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L.A. Teachers on What Was Won—And Which Battles Are Next

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

Following a six-day teachers’ strike over inadequate public-school funding, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) reached a tentative agreement Tuesday. While tallies haven’t yet been released, UTLA has confirmed that teachers voted in favor of the contract and, as of Wednesday, have returned to their classrooms.

The agreement, which was preceded by a nearly 21-month bargaining period, reverses some of the trends the union was protesting, including bloated class sizes, insufficient staffing of nurses and counselors, excessive standardized testing and a lack of resources for special education. (UTLA’s protests, including the strike, were largely the product of a reform movement among educational unions nationwide.)

It also calls for a greater reckoning with charter schools: publicly funded, privately operated schools boosted primarily by wealthy financiers and executives. UTLA members rebuke these schools for siphoning funding from public schools and view a pro-charter district agenda as the cause of the aforementioned problems.

The new contract would restrict school privatization, calling on California to establish a cap on charter schools. It also states that Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti will endorse the Schools and Communities First ballot initiative, which will ostensibly redirect $11 billion per year to California schools, community colleges, health clinics and other local institutions.

In These Times spoke to five teachers from five different LAUSD schools. While most of them contend that more could have been won, these rank-and-file members overwhelmingly consider the new terms an improvement and a testament to the power of strikes.

“I am pleased with the agreement for several reasons,” second-grade teacher and rank-and-file UTLA member Traci Rustin told In These Times. “I think we started a conversation about charter schools among those members of the community and UTLA who had not previously given it much thought.”

Rustin and some other teachers, however, found the vote bittersweet, arguing that while they’re eager to return to work, the proposed terms should have included more aggressive changes. The agreement prevents the district from “unilaterally ignor[ing]” all class sizes and promises a gradual reduction of class size—which routinely exceeds 40—over the next four years, imposing maximums of 39 students for English and math courses in secondary schools. While the change marks an improvement, some remain frustrated.

“There are classes with 45 students in them. Do we really think that 41 students, three years from now will be acceptable? Absolutely not!” a kindergarten teacher in West Los Angeles who wished to remain anonymous told In These Times. “I am glad that the school district cannot come in and change that on a whim, like they were initially trying to do. … But the reduction isn’t enough.”

The 2019-2020 school year will see additional full-time teacher librarians and counselors for secondary schools, and nurses for all schools. By the 2020-2021 school year, theoretically, each school will be equipped with one nurse, five days a week. In the 2014-2015 school year, California ranked below all other states in student-to-librarian ratios, while nearly 40 percent of LAUSD schools were staffed with a nurse only one day a week, according to UTLA.

Still, the proposed staff-to-student ratios continue to worry some. “I don’t think that having a ratio of 500 students to one counselor is acceptable,” said the kindergarten teacher. “Yes, the district is giving us 17 more counselors to meet that ratio, finally, but a 500 to 1 ratio for mental health is not showing our students that we’re there for them.”

“It’s a little disheartening to realize that we’ve gained no ground on school psychologists and librarians for elementary schools,” added fourth-grade teacher Anavelia Valencia.

To address the issue of rampant standardized testing, UTLA has also vowed to establish a committee with LAUSD to cut testing in half—a move teachers overwhelmingly approve. Teachers will also receive a retroactive raise of three percent for the 2017-2018 school year, as well as an additional three percent retroactive raise dating from July 1, 2018. While educators emphasize that their salaries are a low-level concern, the raises come at a time when many California teachers can scarcely afford to rent or buy a home, yet don’t qualify for public housing.

The contract also ensures a number of changes designed to bolster students’ wellbeing. Schools will curtail “random” searches of students—a practice that has elicited strong criticism for targeting and criminalizing Black, Latinx and Muslim students. Schools will also plan to replace some of their industrial environs—bungalows, asphalt—with plant life, which has been shown to have therapeutic effects. Furthermore, according to the agreement, the district will provide an attorney for immigrant families as part of an Immigrant Defense Fund initiative.

While teachers find many of these changes promising, the circumstances surrounding voting were somewhat contentious. Because UTLA teachers learned of the contract the same day they were expected to vote, “several members were upset about voting so quickly,” said Rustin. “I wouldn’t have minded having an extra day to vote, but I also understand the need to return to work ASAP.” Relatedly, some organized impromptu meetings to discuss the contract and the merits of voting either way.

