By Striking, Teachers Are Demonstrating Society’s Failure to Value our Children and Their Schools

The 30,000 striking teachers in Los Angeles won better conditions for their students —smaller class size maximums, more counselors, librarians and nurses and an addition of 30 Community Schools with wraparound medical and social services for families. This week teachers in Virginia, a state where strikes are technically illegal, walked out for the day to rally at the state capitol in Richmond.  And school teachers in Denver had voted to go on strike this week, although their action was delayed when Denver Public Schools filed a request for intervention from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. It is evident that last spring’s teachers’ walkouts were not a mere blip.

Nineteen-year labor and workplace reporter for the NY Times, Steven Greenhouse comments in the Washington Post about the meaning of this year’s actions by masses of school teachers fed up with the collapse of state budgets and the working and learning conditions they have been telling us ought to be unacceptable in the wealthiest society in the world: “The overall number of strikes by American labor unions has declined sharply decade by decade, an unmistakable measure of organized labor’s diminished clout.  But last week’s strike by more than 30,000 Los Angeles teachers belongs to an extraordinary surge in recent union militancy—a surge that includes statewide teachers’ strikes last year in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona… The L.A. walkout was particularly unusual in that the teachers won more for the kids than for themselves—the school district agreed to hire 300 more nurses so that every elementary school would have a nurse five days a week, and 84 more librarians so that every middle school and high school would have one. Even though much of labor remains in a defensive crouch, the unions and workers joining the recent strike wave took to the streets with picket signs because they were fed up… The teachers and their students were lagging badly behind, their pay stagnating, their school budgets squeezed when so many parts of the economy were booming, when corporate profits, the stock market, the incomes of the richest Americans were at or near record levels, and Congress and many states were handing out big tax cuts to business and the rich.”

Writing for The Guardian, Mike Elk details the complaints by Virginia teachers: “Due to overcrowding, more than 22,000 students in Fairfax county receive their education in cheaply constructed plywood trailers, often with visible signs of green mold, like those parked next to the baseball fields next to McLean high school.  Those trailers, the poor state of school funding in general, low teacher pay and now the huge tax breaks the state is giving to lure in Amazon have led the teachers to strike on Monday…. In Fairfax county, the third richest county in America, there are over 800 trailers serving as temporary classrooms because the school district cannot afford to build new classrooms.”

Governor Ralph Northam has pledged to increase education funding across Virginia by $269 million, but as the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reports, teachers in Virginia say that is not enough: “According to Virginia Educators United, a grass-roots coalition of teachers and other community members, the state legislature could approve all of the investments called for by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and state spending would still be down 7 percent per student from 2009…  That means, it said, the state would have to invest another $500 million in 2020 to spend the same per student as in 2009….” (Numbers are adjusted for inflation.)

Lagging salaries are also a problem in Virginia. The Washington Post‘s Debbie Truong reports that teachers and support staff in Fairfax County cannot afford the inflated cost of living in Metropolitan Washington, D.C.  Many commute from Spotsylvania County and even from as far away as West Virginia.  And it isn’t only that teachers can’t keep up with the high cost of living in the suburbs of the nation’s capital.  The president of the Fairfax Education Association explains: “If you take Northern Virginia out of the equation, we rank in the bottom five of teacher salaries in the country.”

The pending teachers’ strike in Denver, Colorado reflects not only lack of funding but also a reaction by teachers against incentive pay and “portfolio” school reform instituted in 2005, with the hiring of neoliberal Democrat, Michael Bennet—now U.S. Senator Michael Bennet—as the school superintendent.  Writing in Forbes, Peter Greene explains: “Back in 2005, the district hired Michael Bennet, who had no background in education, but was the mayor’s chief of staff, with a background in turning around failing companies for an investment firm.  Bennet brought in other outsiders to form a community group (A+ Denver) along with some other education philanthropists to ‘pressure’ the district. The preferred model was a portfolio model.  Think of this type of model as a forced merger between public and charter schools, with the resulting entity run by charter philosophy.  Or, given the portfolio emphasis on continually closing bottom-ranked schools, you can think of the portfolio model as trying to fire your way to excellence on the institutional scale.  Since 2005, Denver has closed 48 schools and opened 70; most of the new schools are charter schools.”

