Unlike the economy, health care, or military aggression, education is rarely an issue that commands urgent attention. However, every once in a while, education creeps to the top of headlines when you least expect it.
Most recently, the school shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, forced the issue of gun control to the fore for policy-makers who managed to dodge it even after the mass shooting in Las Vegas. The fact that young people followed up with the March for Our Lives, and demonstrations were held around the country, followed by lobbying efforts to change gun laws, has made this mass killing different.
Similarly, teacher strikes in West Virginia and now Oklahoma have caught many by surprise. With a strong possibility that strikes may also break out in Kentucky and Arizona, it’s beginning to look as though teachers may be at the forefront of a major comeback by organized labor. The fact that these strikes are occurring in red, “right-to-work” states, where trade unions have limited influence, adds to their political significance and potential. Given the success of the strike in West Virginia, it could very well be that teachers in other states will be inspired to follow their example.
The reasons for the labor unrest among teachers are obvious to those who have been following education. Under the guise of fiscal austerity, several states have carried out severe cuts to education that have impacted everything from facilities and infrastructure to textbooks and teacher salaries. Long after the 2008 recession had passed, several states failed or outright refused to restore badly needed funding to education. Teachers have been hit especially hard by a refusal on the part of several state legislatures to increase salaries as the economy has improved. There have been several reports of teachers’ being forced to rely on charity for food, or to endure long commutes in search of affordable housing because salaries have not kept up with increases in the cost of living.
But the strikes are not just about wages and benefits. Over the last few years, several states have enacted severe budget cutbacks that have severely impacted schools. In Oklahoma, where teacher pay is among the lowest in the nation, students are forced to use textbooks that are outdated and falling apart; school buildings often lack air conditioning and heat; and in several districts across the state, schools are open only four days a week. David DuVall, executive director of the Oklahoma Education Association, explained how the situation in schools became so dire: “[C]lass size limits, librarians, those kinds of things, still exist in law, but there is a moratorium on those being required because of a lack of funding.”