The West Virginia Teacher Strike May Have Sparked A Nationwide Movement

Underpaid Teachers around America see what happened in West Virginia as an opportunity to demand the resources they deserve

Teachers Emily Hodovan and Misty Meadows overlook the Rotunda in the West Virginia Capitol — Monday, Mar. 5, 2018 (AP)

Teachers Emily Hodovan and Misty Meadows overlook the Rotunda in the West Virginia Capitol — Monday, Mar. 5, 2018 (AP)

After nine days of striking, teachers in West Virginia finally got what they wanted: a modest 5 percent pay raise and a guarantee that their health insurance premiums would not go up. According to the National Education Association, West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation for educator salaries, with secondary school teachers earning 35 percent less than the national average. Additionally, West Virginia is one of five states whose teachers’ wages actually decreased between 2015 and 2016.

That some 20,000 teachers had to literally shut down West Virginia’s public school system in order to be given a meager pay increase should stand as a national embarrassment to the elected officials of West Virginia— but it can also serve as a promising tale to teachers across the country who are tired of being walked on.

via CNN

via CNN

West Virginia was uniquely poised to lead the way for educators. The state has struggled to balance its budget since 2006, when legislators, including Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, slashed the corporate tax rate in order to attract big business. According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the state has reduced taxes by over $425 million annually, leaving West Virginia with a massive budget shortfall and forcing cuts to state services and education. West Virginia essentially fast-tracked tax cuts to benefit corporate business while asking teachers to tighten their belts.

“They’re saying we can’t afford it. Well, we can’t afford it because we’ve done these large tax cuts.” — Ted Boettner, West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy

We ask a lot of our teachers. They are underpaid, they are overworked, they pay out of pocket for school supplies and now the President of the United States is insisting some of them undergo firearm training in order to prevent mass shootings.

That we do not prioritize our teachers, and instead ask they bare the brunt of budget cuts while billionaires receive tax breaks, is a disgrace, and West Virginia is just the first in what may be a wave of teacher strikes across the nation.

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Why Aren’t Teachers Taken Seriously?

It’s not just West Virginia; the salaries of public school teachers have been either stagnant or falling for years. But why? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 77 percent of teachers — and nearly 90 percent of primary school teachers — are female. Research suggests jobs dominated by women pay less on average than male-dominated professions and are viewed as less prestigious.

Want To Really Empower Women? Start Paying Them The Same As Men.

The West Virginia teachers’ strike was an overwhelmingly female one, in line with the strengthening women-led activism across the country. At a time when organized labor has been eroded across the country, the women of West Virginia were able to organize, mobilize and have their demands met. As business and English teacher, Daniel Summers asked of West Virginia politicians: “What investment returns more than investing in education?”

“The parents in this state deserve to know that West Virginia respects the institution to which they entrust their children to every day.” — Daniel Summers, West Virginia Teacher

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice went from deriding the teachers as “dumb bunnies” to approving their 5 percent pay increase and championing their purpose as educators. It seems Republicans are having an increasingly difficult time making the argument that teachers should continue to be underpaid.

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Who’s Next?

Ranking below West Virginia in teacher salaries are Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Dakota. Oklahoma teachers, who have not received a pay increase since 2007, have already announced a walkout for April 2. An Oklahoma Teacher Walkout Facebook group created in the midst of the West Virginia teacher strike gained 8,000 members within its first 36 hours of creation and is now over 53,000 members.

One Oklahoma teacher shared her thoughts on the walkout, admitting “the vast majority of teachers abhor the idea of a walkout” but felt they were “at the breaking point.”

I cringe at the thought of a walkout. I don’t think that’s the way it should be done either. The problem is no one is listening to us. We and our students, Oklahoma’s children, deserve for education and teachers to be respected and funded.

Similar to West Virginia, Oklahoma Republicans gave top earners a $147 million tax cut in addition to an already-existing $470 million tax break for oil companies. Unsurprisingly, the state — which was already dealing with a $1.3 billion budget gap — was forced to cut spending, which included a reduction in per-student education by 23.6 percent, the deepest cuts to education in the nation as of 2014. The budget crisis has led many Oklahoma teachers to leave, seeking work in nearby Texas where the pay is slightly better, though still below the national average.

Republican Governor of Oklahoma Mary Fallin talks budget shortfalls during a news conference — Wednesday, May 3, 2017 (AP)

Republican Governor of Oklahoma Mary Fallin talks budget shortfalls during a news conference — Wednesday, May 3, 2017 (AP)

It is not coincidental that deep red states that have implemented tax cuts similar to the those in the federal GOP tax plan are finally seeing blowback from their constituents and those working in the public sector. With their state economy in shambles, Oklahoma elected four Democratic state legislators in 2017 and Oklahoma teachers are hoping to follow in the footsteps of West Virginia and get the long-overdue pay raise they deserve.

Teachers in Arizona are also planning a walkout. Poor teacher pay and low education funding in the state has led to a shortage of qualified teachers, with a report finding 22 percent of teachers lacked full qualifications. Arizona teachers have begun organizing a grassroots #RedForEd campaign demanding improved pay, more resources, and better working conditions.

Teachers in Kentucky have made rumblings about the possibility of a strike as Kentucky legislators consider a bill that could threaten their pensions. Mississippi educators are also considering a walkout, though teacher strikes have been made illegal in the state.

Whatever the outcome in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and Mississippi, West Virginia will stand as a lesson in effective activism that can serve as a model to underpaid teachers across the country. How we treat our teachers says a lot about who were are as a nation, and it’s high time they are recognized as the everyday heroes that they are.

News // Activism / Education / Politics / Teachers / West Virginia