This spring, more than 130,000 educators and their allies took to the streets in an unprecedented, nationwide series of lessons on the potential of collective political action, including weeklong (or longer) strikes in West Virginia, Colorado, Oklahoma and Arizona and shorter walkouts and rallies in Kentucky and North Carolina. While the future of U.S. education reform may still be an unknown quantity, at least one thing adds up: Teachers are a force to be reckoned with and they’re not backing down.
Women make up more than 75 percent of teachers and school support staff nationwide. Disproportionately impacting women and children, education reform is unquestionably a feminist issue. It’s also a political one, likely to drive voters to the polls in November and beyond in support of ballot initiatives aimed at bolstering public education and candidates inspired to run by the momentum and power of these movements.
It’s often women who insist “enough” in the face of institutionalized inequality, says Dawn Penich-Thacker of the grassroots organization Save Our Schools Arizona. With the government still made up of mostly male lawmakers and women dominating the educational workforce, the stage is set for a familiar drama. Like other moments in history when women have fought back against entrenched patriarchal structures— for suffrage, reproductive rights, civil rights, pay equity—the power imbalance around education reform, Penich-Thacker explains, “is just another perfectly representative microcosm of that kind of same gendered, discriminatory institution” at work.
Lack of resources for teachers and schools means not only 25-year-old textbooks, crumbling classrooms and school supplies teachers have to pay for out of pocket, but also that many districts face severe personnel shortages as qualified teachers find other jobs because of low wages and meager support. In Arizona, educators were on strike for six school days after several weeks of smaller, escalating actions. It was the first statewide teacher walkout in Arizona history, forcing the Republican-controlled legislature to respond.
Arizona labors under a triple threat of challenging statistics: some of the lowest teacher salaries, highest teacher-to-student ratios and lowest per-student expenditures in the nation. In both West Virginia and Oklahoma, where salaries are lower, the walkouts lasted nine days.
Arizona teachers’ slate of demands included raises for teachers and support staff to bring the state average salary in line with the nationwide one and no new tax cuts until per-student spending reaches the national average. In mid-April, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey proposed raising teacher salaries 20 percent by 2020 in an attempt to forestall the walkout. Educators balked at the insufficient and seemingly empty promise, and 78 percent voted in favor of a strike.
The first day of the walkout, more than 50,000 educators, parents and allies rallied under the slogan #REDforED at the state capitol building in Phoenix, many of them packing the gallery a week later for a legislative session during which lawmakers approved a budget in the wee hours of the morning. Union leaders ended the strike later that afternoon.
The new budget, which includes the pay raise alongside promises of resources for support staff, infrastructure and technology, is a step in the right direction. But, as in other states, many in Arizona feel ambivalent about the victory, says Christine Wiseman, an elementary school sign language interpreter with more than 20 years’ college teaching experience. Despite her passion for working with young children, Wiseman could not afford to take a primary school job until she married—her husband’s income makes up for the deficit in her far lower salary. “Education remains ‘women’s work.’ Many women are viewed, and indeed view themselves, as the ‘secondary earner’ in their family,” Wiseman says. Not only does this fallacy undermine efforts to raise wages in professions such as teaching that are dominated by women, it “reinforces the concept that women need a partner in order to make ends meet, which reinforces the financial subjugation of women,” she adds.
The road to walkouts nationwide is paved with stories of teachers and support staff who can barely make ends meet, or who leave education altogether in search of fairer wages. It is not uncommon for teachers in the lowest-earning states to take on second or even third jobs to cover their bills. A popular protest sign reads: “My second job paid for this sign.”
And yet, the #REDforED movement and nationwide walkouts have renewed the hope of many educators. “As shell-shocked as I was to see the public education crisis in Arizona, I never once believed that it always had to be this way,” says Sarah Barela, a sixth-grade social studies teacher who struggled to reconcile the $20,000 cut to her salary when she moved to Phoenix from California last year. She makes up one of a multitude of educators and parents who share some degree of optimism about the possibilities of the movement going forward. “If #REDforED keeps its message on point … and holds our elected officials’ feet to the fire, we can create real change,” she says.
“Teachers have taken very courageous stands in states across America,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Their passion for their profession and what they want for their students has made an indelible impression on the public, which will be reflected in November.”
Notably, 2018’s education reform movements have been mostly bipartisan. With the exception of Colorado, all the rallies and walkouts occurred in red states; however, the participants ran the gamut, from Democrats and Republicans to those who consider themselves generally apolitical. No matter their affiliation, supporters of the movement agree that increased wages for educators and more resources for schools will mean a better future for everyone, but especially for the children who will grow up to become the thinkers and leaders and creators of tomorrow.
“Our children are not receiving the funding they deserve,” says Claudine, a special education teacher with two children of her own who asked not to use her last name. “Everyone needs to start changing their perspective, and I’m proud to be part of a movement that is working towards that global change.”
While the immediate gains from these walkouts vary from state to state, the passion of their participants will resonate loudly in the coming years. “The next year will really determine if [it] is a success,” says Kathleen Honne, a retired public education teacher and administrator. “We must stay united to effect change in decision-makers at every level, then ensure our voices are heard in the policies and finances that impact education.”
Penich-Thacker of Save Our Schools Arizona says not to worry: “We’re not turning our backs on each other after this.” People may speculate that these nationwide strikes were just a flash in the pan, soon to fizzle as people move into summer and on with their lives, but, as Penich-Thacker proclaims, that’s just “not what women do.”