Frustrated. I’m not sure there is a better word to describe America’s teachers at this moment in history than frustrated. In states all across the country legislators seem intent on knocking the wind out of public education and public educators. Teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma have walked off the job recently in response to anti-public education legislation (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/02/us/teacher-strikes-oklahoma-kentucky.html). Across the country teachers don’t feel like their legislators are listening to them and they are left with no choice but to strike.
I promise that teachers don’t want to strike. Teachers want to talk about our schools. Teachers want to talk about making our profession stronger. Teachers want to talk about what is good for young people. But, in the era of Betsy DeVos many legislators are spinning a narrative that public schools are overspending and underperforming. They are also trying to sell the idea that teachers are overcompensated and interested in protecting the status quo. It isn’t true. Ms. DeVos has recently come to the conclusion that she should visit schools facing challenges (https://www.thedailybeast.com/devos-maybe-i-should-visit-underperforming-schools). I think it’s a great idea and I would encourage legislators who have aligned themselves with her to do the same. When they visit those schools (or any public school for that matter) I would defy them to tell me what program is wasting taxpayer money. Is it the fine arts program? Are we spending too much to support our special education students? Are we spending too much to support early childhood literacy? Should our students have less access to technology? Should there be fewer clubs, activities, and sports for kids to participate in? I’m eager to hear what they would say.
For whatever reason, legislatures across the country are taking marching orders from wealthy business folks like the Koch Brothers and punishing schools and teachers. The Koch Brothers have deep pockets and are spending millions of dollars to advance anti-public education legislation across the country. They have actually been pretty successful. Teachers will never be able to match the Koch Brothers money, but if teachers know anything it is how to get people’s attention.
Legislators have awakened a sleeping giant with their most recent waves of legislation aimed at cutting school funding, cutting pensions, dismantling collective bargaining, and shifting public tax dollars to private charter schools. Teachers have tried to tell our stories, but it has fallen on deaf ears. After being ignored by legislators in recent years teachers aren’t going to take it any more. Teachers are ready to stand up and be heard. Writing letters to our legislators hasn’t worked. Having rallies on the steps of the state capitol hasn’t worked. In West Virginia they were finally heard when they went on strike. It’s a shame that teachers in Kentucky and Oklahoma have had to go to that point as well, but this is where legislators have led us.
I am hopeful (but not necessarily optimistic) that legislators will see what is happening in these and other states and decide to bring teachers to the table before it comes to more strikes. Teachers want to teach, but teachers are frustrated. We are frustrated with being ignored and we’re ready to take our message to our communities. Ultimately we are ready to meet our legislators at the ballot box. Unprecedented numbers of teachers are running for office and even more candidates are making public education the centerpiece of their campaigns as they run against anti-public education candidates. The Koch Brothers may have deep pockets, but if I were a legislator voting against public schools today, I’d be worried about the giant that they have woken up when we get to November.