It’s been about a year since the teacher protests started last spring. Since then, the movement has spread to both red and blue states and has evolved in its demands.
Last year, the teacher strikes were mainly focused on low wages. This year, the labor actions have focused on other issues, including the number of school librarians, nurses, and counselors in schools, class sizes, and rising health-care costs. Now, a new analysis by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, looks at the trends behind the wave of strikes and protests, and finds that regardless of the differences in demands, the labor actions are all happening in places that have seen state disinvestment in education.
Many states made significant cuts to education budgets during the Great Recession, and some have yet to recover. For example, the analysis notes that both Colorado and California—where district-level strikes took place this year in Denver, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Sacramento—spend less per student than the national average.
“Not only does low education funding from the state level mean less money for teacher salaries but it can also be problematic for students” when it comes to resources, class sizes, and money for support staff, said Lisette Partelow, a co-author of the report and the senior director of K-12 Strategic Initiatives at the center.
Out of the 10 states with the lowest average teacher salaries in 2018, adjusted for cost of living, seven have seen recent statewide labor actions—Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, Virginia, Oklahoma, Colorado, and West Virginia. Those actions range from organized protests (like in Hawaii, Florida, and Virginia) to one-day sickouts (like in Colorado) to extended strikes (like in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia).
The other three states—Utah, Mississippi, and New Mexico—have all seen legislation passed to increase teacher pay within the past two years. (And in fact, teachers in Mississippi are still weighing the possibility of a walkout.)
Partelow said that while she can’t predict which states could see further labor action, there is a correlation between where there have been protests and states with lagging teacher salaries. And there are some states with low teacher pay relative to regional costs and no ongoing legislative attempts to raise salaries, she noted—including Hawaii, Florida, Washington state, and Missouri.
Already, there are statewide protests scheduled for this spring in some states. North Carolina teachers will protest in Raleigh on May 1, calling for a 5 percent pay raise, more support staff in schools, extra pay for advanced degrees, and an expansion of Medicaid to improve student health. Last May, thousands of teachers took personal days to stage a similar protest at the state Capitol. Already, at least nine school districts, including the state’s four largest, have announced they will close on May 1 due to the high number of teachers taking leave. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, the closures will affect about 500,000 students.
And in Oregon, the state teachers’ union is planning a walkout on May 8 if the legislature does not fully fund public schools this session. State legislators have until June 30 to pass a final budget.
Oregon Education Association President John Larson told the Statesman Journal that he hoped that the teacher walkout would sway legislators in their decisions on school budgets. “It’s time for legislators to finally turn around three decades of disinvestment and invest in Oregon’s education system,” he said.
In Mississippi, one of the statewide teachers’ associations has asked its members if they would be interested in either a one-day sickout or an indefinite walkout to protest low wages. Lawmakers passed a $1,500 pay raise for Mississippi teachers, who are among the lowest paid in the country, but the union has said it wasn’t enough. The survey results have not yet been released.
Meanwhile, the report notes that many state budget proposals this year have included investments in education. Lawmakers “are hearing the message, even if it isn’t coming from teachers in their states,” Partelow said.
According to an Education Week analysis, nearly half of governors recommended that their state boost teachers’ pay. Many of those governors are in states where teacher protests have taken place.
Teacher activism, Partelow said, is “really changing the politics and policy around investing in education.”
Image: Adrianne Bell, front center, of Houston, joins other educators during a rally to support funding for public schools in Texas at the state Capitol on March 11, 2019. —Eric Gay/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.