Red For Ed

Hell Hath No Fury Like A Teacher Scorned

It+is+the+duty+of+the+legislature+to+ensure+that+wealth+%28and+income%2C+by+default%29+is+not+concentrated+in+the+hands+of+a+powerful+few%2C+because+to+do+so+is+to+begin+destroying+the+fabric+of+America.
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Red For Ed

It is the duty of the legislature to ensure that wealth (and income, by default) is not concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, because to do so is to begin destroying the fabric of America.

It is the duty of the legislature to ensure that wealth (and income, by default) is not concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, because to do so is to begin destroying the fabric of America.

graphic by Alex Flagg

It is the duty of the legislature to ensure that wealth (and income, by default) is not concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, because to do so is to begin destroying the fabric of America.

graphic by Alex Flagg

graphic by Alex Flagg

It is the duty of the legislature to ensure that wealth (and income, by default) is not concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, because to do so is to begin destroying the fabric of America.

Roshie Xing, Contributing Author

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This piece is about striking teachers, so I want to start by thanking all of my teachers from the bottom of my heart for their dedication, each and every day, to their job and to us students. I encourage you to do the same. Thanking the people that tirelessly commit their lives and probably a good amount of their sanity to a job that reaps far less benefits than other professions for similarly educated people is a sentiment that is not expressed enough, by either myself or society as a whole.

I remember clearly the first teacher who inspired me. I was one of a handful of shaking sixth graders in Algebra I and Mrs. McCall was a young, dynamic teacher at Blacksburg Middle School who could have easily ignored my quiet self. It’s difficult to imagine now, but I could have developed a hatred for math. When I got my first B on a test and, to my everlasting shame, burst into tears in class, she talked me through my fears of failure and gave me tips on future improvements. She made a dry subject interesting and the fact that I could tell she genuinely cared about me pushed me to do better. When I began catching on to the concepts and scoring well on tests (which didn’t really endear me to the other older students), Mrs. McCall could have moved on, checking me off as a student who didn’t need any additional help. But she asked me to join the MathCounts team. She encouraged me on problems I couldn’t figure out. She was there cheering me on at my three state conferences and she was there supporting our team when we won 3rd place, no small feat for a competition dominated by northern Virginia’s magnet schools. Because of Mrs. McCall, I have developed a genuine appreciation for math and its roots in the world around us, however much we fear and seek to avoid it, and in fact intend to study it more comprehensively in college.

I don’t tell this story to look back and mock my hysterics over a grade that I thought would ruin my life (it didn’t!) or to even encourage you to try to love math more, but to show the understated importance of teachers in our lives. And we as a country definitely don’t appreciate them enough. Rather, we associate them with bad childhood memories or anecdotes for parties, forgetting that with the few that are pretty genuinely awful and might actually hate kids, there are thousands more who put their heart and soul into helping their students believe in their capacity to change the world.

These financial realities push teachers to move to states with better pay, exacerbating the education crisis within states that don’t sufficiently fund schools.”

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey, once said: “A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.” And it is true that we expect so much from our educators, more than we ever have. We expect them to be teachers, of course, encouraging each successive generation of students to be inquisitive and skeptical, innovative and knowledgeable. We expect them to be role models, clean-cut figures whom students ought to respect and emulate. We expect them to be counselors, open to discuss everything from the future to personal worries. We expect them to be protectors, always vigilant about the well-being of their students and willing to personally intervene for their students’ health and safety. We expect them to be mentors, going above and beyond to provide help. We expect them to be providers, paying out of pocket in energy and money to ensure their students are given the best possible education. And we expect them to be security and heroes, sacrificing their own lives for their students and, now, training to become armed guards for the minds they are tasked with developing.

Too many fantastic teachers have burned themselves out to fulfill these expectations, to the point that there are fewer and fewer young, enthusiastic graduates willing to dedicate themselves to a life with little reward and much personal cost. It’s all well and good to idealistically speak of changing the future, one child at a time, but how can that be done when you’re living paycheck to paycheck and can barely support a family?

And that’s why America’s teachers are fed up. You might have heard of how 2018 was the Year of the Teacher Strike, where teachers in red and blue states alike took to the streets to voice their protest of a government that they perceived as devaluing education. But with this new round of state and federal budgeting, the movement is only gaining steam. These past weeks have seen teachers in West Virginia, Denver, Oakland, and Los Angeles walk into the streets, often with parents and students behind them. But where exactly did the anger fueling these strikes come from, what do the teachers want, and what can be done to solve the situation?

