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Surge in teacher activism challenges GOP austerity mindset

Oklahoma's teacher strike, inspired by one in West Virginia, shuttered schools a second day Tuesday. After nine years into an economic expansion in which the gains have been unevenly distributed, teachers in red states are demanding a larger share of the pie.

Nate Billings/The Oklahoman/AP
Teachers and supporters of increased education funding pack the first and second floors of the state Capitol during the second day of a walkout by Oklahoma teachers, April 3, in Oklahoma City.

A wave of teacher walkouts in Republican-run states, from West Virginia to Kentucky and Oklahoma, has cast a national spotlight on their tax-and-spend priorities amid growing public disquiet over funding for education and other public services.

Teachers have forcefully pressed their case for more money, at times going further than union leaders by refusing to settle for less from state lawmakers. In West Virginia, a nine-day walkout by 35,000 school employees led to a March 6 deal that raised salaries by 5 percent for all state workers and put a freeze on rising health-insurance premiums.

In Oklahoma, teachers brought their protest into the Capitol building Tuesday, closing schools across the state for a second day. The mass walkout was the catalyst for lawmakers to pass a major revenue bill – the first in 28 years – to raise teacher salaries that were among the nation’s lowest. Now teachers say they want an additional $75 million for education before they go back to work.

Arizona is watching closely: Thousands of teachers rallied last week in Phoenix to demand a pay increase and threaten similar actions. In Kentucky, schools were shut last Friday and again on Monday after a walkout prompted by last-minute changes to pensions for new teachers.

Nine years into an economic expansion in which the gains have been unevenly distributed, teachers are demanding a larger share of the pie. Their activism in red states is challenging the tenets of Republican governance in which austerity for public employees is bracketed with tax breaks for private business. 

For Republicans who took statehouses during the Great Recession, the drive to balance the books doubled as a political assault on public-sector unions. Gov. Scott Walker, who swept away collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin, said in 2011 that, “we can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.”

At the time, many private-sector workers were feeling the pinch, says Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis who studies wage setting and economic inequality. “The message was that the public sector had too many perks. That was a message that found a receptive audience for some time, but seems to be less effective now,” he says, noting that economically-secure voters are more likely to sympathize with lowly-paid teachers.

45 kids in a class; one set of books

When Matt Deen moved back to Oklahoma from Oregon in 2013 to teach science at an elementary school in Norman, he and his wife, also a teacher, took a collective $15,000 pay cut. That was bad enough, he says. But the lack of basic materials and the crowded classrooms – his 5th-grade history and social studies class has 45 students – have driven home the challenge of teaching in Oklahoma.

“I have never lived in a state where I had to buy paper and pens for my class because the funding wasn't there,” he says.

Mr. Deen and his wife rallied at Oklahoma’s statehouse on Monday and Tuesday, joining thousands of others. He’s not satisfied with last week’s pay hike and wants to see more money for schools after a decade of cutbacks. “I think they expected us to show up yesterday and pat them on the back and say thanks for the raise. I think a lot of the legislature still doesn’t get it,” he says.

Until last week, teachers in Oklahoma hadn’t seen a raise in a decade. Over that period, enrollment had grown by more than 50,000, while inflation-adjusted general funding fell 28 percent, the sharpest fall of any state’s K-12 budget, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute.


Economic Policy Institute study from 2016; National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

Karen Norris and Jake Turcotte/Staff

“Most of us are in it for the kids, so we try to do the best we can with what were given. But you can only be pushed so far. We are going to stay here until they do something,” says Robin Davis, a high-school math teacher in Claremore who joined this week’s rallies at the capital.

She says her math class has only one set of textbooks. Students use their phones to take pictures. The school has held fund drives to buy copy paper; students who bring in copy paper are rewarded with an extra five minutes at lunch. “It is crazy that they don't put more value on a kid's education than this,” she says, referring to lawmakers.

For teachers in Kentucky, where the state’s entire school system was closed Monday due to walkouts, the battle is over pensions. Last Thursday, lawmakers passed a bill that would force new hires into a 401(k)-style program, though it didn’t raise the retirement age for teachers as some lawmakers had proposed.

“It’s a major philosophical and policy shift that will make it difficult to attract quality new teachers to Kentucky,” says Rep. Jim Wayne, a Democrat from Louisville. “This is a state that is undereducated, and we need strong public schools.”

It’s unclear how far teachers in Kentucky will go with their protests. One teacher in Frankfort on Monday held a handmade sign that read, “Don’t make us go all West Virginia on you.”

Kentucky’s public pension systems have more than $43 billion in unfunded liabilities. The bill passed last week – as yet unsigned by Gov. Matt Bevin – gives state and local governments six additional years to pay off the shortfall. That would rack up additional expenses of $5 billion over the next 35 years, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

A better solution would be to pass tax reform and allow the pension contributions approved in the 2017-18 state budget – which put a total addition of $1.16 billion over the two years into the state’s pension plans – to continue, according to the KCEP.

“We need tax reform that raises new revenue by cleaning up special interest tax breaks for the wealthy. Kentucky spends more on tax breaks than we collect in revenue…. The problem is funding and the solution is funding,” Anna Baumann, the center’s communications director, wrote in an email.