Whatever the outcome of the new terms, teachers agree much more work remains on the local, state and national levels—especially as educators in Denver and Oakland are preparing for potential strikes in response to public-school funding issues—and are returning to the classroom intent on keeping the struggle alive. In the meantime, they look forward to a fairer—and more galvanized—labor landscape. “The future of public education depends on making informed decisions about charter schools versus community schools,” said Rustin. “We were successful in calling attention to this.”

“Teachers have been beat down,” UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said at a press conference on Tuesday night. “One of the things we’re most proud of is that this campaign… had our members say, ‘I deserve better.’”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

Here’s Why LA Teachers Are Walking Out in a Historic Strike

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

After nearly two years of bargaining, public-school teachers in Los Angeles have initiated a strike in protest of their district’s policies. Starting today, teachers are picketing outside of their workplaces, underscoring an inveterate lack of investment in public schools made worse by a pro-charter-school “austerity agenda.”

From April of 2017 to January of this year, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA)—which represents more than 35,000 teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)—had been in negotiations with the district, and eventually reached an impasse. The union’s proposals address grievances including preferential funding for charter schools, and such related problems as inflated class size, inadequate support for special and bilingual education, and excessive standardized testing.

The strike is the culmination of a protracted battle against the de facto privatization brought on by the growth of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated—that is, independent of local school board regulations. In Los Angeles County, charter-school enrollment has risen 35.7 percent since 2012 to 2013, rendering the county, among dozens of others in California, one of the fastest-growing hubs of charter-school education.

In recent years, Los Angeles charter-school advocates have generated unprecedented financing: Pro-charter groups, for example, were responsible for more than two-thirds of the $14.3 million in campaign spending in a May, 2017, LAUSD school board election. That election saw pro-charter candidates clinch a majority and, the following year, appoint former investment banker and deputy mayor Austin Beutner as superintendent.

Much of this growth can be attributed to charters currying favor with Wall Street and Silicon Valley as grounds for tax breaks, real-estate investments, and business opportunities. In Los Angeles specifically, charter schools have become the pet projects of prominent billionaires, including Netflix chief Reed Hastings and real-estate developer and financier Eli Broad.

UTLA contends that the political climate of the school board has stripped traditional public schools of funding. A 2016 report commissioned by the union found that charters had siphoned $591 million from traditional public schools. The union also says that the district has $1.86 billion in “unrestricted” reserves, which UTLA claims can be used to fund LAUSD’s public schools. Beutner argues that the reserve funds exist, but are already being spent.

According to UTLA treasurer Alex Orozco, there’s no evidence the reserve funds have been spent, and the current distribution of funds has bred untenable student-to-teacher ratios. Orozco told In These Times that he visits schools with average class sizes in the 40s—a number that LAUSD’s own statistics for middle- and high-school classes confirm.

Beutner responded to these concerns via an article in the Los Angeles Times, proposing “to add teachers and reduce class size at 15 middle schools and 75 elementary schools in communities that have the highest needs.” UTLA holds that this falls short. “You can just feel the disrespect,” Orozco said. “The proposal that he put out addressed class size, which in the 16 months that we were in negotiations, not once did they address class size. But they addressed class size at the bare minimum, which is focusing on our neediest schools.”

Availability of essential personnel outside the classroom, including nurses, librarians, counselors and school psychologists, has also been compromised. For the 2014 to 2015 fiscal year, California ranked as the worst state in student-to-teacher librarian ratios. Meanwhile, California suffers a troubling shortage of school nurses. UTLA maintains that nearly 40 percent of LAUSD public schools have a nurse for only one day a week. According to Orozco, many schools are forced to pay out of pocket for a nurse.

This scarcity disproportionately affects students with disabilities and special needs, who may benefit from more regular visits. After appointments, nurses and school psychologists “are spending a lot of time doing paperwork,” says special-education teacher and UTLA rank-and-file member Allison Johnson. “So if they’re only there one day a week, then how much time are they actually getting to provide care for the students?”

Johnson’s concerns raise questions about the district’s support for students who depend on accommodations for disabilities, language barriers, and other needs. Traditional public schools are legally required to provide for these students. Charter schools, however, aren’t held to the same standards. A report from the Los Angeles Board of Education found that, as of 2014, the percentage of total LAUSD charter students with severe disabilities was less than one-third that of traditional district schools.