The first walkout came in February of 2018 in ruby-red West Virginia, of all places. Started by rank-and-file teachers, the statewide strike lasted for two weeks, involved around 20,000 teachers and public school employees, and shut down schools in all 55 counties of the state. West Virginia is ranked 48th in teacher compensation and teachers in the state have gone years without a raise; the strike came amid rising healthcare costs and was triggered by a bill signed by Republican Governor Justice providing a 2% salary increase for public school personnel and a 1% hike for teachers in 2020 and 2021. Unions protested the bill, arguing that it wouldn’t keep up with inflation (about 1.9% in 2018) and did nothing to address a lack of funding for public employee insurance programs, exorbitant health care costs, and payroll tax deduction options. Although striking by public employees is illegal in West Virginia, part of a concerted national approach to weaken unions, the teachers went on strike anyways, a show of solidarity that forced the state government to shift gears. Justice and the state Congress eventually passed legislation giving teachers and about 10,000 support staff a 5% raise to reopen the schools, although the Senate, led by Republican Mitch Carmichael, pushed to lower the raise to 4% and thus prolonged the strike a few days. The success of the strike pushed teachers in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Colorado to walk out before the end of the school year.

The strikes following West Virginia’s all had various state-specific motivations, but there were underlying commonalities. First, on a whole, teachers are simply paid less than workers with comparable experience and education. In 2015, the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute found that public school teachers’ weekly wages are 17% less than those of comparable workers, up from just 1.8% in 1994. The relative wage gap (regarding workers with comparable experience and education) for male teachers is larger than for female teachers (who are the majority of public school teachers), with -24.5% compared to -13.9% in 2015. In the same period, in no state were teachers paid equally as other college graduates; in the US, public school teachers are paid about 77% of the wages of other college graduates, while Pennsylvania teachers fare slightly better at 87.1%. Finally, the same study found that experienced teachers actually face a greater penalty, with their 1.9% wage advantage in 1996 on entry-level teachers falling to a 17.8% cost in 2015. The Department of Education has found that, adjusted for inflation, teachers make less than what they did in 1990 while another study concluded that 29 states spent less on education in 2015 than before the Great Recession. Education funding, deemed expendable by many legislators, is often the first on the chopping block when the economy slows. And as with most inequalities in America, there is also a racial gap, where schools that are majority-white and thus generally in better-off districts receive an aggregate of $23 billion more than schools that have a majority of students of color, leading to strikes like those in Los Angeles or Oakland.

These decreases come even as the cost of living has soared and the tax code is adjusted to favor the wealthy. Potential benefits don’t make up the difference, either. Around a million teachers (40% of K-12 faculty) don’t qualify for Social Security benefits, ensuring once again that they have insufficient savings for retirement. Critics will remark about the millions of dollars budgeted into education, but the truth of the matter is that most of the money doesn’t go to teachers, or even classrooms. An NPR/IPSOS poll found that 59% of teachers have to work a second job, while 86% spent their own money on classroom supplies (estimated about $480/year). When teachers have to drop hundreds out of their own budget to ensure their students have access to quality education, that isn’t a sustainable or laudable system. For every dollar of a teacher’s salary (which makes up the bulk of education budgets), 17 cents go to retirement costs, with twelve going to pay for what are essentially pension debts. So to justify not giving teachers raises, states will point to these debts. These financial realities push teachers to move to states with better pay, exacerbating the education crisis within states that don’t sufficiently fund schools.

Moreover, the 2018 Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME ruled that public sector unions could no longer collect money from non-members that nevertheless benefited from collective bargaining, a blow to unions’ already declining ability to negotiate. There are furthermore anti-striking laws for public sector employees in 35 states and the District of Columbia as well as limitations even where striking is legal; Pennsylvania, for example, is known to have more strikes than other states, but districts are limited to two per year. Researchers had long suspected that teacher unions would respond to this by turning to bolder, more aggressive actions to prove the value of collective bargaining to potential members, which has clearly manifested in the past year, even in states where walking out is illegal.

Although concerns over funding and pay are a core component teachers’ frustrations, these issues are merely one manifestation of a larger perceived lack of dignity and respect, the belief that lawmakers and even school districts don’t treat teachers’ work or their students as critical. The current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, demonstrated at multiple times her disdain for public education and her unwillingness to learn anything about it, flatly claiming that the public school system is “broken” yet failing to offer any suggestions to improve it. Increasingly, state and federal lawmakers have championed vouchers to promote “school choice,” the deceptively benign term for a case of good intentions turning sour. Ostensibly to remove financial/locational burdens from families seeking better education opportunities for their children, the concept has been overtaken by religious and anti-union organizations, weaponized to reduce oversight and the abilities of traditional public school districts by promoting private and charter schools. Charter schools, which most vouchers are for, are publicly funded schools that are operated by independent groups and are thus subject to less regulations. In theory, charter schools trade less regulatory burdens for meeting accountability standards, but opponents argue that those standards aren’t rigorous enough, exclude too many “difficult” students (though, as taxpayer funded institutions, they should be accessible to all), and often are run by for-profit organizations. Charter school teachers themselves have gone on strike in Los Angeles — they generally aren’t covered by unions, their jobs are less secure and more often than not their salaries are dependent on student performance.

