“Like a Wildfire”: Red-State Teacher Strikes Spread

The red states (those where the majority support and vote for the Republican Party) have a growing teacher rebellion on their hands. It started last month in West Virginia when 34,000 teachers left their classrooms for the capital building to strike for a much-needed pay increase. Now protests have spread to Oklahoma and Kentucky while many expect Arizona to be next. And the teachers are winning.

West Virginia’s teachers make an average annual salary of $44,000—the forty-eighth lowest teacher pay in the country—but they weren’t just striking for higher salaries. Because the pay is so low and because the employee contribution for health insurance was set to double, the state faced a significant teacher shortage and attempted to make up for it by lowering teacher certification requirements for new educators. Many West Virginia teachers grew concerned about the quality of education being given to the state’s students. “We have students who have graduated from high school without ever having had a certified math teacher,”  explained the American Federation of Teachers’ state president, Christine Campbell. In the end, all five of the West Virginia teachers’ demands were met, and they returned to the classroom after a nine-day strike.

Today, teachers in Oklahoma are in the third day of their strike for higher pay and increased funding for education. Even worse off than their colleagues in West Virginia, Oklahoma teachers came in forty-ninth in the national rankings of teacher salaries with an average salary of $45,276. Teachers did receive a raise of about 16 percent, but since they hadn’t seen an increase in a decade and have suffered years of deep budget cuts, many felt that it wasn’t enough. Especially since about 20 percent of schools are currently on a four-day-a-week schedule because the state can’t pay the teachers. Teachers are asking for a larger raise for teachers, as well as an increase for non-teaching staff and $25 million more than the legislature has proposed for education spending. On Tuesday in an on-camera interview with CBS News, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said, “Teachers want more, but it’s kind of like having a teenage kid that wants a better car.”

“Our legislature started the process and they have a moral obligation to invest in our children and our children’s future,” says the president of the Oklahoma Education Association, Alicia Priest. “That obligation has not been met yet. Funding for our students is an issue in every schoolhouse in the state of Oklahoma.”

Although clearly inspired by the West Virginia strike, in Oklahoma’s case not all the state’s teachers walked out. Regardless, the strike is large enough to shut down hundreds of schools, including the three largest districts in the state.

In Kentucky, teachers stopped short of a strike in favor of a rally at the state capital on Monday. Many public schools were already closed for spring break, but the ones that were scheduled to be in session closed anyway to allow teachers to attend the protest. As in West Virginia and Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers (who earn an average of $52,000 a year) are concerned about more than just raises. The state legislature recently passed a bill that reduces pension benefits for new teachers; those already in the profession worry about attracting competent new people. “Vote Them Out!” and “No Funding, No Future” were reportedly popular chants at the protest. Governor Matt Bevin has not yet signed the bill.

Thousands of Arizona teachers also rallied last week and are reportedly considering a strike over their requests for a 20 percent pay increase along with increased funding for schools.

What all these states have in common is Republican leadership that has slashed education funding in recent years, along with important mid-term elections on the horizon that could change the make-up of Congress. Sabrina Singh, deputy communications director of the Democratic National Committee (which is registering voters at all the rallies) called the walkouts “a real rejection of the Republican agenda that doesn’t favor working-class people. Republicans aren’t on the side of teachers. The Democrats are.”

West Virginia teachers may have started a powerful political movement that red states will have to deal with. Andrew Beaver, a Kentucky protestor and middle-school teacher summed it up: “What I’m seeing in Louisville is teachers are a lot more politically engaged than they were in 2015 or 2016. It really is a wildfire.”

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association told teachers, “You are part of a movement that can’t be stopped.”