Marching from Tulsa

West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky are all right-to-work states that ban collective bargaining. So when teachers walk out it becomes tricky for opponents to say that sweetheart union contracts are draining state coffers, says Joseph Slater, a law professor at the University of Toledo. “With these workers, it’s hard to use that kind of rhetoric. They aren’t highly paid and don’t have collective bargaining rights,” he says.

Professor Slater says the political pendulum may be swinging away from the anti-union politicking that Wisconsin Governor Walker and other Republican leaders pushed hard in statehouses after the 2010 election. But, he adds, “strikes are a risky strategy. For every West Virginian strike that succeeds, there are examples of illegal strikes by public sector workers that are crushed.”

For teachers in Oklahoma, that threat hangs in the air. Their first day of protests on Monday received a positive reception from lawmakers who used the occasion to express their support for public education. But they are leery of committing to spending more after last week’s tax bill, says David Blatt, executive director of Oklahoma Policy Institute, a think tank that has advocated revenue increases to fund public services.

Instead, the Republican leadership is waiting to see how long teachers can last and whether the public starts to sour on their stoppage. “I think there are a lot of legislators who are counting on the effort to fizzle after a few days,” he says.

As superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools, Deborah Gist is determined not to let this opportunity pass to wring more money for her district, the state’s second-largest. She joined Monday’s protest and visited lawmakers to thank them for their vote and to press for more resources.

Ms. Gist, who moved to Tulsa in 2015 to run the school district, says the walkout was a last resort after other efforts – letters to lawmakers, a one-day rally last month – failed to get results. And if lawmakers don’t yield Tuesday, she will join a planned caravan of teachers from Tulsa walking more than 100 miles to Oklahoma City to keep the pressure on.

“We all want to serve our kids. The teachers don’t want to be out of school. This was the only option that was available,” she says. “Our state has continued to cut into education.”

Like many districts, Tulsa struggles to retain or attract teachers on salaries that are lower than in neighboring states like Texas. Instead, it has issued dozens of emergency certifications to hire teachers who lack qualifications. Across the state, the teacher shortage has led to 1,800 emergency certificates in the current school year.

'Younger teachers don't have a reason to stay'

That infuriates Melissa Carrell, an English teacher at McLain High School. She says the lowering of standards is failing her students and is an affront to her, as a holder of two education degrees who has $90,000 in student debt, 15 years after she began teaching.

She recently found out that an 11th grader in her special-education class couldn’t read. “This is what you get,” she says. “Students showing up in high school who are not ready for a high school diploma.”

Ms. Carrell stayed home Tuesday to look after her daughter while her ex-husband, a teacher, joined the protests. She plans to attend Wednesday and Thursday, arguing that last week’s pay rise that averaged $6,000 a year doesn’t go far enough. “We waited too long until we were in such a hole. It’s going to take a long time to get out of it.”

The last time that teachers in Oklahoma went on strike was in 1990. That year, the nation saw 44 stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, compared with hundreds during the 1950s and 1960s. Last year, there were only seven, according to the US Bureau for Labor Statistics. 

In 1990, Oklahoma passed a $560 million education reform to raise salaries and cut class sizes, funded by higher taxes. That led to a state ballot initiative to bind the hands of lawmakers. Any revenue bill now requires three-fourths support from legislators, a threshold that has proven hard to reach in tackling perennial budget shortfalls.

Oklahoma’s 1990 strike also came on the heels of similar walkouts in West Virginia, in a foreshadowing of this year’s events. Then, as now, both states rely heavily on fossil-fuel extraction for jobs and revenues. But unlike in Oklahoma, where lawmakers defied industry lobbyists last week to raise taxes on oil and gas wells, the budget deal struck in Charleston didn’t involve new taxes. Instead, lawmakers cut back on proposed new spending to afford pay raises for state employees.

“I think it’s a compromise,” says Carrena Rouse, a high-school teacher in Madison, W.Va., and president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. She points out that the average teacher in West Virginia will see an extra $2,000 a year, still below what other states like Ohio and Pennsylvania pay, making it harder to retain the next generation of teachers.

“We can’t get parity [with contiguous states] by settling for just enough. The younger teachers don’t have a reason to stay,” she says.

At Ms. Rouse’s high school, students watch TED Talks when there isn’t a certified science teacher available. Of the school’s five math teachers, only two are certified. “It makes you want to butt your head against the wall,” she says. 

Its refusal to raise taxes makes West Virginia a model for other states to follow, says Jason Huffman, who runs the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a free-market campaign group founded by the Koch brothers. He praises lawmakers for standing firm against new revenue measures in the budget. “What lawmakers in West Virginia have done is create fiscally responsible blueprint” for an increase in teacher pay, he says.

He concedes that salaries are low in West Virginia, but says that spending on education as a share of residents’ incomes is higher than average. “Let’s not take an approach that is simply going to spend and not take into account what we already spend” on education, he says.

Sean O’Leary, a senior analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a left-leaning think tank, says lawmakers had headroom in this year’s budget due to rising natural-gas prices. But they still have to find solutions for the state’s health insurance agency after years of rising premiums that teachers say make it unaffordable to cover their families. Should gas prices dip, the extra money found for teachers could become a scapegoat in a future budget crisis.

Still, he says the public knows well how tough it can be to make ends meet on a teacher’s salary in West Virginia. “It’s hard to stoke resentment when those people are as low paid as everyone else,” he says.

Staff writer Henry Gass contributed reporting to this story from San Antonio, Texas.

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