On February 22nd of last year, teachers across West Virginia walked out of their classrooms and onto the picket-line. Nine days later they were back in school, victorious, with a 5% pay raise. Their success prompted teachers in other states to do the same. Teachers’ strikes followed in Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina, and Colorado. In January, teachers in Los Angeles ended a strike after a week. If no deal is reached by Thursday (Feb. 21), teachers in Oakland will walk out of their schools.
On Monday, February 18th, West Virginia teachers went on strike again, barely less than a year after their previous strike. After less than a
day the state legislature there dropped the bill expanding charter schools and private school vouchers the teachers and their supporters were protesting.
So why all the strikes? The simplest answer might be pay. Following the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that followed, school budgets were slashed and teachers’ pay remained stagnant while the cost of living rose and the economy recovered. West Virginia had the lowest teacher pay in the nation.
But for many, the wave of strikes signifies more than just a typical labor dispute within one industry. For many of the teachers and their supporters, these strikes were about the future of public education and our priorities as a society. The Los Angeles teachers union (United Teachers Los Angeles) included in their demands a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools, publicly funded but privately run schools. Additionally, supplementary school service roles like nurses and counselors have been significantly cut back. Los Angeles teachers' demands required a restoration of these positions. In Colorado and Virginia, striking teachers made demands for more infrastructure spending.
For many teachers, there is more at stake than just a paycheck. The defunding of public schools and shift towards charters reflects a broader trend toward a society that favors the affluent, they say. Charter schools have been shown to increase economic segregation in some instances and are not subject to the same rule of accountability. Furthermore, some charter schools are able to find ways around accepting students with disabilities. Charter schools have more discretion over the students they accept and can direct parents of
students with special needs to schools that already have those programs in place. The result is that
traditional public schools serve more of the neediest students with less funding.
On the other side, critics of traditional public schools blame teachers’ unions for exerting too much control over school policy and protecting bad teachers. Charter schools’ freedom from regulation allows them to better experiment with new teaching methods, hire better teachers, and fire under-performing ones. Furthermore, state lawmakers and school administrators say that cozy retirement packages have drained school budgets, taking money away from students. Indeed, healthcare and pension costs for retired teachers make up a significant portion of school budgets. How, then, is equity and equality of education affected by these forces?
What do you think about teacher strikes? Are teachers’ unions too powerful or do they fight for an essential part of our society? How do you see the fight over education fitting into our larger cultural debates? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
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