Column: Could teacher strikes backfire?

Jessica R. Towhey

With comparisons to the Arab Spring revolts that swept a wave of democratization in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010, the teacher strikes of 2018 are empowering educators to take their fights for salary hikes and increases in education funding to the streets.

Beginning in West Virginia, strikes have spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and Colorado. North Carolina’s teachers may be the next to hit the picket lines. The results have been a mixed bag, but the commonalities among the states have not gone unnoticed. With few exceptions, strikes are occurring in states where Republicans hold the trifecta of the governor’s mansion and both houses of the state legislature. Colorado’s Gov. John Hickenlooper is Democrat, as is Roy Cooper in North Carolina.

“It’s a lot easier for teachers to strike and agitate in a red state because they’re not worried about getting crosswise with their allies,” said Rick Hess, resident scholar and director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Indeed, the tone of the strikes has shifted from what Hess called “kitchen-table issues” in West Virginia to a much harsher political divide in Arizona where the organizing group #RedforEd is led by a former Bernie Sanders staffer.

West Virginia’s educators went on strike for nine days, forcing thousands of families to scramble for childcare. They found a supportive partner in Republican Gov. Jim Justice, who worked with state legislators to come up with money for a 5 percent pay increase. Modest by any standard, but teachers fought to have that increase applied to all state employees, not just those in education. The money will come from cuts in other state programs and priorities.

Compare that to Oklahoma, where strike leaders called for a new capital gains tax. And in Arizona, where the Center for Economic Progress is now leading a campaign to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for more education funding.

That teachers have a legitimate grievance about low salaries and cuts in education funding is not in dispute. In Oklahoma, the typical elementary school teacher earns $17,000 less than the national average; high school teachers earn nearly $19,000 less than the national average. Education spending there is down 28 percent over the last 10 years, the largest cut of any state. Right before teachers went on strike, the state legislature approved a $6,100 pay increase.

After nine days, during which lawmakers increased taxes on online sales and expanded what kinds of games can be played in casinos, even teachers unions wanted the strike to end.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, has — like many of his peers — looked for ways to restore education dollars that were cut in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. His 20 By 20 plan would give teachers a 20 percent pay hike by 2020. He has also forcefully disagreed with a recent judge’s ruling that Proposition 123 — an initiative that has put more than $340 million back into public schools — violates federal law.

“(The governor) has taken some pretty significant steps to show teachers he’s serious about being committed to having great schools in Arizona,” said Jonathan Butcher, the former education director at Arizona’s Goldwater Institute.

Butcher cautions that school districts are the entity that determines whether teachers ultimately receive a pay increase and how much money gets put into classrooms.

“Teachers are angry and disgruntled, but it’s important that districts are making these decisions,” said Butcher, who is now a senior policy analyst in the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation. “Even when you do have these big moves to add money to the (school) funding formula, if you’re filtering through districts that make decisions on who gets paid how much, there’s still a barrier diffusing who ultimately gets a higher salary.”

Jessica Towhey writes on education policy for InsideSources.com.