Even as they face threats–a looming lawsuit in Arizona; jail time in Colorado–public school teachers continue to strike. The two western states are just the latest to join a movement that began in West Virginia to call for higher pay and better benefits for public employees. The strikes have precipitated some changes: The two-week strike in West Virginia brought about a 5% raise for teachers, Kentucky teachers mobilized lawmakers to override the governor’s veto of a budget that didn’t increase education spending, and Oklahoma secured $500 million in new funding for education–less than they hoped for, but a turnaround in a state known for ushering in some of the deepest cuts to education spending in recent years.
All of this is significant progress, says Maurice Mitchell, the new national director for the Working Families Party, which has supported the strikes by helping public employees strategize across the five states. But while the teachers are, on the surface, unified in their demands for more livable wages and working conditions, they’re also advocating together for something deeper: an end to privatization.
In West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, which are Republican dominated, state budgets have shrunk over the years due to reluctance on the part of lawmakers to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Colorado‘s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment limits the amount of tax revenue the government can collect and spend, which has constricted the amount of money the state can allocate to public programs like education. As funding for public schools has dried up, districts have transferred responsibility for education to private, for-profit corporations in the form of charter schools or vouchers. At the same time, even though the economy has swung upwards again following the recession of 2008, the money available for public services has continued to dwindle. Public school teachers earn around 17% less than workers in comparable positions. In Oklahoma, teachers haven’t gotten a raise in 10 years, since before the recession, and still earn just around $45,000 annually as inflation has raised cost of living. Vacancies are high–every state entered the 2017 school year with positions unfilled.
“There’s been a pretty clear concerted effort, in many ways, to privatize public goods and give them to corporations, to transfer education from a public good to a commodity that can be bought and sold,” Mitchell says. “The result of that–what you’re seeing now–is these teachers responding to that trend that’s been taking place–in red states and blue states.”
Not only has disinvestment in public schools resulted in low pay and paltry benefits for teachers, it does a disservice to the children and families who depend on public education. “There are a number of indicators we can use to judge where we are as a society in our ability to grapple with both class and racial inequality,” Mitchell says. “And the condition of our public education system is a clear indicator of where we are.”
Privatization, Mitchell says, has only proven to exacerbate those inequalities. The availability of “school choice” often serves to draw wealthier, whiter families away from district schools, which lose funding as a result. “It’s this sort of elegant, nefarious strategy to fulfill the conclusion that public schools don’t work by creating a scheme that sets them up for failure,” Mitchell says.
While public schools in wealthier districts can often raise enough money through local property taxes to operate at a high level (some of the best-performing schools in the country are public schools in white, wealthy neighborhoods), those in rural, lower-income or more diverse districts have been hit especially hard by funding cuts. Teachers in those schools are primarily the ones driving the strikes. “This is inequality by design,” Mitchell says.
While teachers’ unions have played a role in the strikes, they’ve been hampered by anti-labor policies at the state level that prevent them from raising funds to effectively bargain on behalf of their workers, and through the expansion of alternative schools whose teachers aren’t members. The teachers’ unions have also been recommending more conservative approaches to advocacy than the teachers want to take: After teachers in Kentucky hosted a successful sick-out, the union encouraged them to go back to work, but the teachers wanted to continue the momentum. So the demonstrations have largely been led by the teachers themselves, the people who have experienced firsthand the effects of privatization in their industry, Mitchell says. The strikes are both an affront to anti-labor policies and to the entire concept of privatizing a public good
The Working Families Party, Mitchell says, will continue to support the strikes and further efforts to organize around labor issues, but the larger work, he says, is “the need to raise the alarm about the fact that our education system in this country is in a crisis mode.” Just as spiking rates of homelessness and eviction prove that our housing model has failed, so do the teacher strikes prove that replacing public education with private systems is not working. “We need the response from our government that one would place on a crisis-level event,” Mitchell adds. “We have to actually reverse the disinvestment that’s been taking place, and double down on investing in our students and our kids.”
“Anywhere where you have the strategy of disinvestment in the common good–specifically investment in public education, coupled with attacks on public-sector unions, we’re going to see more of these grassroots movements,” Mitchell says. “We think there’s going to be more to come.”