Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Profession Opinion

Teacher Strikes Morph from Pocketbook Clash to Partisan Street Theater

By Rick Hess — May 07, 2018 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Well, that didn’t take long: The teacher strikes have quickly gone from a plucky fight over paychecks to an increasingly polarizing progressive crusade over tax and spending policy.

Just a few weeks ago, when the West Virginia walkout blindsided most everyone, the teachers were showered with goodwill. And why not? West Virginia teachers made $45,555 a year in 2016-17, have seen their inflation-adjusted pay fall over time, and sought a modest-sounding five-percent raise. When they were rebuffed at the statehouse and decided to walk off the job to get their humble ask, they saw no pushback.

Superintendents shuttered schools so that teachers didn’t have to actually walk off the job—protecting them from repercussions and ensuring they’d lose no pay. Families scrambled to cope with the headaches and costs posed by nine days of school closure, yet there were no signs of this boiling over into backlash. Republican legislators finally blinked, gave the teachers the pay bump they’d sought, and teachers went back to work.

This was a lunch-bucket job action. The point was clear. The demand was reasonable and easy to understand. And teachers walked off the job as a last resort.

As the focus shifted to Oklahoma and then to Arizona, that proved less and less true. In Oklahoma, after threatening a walkout, teachers received a 16-percent raise—three times the raise earned by their West Virginia colleagues. The teachers then walked out anyway, on behalf of an agenda that included, depending on who was talking, more funds for textbooks, non-teaching staff, and salaries; changes in Oklahoma’s capital gains tax rate; other changes in the tax code; new hires at the State Department of Education, and more. After nearly two weeks out of school, the teachers called off their walkout and returned to work—with no concessions beyond their initial 16-percent raise, and with much of the initial goodwill rubbed off by a school closure that looked increasingly gratuitous.

Arizona picked up where Oklahoma left off. Arizona’s teachers demanded a 20-percent raise—four times what West Virginia’s teachers sought—and threatened a walkout if the state didn’t step up. When the governor rapidly caved and offered up a 20-percent raise over three years, the teachers could have declared a big victory and sternly promised that they’d still walk out if the raise wasn’t enacted into law by a given date. Instead, they walked out anyway, demanding that the state dramatically boost taxes on income and/or services, raise pay for non-teaching staff, hire more teachers, spend more on school maintenance, and so forth. Last week, they returned to work after a six-day walkout, with no wins beyond those they’d won before it started. In a release, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten made it clear that the teacher pay raise was only an opening bid, explaining, “Don’t get us wrong; we appreciate the pay raise. But Arizona has the means not to force districts into these Hobson’s choices. New revenue is needed for both wage hikes and classroom needs.”

It’s no surprise that this pivot—from an easy-to-understand push for better pay to shuttering schools as part of a broader, more partisan-seeming agenda—has been met by increasing pushback. In Arizona, even though the walkout was shorter than in Oklahoma and West Virginia, it generated a lot more grumbling. Arizona’s conservative Goldwater Institute sent letters to superintendents who had closed their schools which threatened legal action if schools weren’t reopened immediately. Arizona’s walkout also showed hints of increasing tensions between teachers and some parents. As one Arizona parent put it, “I supported the teachers’ cause initially, but now, I am so angry with their refusal to fulfill their contractual obligations to my kids.”

For teachers who find such sentiment hard to fathom, they should ask themselves how they’d feel if first responders walked off the job (after being promised a reasonable pay bump) because they objected to their state’s capital gains tax rate. I tend to doubt those ambulance drivers or firemen would be basking in public goodwill for long.

The more that teacher strikes resemble Occupy Wall Street lite—featuring street theater, expansive demands for new spending, and calls for dramatic tax increases—the more likely they are to spur resistance among taxpayers, families, and Republican officials. It may be hard to imagine, given the astonishingly positive initial reception, but the story of these strikes is rapidly morphing from a nonpartisan “support your underpaid teachers” to a highly partisan “Bernie Sanders is right.” And for those teachers who have been told by "#RedforEd” organizers that doubling down on partisan progressive politics-as-usual is a winning political strategy that will unleash torrents of new taxing and spending in right-leaning states like Oklahoma and Arizona, I suspect they’re going to be sorely disappointed.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.