Round 2 of teacher strikes looks beyond pay and funding

Posted at 1:17 PM, Feb 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-22 13:17:24-05

Teachers in Oakland, California, hit the picket lines just as West Virginia teachers went back to class in a kind of coast-to-coast tag-team display of the national teacher unrest that in many places has moved beyond pay to politics, tackling issues like charter schools and vouchers.

Call it round two of the teacher mobilizations that began last spring as grassroots revolts in conservative-leaning states over salaries and school funding.

The most recent actions, including a union-led strike in liberal Los Angeles, have been as much about pushing back on charter schools and other school choice reforms — initiatives that have a history of bipartisan support but have long been decried by unions as threats to the traditional public school system.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the strikes this year are more important than actions that sought pay increases last year because teachers are pushing back on efforts to silence them.

"So what's different is that this year, people stuck together to say we're defending public education and we're defending our role and our voice in helping children and I am so proud of them for doing that," Weingarten said in an interview.

In West Virginia, teachers walked out this week for the second time in a year, this time over proposed legislation that would have created the state's first charter schools and allowed education savings accounts for parents to pay for private school. Proponents said the moves, which did not pass, would have given parents more school choices. Teachers saw it as retaliation for their walkout last year.

"I can't understand how the Republican leaders thought that this was going to be OK with us," said Christi Phillips, a first-grade teacher in Mill Creek, West Virginia.

In Oakland, teachers went on strike Thursday seeking a raise, smaller class sizes and the hiring of more full-time nurses and school counselors. The union also has called for the district to scrap plans to close as many as 24 schools that serve primarily African-American and Latino students, fearing further students will be lost to charter schools.

The Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education last month approved a resolution asking the state to put new charter schools on hold while the state studies their effects, a measure sought by teachers involved in a six-day strike.

The walkout strategy so far has led to successes: In addition to pay raises, teachers in Los Angeles won promises for more counselors and nurses, Denver teachers got a revamped pay scale and Kentucky teachers fought changes to the pension system.

MORE: Kentucky GOP trying again with teacher pension bill

"Even when teachers are not on strike, the potential for their mobilization is having impact," said UCLA education professor John Rogers, noting that Kentucky lawmakers this week let die a bill to create a funding stream for charter schools. "It's hard not to make sense of that without thinking that there was some concern about pushback from the teachers union."

The teachers have won support in part by framing the walkouts as actions in defense of the common good of public education. Experts say it is uncertain whether the public will continue to encourage the disruptions to schools, especially if the actions take on more of a political tone.

While teacher pay is not seen through a partisan lens, charter schools often are, especially since President Donald Trump's appointment of choice advocate Betsy DeVos as education secretary, said Michael Hansen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

"There is a real risk that teachers are going to cut off some of their public support, particularly in a red state like West Virginia," Hansen said.

UCLA's Rogers said teachers so far have avoided overplaying their hand by articulating that their demands are not just for themselves but also their students.

"As long as the teachers are able to claim and claim in a persuasive way that they're serving the broader public interest, that's pretty compelling," he said. "That's been what has resonated."

At a hearing Friday on West Virginia teacher pay raises, one parent, Tiffany Steele of Charleston, said educators deserve higher pay because they so often do more than expected to help children in a state hit hard by a drug epidemic. Another parent, Kathie Crouse of Charleston, said teachers who go on strike shouldn't get raises.

"We should not be giving into unions that seem to be running this state now," Crouse said.