If you have been watching the courageous teachers, first in West Virginia, now in Oklahoma and Kentucky, standing up for their right to be paid fairly—to have a pension after long years of working with children and adolescents—to work in schools adequately supplied with enough counselors and social workers, technology and an ample and stimulating curriculum—I wonder if, like me, you find it refreshing to see a large number of teachers out in the open speaking about what they do. In these days of too many guns, teachers are more and more safely locked into schools with the children they teach. They and their contributions are pretty much invisible to the rest of us. We forget about them and we take them for granted.
We neglect to make any mental connection to what it means for teachers (and children) when politicians promise us we can grow the economy by slashing taxes. Teachers, however, have to pay attention when ballooning class sizes make it harder to address personally the needs of 35 or 40 children. They watch kids grieve when football or instrumental music or a high school newspaper dies. They notice when there are too few counselors to help students whose parents are not college educated put together a good college application. They know the consequences when their rural school lacks access to broadband. Better than anybody else, school teachers understand the meaning of cuts to the state education budget. And this month teachers have been creating opportunities to tell us all what they know.
Maybe part of our forgetting about teachers comes from gender bias. As we have all noticed in West Virginia last month, and now in Oklahoma and Kentucky, most of these teachers are energetic young women. All the old messages come into play: Teachers do their work because they love our children; the money isn’t so important to them. They’re probably married and have another income to depend on in addition to whatever they can bring in from teaching. These women should be good sports as they do more with less. And the worst: Teaching is really just glorified babysitting.
Teachers do love to work with our children, but at the same time their work is the job by which they must support their own children. They must pay for food, housing, a car, and childcare. The required contribution to the family’s’ health insurance keeps rising. They have to save for their children’s college, and they need to save for retirement, particularly when the pensions they pay into every month are cut.
In Kentucky, this week’s teacher walkout was at first a response to a new pension plan, passed by the legislature in the middle of the night with no hearings. Writing for The New Republic, Sarah Jones describes the new pension plan as, “a Frankenstein bill. Originally sewage legislation, it became a hybrid pension bill that affected many state employees. The pension bill had itself known several lives; each iteration sparked large protests by current and retired teachers… Republicans revived it from apparent death…” The bill creates a tiered pension system with any future teachers receiving diminished benefits.
There was also another issue at the heart of the Kentucky protests: the state budget, passed by the legislature Monday night after thousands of schoolteachers massed in Frankfort. The budget will raise per-pupil funding from $3,700 to $4,000, an improvement, but still below pre-recession levels when adjusted for inflation, according to the Louisville Courier Journal.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) identifies Kentucky as one of twelve states where per-pupil formula funding, when adjusted for inflation, remains lower than it was a decade ago, just before the Great Recession hit. Oklahoma’s funding is farthest behind (28.5 percent lower); Texas is next (16.2 percent lower); and Kentucky is third from the bottom (15.8 percent lower). Not only is Kentucky’s funding lower than it was ten years ago, but despite the drop, Kentucky is among seven states which cut funding even lower in 2017 according to CBPP. Instead of trying to make up for previous cuts to schools, last year Kentucky cut school funding per student by an additional 2.3 percent.
The Associated Press reported on Monday night: “As teachers rally at the state Capitol in Kentucky, lawmakers there are considering a new state budget that includes a big boost in spending for public education… Budget negotiators in Kentucky unveiled a spending plan Monday that includes increased spending for the main funding formula for K-12 schools. The plan also restored $254 million in money for school buses that the state’s Republican governor had proposed eliminating.” The new funding is to be paid for with a 6 percent sales tax on previously untaxed services.
Kentucky became an all-Red supermajority state only in 2015, with the election of Matt Bevin as governor. Bevin intends to grow Kentucky’s economy through tax slashing and trickle down—the strategy that failed in Kansas and lots of other places. Bevin blames teachers for standing in his way. Here again is Sarah Jones describing Bevin’s response to protests and walkouts by schoolteachers: “Bevin has responded to criticism by going on offense. Teachers have a ‘thug mentality,’ he said; they were also ‘selfish and short-sighted’ for protesting his proposed reforms. ‘It’s about just straight up wanting more than your fair share’…”
The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss sums up what the Kentucky, West Virginia and Oklahoma walkouts say about public education in 2018: “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…. For years teachers have felt as if they were under assault by policymakers… Republican-led legislatures have voted to strip or eliminate tenure and the right of teachers to collectively bargain. Funding for traditional school districts has in many states been diverted to school choice options… 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… The notion that teachers have easy jobs would be laughable if it weren’t so serious. And many districts are so starved for cash that teachers spend their own money to make sure their classrooms have basic supplies…. 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.”
Columnist Paul Waldman examines the broader political implications: “There’s a revolt beginning among the nation’s schoolteachers…. Or it might be more properly understood as a revolt among teachers in states governed by Republicans, although it’s almost never framed that way in the news media. But that’s exactly what it is. What we’re seeing is an indictment of the Republican model of taxation, spending and governance…. which dictates low taxes and social services—like schools—that are as minimally funded as possible… If you commit to never raising taxes for any reason, then you’re almost guaranteed to create an underfunded school system that will struggle to attract and retain good teachers.”