We live in a remarkable time. Political and social activism in the United States is at an unprecedented level, with citizens participating in their democracy at unheralded quantities. A week can hardly go by without a rally, demonstration, march, petition campaign, social media movement, or other such form of citizens using their collective voices to fight for something in which they believe. Some have gone so far as to call the time in which we currently live the “golden age of political activism.”
These movements have focused on issues such as immigration, gun rights, women’s rights, and tax laws, just to name a few. Outside of a general outcry against the appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, education has been largely absent from the activist movement until, most surprisingly teachers in West Virginia, a right-to-work state, rose up to fight for increased funding for education in their state. Now, teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and potentially Arizona (and there are whispers of other states), all right-to-work states, are striking to fight for increased public education funding, which has been routinely cut routinely since the financial crisis.
What makes the movements in these states particularly striking is that they are not particularly strong union states given their right-to-work status. What that means is that teachers are not required to pay union dues and the unions do not have the ability to collectively bargain teacher salaries or benefits. Compounding this reality is the fact that public employee work stoppages are illegal in these states. Taken as a whole, what we are seeing in these states is utterly unprecedented and worthy of deeper examination. It begs the question, why are the teachers in these states doing this?
Why are Teachers Doing This?
To understand why teachers across the US, particularly in right-to-work states, are suddenly rising up to advocate for education, one needs to understand the perfect storm that has come together:
Teacher wages have dropped 3.5% nationally over the past 14 years
Teacher benefit costs have risen nearly 30% in that same time
Pensions have become increasingly costly for state legislatures and are highly volatile in many states
Teacher salaries in these right-to-work states have remained stagnant in comparison to the routine increases found in many unionized states
Job satisfaction for teachers is eerily low, triggered by poor work conditions and immense accountability/testing pressures
An increasingly loud national narrative about teachers being ineffective, lazy, and entitled has persisted
The aforementioned activist movement in the US is at an all-time high
Many community members, school administrators, and even some state government employees are supporting the teachers’ call to action
Along with these elements, there are state-by-state factors that have helped lead to the current pushback from educators. In Oklahoma, teachers have gone without a raise for 10 years, leaving some to become part of the working poor and making them eligible for low-income programs such as habitat for humanity and free and reduced lunch. Many of these teachers are also strapped with crippling student loan debt. In the last budget cycle, funding for instructional materials was not cut – it was eliminated! Similarly in Kentucky, funding for K-12 education has been routinely slashed, leaving schools scuffling for basic supplies, textbooks, and even copies. In West Virginia and Arizona, teachers have also gone years without a significant raise, leaving average salaries ranking 46th and 47th respectively among the 50 states. Concurrently, a lack of funding has left buildings dilapidated, supplies in short demand, and in some cases, even causing districts to drop to four days per week of classes instead of five.
Why Does the US Have Public Education?
America has long been engaged in a unique, bold experiment to educate all of our children from grades K-12. Most countries in the world move students out of their educational systems somewhere between the ages of 7 and 13, only educating their highest achievers (hence the false narrative about the US’s poor education system vs. the rest of the world). Since Horace Mann started the common school movement in the US, we have sought to provide equal opportunity for all people in this country to get an education that will hopefully lead to a better, more fulfilling life.
The aim of education has been widely debated and has never reached consensus, but in general, several recurring arguments manifest. The aim of education is:
To ensure students will become active members of a pluralistic society
To certify that students will be informed members of a democracy
To provide students opportunity to get good jobs
To help students be well-rounded, ethical, and kind people
To teach students how to think critically
To provide a well-rounded liberal arts education so as to foster a well-informed citizenry
If indeed these are our aims for public education and if we believe that every child, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, or other such demographic marker is entitled to a world-class education, then we can begin to understand what is happening in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona.
So How Does That Connect to the Teacher Strikes?
On the whole, these aims are what drive teachers everyday. No one got into education to get rich; it’s not what drives teachers. Sure they would like to make more money, but if you teach in Oklahoma, you’re lucky to even be able to pay your rent. Instead, teachers are driven by a sense of giving back, a duty to our youth, and a hopefulness in our future. After years of funding cuts that has left schools in states of disrepair, classrooms without basic supplies, and teachers getting passed by year-after-year for a basic cost of living raise, teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona have finally said, “Enough.” In this “golden age of political activism,” the teacher movement in the US is using it’s voice to fight for what it cares for most – our children’s and our country’s future.