Editorial: Teachers Revolt, Demand More Resources

  • Summit High School social studies teacher Jotwan Daniels, in front, marches during a teacher rally, Friday, April 27, 2018, in Denver. More than 10,000 teachers from more than 20 districts scattered across Colorado are demonstrating as part of a burgeoning teacher uprising from the East to the interior West that is demanding more tax dollars be spent in public schools. (Hugh Carey/Summit Daily News via AP)

Published: 4/28/2018 10:10:04 PM

Vermont’s ongoing efforts to rein in the highest per-pupil school spending in the country have a dramatic counterpoint in the remarkable red-state teacher revolts rolling through the South and West this spring.

In West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado, educators fed up with years of austerity have rallied to press for better pay and more resources for public schools with surprising — some might say astonishing — success.

In West Virginia, for example, a nine-day statewide walkout won a 5 percent pay increase effective July 1 for the state’s 20,000 schoolteachers, who in 2016 earned on average $45,622 (the comparable figure in Vermont was $57,349, and in New Hampshire $57,522). In Kentucky, as teachers rallied in the state capital, legislators overrode a gubernatorial veto of a two-year state budget that includes record new spending for public education. In Oklahoma, teachers extracted a $6,000 increase in salaries and limited additional financial support for public education. In Arizona and Colorado, teachers walked out last week demanding new funding for schools.

What these states have in common is that, except for Colorado, they are Republican-controlled and have a decade-long history of big tax cuts and spending curbs that have starved public education and other government services, pushing teachers to the brink. The walkouts in West Virginia spread like a wildfire to the other states with the aid of social media, which was also employed as an organizing tool. Notably, parents and students also rallied to support the teachers’ protests. This militancy, like the student push for gun control measures in the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., marks public education as a new focal point for activism. And like the students, teachers have vowed to work to elect candidates who support their cause this fall. “The not-so-sleeper issue in this next election is public education,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

A recent New York Times story provided context and background for the teachers revolt. It noted that while the disappearance of middle-income factory jobs has attracted most of the attention during and after the 2016 presidential election, the erosion of public sector employment has also played a leading role in hollowing out the middle class.

State and local government jobs now account for the smallest share of the civilian work force since 1967; there are fewer per capita now than there were then. Many of the workers who hold these jobs — bus drivers, nurses, child welfare investigators and so on — increasingly find themselves financially squeezed to the point where they need to take a second job to cling to a lower rung of the middle-class ladder.

While private sector employment has surged as public sector jobs have lagged, the Times notes that many of those private sector jobs were created in service industries that pay low wages and come without health insurance or other benefits that were once the hallmarks of a stable middle-class life.

Along with low pay, the chipping away of health and retirement benefits have diminished the appeal of public sector jobs to the point where widespread vacancies threaten the public health and safety. In Houston, for example, the police department is short an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 officers.

Shrinking public sector employment, of course, is a long-cherished goal of Republicans both for ideological and partisan purposes. This downward spiral has been driven by big tax cuts that left governments short of revenue, resulting in sharply curtailed spending.

What lessons can the nation’s 19.5 million government workers take away from the teacher uprising in order to reverse their fortunes? A few obvious ones: There is strength in unity and numbers; securing allies is critically important; social media provides new opportunities to organize and press their case; and the need to support candidates who support public employees and the critical jobs they perform. Pay raises and more resources will not fall like manna from heaven; they will have to be wrenched from politicians who want to maintain a stranglehold on both.

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