The West Virginia strike began in late February when some 20,000 classroom teachers and thousands of other employees shut down schools across all 55 counties.
Across the state, teachers and school workers demonstrated for higher pay and other gains. Protesters lined the streets with signs, and in Charleston, strikers swarmed outside the Capitol building and at times even took over parts of it.
“This was a day that I will always remember!” wrote Tiffany Jones, a teacher at Bluefield High School in southern West Virginia, who was recalling one of the nine days of the strike. “The energy was palpable and the enthusiasm could be felt across generations of educators.”
This energy and enthusiasm, especially after the West Virginia strike won 5 percent raises for all public employees, has inspired teachers in other states to take a stand, injecting much-needed militancy into a waning labor movement and fundamentally reshaping the struggle for public education.
As of late May, walkouts in Colorado and North Carolina have followed statewide actions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Some of these protests won significant, even if modest, gains in teachers’ salaries and funding for schools. Others won political promises that have yet to be redeemed. But all have contributed to the groundswell of teacher walkouts, and it’s unclear how it will carry on into next year.
What Is Driving the Teacher Rebellion?
The wave of struggles sweeping through the United States are more than “red state” revolts. They are rebellions against the austerity and privatization that has been driving federal and state economic policy for decades.
The dynamics and political landscape are different in each state. However, almost all of the states where statewide actions have occurred are right-to-work states, which have seen the steepest cuts in school funding and sharpest erosion of teacher pay and benefits. These states are less likely to have collective bargaining rights and local district contracts. This puts more focus on state budgets and state decisions about healthcare and pensions, and encourages statewide action focused on the legislature. Consequently, many of the walkouts have been more akin to mass political protests seeking broad changes in public policy.
But other common factors underlying these grassroots protests are likely to keep rebellion spreading to “purple” states like Colorado (where there was a walkout in April) and North Carolina (May) and beyond. Almost everywhere in “red states” and “blue states” alike, budget and tax policy has been used to erode social services, shrink public space, undermine union power, and transfer wealth upward, all the while making the lives of working people harder.
Teachers have been both key targets and witnesses to this class warfare. As Mingo County, West Virginia, high school language arts teacher Katie Endicott told a solidarity meeting in New York City, “I first started teaching 10 years ago and it was a different county . . . coal was booming and . . . a lot of our students came from coal mining families. So dad was making more than $100,000 a year as a coal miner. . . . Now some of these same families, 10 years later . . . we’re having to hand out backpacks so they can eat over the weekend. . . . [Teaching] is now the best paying job that we have.”
Yet teachers in West Virginia have seen their inflation-adjusted salaries fall by more than 11 percent since the 2009 recession. Nationally, teacher pay is down nearly 5 percent.
“Not surprisingly,” noted an Economic Policy Institute report, “striking teachers live in states with some of the largest pay gaps. In Arizona, teachers earn just 63 cents on the dollar compared with other college graduates. That gap is 79 cents in Kentucky, 67 cents in Oklahoma, and 75 cents in West Virginia. These gaps amount to vast differences in earning over a career.”
As middle school science teacher Rebecca Garelli, one of the key organizers of the Arizona strike, told us, “Here you have to have two or three jobs or you can’t have a family.” Whether teachers are forced to work a second or third job or sell plasma to make ends meet, it’s clear that compensation in the states that have bore the brunt of federal and state austerity is at crisis levels.
The cuts to teacher pay are part of larger slashes to school funding. While the chronic underfunding of public education has always been a fundamental fact of school life in the United States, in many states it’s been getting worse. Most states have not returned to pre-recession funding levels. In 2015, 29 states were providing less total school funding per student than they were in 2008. Some of the sharpest cuts were in states that saw walkouts this spring. General funding per student is down more than 11 percent from 2008 levels in West Virginia, 13 percent in Arizona, 15 percent in Kentucky, and 28 percent in Oklahoma.
Nationally, the number of public K–12 teachers and other school staff has fallen by 135,000, while the number of students rose more than 1.4 million. The cuts to public education mean larger class sizes, old textbooks, and in Oklahoma and Colorado, a four-day week in many school districts. And in addition to lower salaries, for teachers this has also meant cuts to benefits.
Teacher pensions and health benefits, where they exist at all, have been slashed. Often the reductions have been accompanied by high levels of disrespect. As The New Republic reported, “In West Virginia, Mingo County special education teacher Brandon Wolford said it was the insurance changes that started the wave of outrage: ‘They were trying to make us wear Fitbits. If we didn’t get so many steps per day, our premiums were going to increase $25 per month.’”
These economic attacks paralleled more than a decade of bipartisan corporate “reform” that included test-based evaluation plans, reduced job security, the expansion of privatized charters, and the erosion of professional status — leaving teachers battered and demoralized.
