Teaching Profession

Surprise W.Va. Teachers Strike Emboldens Labor Activists Elsewhere

By Daarel Burnette II — March 19, 2018 5 min read
Jennyerin Steele Staats, a special education teacher from Jackson County, W. Va., holds her sign aloft during a rally by striking teachers in late February outside the state capitol in Charleston, W. Va.

West Virginia’s chaotic, unorthodox—and, ultimately, effective—teachers’ strike begs the question for policymakers and K-12 leaders in other states: Could this happen here?

In Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, at least, thousands of newly emboldened teachers have in recent weeks ramped up their pressure in the quest for long-awaited pay raises. They’ve packed governors’ press conferences, staged rallies in front of capitols, and threatened electoral consequences this fall if lawmakers fail to come through.

“We want to make good-faith efforts at playing nice,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, a grassroots group that’s organized teachers there. “We feel like it’s going to take guerilla tactics in order to make it too uncomfortable for them to just keep ignoring us. A strike is definitely on the menu.”

Grueling work conditions for little pay, combined with legislatures hostile toward new taxes, can certainly be a politically volatile mix, experts point out.

On the teachers’ side, there’s a sense of empowerment from the recent experience in West Virginia. But actual teacher strikes are historically rare and are far from a sure bet that even in states where sentiment is running strong, teachers will get what they want anytime soon.

“If this could happen in other states is a really good question,” said Julia Koppich, a California education consultant who once worked for the American Federation of Teachers in San Francisco. “There’s certainly evidence that this is a #metoo kind of movement for teachers in noncollective bargaining states, but I don’t know how widespread it will be.”

Favorable Factors

Across the nation, several factors this year are playing to teachers’ advantage as they flex their muscles, even short of actually striking.

The Every Student Succeeds Act gives state lawmakers much more say over how they craft their teacher evaluations, school accountability systems, and learning standards. With the federal government now on the sidelines, teachers are playing on much more familiar terrain in statehouses.

In addition, more than three-fourths of state legislative seats and 36 governors’ seats are up for grabs this fall, and teachers have promised to wield their influence in the voting booth.

Indeed, lawmakers have recently eased up on teachers when it comes to some of the mandates imposed on them under ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act. State departments such as in California and Maryland have somewhat backed off their dependence on test scores to judge schools, and a large number of states have either lessened or entirely dropped requirements that teacher evaluations include student-growth measures.

Pay may be a different matter.

Between 2004 and 2014, teacher wages dipped 3.5 percent nationally, while employee-benefit costs soared 29 percent, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But getting teachers a pay raise is a potentially backbreaking undertaking. Pension and health-care costs have squeezed state legislatures financially. Boosting teacher wages in a state by just 1 percent can cost tens of millions of dollars. And more than half the nation’s taxpayers already think their taxes are too high, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll.

“To raise the needle on teachers’ salaries, it’s going to take a huge investment across the board,” said Daniel G. Thatcher, an education program director for the NCSL.

In order to get a 5 percent raise in West Virginia, thousands of teachers staged a strike, shuttering the state’s entire school system for almost two weeks. The subsequent pay raise will annually cost the state $110 million, and the legislature is contemplating taking that money from the state’s Medicaid program.

Extreme Measures

The tinder that ignited that labor action in West Virginia is evident in other noncollective bargaining states as well, where teachers aren’t able to negotiate their salaries with districts.

This year, the Kentucky legislature moved forward a bill that would, among other measures, temporarily reduce the annual cost-of-living raises for the state’s retired teachers in order to, lawmakers say, spare the state’s pension fund from collapsing. If passed, it could save taxpayers $3.2 billion over the next 20 years. The state is $42 billion short of the amount of money it needs to pay its pension obligations over the next 30 years.

Teachers there, in turn, have held rallies at the state Capitol and warned they will stage a walkout if the bill passes. Kentucky teachers are not allowed to strike.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin isn’t backing down. In an interview with a local radio station last week, he called the teachers “selfish” and “ignorant.”

In Oklahoma, Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, has held a special session in an attempt to boost teachers’ pay. Teachers there are paid an average $42,000 a year, one of the lowest rates in the nation and haven’t gotten a raise in more than a decade, partly because of the dip in oil revenue that has caused a multimillion-dollar deficit. But, in order to raise taxes, the state’s constitution requires the approval of more than three-quarters of each legislative chamber.

The state’s teachers in 2016 ran for office en mass and put an initiative on the ballot to increase sales taxes by a penny that ultimately failed.

This year, they’ve rallied for pay raises once again. Yet last week, another effort by the legislature to raise taxes failed.

The teachers now say that unless they receive a $10,000 raise over the course of three years, they will stage a walkout April 2—the day students are set to take standardized tests.

“Raising taxes anywhere is like pushing a boulder up a mountain,” said David Blatt, the executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “Our mountain is higher and steeper than just about anywhere else. “

While Oklahoma and Kentucky are safely Republican, teacher activists in Arizona are hoping to shift the state’s legislature to the Democratic column, and teachers have threatened strike over school choice legislation and stagnant teacher pay.

A series of actions by the legislature to expand the use of vouchers and charter schools has especially animated a Save Our Schools movement. Activists there have in recent weeks turned up the heat. Last week, 300 teachers interrupted a televised press conference held by GOP Gov. Doug Ducey. Later this month, they’ll stage a rally at the capitol where they expect thousands of their members to show up.

“The strike in West Virginia was definitely emboldening,” said Penich-Thacker of Save Our Schools Arizona. “The feeling is, if they’re paid better than us and they went on strike, why aren’t we doing this?”

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2018 edition of Education Week as Surprise W.Va. Teachers Strike Emboldens Activists Elsewhere

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