Another symptom of charterization, UTLA says, is an excess of standardized testing. According to UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl, the district requires up to 18 discretionary standardized tests—despite mounting nationwide criticism of standardized testing—in addition to those mandated by the federal and state governments. Orozco told In These Times that these tests are administered so frequently in order to generate school performance data, which can be leveraged into justifications for charter models.

Tests “make it very easy for the charters to come and privatize our schools based on this data that was collected by these exams that really are not necessary,” he said. “We want our teachers to be able to use their professional judgment and assess the kids in many other different ways.”

When contacted for comment, LAUSD referred In These Times to its website, which includes the following statement: “We hear our teachers and want to work with them. Los Angeles Unified and teachers agree—smaller class sizes, more teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians in schools would make our schools better. We know teachers deserve to be paid more and a working environment where kids can have the best possible education.”

In addition to its class-size reduction proposal, LAUSD has offered a six-percent pay raise to teachers, back pay for the 2017 to 2018 year, and no changes to their health benefits. In anticipation of a strike, the district has already hired 400 non-union substitute teachers for its more than 600,000 students.

Still, UTLA, frustrated by “20 months of fruitless bargaining and lies and manipulation,” as well as Beutner’s and other criticism in the media of the educators for their demands and decision to strike, feel this is far from enough. Echoing the concerns of many of her colleagues, Johnson argues that while a strike isn’t ideal, teachers have been left with no choice.

“It’s not about the raise,” she said. “People are mad. They want things to change. They want the profession to be respected and to have what we need to be able to function as educators.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

Arizona teachers win some added education funding

Friday, May 4th, 2018

On the sixth day of their walkout, Arizona teachers have won a partial but real victory, as the state legislature pass and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill including a substantial pay raise for many teachers and an increase in education funding. The increase, though—$100 million in what Ducey calls “flexible dollars to improve our public education system”—falls far, far short of what teachers were calling for:

“The people down here, a lot of them, don’t listen to our voices,” said Noah Karvelis. He is one of the organizers of Arizona Educators United, the group that crafted the #RedForEd movement that, along with the Arizona Education Association, organized the strike that began last Thursday.

“They don’t respond,” Karvelis continued. “If they did, we’d have $1.1 billion for education in this budget.”

Legislative Republicans brushed aside Democratic efforts to include school support staff in the teacher pay raise, to require one counselor for every 250 students, to limit class size, and to pay for increased education funding by “phasing out some tax exemptions and eliminating the ability of individuals and corporations to divert some of what they owe in state income taxes to help children attend private and parochial schools.”

Many teachers expressed disappointment about what isn’t in the bill. And they should. The additional funding still leaves Arizona schools behind where they were in 2008, and lawmakers didn’t establish solid, responsible revenue sources for school funding. But it’s still a win in the sense that, without teacher activism, there would have been zero progress.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on May 3, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

3 states where teachers could go on strike next

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018

As thousands of teachers in Arizona and Colorado mark their second day of walkouts Friday, there are also rumblings of possible strikes in other states, with educators throughout the country demanding more funding and higher pay.

Teachers in Arizona will brave 98-degree heat to march to the state Capitol for the second time this week. In Colorado, educators will also march to the state Capitol and they’re using their personal days to do so, leading roughly 30 school districts to close as a result. Only one school district in Colorado voted to officially go on strike, but they cannot take action until the state’s education agency decides by May 4 whether to try to broker a resolution with teachers.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) announced a proposal earlier this month to raise teacher pay by 20 percent by 2020, but teachers have said that amount is insufficient. Ducey said on Wednesday that he won’t offer the educators anything more, according to the Arizona Daily Star. “And it’s time to move on,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Republican lawmakers introduced a measure that would forbid public school teachers and unions from going on strike and threatening them with fines, jail time, and termination if they violate the terms. The measure has little chance of becoming law, but its introduction alone highlights the hostile environment in which teachers find themselves.

Following teacher actions in West VirginiaJersey CityOklahoma, and Kentucky in recent weeks, Colorado and Arizona have become the latest battlegrounds for education funding. But they likely won’t be the last. Louisiana, North Carolina, and Nevada are all experiencing disputes over education funding. As ThinkProgress’ Casey Quinlan previously reported, in most of these states, school funding is still far below what it was before the Great Recession of 2008.

