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Is This a Political Turning Point for the Teaching Profession?

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The journalist Dale Russakoff kept hearing the same word in her conversations with Arizona teachers during a reporting trip last spring for The New York Times Magazine. That word, she said, was “awakening.”

Russakoff observed this awakening in mid-April of 2018, when teachers across Arizona walked out in protest, forcing schools to close for a week as state lawmakers wrestled over a deal to boost teacher pay and school spending. Fed up with their legislature’s legacy of austere education funding, teachers leveraged their casual social-media organizing to convene a brigade of largely amateur activists who had decided it was time to put policymakers’ feet to the fire.

Russakoff discussed her reporting during a recent Education Writers Association seminar on the state of the teaching profession. She was joined on the panel by a leading teacher activist from Arizona, as well as Harvard University education professor Martin West.

“I met so many teachers who had always voted Republican their whole life … and they literally didn’t look at what the Republican legislature was voting year after year in terms of education cuts,” Russakoff said. “Teachers would say ‘I’ve had an awakening.”

The walkouts in Arizona were just one part of a larger movement last spring in which educators across several states went on strike. What began in West Virginia with a nine-day walkout over teacher salaries and health care costs quickly spread in various forms to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, and, of course, Arizona.

In the Grand Canyon state, education funding had plummeted more than it had in other states after the 2008 Great Recession, explained Russakoff in a New York Times magazine story about the Arizona uprising. The state ranks second to last for per-pupil spending and near the bottom for teacher salaries, at $47,403, Russakoff reported.

Marisol Garcia, a teacher and the vice president of the Arizona Education Association, said that Arizona educators were emboldened by what they saw happening in the other states.

“Just seeing the activism going from east to west, seeing West Virginia and Oklahoma, [created] a sense of community after we were for so long suffering alone in our own classrooms,” Garcia told reporters at the EWA seminar. “It moved a lot quicker than any of us could’ve imagined, but we really learned from the lessons of the [Chicago Teachers Union] but also what was happening across the country.”

‘The Teachers Won’

That grassroots demonstrators secured the traction they did is striking in many ways, and the outpouring of political activity among educators offers a valuable lesson for reporters on the school beat.

Teachers in Arizona, at least, were surprised to discover that their pursuit of better education conditions and a higher salary might not be a pipe dream after all; the endorsement from political leaders in both parties and, perhaps most importantly, from the parents of their students, reinforced their optimism, Russakoff said.

This empowerment was “transforming,” she said. It was an awakening.

The change in mindset, as the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Martin West noted during the EWA discussion, seems to have spread into the general public. That’s evident in recent survey data, including an Education Next poll released in August. West, the editor-in-chief of EdNext, and his research team found that roughly half of U.S. adults (49 percent) support teacher pay increases—a 13 percent jump from 2017.

A PDK International poll published a few days later demonstrated similar support for higher teacher pay, as well as widespread consensus around teachers’ decision to strike, with three in four participants saying they support the move.

At least in the court of public opinion, “the teachers won their strike,” West said.

Garcia of the Arizona teachers union argued that the strike was not just about teacher compensation.

“It was never just about the raise, but about the state of our classrooms,” Garcia said. “We have students in our classrooms that have also been hit by this tide of underfunding.”

Another thread that permeated the panelists’ commentary was the sense of solidarity among participating teachers. Take, for example, the degree to which Garcia and other educators, many of whom were not affiliated with a union, managed to recruit so many new teacher activists to their cause, and at such a fast rate.

“Literally overnight we saw 30, 40 thousand folks deciding to discuss things online that had never been spoken of,” Garcia said. “The thing about teachers is that we work really hard and we know how to fix things.”

More Strikes Ahead?

So where does the the “educator spring,” as last year’s multi-state walkouts came to be known, go from here?

So far this school year, teachers have yet to stage the type of statewide walkouts that occurred last spring in six states. Instead, in many states, educators set their sights on the ballot box — riding the momentum of the strikes to mobilize voters in support of candidates and ballot initiatives that aligned with a “pro-education” agenda.

Those efforts yielded mixed success on election night, as Education Week reporter and the panel’s moderator Madeline Will reported in December.

Going forward, “one key determinant … is the fallout from the Janus decision,” West said, referencing the 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling to prohibit public sector unions from collecting “agency” or “fair share” fees in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31.

“We’re entering a period where it seems like actually there’s some more fundamental challenges to the right to collective bargaining and some of the key elements associated with that,” West said. “So I could imagine that leading into a period of conflict.”

Jesse Sharkey, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, suggested that a new front in teacher activism would soon arise — charter schools.

“This work will spread into that sector,” Sharkey said during the EWA panel.

Indeed, just weeks after the panel discussion, unionized teachers from one of Chicago’s largest charter-school networks went on strike — the first time in U.S. history that charter school teachers staged a walkout.

Panelists said they are also closely watching developments in Los Angeles, where stalled negotiations between the district and teachers union are making a strike in the nation’s second-largest school district appear increasingly likely.

“We are going to see if that awakening continues,” Garcia said.