers we ask to provide it by compensating them commensurate with training and skills. As of now teachers are paid on an average of 30 percent less than others comparably educated. And there is no uniformity throughout the public education system. Recently I heard a teacher, who’s decided on the importance of being politically involved, say that a teacher in Elizabethton could make as much as nine or ten thousand dollars less yearly than a teacher in a comparable job with comparable training in Johnson City. Of course it all has to do with available monies, which goes along with political values and political will. But the result can be very unfair, to the teachers and to the towns where they live and work.

That’s the usual and shameful case across our country because districts have such disparate funding. Schools all across Canada, and in most countries in Europe and Asia, are funded equally according to population, and their results attest to that wisdom.

The majority of teachers are women. Political gains by women lately, with record numbers running for office, might signify a new day. I heard someone say the teacher actions suggest women are changing attitudes toward organized labor. And that, though a good thing, has some right-wingers very nervous. The Guardian newspaper somehow obtained a three-page rightwing document titled “How to talk about teacher strikes”, a manual of “do’s and don’ts” for running a smear campaign against teachers. It was published by the State Policy Network, an association of 66 conservative “ideas factories” active in every state, established to turn states red. And they’ve had quite an impact. These things are funded by the likes of the Koch Brothers (Americans for Prosperity), American Legislative Exchange Council, the Walmart fortune and, big surprise, Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s family (the Amway empire). Witness Devos’s long-time apparent goal of weakening, if not destroying, public education.

Union-type actions are a threat to SPN because real organized, active resistance is death to such groups. They say be stealthy and don’t attack teachers directly as the facts are with teachers. Slashed education budgets have plainly followed high-end tax cuts enacted by rightwing lawmakers, a stark message not easy to counter. The Guardian: “SPN’s talking points advise rightwing activists to emphasize the damage done to ’good’ teachers by the strikes instead of trying to justify low pay for all teachers. Similarly, attacking teachers for asking for more funding for schools would not be a winning argument, so SPN urges its followers to emphasize instead ’red tape and bureaucracy’” and “administrative bloat”.

Big Money never ceases to work assiduously to stay dominant, forever changing names and fronts and phony astro-turf groups in their struggle to get everyday people to vote with the billionaires, and against any type of public service. However else could de-funding public schools and denigrating professional teachers catch on in any state legislature? In Tennessee’s state legislature?

I’d say follow the money.

Jennie Young of Elizabethton is a retired language arts teacher.

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