Here’s a look at where walkouts and strikes could happen next:

North Carolina

Nearly 800 teachers in Durham have requested personal leave on May 16 to travel to the state legislature to call for higher school funding, pay raises, and reductions in class size, local NBC affiliate WRAL reported Thursday.

The Durham Association of Educators said they would request that the Durham Public Schools board cancel classes on that day.

A 2017 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) listed North Carolina as one of seven states which, since the Great Recession, not only cut general funding — which supports elementary and secondary schools — but also enacted income tax rate cuts costing the state $3.5 billion a year, making it “nearly impossible for North Carolina to restore these education cuts, let alone make new investments.”

Today, North Carolina ranks 40th in the country when it comes to education funding, 43rd when it comes to per-pupil funding, and 35th when it comes to teacher salaries, with average pay only recently breaking the $50,000 mark long promisedby state lawmakers.

Louisiana

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers is currently surveying its teachers to determine their willingness to go on strike to win “significant pay raises.” The results of the survey are expected to be released next month, but many educators have already expressed frustration over their salaries, which ranks as one of the lowest in the country.

According to the CBPP, per-pupil funding in Louisiana dropped more than 12 percent from 2008 to 2015. Like North Carolina and other states, tax cuts are largely to blame. Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) cut income taxes and increased corporate tax breaks, leading state revenue to drop dramatically.

The state consistently ranks last in the country when it comes to quality of public education.

Nevada

Talks of rallying in Nevada have started gaining traction, with at least one school district calling on lawmakers to find a solution to the school’s poor funding and low salaries.

While strikes are illegal in Nevada, teachers at the Clark County School District in Las Vegas were frustrated during a press conference Thursday, asking state officials to use extra funding from the state’s recreational marijuana tax to fund higher wages. Currently, that money goes to the state’s “rainy day” fund, and not to the schools.

“In states such as Arizona, Oklahoma and Kentucky, teachers associations are rallying and protesting to the governors and legislators at state capitols because that’s where the money for raises comes from,” said Linda E. Young, of the Board of School Trustees, according to a local NBC affiliate. “It’s time for us to rally together in Nevada to give our teachers and other employees the raises they deserve…”

Nevada is one of six states that drastically cut capital spending used to build, renovate, and equip schools with resources. Between 2008 and 2015, Nevada cut capital spending by a whopping 82 percent, according to the CBPP. The state’s student-to-teacher ratio also rose during that time, from 18:3 to 21:2. Per-pupil spending in Nevada ranks in the bottom 10 in the country.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Elham Khatami is an associate editor at ThinkProgress. Previously, she worked as a grassroots organizer within the Iranian-American community. She also served as research manager, editor, and reporter during her five-year career at CQ Roll Call. Elham earned her Master of Arts in Global Communication at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and her bachelor’s degree in writing and political science at the University of Pittsburgh.

Colorado Republican bill would jail teachers for walking out

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

Colorado teachers are getting ready to join the wave of teacher walkouts to fight for pay raises and increased education funding—and two Republican lawmakers want to jail the teachers for their activism.

The bill, SB18-264, would prohibit public school teacher strikes by authorizing school districts to seek an injunction from district court. A failure to comply with the injunction would “constitute contempt of court” and teachers could face not only fines but up to six months in county jail, the bill language reads.

The bill also directs school districts to fire teachers on the spot without a proper hearing if they’re found in contempt of court and also bans public school teachers from getting paid “for any day which the public school teacher participates in a strike.”

Presumably state Rep. Paul Lundeen and state Sen. Bob Gardner have not read the polls showing widespread support for teacher walkouts and an even more widespread sentiment that teachers are underpaid. Or maybe they have read the polls and they just don’t care how unpopular their jail-the-teachers bill would be.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 23, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Arizona teachers could be next to go on strike

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

Arizona teachers will begin voting on whether to strike on Tuesday. The voting will go on for three days.

Although Gov. Doug Ducey (R) announced a proposal to raise teacher pay by 20 percent by 2020, which state lawmakers will debate this week, teachers say his proposal doesn’t address education cuts over the past decade or large classroom sizes across the state.

