Arizona and Colorado last week became the fourth and fifth states in two months to see public school teachers walk off the job to protest poor pay and underfunded classrooms.
In February, West Virginia teachers went on strike for nine days before winning a 5 percent pay increase. A nine-day strike in Oklahoma ended when support staff and teachers were promised a pay increase, and the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin agreed to new or higher taxes on oil and gas production, tobacco and motor fuels to help fund schools.
In early April, Kentucky teachers walked out of their classrooms and rallied at the state capitol to protest a bill that cut education funding and teacher pensions. That prompted Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who previously referred to teachers as “selfish and short-sighted” people with a “thug mentality,” to tell reporters that “somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them.” Under fire from legislators, he later walked back that comment.
Now Arizona and Colorado teachers walked off the job Thursday and Friday to demand an increase in school funding. A right-to-work state, Arizona doesn’t allow teachers to collectively bargain, and teachers could lose their teaching credentials if they participate in a statewide strike.
However, 78 percent of the members of the Arizona Education Association voted to walk out. This came after Republican Gov. Doug Ducey offered to give teachers a 20 percent pay increase by 2020 but failed to offer a realistic way to do so.
Michael Hansen of the Brookings Institute points to the reasons for the teacher walkouts.
First, teachers earn salaries lower than comparably educated professionals. In Arizona, teachers make about 63 cents on the dollar compared to other college graduates.
Secondly, reductions during the Great Recession have further depressed average salaries. According to Education Department data, teachers last year earned less than they did in 1990 after adjusting for inflation.
Finally, per-pupil spending was also slashed during the Great Recession, and 29 states have not yet returned to pre-recession funding levels. Since the beginning of the strikes, teachers all over the country have posted pictures of moldy classrooms and outdated, worn textbooks and have detailed the school supplies they buy annually with their personal money.
What looks like a current crisis has been years in the making, the result of policies of cutting taxes, reducing services and starving public education of adequate operating expenses. Hansen argues that North Carolina and South Carolina, like other red states controlled by Republican legislatures, might also see teacher walkouts unless funding and pay improve. In fact, many North Carolina teachers plan to take a personal day May 16 to be present at the opening of the spring session of the Legislature. Their presence will be a forceful reminder that our children’s education matters — or at least, it should.
Legislatures tempted to dismiss the recent strikes as anomalies should reconsider. The Women’s March, the #MeToo movement, the student rallies against gun violence all signal a new activism in the country. Teachers, in particular, are advocates not just for themselves but for their students.
“None of us went to school, none of us spent money on tuition, on books, none of us spend our time and our energy not to care,” Nancy Maglio, a middle school teacher in Tucson told PBS NewsHour. “We went into a field where caring is mandatory.”