Giving Thanks for Red for Ed — Teachers Striking for Justice in Public Schools

In their agreement at midnight on Halloween to end a ten day strike, Chicago’s teachers secured not only a salary increase, but also the promise that the school district will spend $35 million annually to reduce what have become in many schools outrageous class sizes. Teachers also won the guarantee of a full time nurse and social worker in every school by July of 2023.

A lagging recovery from the 2008 recession, compounded in many states by revenue shortages due to tax cutting and the expansion of school privatization at public expense, has left desperate conditions in traditional public schools across many states.  In response, the Chicago Teachers Union, like Red for Ed counterparts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, and Oakland, went on strike to expose primary staffing inadequacy in public schools where such conditions are pretty much invisible to the general public.  After all, most of us do not have the opportunity to go into schools and look around to see what’s happening there.

Red for Ed teachers’ strikes have also challenged statewide policies that have come to define our public schools during the corporate school reform era. The Los Angeles and Oakland strikes, for example, surfaced evidence that charter schools—over which California’s public school boards of education have had little control—steal essential dollars that should be spent on the majority of children and adolescents who attend the public schools.  In Arizona, the teachers’ strike helped put the spotlight on the alarming danger to public schools of a pending 2018 ballot initiative (which ultimately was voted down) to expand the state’s already expensive Education Savings Account neo-vouchers. Chicago’s teachers were able to expose untenable aspects of the 1995 Illinois state law that imposed mayoral governance on Chicago’s public schools—an appointed school board and punitive restrictions to disempower the Chicago Teachers Union itself. The strike also helped shine a light on problems with student-based budgeting and school closures, both of which have been at the center of Chicago’s portfolio school reform under former mayor Rahm Emanuel. While the final contract agreement which ended the strike did not eliminate all of these policies, the strike made their consequences visible and secured promises from key legislators in Springfield to address several of these concerns.

Two more Red for Ed teachers’ walkouts have occurred in the weeks since Chicago’s teachers settled. The first, in Little Rock, Arkansas on November 14, involved 1,800 members of the Little Rock Education Association. The strike was not about teachers’ salaries. The Little Rock teachers’ strike instead pushed back against the the Arkansas Board of Education’s plan to end the unpopular 2015 state takeover of Little Rock’s schools by dividing the district. The state Board of Education proposed to return “successful” schools to a local school board, to close eleven schools, and to hold the lowest scoring schools under state takeover. Because the schools the Arkansas Board of Education refused to release from state takeover are majority black and brown, teachers struck on November 14, to protest what teachers identified as a return to segregation.

For Jacobin Magazine, Eric Blanc reports: “The immediate roots of this week’s action go back to January 2015 when the Arkansas State Board of Education announced that it was taking over Little Rock’s schools due to low standardized test scores. By all accounts, the ensuing state takeover failed to accomplish its nominal goal of improving stability and educational opportunities for the town’s low-performing schools. Yet rather than return Little Rock School District to local control in 2020 as promised, the state board instead proposed in September of this year that it would continue to oversee so-called “F”-rated schools, those with the lowest scores… In a dramatic protest on the evening of October 9, thousands of teachers, support staff, students, and community members congregated on the steps of Central High… This public outpouring forced the state board to change tactics  At the next evening’s contentious Arkansas Board of Education meeting, it dropped the proposal to split Little Rock’s school district.  But surprisingly, the board then immediately proceeded to cease recognition of the LREA (Little Rock Education Association) as the educators’ representative, thereby scrapping the last remaining collective bargaining agreement for school workers in Arkansas. The decision was blatant retaliation against not only teachers but also Little Rock’s school support staff, who were in the midst of negotiating a pay raise.”  On November 14, teachers walked out in protest.

Not surprisingly in Arkansas, the Waltons, well known for funding attacks on public education, have for many years also been funding the campaigns of legislators likely to impose policies like the 2015 state takeover. Blanc continues: “The Waltons for decades have bankrolled Arkansas politicians, including Governor Asa Hutchinson, to break up unions and the public sector. They have paid for anti-union Astroturf organizations like the Arkansas State Teachers Association and leveraged their fortune to make standardized testing the live-or-die metric to judge Arkansas schools.”  The Arkansas State Teachers Association sounds like a teachers’ union, but what it is really?