Teachers are leaving the state for higher salaries and smaller classroom sizes and there are too many teacher vacancies as a result, teachers told ThinkProgress’ Elham Khatami last week. Last year, there were 8,600 teacher vacancies and 62 percent of those vacancies were vacant or being taken by people who couldn’t qualify for a teaching certificate, according to the Arizona Republic.

Arizona had the most devastating cuts over the past decade, according to a 2017 Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report on education funding since the Great Recession. State funding per student fell by 36.6 percent between 2008 and 2015, more than any other state.

On April 11, thousands of teachers participated in a statewide walk-in to ask for more education funding and higher salaries. In addition to the 20 percent raise they requested, they want to implement a permanent salary structure, offer competitive pay for educational support staff, stop new tax cuts until the state’s per pupil funding reaches the national average, and restore education funding to 2008 levels.

Arizona Educators United, a coalition of teachers, administrators, and education support professionals, organized the vote. Derek Harris, a member of the coalition’s leadership team and a band teacher at Tuscon Unified School District, said the group wants to see support from all over the state, according to Tuscon.com.

He said organizers want something more than a simple majority, but they don’t have a firm threshold for a vote. Teachers will vote before and after school hours. One of the members of the coalition leadership team, Kelley Fisher, a kindergarten teacher at Las Brisas Elementary School, showed teachers how to make a secure ballot box in a video on the group’s Facebook page.

“I am a creative arts teacher so I had to include some glitter but that’s not required,” she added.

Teachers on the coalition’s leadership team named the reasons why the governor’s proposal is not sufficient, such as the lack of detail on where funding for the raises will come from. Teachers also said a proposal should include more education funding to improve students’ quality of education.

“My students deserve to have repairs on their building and working plumbing and holes in walls patched,” Harris said in the group’s Facebook video published on Monday.

Harris laid out a plan for teachers over the next week for the voting process and next steps over the weekend, such as community organization meetings across the state.

“You will be breaking into canvassing teams, organizing house meetings, and really moving into the next step to get the community on our side,” Harris said. “So this week, let’s try to stay very attentive to what’s going on. We’re saying this week is #RedAlert, because if the legislature does something funny we want to make sure that you’re paying attention and ready to do anything that may need to be done.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits

Most Americans think teachers are underpaid. Here's the graph that shows how right they are.

Friday, April 6th, 2018

Are teachers underpaid? Teacher pay has been in the news recently as a wave of teacher walkouts and strikes has hit red states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and a recent CBS News poll found that most people say yes. Overall, 68 percent of people said teachers were underpaid, but there were striking regional differences, with just 60 percent of people in the northeast agreeing while 76 percent in the south said so. Turns out, whatever state you live in, if you think your state’s teachers are underpaid, you’re right. An Economic Policy Institute analysis shows that:

Over the last two decades, teachers are contributing more and more toward health care and retirement costs as their pay falls further behind. Teacher pay (accounting for inflation) actually fell by $30 per week from 1996 to 2015, while pay for other college graduates increased by $124. In short, the teacher pay gap—the difference between what teachers earn in weekly wages compared with similarly educated and experienced workers—has widened significantly. Even when accounting for benefits, the teacher compensation gap increased by 9 percentage points, to 11.1 percent over that same time frame.

Teacher pay gaps vary considerably across the United States as indicated in the figure.1 The figure below shows within-state ratios of public school teachers to other college graduates. The ratio for the overall United States is 0.77, meaning that, on average, teachers earn just 77 percent of what other college graduates earn in weekly wages. Arizona (0.63) has the lowest ratio (the largest pay gap), while Wyoming (0.99) has the highest ratio (the smallest pay gap).

Check out how your state’s teachers are doing on the graph below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

The Oklahoma Teachers’ Strike Is a Mutiny Against Austerity

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Oklahoma teachers proudly marked themselves absent from school since Monday, and they had an excellent excuse: They made themselves present in politics instead, with a historic march on the Capitol in hopes of finally capturing the legislature’s undivided attention

Lawmakers thought they could eke through another austerity budget with the last-minute addition of a $6,100 wage hike. But an estimated 30,000 educators stopped work starting Monday to force some 200 schools to shutter, in order to send the message to elected representatives that their gesture is insufficient. The planned raise paled against teachers’ demands for a fully funded school budget, as part of a $3.3 billion package to restore massive cutbacks across state agencies, as well as the basic dignity of a living wage for all state workers.

