The past year’s surge in teachers’ strikes from West Virginia to Arizona has been embraced by educators across the U.S. and beyond. As a new school year approaches Liberation News had the opportunity to interview a group of teachers at Fairfield High School, located in southwest Ohio, about the strikes, the future of the teachers’ movement, and the U.S. education system as a whole.
Solidarity between teachers
“I agree [with the strikes],” said Ms. Youngkin, Mandarin Chinese teacher, “because I’ve seen data, especially about Red for Ed in Arizona—the raises that they’ve been receiving are not keeping up with inflation and the cost of living. That’s one of the things that unions fight so hard for…”
Three other teachers echoed this sentiment, saying that they found the strikes to be justified by the conditions those teachers have dealt with. In addition, the interviewed teachers also reported that they had discussed the subject with their coworkers, and the same sentiment was shared by the majority of them as well.
For example, “I haven’t talked a lot with my coworkers,” said Ms. Klint, English teacher, “[but in] the conversations we have had, we admire them, we support them, we think they’re doing exactly what they should be doing.
“It’s heartening for me, as a member of a union,” she said, “the strength that unions have been losing, it’s heartening to see that even as that is happening, there’s still some power in numbers and people can take action to create change.”
Fairfield teachers can relate
Another teacher, Ms. Staggs, who teaches American politics and government, discussed Fairfield’s budget cuts, growing class sizes and salary freezes, the latter of which still affects the pay of Fairfield teachers today. Raises have only come back recently, and the years of salary freezes remain uncompensated. “We took the salary freeze,” she said, “the teachers agreed to it because they told us if [we] didn’t do it… we would have to cut younger teachers, and class sizes would’ve gotten even bigger.”
Ms. Staggs also talked about how there are those in government who claim they value education but on the other hand say, “you [teachers] don’t deserve a raise, you shouldn’t want to make a decent living, you’re in it because you’re wanting to help the kids!” To this Ms. Staggs replied, “Well of course we’re in it because we enjoy this and we want to do this, but that doesn’t mean [we] don’t want to pay our bills!”
The larger context
Ms. Staggs explained these recent moves against public education as stemming from the disconnect between working people struggling to meet their needs and wealthy politicians: “A lot of these lawmakers have never been in a public education setting. They went to private schools, and they send their kids to private schools. To them, it’s not personal. They don’t have any stake in the game.” This is especially clear when you compare the percentage of millionaires in Congress to the percentage of millionaires in the country as a whole—the difference is night and day. Nevertheless, these people dictate our lives.
Another hot topic among the teachers was the property tax method of funding, in which schools are funded according to the value of the property in their districts. This of course means that wealthier areas will have better funded schools, and vice versa. “I think that creates some of the inequality we see in schools,” Ms. Klint said. We are taught that education is the “Great Equalizer,” and that no matter your background, based on your academic effort, you can become whomever or whatever you want, yet approximately 44.6 percent of school funding comes from local property taxes.
This system directly and unabashedly creates a close relationship between one’s economic background and one’s academic potential. All the interviewed teachers acknowledged the unfairness of the property tax method of funding. Ms. Klint also mentioned that in 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the system of school funding used by the Ohio government “fails to provide for a thorough and efficient system of common schools,” yet since this ruling, the problem remains unrectified.
The struggle will continue
As for the question of whether or not the strikes will continue to spread, all teachers stated the affirmative. Ms. Youngkin said, “I feel like those schools and teachers who are at the bottom of the pay scale are going to say, ‘It’s actually working.’” And with enormous public support—75 percent of people in the U.S. think teachers are paid unfairly—the strikes have every reason to continue spreading. Fairfield High School students also seem to overwhelmingly support the strikes, and are quite enthusiastic about them.
So what can we, students, teachers and anyone else supportive of the movement do to help? The teachers seemed to all agree on one thing: making our voices heard. “Demand more from the department of education,” said Ms. Staggs, “demand that they get in the schools… They’re making these decisions and not looking at the reality.” Ms. Youngkin said, “You have to let your legislatures know, you have to let your representatives know… They have to feel that this younger generation supports their teaches and supports their own right to an education…
“You see [the slogan] all the time that ‘kids are our future,’” Ms. Youngkin said. “Well, why are we not spending money on our future?” As teachers come back to school this year facing conditions that are continuing to deteriorate, they have the examples from last years’ teacher militancy to look to for inspiration.