If you have watched the news at almost anytime this or last year you have undoubtedly seen coverage of the numerous teachers strikes. These strikes have stretched from coast to coast, with varying results. While they may seem to have appeared out of the ether, in reality they have been a long time coming.

Schools across broad swaths of the US are vastly underfunded. A quick internet search will give you numerous pictures and videos of crumbling schools, ancient textbooks, and buildings filled with mold and mushrooms. The origin of this problem is not singular.

As the austerity has dug its poisonous claws deeper and deeper in to the pockets of Americans, schools have also fallen victim. Many states have slashed school spending on K-12 schooling. This has had many disastrous effects including worse teacher to student ratios in many areas. It has also, for a long time, generated quite high turnover in the teaching profession.

For most of the 2000s and 2010s turnover has hovered right under 3 million per year. This constitutes about 8% of all teachers in the States. This is double or triple many other industrialized nations. This constant fluctuation has serious impacts on the overall education system and students specifically.

On a base level it is simply reassuring to have teachers with whom you can build a meaningful relationship, that you can trust, and that will understand you and help to prepare and guide you into your future as a student and human being. On a more macro scale this yearly purge forces schools to hire largely inexperienced educators, which obviously has large impacts on students and is likely to increase already high pressure on more veteran teachers. While we will always have novice teachers, and this is not inherently a bad thing, one would hope that we could retain a large stable of veterans who could assist the more green ones.

This issue is even more pronounced in more urban schools where funding is already lower and thus much less enticing to teaching professionals. These schools start behind the pack due to lower values of property, which are the lion share of funding for public schools, in addition to generally lower incomes of inhabitants, which limits them in their ability to buy supplies and supplemental education, which would help their children in their quest for a quality education.

In schools across the US we have seen cuts to many programs due to dwindling funds. Many of these are classes are in the arts. From music and foreign language programs to physical education, massive reduction in classes that are beneficial to both the mental and physical health of students are vanishing. Other classes for students with special needs are being reduced or combined, leaving some of these students stranded without adequate resources. These reductions in funding not only affect students, but also teachers.

Teachers, like many other professions, have seen little in the way of wage increases over the past 40 or so years. It is true that teachers’ income has increased every year since at least the 1980s, at least as an aggregate. However, as with many other forms of work, actual purchasing power of the dollars these teachers receive has remained stagnant or even dropped over the past 40 years. According to Pew Research, “The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 had the same purchasing power that $23.68 would today.” This gives a clear picture of the abysmal situation that US wages for the bottom of 90 percent of Americans is currently at, of course the top earners have not had this problem.

This is due to a myriad of factors ranging from increasing amounts of money being pumped into politics from big business to the decline of unions in America. Fortunately teachers have a large and, one of the few still moderately, powerful unions left. This is one of the reasons that teachers can band together to demand meaningful change within the public school system.

Another issue that has led to major funding, among other, issues in public schools is the problem of private and charter schools. While neither is inherently evil, their existence greatly effects money that flows into schools to provide quality, public educations to millions of American youth. California is a powerful example of this with more than half a million students in charter schools (around 10% of the total student population).

Education leaders in the state have said the proliferation of charter schools has had a devastating effect on public schools. The precise extent to which these charter schools affect public schools is still a matter of debate because the data leaves a bit to be desired, however researchers at Duke University estimated that in some districts in North Carolina had between $300 and $700 dollars less to spend per student due to siphoning of students into charter schools. Others have estimated this number to as high as $1500.

While the debate over charter schools is heated, it does seem clear that their existence is hurting public schools and thus a clear class issue, being that many lower and middle class families have no way to enter private schools, they are left with public or charter schools, if they can get in.

While this article is not for the purpose of saying that charter schools are a negative force in American education, that may be coming in the future though, it seems clear that they are not a positive phenomenon,generally speaking. This is because they are private institutions masquerading as public ones they are often able to skirt regulations, most notably unions. For me this is strike one you’re out. They enjoy little public oversight and thus are essentially allowed to operate independent of restrictions imposed on public schools. If you are feeling a bit too sane lately go check out the arguments for and against charter schools online, lots of opinions, not a ton of facts.