But the struggle in West Virginia showed teachers around the country that a different path was possible. In Oklahoma, where organizing for a strike had begun before the West Virginia walkout, Larry Cagle, a Tulsa high school teacher and the creator of the Oklahoma Educators United Facebook page, stated, “To have West Virginia teachers out there showing us what it was going to look like was important: the morale boosting that we weren’t alone, that a whole state of teachers could stand together.”
Arizona middle school teacher Sarah Giddings wrote for the Rethinking Schools blog that before the West Virginia strike, “a growing number of teachers, including myself, began to feel overwhelmed, demoralized, and paralyzed in a system that worked to undermine our ability to be the effective and meaningful teachers that we could be.”
“The West Virginia teachers’ strike,” Giddings wrote, “opened our eyes to an empowering alternative reality of what is possible if we collectively organize and come together in solidarity.”
Who’s Afraid of the Teachers?
As the walkouts spread like wildfire, they are coming into conflict with some of the biggest corporate interests in the country, who on the one hand are increasingly desperate to contain the upsurge, and on the other are determined to press ahead with their plans for austerity and privatization.
For example, as soon as the ink was dry on the West Virginia bill that gave public employees a 5 percent raise, Republicans began claiming they would fund the raise through cuts to services and Medicaid.
But the final bill contained no such provision. According to West Virginia Spanish teacher Emily Comer, “Basically, they’re kicking the can down the road. We’re engaged in an ongoing fight to raise taxes on corporations and extractive industries; we don’t want to see cuts to essential services and we don’t want to see regressive taxes like a soda tax or a cigarette tax. We don’t want our raises funded on the backs of poor people.”
High school student Cameron Olbert made a similar connection when speaking at a student rally during the Oklahoma walkout:
The poor and working class . . . have already paid more than enough into the system. It’s time to ask those who can best afford it to pay their fair share too. That means we stop starving public education just so we can feed Big Oil. That means we reform our income tax system. It means that we eliminate useless deductions that only benefit the rich and do nothing for people like us.
Indeed, part of Oklahoma’s funding crisis comes from the fact that legislators have consistently cut taxes on oil and gas companies and the wealthiest Oklahomans throughout the recession.
In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey and a Republican Legislature tried to quell the rebellion by belatedly promising pay increases and some modest restoration of school funding cuts. But at the same time, Ducey and the Koch brothers are pursuing the wholesale privatization of Arizona schools through voucher and charter schemes. The latest state budget proposal to fund salary and school aid increases also includes $2 million for obscenely misnamed “Freedom Schools,” which are actually right-wing think tanks designed to further the Kochs’ privatization agenda.
This is why the right-wing State Policy Network, funded by the billionaire Koch brothers and the Walton Family Foundation, put out a list of talking points in April to advise legislators on how to discredit teacher strikes.
The talking points emphasize that “strikes hurt kids and low-income families,” while ignoring the effects of chronic underfunding of schools and encourage legislators to contact the State Policy Network if they “need assistance with messaging for your state’s specific situation.”
But so far, the public’s not buying it. An Associated Press-NORC poll found that 78 percent of the U.S. population think teacher pay is too low and a majority supports the use of strikes to win better pay, with only 25 percent opposing. Even more encouraging is that among the participants who had heard of the recent teacher strikes, 80 percent say they approve of the tactic.
If this support continues to hold and teachers continue to win significant gains from striking, it’s quite possible the walkouts could continue next school year.
Beyond the “Red States”: How Far Will the Revolt Spread?
Because the attack on teachers and public education has been national, the urge to fight back has crossed state lines at a rapid pace. This attack has been thoroughly bipartisan. It was Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education, who declared austerity for school budgets “the new normal” and “an opportunity for innovation.” The expansion of privatized charters, erosion of teacher pay and job protections, and test-based teacher evaluation all had bipartisan support.
While so far the teacher revolt has mostly hit Republican-controlled state legislatures, similar dynamics are at work in “blue states.” As Jeff Bryant, editor of the Education Opportunity Network, reported in April:
In a startling sign that teacher uprisings may move to purple and blue states too, Colorado teachers recently left schools and stormed the state Capitol to protest their subpar wages — ranked 46th in the nation, reports The New York Times, and “rock bottom” when compared to other professionals in the state. “Colorado has a Democratic governor,” notes the Times, “and a Legislature split between Democrats and Republicans.”
In fact, describing the teacher strikes as a “red state” revolt tends to limit recognition of the national, bipartisan character of the attacks on public education rather than accurately explain what is happening. In West Virginia, for example, the state Legislature was controlled by the Democratic Party for 82 years, and only in 2014 turned Republican. It’s impossible to understand the decades of attacks on public education and working-class living standards that produced the teacher revolt, without including the role of the Democratic Party.