Following a decade of bruising austerity, the numbers still don’t add up for Oklahoma schools. They lead the nation in annual budget cuts, and rank 45th in funding equity levels and 46th in academic performance, according to recent national rankings. With pay scales for teachers statewide frozen since the recession, salaries have declined in real terms to rank near dead last in the country.

Cathy Benge, a library media specialist at Longfellow Middle School in Enid, calculates the average age of a book in her library’s collection is 40, while many textbooks are 10 to 12 years old. This leaves her middle schoolers with crumbling textbooks about as old as they are. “Our services are being cut to the core,” she said.

As a 15-year veteran educator and a parent of three herself, Benge notes that, while teachers appreciate the short-term bonus, they’ll accept nothing less than real long-term security, including parallel raises for school staff and cost-of-living adjustments for pensions. And fundamentally, their rebellion isn’t about wages, but respect for themselves and the young people they educate. “We are walking to advocate for our students,” she says. “Our students are being robbed of a properly funded education.”

Even with the proposed pay hike, teachers’ salaries are still devastatingly low, despite being years into the economic “recovery.” With the 15 to 18 percent salary boost offered by state lawmakers, a typical teacher’s pay would reach the $40,000 tier only after eight years. That still trails the estimated annual living-wage income for a family of four with one working parent in Tulsa County, according to the MIT living-wage calculator. By comparison, workers in the construction and extractive industries often earn about the same amount. But while school budgets have bled nearly $200 million since 2009, the fossil-fuel industry receives special protections and subsidies, including rock-bottom tax rates.

The state’s austerity axe delivers daily punishment to a struggling student population: The proportion of special needs and English-language-learner children has soared in Oklahoma in recent years, according to the OEA, and the majority of kids are so impoverished they need subsidized lunches.

Not even educators like Rae Lovelace are spared. “If I didn’t have a second job, I’d be on food stamps” she told CBS at the Capitol. To cover her family’s basic needs, the English teacher splits her class time between third graders at her northwest Oklahoma school and the distance-learning students of an online charter school. The state’s extraordinarily high teacher turnover rate shows that many are opting to leave their job to for higher-paying sectors or teaching jobs in other states.

Benge witnesses this grim civics lesson playing out locally in her small city of Enid. Her library’s budget, after shrinking for several years, was just zeroed out. Understaffing in paraprofessional support staff across the public school system, she adds, leaves teachers overwhelmed with classes often exceeding 30 students. And the students are coming from households facing parallel deficits in welfare and healthcare supports, due to state’s massive divestment from family social services, on top of education cuts.

No wonder many other civil servants rallied in solidarity with this over-stressed, mostly woman public workforce. Schools are on the front lines of so many overlapping unmet needs, Benge explained. “If [children] have trauma going on in their lives at  home, and [Department of Human Services] doesn’t have enough case workers or foster care to help them out,” she said, “then they’re not in place where they’re prepared to learn the next day.”

Noting that her colleagues have stretched their paychecks to buy students the shoes or eyeglasses they otherwise could not afford, Benge says, “I cannot in good conscience sit and not do anything. Do I have to feed them? No, I don’t, but I can’t not.”

Lawmakers should have seen the revolt coming. Weeks ago the OEA published online polling results showing that if the state failed to provide living wages and full funding “for education and core government services,” organized school closures and mass walkouts to the Capitol would be supported by overwhelming majorities of teachers, students and parents.

The Oklahoma rebellion caps a wave of mass mobilizations in the past few weeks, including similar wildcat actions in West Virginia and, more recently, Kentucky, with potential strikes brewing in Arizona. The uprisings evoke a decades-old tradition of teachers’ labor militancy. Yet the latest eruptions signify a bold new anti-austerity resistance, fueled by an undercurrent of simmering left-wing backlash in Trump Country.

Weak union power and overarching right-to-work policies in Republican-dominated Oklahoma mean any mass political action carries risks, especially given the sensitive nature of schools’ role in the community. Teachers’ strikes are essentially “wildcat” in Red States like West Virginia and Oklahoma, where educators are legally restricted from striking and have anemic union protections. The political constraints on workers’ collective actions—which may presage the gutting of public-sector union protections in the upcoming Janus Supreme Court case—could have a radicalizing impact. When the rules can’t contain them, teachers have no choice but to write their own, including grassroots work stoppages.