Finally, back to the supposed denigration of public school teachers’ work, charter schools leach away both funding and talent from public schools, as well as exacerbate racial inequalities. When politicians support these institutions, they’re essentially suggesting that public schools aren’t worth the funding. For most public schools, students are funded on a per-pupil basis; thus, when they leave for charter schools, public schools lose the funding they bring while still paying for fixed infrastructure costs and salaries. Studies have also found that “school choice” increases the likelihood of gentrification and modern day school segregation. When parents aren’t bound by real estate location in choosing their children’s schools, the most “gifted” of students logically are sent to schools that are already better-supported, diverting resources from public schools. Rather than improving the infrastructure of public schools, where the majority of students still receive their education, government officials are placing their eggs into the basket of the schools for only those wealthy or lucky enough to attend charter/private schools. West Virginia teachers went on strike for the second time to protest a bill tying teacher pay raises to charter school expansion; they successfully killed it after 2 days.

And finally, teachers are striking out of genuine concern for their students’ education. The lack of funding has resulted in outdated textbooks and academic resources for students, stunting their progress in a competitive economy that demands more out of entrants than ever before. We might complain about clunky laptops, but in some school districts, the history textbooks end before 9/11. The schools themselves are crumbling, with students exposed to water tainted by toxic lead or the buildings falling apart. My own middle school’s roof collapsed during a particularly heavy winter. Teachers chafe at the arbitrary requirements of standardized testing and being forced to “teach to the test,” watching their students succumb to stress and stop gaining enjoyment from learning. Classes are crowded and thus unteachable, with some numbering up to 50 students in size, as a result of strained budgets. Although the credible research on the link between performance and size is limited, due to various other factors that must be considered, smaller class sizes correspond to increased likelihood for college attendance and general academic improvement. Other resources are similarly strained; a core demand for many striking teachers has been to increase the number of librarians, counselors, and nurses in their districts, expanding the network of support–both academic and concerning mental health–for students. Counselors in particular are often mentors for students, especially immigrant students and first-generation college-goers, helping them process personal struggles and trauma (in an era of high student anxiety, stress, and depression) and integrating them and their families into the broader community. In California, where both LA and Oakland teachers went on strike, there is about one counselor for every 682 students, far exceeding the recommended 1:250 ratio. Less emotional support staff also corresponds to greater reliance on police and harsh disciplinary measures, exacerbating the problem of the school-to-prison pipeline and creating an environment hostile to development.

In California, where both LA and Oakland teachers went on strike, there is about one counselor for every 682 students.”

All of these problems, compounded over years of economic stagnation and a general disdain for “government” which now extends to public education, leave us where we are today. In all the past strikes, due to popular support and the demonstrated necessity of public school employees, teachers have generally been successful. The LA strike ended with a tentative agreement to raise salaries, hire additional counselors and nurses, protect ethnic studies, and gradually reduce class sizes. The Denver strike, the first in the district in 25 years, ended with $23 million to increase base salaries by 7-11% in the next year and a schedule for future hikes. Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, is now the first black Congresswoman from Connecticut, elected on a platform centered around supporting children and education. And the strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky resulted in general raises for pay, compensation, and funding for school districts and employees, although most of these raises were less than what the strikers demanded. But teachers and other public school employees are by no means done, because what meager raises and increases in funding that are hammered out through compromise only temporarily alleviate systemic issues. Kentucky teachers in some of the state’s largest school district collectively called in sick, drawing attention to problems with the commonwealth’s pension system after legislators passed a bill to incorporate a cash-balance plan for teachers. With this reform, teachers are not guaranteed a set amount after retirement, enabling employers to lessen their contributions to retirement funds and relying on fluctuating rates of returns. Tennessee teachers, inspired by strikes in neighboring Kentucky and Virginia, have formed a statewide coalition that appears primed to strike against new laws tying teacher evaluations to student performance and increased funding for voucher programs. Striking is on the table for Indiana teachers, who are faced with a massive brain drain from anemic salaries. Teacher unions in Sacramento and Santa Rosa have authorized strikes for improved wages/healthcare, smaller class sizes, and additional counselors.

And as politician after politician denigrates their contributions to society–either overtly like the president’s son, who called teachers “losers” seeking to ingrain socialism in their students, or implicitly through funding/salary cuts and straining school resources–teachers will continue turning their frustration into action until the systematic deconstruction of public education ends.

The ancient Chinese had a form of execution called lingchi, or death by a thousand cuts, where the victim was kept alive as their body was systematically cut over an extended time until finally, broken, it expired. But teachers–and the entire public school system as a whole, supported by their communities–have pushed back the knife and are fighting back. As Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has said, teachers have been striking and will continue striking until the conditions are present that “every child…gets the opportunity he or she or they deserves.” And is that not what America, built upon the premise of meritocracy and an equal chance for all, has always striven towards?