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Why Teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky Are Walking Out and What to Expect - NY Times Q&A

Apr 03, 2018
  • ny times, teacher strike, orgainzed labor, teachers, uft

The New York Times


Teachers in multiple states have walked off the job or are making plans to do so after a statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia last month yielded a pay raise and significant public support.

Oklahoma teachers clogged the State Capitol on Tuesday, protesting budget cuts and demanding higher wages. It was the second day of a widespread walkout. At least 50 school districts were closed across the state, including those in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

The protests continued in Kentucky, too, where many teachers are on spring break but have swarmed their own Capitol to denounce a pension reform bill.

In Arizona, teacher organizers have mounted a grass-roots effort to recruit school representatives across the state, and are particularly interested in building support in rural areas for a potential statewide walkout. Here’s the latest on the protests:

What are teachers asking for?

In Oklahoma, teachers asked for a $10,000 raise for themselves, a $5,000 raise for support staff, $200 million over three years in funding for local schools and $500 million over three years in funding for state agencies and other public employees. On Tuesday, Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation to fund a $6,000 average increase in teachers’ base salaries, a $1,250 annual raise for support staff and raises between $750 and $2,000 for state public employees. The bill also provides $33 million for textbooks.
The Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, responded that it wasn’t enough to end the walkout. The union has argued that more money could be found through repealing a capital-gains tax exemption and allowing ball and dice gambling, which would be taxed; the Legislature has already voted to raise taxes on the oil and gas industry and on tobacco and motor fuels.

In Kentucky, teachers are protesting education budget cuts and a plan to make teacher retirement pensions more like the 401(k) accounts used in the private sector.

In Arizona, where the movement is still building, teachers are asking for a 20 percent raise and an increase in school funding.

Why is this happening now?

The states in question, whose legislatures are dominated by the Republican Party, have pursued years of tax cuts and cuts to public services. Teachers, parents and students have noticed the impact of budget cuts on the classroom, whether it is a four-day school week in rural Oklahoma or canceled drama classes in Tulsa. When educators saw West Virginia teachers win a raise last month after a daring strike, they realized more radical tactics might work in their states, too.

Other movements have also energized teachers. Some have been inspired by #MeToo, the March for Our Lives and protests against President Trump and his lightning-rod secretary of education, Betsy DeVos.
What is the difference between a walkout and a strike? And what consequences do teachers face for walking out?

Few states allow public employees to strike. Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona are no exception.
Rank-and-file teachers don’t hesitate to use the term “strike” to describe their actions, but union leaders prefer the term “walkout.” They point out that teachers aren’t striking against their managers — principals, administrators or local school boards — but are instead protesting state policies. In Kentucky, teachers are mostly calling in sick to attend rallies, which, according to the union, is allowed in their contract.

It is unlikely that teachers participating in a mass movement would lose their jobs en masse; all of these states have teacher shortages because of pay and other factors. During the wave of teacher strikes in the 1960s and 1970s, union leaders like Albert Shanker sometimes did go to jail, but it would be surprising to see that happen now.

Is this a feminist movement?

You may have noticed that the majority of the teachers photographed at these protests are female.
About three-quarters of American teachers are women. When the modern teachers’ union movement began in Chicago in 1897, it was an explicitly feminist movement with close ties to the suffragists. Teachers are relatively underpaid compared with other skilled workers because they historically have been women. Many policymakers assumed teachers were being supported by higher-earning spouses or other male relatives.
Today, two women — Lily Eskelsen Garcia and Randi Weingarten — lead the two national teachers’ unions, and state affiliates in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky are also led by women. Even so, many of the most visible grass-roots leaders of this new protest movement are young men who started Facebook pages to help organize protests, rallies and walkouts.

Do parents and the public in these states support the movement?

There is a notable lack of quality opinion polling on this question. Organizers point to the many restaurants and hotels that are offering discounts to protesting teachers, to supportive comments on social media and to online polls conducted by local newspapers, which find readers overwhelmingly in favor of the teachers’ actions.

Though teacher walkouts are incredibly disruptive for families, who rely on schools for child care and nutrition, the public is often supportive. When teachers walked out in Chicago in 2012 and Wisconsin in 2011, nonpartisan polling found the majority of parents and the public supported the teachers.

How does this movement compare to the 2012 teachers’ strike in Chicago, or the 2011 protests in Wisconsin?

When Chicago teachers went on strike in 2012, they had some of the same concerns that teachers in red states do in 2018. In particular, they wanted more funding for support staff at their schools, like guidance counselors and nurses.

The biggest issue in Chicago, however, was the school reform agenda of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was pushing to evaluate teachers using student test scores. Education policy changes aren’t the focus of the current movement, which is more about salaries and school funding for basic needs like textbooks and foreign language classes.

Even so, teacher activists in Arizona say they are frustrated by public funds being diverted to charter schools and tax credits that help parents pay for private school tuition. Many Kentucky teachers oppose charters, too, and those in West Virginia were angry after legislators proposed making it easier to become a teacher without training in education.

The public employee protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol in 2011 began after Gov. Scott Walker introduced a plan to roll back collective bargaining and cut pensions. In that case, the teachers lost, and both policies became law.

How are local unions and the two big national unions involved?

This is a movement that was largely organized on Facebook by rank-and-file teachers, who moved faster and more aggressively than their union leaders in demanding action from lawmakers. In conservative states like these, union membership is optional for teachers.

That said, the state and national unions have stepped in with crucial organizing and lobbying muscle, and are now coordinating closely with grass-roots leaders.

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