Meanwhile, some teachers are even schooling political elites: A major progressive surge in last September’s special election launched Oklahoma educator Jacob Rosecrants from the classroom to the State House in a key swing seat.

“A lot of teachers and educators that I listened to today feel like we are being pacified, or patronized, or placated—any of those wonderful ‘P’ words,” said Benge. “They’re patting us on the heads and saying, ‘Okay, here you go. Now be happy and go away.”

But unlike many legislators who budget year-to-year with a cynical eye toward voting cycles, Benge takes the long view on educational investment. “The students that have these gaps in their education, it’s going to take a long time to fill those gaps, if we’re fortunate enough to make it up,” she says. “They haven’t been in school ever in Oklahoma with a fully funded education program.”

In this year’s budget battle, Benge adds, “The pay raise is much appreciated, but it is one block of accomplishment in a marathon of problems.” The rallies at the Capitol this week just mark one step in teachers’ long march toward equity.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

Teacher strikes close schools across Oklahoma and Kentucky

Monday, April 2nd, 2018

The red-state teachers rebellion that started in West Virginia continues to grow, with teachers in Kentucky and Oklahoma walking out on Monday after the Kentucky teachers shut down schools in nearly two dozen counties on Friday. In Oklahoma, dozens of school districts have announced closures for Monday, and many Kentucky schools are closed as well.

The Kentucky teachers are protesting a sudden retirement overhaul, while Oklahoma teachers are fighting for increased investment in their schools even after lawmakers voted them a substantial pay increase.

This package does not overcome a shortfall that has caused four-day weeks and overcrowded classrooms that deprive kids of the one-on-one attention they need,” Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said in a video posted on Facebook. “We must keep fighting for everything our students deserve.”

Arizona teachers, too, are calling both for pay raises and for increased education funding—and planning to take action if they don’t see improvements. Music teacher Noah Karvelis told NPR that he often has 40 students in a classroom with just seven pianos, and “The math just doesn’t add up. There’s no way to reach those kids. Every day you’re going home and you’re just feeling like, I failed. I failed these students. And that’s honestly the worst possible feeling any teacher could ever have.”

There’s a simple explanation for the education underfunding:

  • Arizona cut personal income tax rates by 10 percent in 2006, cut corporate tax rates by 30 percent in 2011, reduced taxes on capital gains, and reduced taxes in other ways over the last couple of decades.
  • Oklahoma cut personal income tax rates starting in 2004. The top income tax rate fell from 6.65 percent to 5 percent, with the latest drop taking effect in 2016 even as the state faced a $1 billion shortfall. Oklahoma also substantially reduced its severance tax on oil and gas, increased tax exemptions for retirement and military income, exempted capital gains income from taxation, and abolished the estate tax.

Disrespect for teachers is certainly at play in Republican-controlled states that pay salaries that leave teachers working second, third, and even sixth jobs, but it’s not just that. It’s also disrespect for students combined with short-term thinking that will harm people and economies. But hey, rich people will have really low taxes.

And that’s why teachers are fighting.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

West Virginia Teachers Are Now Out on a Wildcat Strike. The Labor Movement Should Follow Their Lead.

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

In a bright spot among an otherwise bleak landscape for labor, over 15,000 teachers and school support employees in all 55 West Virginia counties have been out on strike for seven days, as they and supporters from around the state continue to flood the capitol in Charleston, W.V., demanding higher pay and affordable healthcare.

Bucking a deal struck between the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) and the state government, school workers have defied both union leadership and state law, which affords them no right to strike and does not recognize their right to collectively bargain. These restrictions haven’t stopped West Virginia educators from leading what may be one of the most important labor actions in years.

With “right-to-work” laws spreading across the country, and a Janus Supreme Court decision that could decimate public-sector unions on the horizon, striking teachers are offering a blueprint for how to win when the odds are stacked against labor: Strike, win and then keep striking to win more—no matter what union leaders say.

The walkout in West Virginia has now become what’s known as a wildcat strike: A mass work action carried out by the rank-and-file and without the express consent of union leadership. On Tuesday, after agreeing to a five percent raise for teachers and three percent raise for other public-sector workers, WVEA leaders declared victory. But the rank-and-file weren’t having it, breaking out into chants of “We are the union bosses!” and “Back to the table!”

