By Sean Larson, Hannah Utain-Evans, Mike Ehrenreich and Alan Maass
The teachers’ rebellion is sweeping west from Appalachia through the Midwest and across the Great Plains and it shows little sign of stopping there.
Less than a month after West Virginia teachers won a victory after their statewide walkout shut down schools in all 55 counties, educators and other school workers were on strike across the states of Oklahoma and Kentucky on April 2, and thousands of people gathered for protests in the state capitals of Oklahoma City and Frankfort.
In Oklahoma, the main issues are pay and funding for schools. Educators have the lowest average annual salary in the country, and learning conditions for students have reached crisis levels.
The Republican-dominated state government acknowledged the injustice of paying school workers less than a living wage when it enacted a law that goes part of the way toward meeting their demands.
But teachers are holding out for a $10,000 increase over three years, along with $5,000 raises for bus drivers, custodians and other staff, and the restoration of more than $100 million in cuts to the schools budget since 2008. In addition, public workers are pressing for their own salary increase of $7,500 over three years.
At the demonstration at the Capitol building, one biology teacher out at the protest with her students from Oklahoma City said she took a $40,000-a-year pay cut moving to Oklahoma from Illinois when her husband took a job there.
But teachers and protesters on Monday repeatedly emphasized that this struggle was about much more than a pay raise–and that they would keep struggling the next day and after until their demands were addressed.
Teacher after teacher relayed horrific stories about conditions in their schools. Tom, a history and English teacher in Oklahoma City, said that there aren’t enough textbooks to assign students homework at his school–students have to share the books during class.
Donna, Jeremy and Brandon from McAlester and Tulsa said that the law passed by the legislature–which gives teachers and other workers part of the raise they asked for, but doesn’t restore education funding cuts–isn’t good enough. “Our schools are dilapidated,” Donna said. “There’s flooding and mice everywhere, and we desperately need updated textbooks.”
Teachers from Luther reported they have “reading time” every day, when the lights are shut off and students have to use flashlights–so the school can save on the power bill.
Jessica Lightle and her husband Jason from McAlester had more to say about conditions in their schools: Technology textbooks in the district are from 1999, teachers bring their furniture from home, flooding has eroded the walls and mold creeps everywhere. “Once a ceiling tile fell through, and a bird’s nest fell out onto a student’s desk,” one said.
With the strike and protest coming the day after Easter, one popular sign affixed to the stage of the student speak-out read: “He is Risen! Just like our class sizes!”
The 2017-18 school year started with 480 teaching positions cut from the budget and another 536 positions vacant. And that was much better than the previous year, when more than 1,500 teacher positions were cut.
The result, of course, is more students funneled into fewer classrooms–class sizes are up to 35 students per teacher, and the dependence on emergency-certified teachers has increased by 10 percent across the districts.
In Kentucky, the struggle erupted over the state legislature’s sneak attack on pensions.
Last Thursday night, lawmakers passed legislation, crafted in secrecy, that would abolish teachers’ defined-benefit pension plan and replace it with a system where benefits could go up and down with the financial markets. The number of years teachers have to work to qualify was also increased. Republican leaders of the state House slipped in the pension vote in place of a planned discussion on a bill to fund sewer construction.
Kentucky public school teachers don’t get Social Security, so their pensions are their only hope for a decent retirement. Gov. Matt Bevin has indicated he will sign the pension legislation.
Furious teachers stayed away from work the next day, and more than 500 flooded into the state Capitol building to show their opposition.
The strikes and protests continued into the new week, with teachers once again mobilizing to Frankfort. Andrew Beaver, a middle school math teacher in Louisville, told the New York Times: “What I’m seeing in Louisville is teachers are a lot more politically engaged than they were in 2015 or 2016. It really is a wildfire.”
Thousands of teachers and their supporters gathered in front of the Kentucky Education Association headquarters and then marched to the state Capitol. But lawmakers were in the process of pulling another dirty trick–they rammed through a tax “reform” bill that instituted a flat tax and imposed a regressive sales tax on some items.
These underhanded measures are all part of a right-wing agenda to drive down public-sector workers’ wages and benefits, cut taxes for the rich and shift the burden to everyone else, and slash state spending on everything from schools to infrastructure.
Kentucky teachers have also been battling a public education privatization initiative to fund charter schools, which Bevin and the Republicans have championed. The pressure of the mass mobilizations at the Capitol may have convinced lawmakers to back down on charters, according to reports.
But the anger of teachers is running at a fever pitch, and they aren’t going to be silenced.
A rank-and-file revolt
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, the biggest of the country’s two main teachers unions, rightly called the battles taking place today an “education spring.” “This is the civics lesson of our time,” she told the New York Times. “The politicians on both sides of the aisle are rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.”
But it has been rank-and-file teachers, not union officials, who are teaching everyone new lessons.
In West Virginia, it was teachers in the southern counties famous as “Coal Country”–with a militant history of labor struggle to draw on–who first used the “s” word in response to the legislature’s plans for anti-teacher legislation.
Then, several days into the statewide walkout, leaders of the two state-level teachers’ unions stood next to Gov. Jim Justice when he announced an agreement that fell short of teachers’ demands. The opposition from educators to a bad compromise was immediate, and within 24 hours, the strike was back on.
In Oklahoma, the main forces behind educators’ demands and pressure on the union to follow through were two Facebook groups: Oklahoma Teachers United (OTU) and Oklahoma Teacher Walkout –The Time is Now!
OTU was founded by teachers in Tulsa who spread their message of resistance via social media. Both groups won wide support, including among teachers who aren’t union members–a crucial factor in a “right-to-work” state where less than one-third of teachers are members of the Oklahoma Education Association.
The outrage at inhumane school conditions came to the surface when the Facebook groups served as a forum to articulate the feelings that many teachers had been too isolated and hesitant to speak aloud. Mobilization and walkouts were seen as the last resort–but teachers protesting on Monday overwhelmingly felt that conditions demanded action.
A teacher from Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa recounted how her school had long been operating on a shoestring and likened the continuous budget cuts to a story from the Bible: “It’s like when Pharoah said to the overseers that you are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota.”
In all likelihood, the analogy played a role in a sermon at a local church, many of which have organized food distribution and childcare for teachers during the time on strike on Mondy and after. All of the teachers we spoke with on Monday said their communities, parents and students had been extremely supportive.
Student support is critical. At high school walkouts in Broken Arrow and Sand Springs, students recognized that the struggle for teachers’ wages is directly tied to their educational opportunities.
Schools that lack sufficient funds have been forced to cut arts and athletic programs, and to fill teachers’ slots, the rate of teachers with emergency certifications is at record levels. There are more and more classrooms with inexperienced teachers who can only stick around for two years.
Many parents express concern over how they will take care of their kids while the teachers are out protesting, but they support the demands for fully funded public education. One restaurant worker who has been organizing their University of Central Oklahoma classmates said: “There is nobody not in support.”
These networks of support are the shoestring infrastructure that first-time organizers have used to mobilize their co-workers to the capital.
In areas without a union presence–and there are many in this “right-to-work” state–organizers are often longtime respected teachers who were present for the 1990 strike.
In many cases, this “red-state” revolt is making activists and leaders out of people who never thought they would be any such thing. As Jason Lightle put it, “I didn’t choose the activist life, I was forced into it. I chose to become a teacher to read weird books with cool kids, but I was forced to become an activist.”
This was first published by socialistworker.org