In the fight for America’s education, the States still need uniting
Dilapidated walls. Leaking ceilings. Acute shortages of supplies. Absurdly low salaries and hefty budget cuts.
This is the public school reality across the United States today. North to South, East to West, teachers are grappling to achieve two main goals that grow increasingly unattainable: make a living and grant their students the best education possible. In light of those dire conditions, teachers in several states embarked on a wave of protests in April and May, in an attempt to increase their salaries, raise state funding for schools, and hold elected officials accountable for their role in the deterioration of the education system.
West Virginia teachers paved the way with a nine day walkout, by the end of which they won a $2,000 (5 percent) salary raise. Inspired by their West Virginian comrades, rank-and-file Oklahoma teachers pressed state legislators to provide them with new sources of revenue for school funding. Following a mass walkout, the teachers won a $6,000 salary raise and some additional funding for schools was promised. Of particular significance is the fact that the new revenue in Oklahoma would be generated by increased taxes on oil and gas production, tobacco, and motor fuels; thereby ending decades of state policy to favour those industries and pamper them with generous tax cuts. While the largest teachers’ union in Oklahoma declared this a victory and officially ended the walkout, many teachers remain concerned that the increased funding will not suffice to improve school conditions, and vow to continue their fight, using their voter power as means to pressure candidates to rally behind their cause in the upcoming elections.
The Oklahoma and West Virginia protests sparked similar movements in Kentucky and Arizona. In Kentucky, more than 30 school districts were forced to close as thousands of teachers rallied at the Capitol. Following the walkout, the teachers succeeded in convincing state legislators to override the Republican governor’s veto of a two-year state plan to raise public education budget through a $480 million tax increase. Though the teachers’ victory raises the bar of public education spending and constitutes an important landmark in a growing trend of forcing state officials to adhere to voters’ demands, many, including Kentucky Democrats, fear that the new budget would place a heavy burden on the average citizen in the state, seeing as (unlike in Oklahoma) tax increases disproportionately impact low and middle income households.
In Arizona, public school funding suffered a massive hit following the 2008 recession. Alas, instead of ensuring the revival of its education system as the economy recovered, the state preferred to enact numerous corporate tax cuts and generate revenue for industry giants. This resulted in the largest state per-pupil funding cuts in the country (37 percent between 2008 and 2015), record-low salaries for teachers, and crumbling school buildings. In an interview for the New York Times, an Arizona high school teacher said, “As I near retirement age, I realise I will retire at the poverty level. The antiquated myth of the noble, yet poor, teacher must go. I am passionate about my subject and my students. I am not passionate about living paycheck to paycheck.” Arizona teachers finally took to the Capitol in early May, and a week-long walkout culminated in a 20 percent salary raise for teachers by 2020 and and a $137 million increase in school funding. The new budget, however, fails to meet the teachers’ original demand: a full refund for the $1 billion the public school system in the state had lost in cuts over the last decade.
Though walkouts in the aforementioned states resulted in a few substantial victories for teachers, many remain concerned about the future of the public school system in their districts and unsatisfied by the settlements agreed upon. As stated by Brent Bushey, executive director of the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, in the aftermath of the walkout, “It is a short-term win, but my focus is how do we turn this into a long-term focus on education?”
What would it take, then, to bolster the teachers’ protest and place education at the forefront of lawmakers’ agenda? It seems that only when teachers across the country form a unified front and jointly clamour for change, will their fight gain the attention it deserves and breed longlasting and comprehensive resolutions, as the deterioration of the education system is a national problem, and simply isolated to the states in which walkouts took place.
In southern Tennessee, an art teacher at an elementary school reported she must make the most out of an annual $100 budget for her 800 students; an additional $1,500 a year come out of her own pocket. She must work several jobs to make ends meet, and after 11 years of working in the public school system still cannot always guarantee a meal for her family. In Rhode Island, some public schools have not been renovated since the late 1930s; classes are held in overcrowded spaces, and mildewed, leaking windows and walls became somewhat of a norm for teachers and students. In Boston, where teachers fare better as far as their salaries are concerned, low state funding results in decrepit classrooms, broken down furniture and equipment, and enormous out of pocket expenses by staff members (one Boston school reported a total of $42,475 paid by teachers for food, supplies, and school activities in less then a year).
Although protesters correspond with each other to a certain extent, and are inspired by the actions of their counterparts in other states, they nonetheless engage in separate battles. It is true that teachers face varying challenges, depending on their state and district, and that it is their local government that has the authority to improve their circumstances; yet, they ultimately all share the same primary goal, and suffer from the same systemic negligence. Thus, rather than a fragmented call for action, the teachers’ outcry should become a nationwide chorus. Teachers and parents from across the country, regardless of their socio-economic status or political affiliation, must highlight the values they share in common, and signal to lawmakers of all ranks that education is a matter upon which there shall be no compromise, and that salvaging the nation’s crumbling school system is a top priority for the American voter.
We depend on readers like you to keep our impact journalism strong.
Fostering global inclusion all our journalists are being paid equally across the planet.
Thanks to a grant each first time user receives 100 coins (10 €) for FREE. Use the code "fairplanet" after clicking the donation button.
Or click the red info icon for instructions.