Today at the end of Teacher Appreciation Week, we owe special thanks to school teachers this year, thanks that goes beyond our gratitude for teachers’ primary contribution—their daily work to support and inspire our children. In their strikes and walkouts this year, teachers have taught all of us about the the meaning for their students of years of tax cuts and the accompanying drop in state funding for public schools. And they have taught us to be increasingly skeptical of the diversion of paltry school budgets to an expanding charter school sector.
In #RedforEd walkouts and strikes from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona to Kentucky to North Carolina to Virginia to Los Angeles to Oakland to Denver, teachers showed us how far teachers’ salaries have fallen relative to what people earn in comparable professions. In cities with a high cost of living, we have learned about 35-year-old teachers doubled up in tiny apartments because they can no longer afford the rent for a one bedroom apartment. This means that school districts are finding it harder and harder to recruit new teachers and retain experienced teachers. Not only do teachers themselves struggle during budget shortfalls, but this year they have also exposed what it means for their students when there are more than 40 students in a class in schools without enough counselors, social workers, nurses, and librarians.
The education budget crisis is widespread and deep. But teachers have been willing to keep up the fight even when the gains are modest or slow to come.
CNN reported this week that on Wednesday, teachers walked out in at least 25 school districts across Oregon including Portland, the state’s largest school district, which closed schools. Governor Kate Brown has expressed support for teachers and pledged to sign the Student Success Act, which will increase the state’s K-12 education by 18 percent if the legislature passes it. Here are the teachers’ demands in addition to enough money for much smaller classes: “More school counselors. Oregon has half the school counselors that national experts suggest… More school librarians. Currently, there are only 158 school librarians in Oregon—less than one librarian per district. More school nurses. There’s only one nurse for every 5,481 students… A restoration of art, music, and physical education programs that have been cut by budget constraints. More funding for school supplies. The OEA said 94% of teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies…”
After striking a year ago, teachers in North Carolina walked out again this year on May 1, to pressure the state legislature to increase the state’s allocation for education in next year’s state budget. South Carolina’s teachers joined their counterparts in North Carolina that same day. Education Week‘s Madeline Will reports: “Teachers in South Carolina are asking for a 10 percent across-the-board raise, smaller class sizes, uninterrupted planning time, and for the state legislature to reduce the amount of standardized and district-mandated testing.”
In Northwest Indiana school districts, the Northwest Indiana Times’ Carley Lanich reported that school administrators joined teachers in a wave of after-school protests to demand a more adequate budget for schools. The final budget wasn’t as generous as teachers hoped, however. It allocates an additional, “$140 million… for districts to use at their own discretion and $74 million supporting statewide grant programs… (but) the approved budget still failed to include any language specific to teacher pay, despite early pledges of commitment to the issue in a state blighted by teacher shortages.” Teachers have continued to point out that the new budget allocates an additional $539 million for student tuition in the state’s voucher program.
In West Virginia, teachers walked out again in February for the second time in a year. This time their protests forced the legislature to drop the introduction of charter schools and the launch of an Education Savings Account neo-voucher program in a state that has not previously experimented with school privatization. After the statewide walkouts by teachers, legislators removed school privatization from an omnibus education bill. However, a special session, beginning May 20, has been scheduled to reconsider education, and the charters and neo-vouchers are still threatened by the Republican dominated legislature. The West Virginia Department of Education has been holding hearings across the state to listen to the concerns of citizens and teachers, who have been actively participating. The Charleston Gazette-Mail‘s Ryan Quinn reports: “State Senator Glenn Jeffries (D-Putnam) said he’d heard a pretty consistent message—teachers say they need help. ‘They need counselors, they need mental health individuals to help them, they need social workers, and they need the freedom to teach.” In West Virginia, whatever the outcome of the Special Session, teachers have at least forced widespread discussion of charters and vouchers, something other states have merely fast-tracked or buried in budget bills.
While teachers have not always been able to secure huge school budget increases, and while in some cases they have struggled to sustain the gains from last year, in a March report on school funding, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities credits striking teachers in a number of states with creating the political for at least modest budget increases for public education: “Last year, teachers struck or engaged in other protests in five of the 12 states that cut formula funding particularly deeply after the last recession—Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Lawmakers in four of those five states—all but Kentucky—boosted school formula funding last year, at least partially in response to the protests. The funding boosts were substantial, especially in Oklahoma, where lawmakers increased formula funding per student by 10 percent, after adjusting for inflation. Arizona, North Carolina, and West Virginia also increased funding substantially, with the hikes ranging from 3 percent to 9 percent per student after inflation.”
Climbing out of a deep hole takes a long time. The political economist, Gordon Lafer, reminds us about the factors that caused state budgets to crater over the past decade: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances. In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed Redmap campaign… In addition, this was the first class of legislators elected under post-Citizens-United campaign finance rules, and the sudden influence of unlimited money in politics was felt across the country… For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power and the size of government… The number of public jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back… All of this—deunionization, sharp cuts in public employee compensation, and the dramatic rollback of public services—was forcefully championed by the corporate lobbies, who made shrinking the public sector a top policy priority in state after state.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 44-45)
Lafer reminds us that much of the corporate agenda involved an effort to reduce spending on public education: “The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states… Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)
During the past year, striking public school teachers in state after state have launched a movement against an effort by big moneyed interests to starve the civic institution our society has established to nurture and educate our children. We owe enormous gratitude to the teachers who have framed the #RedforEd agenda and united behind it.