In less than three months, rank-and-file teachers and educational support staff in five states—West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Arizona—have turned the entire country into their classroom. They haven’t just pushed for—and won—better pay and working conditions for themselves. They’ve also mounted a direct challenge to decades of bipartisan tax cuts for corporations, helping us all understand what austerity means. And by championing a raft of policy proposals to redistribute wealth away from the 1 percent and back to the working and middle-class, they’ve shown us how austerity can be defeated. As Emily Comer, a middle-school Spanish teacher and leader in the West Virginia strike, put it, “The phase we are in now—to win a real, progressive solution to the health-insurance crisis—forces us to dream bigger. This isn’t just about our healthcare plan. It’s about rebalancing the power of workers and corporations in our state.”
Remarkably, these strikes have garnered overwhelming support from the public, despite years of well-funded attacks on teachers unions. In a recent NPR/Ipsos poll, just one in four respondents said they think teachers are paid enough, and three-quarters said teachers have the right to strike. Remarkably, this support cut across party lines. “Two thirds of Republicans, three-quarters of independents and nearly 9 in 10 Democrats” support the teachers’ right to strike, the poll showed.
The most recent walkouts have shifted to western states. On April 26, 50,000 teachers and their supporters march through Phoenix in 100 degree heat. That same day, thousands of protesters descended on the capitol of Colorado.
Every walkout has resulted in victories, some more than others. In Kentucky, educators forced the governor’s veto of new taxes to be overturned, providing some additional funds for schools. But they fell short of preventing the conservative legislature from weakening their pension plan. In Oklahoma, while educators failed to stop a raft of tax cuts and increase overall funding, they still won their first raise since 2007 by $6,000 a year, which by is huge by local standards. In Arizona, the teachers won a 9 percent immediate raise, with Governor Doug Ducey pledging 11 percent more to achieve what he calls the 2020 deal, a 20 percent pay raise for all teachers by 2020. Governor John Hickenlooper, the only Democrat to head one of these states, responded to thousands of protesters by committing to restore $1 billion in education funding.
The two fiercest fights in the rebellion thus far have been in West Virginia and Arizona. In both states, the struggle hasn’t been only, or even mostly, over teacher pay; it’s been about the very future of public education. In both states, vouchers and privatization of public education have been front and center. In West Virginia, strikers defeated a move to gut seniority and a proposal to expand charter schools.
In Arizona, the fight is about “whether there will be brick-and-mortar schools in the near future,” says education journalist Jennifer Berkshire. Long a laboratory for right-wing education policies, the state has the highest percentage of students in charter schools (17 percent) in the nation. “Arizona is ground zero for the Koch Brothers and Betsy DeVos,” Berkshire notes, “They’ve rolled out something they call education savings accounts [ESAs]. Bank of America has a contract to create a debit card for parents to use for homeschooling, private tutors, school supplies, or a down payment on private-school tuition.” Of course, DeVos herself is frequently heard—as she was during a recent disastrous interview with Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes—repeating a version of her mantra, “What’s an education ‘system’? There’s no such thing! Are you a system? No, you’re individual students, teachers, and parents.”