The elected board of education in Denver is now dominated by corporate reformers, whose campaigns have been, reports blogger Tom Ultican, underwritten by far right opponents of traditional public schools: Stand for Children, Democrats for Education Reform, Students First, and philanthropist Arthur Rock.

Ultican documents that Denver’s portfolio school reform has left schools racially segregated.  It has also failed to close significant racial and ethnic achievement gaps as documented by scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress.  Ultican reports that today in Denver, “there are 204 schools: 106 traditional public schools, 42 charter schools, and 56 innovation schools… The innovation school concept is promoted nationally by the American Legislative Exchange Council.  According to ALEC model legislation, these schools ‘are provided a greater degree of autonomy and can waive some statutory requirements.’  In Denver, innovation schools are given a three year contract during which they are run by a non-profit. The results (testing data) at the end of the contract will dictate whether the experiment on the school children continues.”

In a second Forbes commentary, the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess describes another of the reforms brought to Denver by Michael Bennet: a pay-for-performance plan, called ProComp, for teachers and administrators: “ProComp allows teachers to earn an annual $3,851 bump for obtaining an advanced degree or license; a $2,738 boost for working in a ‘hard to staff’ field or a ‘hard to serve’ school; $1,540 for working in a ‘ProComp Title I’ school (which is different from a ‘hard to serve’ school); $855 a year for completing the requisite ‘professional development units’; and up to $855 for receiving a positive performance evaluation (with that figure falling by half for longtime educators). Teachers can also receive between $800 and $5,000 for leadership roles and a bonus if their school meets performance goals.”  Hess explains that the performance pay incentives have become an issue in the contract negotiations: “The union wants to streamline or eliminate a number of ProComp incentives, arguing that they are unpredictable and confusing and cause salaries to fluctuate capriciously from year to year based on district calculations that determine if a school is ‘hard to serve.'”

Here is how some Denver teachers explain their support for the union’s demand to change Denver’s ProComp incentive system: “We are a group of teachers representing schools in the far northeast region of Denver. Many of us now receive ‘incentives’ for working at Title I schools where many students live in poverty—and we are also willing to strike in support of the union’s proposed salary structure, which moves some of the money used tor those incentives into long-term base pay… The current bonuses can’t be relied on.  The ‘hard to serve’ school label is based on free and reduced-price lunch percentages, which vary on an annual basis… It’s not clear that the current bonuses are working.  We have not seen conclusive evidence that the incentives we receive for working in hard to serve schools have affected teacher retention or recruitment.  Every year, schools in our area are hiring for positions that often get filled by first-year teachers…  The current bonuses let the district off the hook… We know that increasing incentive pay to work at ‘hard to serve’ schools will not fix the issues around segregation in Denver Public Schools.  Increasing incentive pay to work at ‘hard to serve’ schools will not fix the issues around some schools lacking nurses, social workers, counselors, support for Spanish speaking and emerging bilingual students, and support for special education programs.  It will not solve issues around the lack of reliable technology, funding for arts, comprehensive neighborhood schools, or the flood of issues that we all feel in our schools on a daily basis.”

Peter Greene highlights another reason teachers support the union’s demand to change the incentive system: “(A)n information request by a Denver parent uncovered a payout of $3.2 million in bonuses to Denver administrators.  Average administrator base pay is over $100,000, with the district spending $20 million total.  About a half million of the bonus money goes to administrators with no school or student responsibilities.”  In other words massive incentives are being collected by central office administrators.

Teachers are bargaining, of course, for salaries sufficient for their livelihood. But all year teachers have also been striking to teach us all about the deteriorating conditions in which our children go to school. Here is how the political economist, Gordon Lafer, describes the profound message teachers have been sending us again and again all year from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Arizona, to Los Angeles, and now in Denver and Virginia:

“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…  Finally, the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence.  In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education.  In all these ways…  school reform presents something like the perfect crystallization of the corporate legislative agenda, uniting in one issue the goals of antiunionism, partisan politics, restructuring labor markets, redefining citizens’ expectations of government, and the transfer of enormous sums from public to private hands.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

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