As Arizona organizer Rebecca Garelli, who worked as a teacher for more than a decade in Chicago before moving to Arizona last July, put it, “It’s not only a red state thing. This is a nationwide crisis. That’s because it comes down to the funding.”
Even state-by-state funding comparisons regularly quoted in the media to pinpoint the causes of teachers’ anger can obscure more than they illuminate. For example, while many “red states” are at the bottom in terms of teacher pay, when that pay is adjusted for cost of living, the results reveal an erosion of living standards that penetrates deep into Democratic-controlled territory. New York and California, typically ranked among the top in teacher pay, come out 17th and 19th when adjusted for cost of living — below Kentucky. Washington, with a Democratic governor and Legislature, ranks near the bottom, below West Virginia and Oklahoma. Democratic-controlled Hawaii is dead last.
The state-by-state comparisons of education funding also can hide deep inequities within states. According to the Education Law Center (ELC), several Democratic-controlled states rank among the bottom in terms of the fairness of funding distribution. Illinois, for example, is ranked 50th because its regressive funding distribution means high-poverty school districts get only 73 cents for every dollar that low-poverty districts receive.
This is why the photographs of broken chairs and tattered textbooks Oklahoma teachers posted on social media during their strike eerily echoed the videos of Baltimore schools posted a few months earlier during a winter storm. Without money for heat, pipes froze and burst, flooding classrooms and forcing students to wear winter coats in several Baltimore schools. Though Maryland is ranked 12th by ELC in overall levels of school funding, it ranked 38th for funding distribution, with high-poverty districts in the state receiving 9 percent less funding than their wealthier neighbors.
All this is not to ignore the fact that the attacks on teachers and schools have been particularly severe in many of the states where teacher strikes erupted. But it’s worth underscoring that these states are just the weakest links in a national chain of austerity. Whether it’s low teacher pay, a reduction in pensions or health benefits, large class sizes, aging textbooks, few supplies, crumbling buildings, or cuts to programs and services, no state has been immune.
Through headlines like “Rotten Apples” and “Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers,” the corporate media blamed educators for the failures of our schools while ignoring the cuts that were making teachers’ jobs increasingly difficult. Converting public schools to charters and using standardized test scores to close schools and fire teachers have been touted as “solutions” to our “broken” education system that conveniently did not require increased or more equitable funding.
The fact that this year’s teacher protests have changed the national focus on education from charters and testing to salaries and school funding is a remarkable shift. Rather than being on the defensive, fighting against school closures and increased tests, teachers have gone on the offensive, demanding more money be pumped into the school system.
In doing so, striking educators in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and elsewhere are teaching us all. As Oklahoma high school student Ravi Patel pointed out at a rally during the Oklahoma strike, “Our teachers are setting an example of bravery by standing up to ignorance and inaction. Our teachers are setting an example of engagement in activism . . . our teachers are setting a better example than our legislators have for the past decade.”
Equally impressive has been the emergence of teachers as collective voices for their communities. As Oklahoma organizer Larry Cagle put it, “We made the argument early on to students that it was about them. Yes, I’d like a raise, but I’m mad because you’re getting a crappy education and you should be too.” The walkouts in West Virginia and Arizona turned down raises that included only teachers and excluded support staff and other public workers. Many demanded increases in state spending beyond schools for public services that had been starved for years. While it will take broader, sustained efforts to win all the demands raised during the strikes, the walkouts were lessons in social mobilization, led largely by women and drawing inspiration and energy from #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and the March for Our Lives.
Another unanswered question is how this dynamic of grassroots uprising from below will play out in states with collective bargaining rights and union-negotiated local contracts. That landscape is shifting too, with unions battered by more than a decade of corporate reform, austerity budgets, accelerated privatization and imminent legal attacks from the Supreme Court (see “Transforming Teacher Unions in a Post-Janus World” by Bob Peterson).
But the key question for teachers everywhere is whether they are organized enough to channel the energy sparked by West Virginia into fighting for greatly expanded support for public education and a broader political turn away from austerity and privatization. These rebellions have raised the expectations of teachers about what is possible. They channeled the years of pent-up anger into the largest strike wave in decades. Let’s hope it continues to spread until every school has the resources needed to make high-quality education possible.
Stan Karp (email@example.com) taught English and journalism to high school students in Paterson, New Jersey, for 30 years. He is an editor of Rethinking Schools. Adam Sanchez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an editor of Rethinking Schools. Sanchez teaches at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and works as curriculum writer and organizer with the Zinn Education Project.