As union members pointed out following the announced “deal,” the pay raise would not protect teachers from the rising costs of the state employee health plan, administered by the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA). Plans have become increasingly expensive over the last several years, all while teacher pay has remained low, currently ranked 48th in the country.

Media outlets announced that classes statewide would be back in session by Thursday, but dissatisfied union teachers decided to stay out on strike. As of Friday, schools in all 55 counties in West Virginia remain closed, and the strike carries on.

In some ways, it makes sense that Appalachian workers may be showing the way forward to fight the boss in the era of Trump and Janus. While this is the first statewide action for teachers and school support workers, West Virginia has a long history of rank and file militancy—under conditions far tougher than those facing workers today.

In the early 20th century, miners in Appalachia faced some of the most dangerous workplace hazards in any industry. While many miners around the country were unionized, largely by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), West Virginia miners attempted to organize a union for years, only to be met with violence and blacklisting. By 1919, conditions at mines around the country had reached a breaking point, and the UMWA declared a national strike. The fact that West Virginia coal mines were nonunion limited the action’s impact nationwide, leading the UMWA to commit to making serious inroads into the state.

Over the course of two years, the conflict between miners and mine operators in West Virginia escalated into what can only be described as a war. Some of the workers involved were fresh off of fighting in World War I, and applied their military training to form armed militias in order to ward off hired company security and industry-friendly local law enforcement. This period saw the Battle of Blair Mountain, a bloody conflict between coal miners, law enforcement and strikebreakers that became the largest labor uprising in U.S. history. The battle only subsided when federal troops were sent in, forcing both sides to lay down their arms.

On February 25, State Senator Richard Ojeda III—a vocal supporter of the teachers’ strike now running for a House seat in West Virginia’s 3rd District, which includes the state’s southern coalfields—wrote a long thread on Twitter connecting recent events back to West Virginia’s history as a site of labor struggle. Ojeda writes that the strike (known as #55strong, referring to the number of counties in the state) has become “a fight for the soul and spirit of West Virginia that started hundreds of years ago,” when “investors came to West Virginia and purchased most of the land for all but nothing.”

He notes the slave-like treatment that faced African Americans and immigrants who were brought in to work the mines, as well as the elaborate systems of debt peonage engineered by mine operators to keep workers dependent on their bosses. “So our miners decided they wanted to unionize,” Ojeda writes, “And they fought and died for that right in one of the largest labor uprisings in the United States.”

The same areas that were at the center of the mining wars—Mingo, Logan and Wyoming counties—are also some of the poorest in the state, and, as Cathy Kunkel writes at Jacobin, in early February they were among the first to stage one-day teacher walk-outs.

Throughout U.S. history, militant unionism and mass strikes have opened up the space for unions to make demands that reach far beyond the scope of the workplace. In the lead-up to the Battle of Blair Mountain, for instance, UMWA members talked excitedly about the prospect of shortening the workweek and nationalizing the mines. And it was the strength of organized labor—indeed, the threat of open revolt—that managed to put labor protections on the national agenda and get redistributive, worker-friendly programs enacted during the New Deal era and beyond.

While a slew of left-leaning candidates are running for office this year, it’s unlikely that progressive politicians alone will cleave open the space for transformative changes in the economy, or follow through on promises made on the campaign trail, without consistent outside pressure.

Teachers and nurses are two of the country’s most heavily unionized professions. They also stand to be hardest hit when right-wing politicians attack the public sphere. But even if the Supreme Court rules against labor in Janus, which could kneecap public-sector union budgets, strikes like the one being carried out by rank-and-file teachers in West Virginia can set a tone of militancy against austerity.

Such actions also have the potential to spur workers to lay out their own vision for a society that truly values working people, to which they can then hold politicians accountable. And they can help push union leadership to keep fighting, marshaling resources toward genuinely progressive ends rather than grasping onto whatever demands they can eek out of hostile state governments.

It’s not uncommon to hear union organizers say the most successful campaigns happen in the places where the fight is the hardest: where the bosses are jerks and the pay sucks. Under Trump and, likely soon, Janus, that may well soon describe the whole country. West Virginia workers past and present have offered one hell of a roadmap to navigate such a future.

 This article was originally published at In These Times on March 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times covering the politics of climate change, the White House transition and the resistance to Trump’s agenda. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff
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