For the Arkansas Times, Max Brantley explains: “Little Rock teachers are… complaining of a mass e-mail from the anti-union Arkansas State Teachers Association… warning teachers against striking. This group had a $362,000 startup grant from the Walton Family Foundation, no surprise given how notoriously anti-union Walmart has always been.  ASTA also has ties to a national anti-union organization founded by like-minded billionaires… ASTA also has been peppering state newspapers with op-eds touting their anti-union views.”

The  Little Rock teachers’ strike focused on the urgent need to preserve one racially integrated school district with all schools returned to the local board of education, which will be elected in November of 2020.  Teachers also stood up for their right  to be represented by the Little Rock Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest public sector union.

This month’s second recent Red for Ed event closed schools across the state of Indiana on November 19th, as 15,000 teachers gathered in Indianapolis for a statewide rally. Chalkbeat Indiana‘s Emma Kate Fittes describes the walkout, which teachers dubbed a statewide rally because state law prohibits teachers’ strikes: “With so many teachers planning to be at the state capitol on the ceremonial opening day for the legislative session, more than 130 districts statetwide have cancelled classes, affecting about half of the state’s students.” “Better working conditions, higher pay, increased funding for public school classrooms, less emphasis on standardized testing and more respect—these are some of the things teachers say they will be fighting for Tuesday at a massive Indiana Statehouse rally.”

Fittes summarizes what teachers demanded: “The state’s largest union, Indiana State Teachers Association, is calling for lawmakers to take three actions: give schools $75 million of the estimated $400 million the state will bring in this year above its expected revenue, pass a hold-harmless provision to protect schools from any negative consequences related to low 2019… standardized test scores, and repeal new licensing requirements mandating 15 hours of unpaid professional development related to their community’s workforce needs.”

Salaries were a centerpiece of the Indiana rally on November 19. The Indianapolis Star‘s Arika Harmon reports that Indiana’s average teacher pay, $50,614, lags the average teachers’ salary in all the states surrounding Indiana: Kentucky, $52,952; Ohio, $58,000; Michigan $61,911; and Illinois, $65,721.

Further, Indiana has been rating and ranking schools and school teachers according to students’ performance on state tests, but the state changed tests in spring of 2019, and the teachers want their evaluations and their schools’ ratings held harmless because scores dropped sharply when new tests were introduced.

Finally, on November 19, teachers were protesting a state-imposed a “staff development” teachers must complete to renew their teaching certification. As though teachers are ignorant about the workplace outside their schools, they will now be required to engage in a workplace externship or learn about the workplace in some other way. Herron describes the requirement: “The new rules passed last year require teachers to log 15 hours of professional development related specifically to their community’s workforce needs—like available jobs and skills needed by local employers—before they can renew their teaching license.”

Teachers across Indiana declared that it is not their own misunderstanding of the demands of the workplace but instead the conditions in the schools where they work which are undermining their students’ education. The Indianapolis Recorder‘s Tyler Fenwick interviewed teachers at the rally including Trudie Ingram, a Gary, Indiana middle school science teacher. She explained how Indiana’s miserably inadequate funding for public education undermines opportunity for her students: “It’s a great hindrance for science because we don’t have the equipment and the technology… to keep students up to date on those things that are required for them if they’re going to go on to higher education to become science-related majors.”

For nearly two years teachers have built Red for Ed momentum across the states. Teachers have courageously raised their voices:

  • for smaller classes;
  • for enough school funding to ensure their schools have essential equipment and technology;
  • for enough school counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses, and certified librarians;
  • for teachers’ salaries that provide a living wage;
  • against too much standardized testing that eats up classroom time and narrows the curriculum;
  • against branding schools in poor communities with letter grades;
  • against corporate state takeovers and school closures in the schools that serve poor communities; and
  • against the expansion of privatized charter schools and vouchers that eat up desperately needed public dollars.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, we must give thanks for teachers’ courage and energy as they continue to demonstrate our collective responsibility to provide all of our nation’s children with public schools which will enrich their lives and ensure our society’s future as an inclusive democracy.