It does seem that most people have given up arguing that students get better classical education in charter schools, meaning that their grades will be better in college and pursuing advanced degrees. Most arguments that I has seen recently rely on the idea that kids receive a better education on ‘life’. This seems flimsy at best, but while I would be willing to listen to educated arguments for these schools, currently I oppose.

I think one clear reason for this can be seen if one simply looks at a system like Finland. Finland only has public schools, shocking right? The thing is they out preform the US year after year. It seems when you force rich and poor poor students into the same schools the schools magically get better.

To get into the teachers strike we will start from the beginning, of course in the context of the most recent strikes as teachers strikes are nothing new and have been happening for decades and collective bargaining stretching back around 100 years.

It all started in West Virginia in February 2018. The strike lasted from February 22nd until March 7th, included roughly 20,000 teachers and shutdown schools in every country in the state. It showed the power that teachers, and strong unions, have in America, and that collective action works. It also inspired a number of other teachers, and other educations related jobs, strikes across the US.

One of the questions that I seldom see seriously discussed is “Why were these teachers striking?” Now if one were to turn on Fox they would be forced to endure the tired, hack response that these underpaid and overworked teachers are just greedy and wish to personally enrich themselves, however when one does a few minutes of research, you can quickly discover that this is untrue. Clearly this is outside of the pay-grade of pundits on TV who get millions of dollars to read a prompter.

It is true that many teachers are in fact striking to attain higher salaries. Teachers have seen their wages drop or remain stagnant over the past few decades. Educators have seen their pay shrink 1.6% between 2000 and 2017, when adjusted for inflation. So it makes sense that they would be seeking higher incomes, not to mention teachers have the reputation of being chronically underpaid. However, to only list this complaint as the reason teachers are striking would be extremely myopic.

Many teachers were striking for more school funding. Take Oklahoma for example, the state has one of the lowest levels of funding per student in the US. This was a major factor for the strike there in April of 2018.

Teachers in the strike had 3 major goals: 1. a $10,000 raise in teachers salaries 2. a $1,250 raise for school support staff 3. increase school funding. While they did not totally achieve all of their goals in their entirety, they did get a $6,000 raise for teachers, $1,250 raise for support staff, and increased school funding through a tobacco tax.

These goals clearly demonstrate that while teachers often do desire higher pay, as they should, they are also fighting for their students, schools, and communities. A more recent example, the teachers strike in Oakland, demonstrates this further.

The strike in Oakland, the longest in more than two decades, occurred in February of this year. The goals of the strike included raising salaries for teachers by 12 percent retroactive to 2017, a reduction in class sizes, a halt to the continued growth of charter schools, and larger numbers of support staff in schools.

Reductions in class sizes help both teachers and students. Smaller classrooms are much more manageable. They likewise give students more time to directly interact with their teachers. Similarly increasing the amount of support staff, such as librarians, nurses, and counselors, immensely helps all those inside American schools.

There is actually quite a serious issue of schools in certain regions of the US lacking nurses. While all of these positions should see their numbers increase, perhaps nurses are the most vital. Most obviously because kids get hurt, a lot. These are usually minor injuries, though they can become serious. It should also be common sense to all that concentrating that number of bodies in one generally confined location is a recipe for a breeding ground for illness. This is an even more dire circumstance due to recent outbreaks of measles, vaccinate yourself and your kids folks.

The strike, as with many of the others, was quite successful. Teachers got an 11 percent raise and a 3 percent bonus, nurses will also see their pay raised. In addition, the school district promised to increase the number of other types of support staff. However, some were still not satisfied with this outcome.

Many argued that the deal with the district did not go far enough. This is understandable because the average salary for Oakland teachers is nearly $20,000 less than the average California teacher, just another example of the compounded problems low income school districts face. Whether this is in the inner cities of America or the country, these school routinely get the short end of an already stubby stick.

I could go through every strike, but I leave that to those who wish to see all the minute details themselves. Suffice it to say most of them are quite similar. Sure some differences can be detected, some are wildcat strikes while others are not, some are more successful than others, and the list goes on. What I hope everyone can take away from this is that teachers are not striking because they are greedy.

Most teachers work their asses off and they deserve to be compensated in a meaningful way for it. Teacher also see how broken our schools are first hand every day, that is why they are taking to the streets, to make our education system more effective and safe for students, support staff, and themselves.

Support teachers, support unions, support strikes.

Photo: LaTerrian McIntosh