Teacher walkouts spread across red states
Tens of thousands of public-school teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky left classrooms and swarmed their state capitols this week, the latest in a wave of teacher protests in GOP-dominated states against cuts to pay, benefits, and school funding. Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Mary Fallin tried to head off the walkout by signing a bill last week that gives the state’s teachers—who earn an average of $41,834 a year, making them among the country’s lowest paid—an average raise of $6,100, their first pay hike in a decade. The bill also adds $51 million in education funding, paid for in part by a tax on oil and gas production. But for teachers fed up with overcrowded classes and tattered textbooks, it wasn’t enough. They demanded a $10,000 raise and an extra $200 million in school funding, and ringed the capitol, chanting, “No funding, no future!” In Kentucky, teachers rallied against pension reforms, shutting down dozens of school districts.
The walkouts came a month after West Virginia teachers staged a nine-day strike that closed schools across the state, winning a 5 percent pay raise. The unrest shows that teachers have reached “a tipping point,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, a leading union. The next red state to erupt could be Arizona, where teachers have threatened to strike if they don’t get a 20 percent raise and more money for schools.
What the columnists said
This growing revolt is the “predictable result of the Republican model of governing,” said Paul Waldman in WashingtonPost.com. Oklahoma has slavishly followed conservatives’ tax-cutting philosophy, slashing rates for oil and gas companies and top earners. The inevitable budget shortfall has starved public services of funding and led to Oklahoma’s current educational crisis: “four-day school weeks, cold buildings, and decades-old textbooks.”
The real problem is that public schools aren’t good stewards of public money, said Benjamin Scafidi in FoxNews.com. Look at West Virginia: The number of students in public schools there dropped by 40,000 from 1992 to 2015, yet the number of nonteaching staff—new assistant principals, curriculum specialists, district officials—in the public school system increased by 2,500 during that period. The cost of all those extra employees is more than $232 million annually, enough to give all West Virginia educators an $11,620 raise—“much more than the teachers recently received.”
This isn’t just about pay, said Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post. Teachers have a host of grievances, including the loss of collective-bargaining rights and an education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who’s spent decades bashing public schools and promoting alternatives. The result may be “a period of sustained activism that is as much a defense of the public education system” as it is a demand for bigger paychecks. These protests could “subside as the school year ends,” said Ed Kilgore in NYMag.com. But if GOP legislatures fail to quell teachers’ anger, Republicans could pay a steep price in this fall’s elections, “when 36 governorships and most of the national state legislatures are up for grabs.” ■