Striking a Chord
On February 22, West Virginia teachers began what would be a two-week long strike. The West Virginia branches of two of the largest professional interest groups—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—called for teachers across the state to strike after a series of minimal pay raises over the next few years and rising insurance premiums.
State teachers argued that their salaries, ranked among the lowest in the country, spurred the strike. On March 6, Republican Governor James C. Justice signed a bill that gave teachers a 5 percent pay raise. With this bill came the end of West Virginia’s first statewide teacher strike since 1990. Now, as West Virginia’s teachers and students return to classrooms, the looming success of this strike might not only inspire other states and their teachers, but also bring to light the serious education problem in this country.
Undoubtedly, teaching can be a difficult profession, especially with relatively low pay. In August 2016, The Washington Post reported that in 2015, weekly wages for United States public school teachers were 17 percent lower than other college-educated professions. West Virginia’s strike showcased teachers that had not had a pay raise in four years and were expected to receive minimal pay raises until 2021. This successful strike may be the beginning of a revolution.
In Arizona, teachers wore red earlier this March, and demonstrated with the hashtag #RedForEd, demanding higher pay in a state with a median teacher income of $48,087, just a little over $1,000 more than West Virginia’s $46,461. Arizona teacher Lisa Chouinard Cox hopes that #RedForEd and social media’s influence will help bring attention to Arizona’s teacher problem.
Cox has been a teacher for the past 24 years and enjoys her career, but she sees major problems in Arizona. “In my earlier days, teachers received not only funding but a certain amount of respect and support in our communities, our schools, and from our state. However, in the last ten years, we have seen a dramatic decline in all of the above,” Cox explained in an electronic message.
This comes after over 800 Arizona teachers quit at the beginning of the 2017 school year due to low pay, and a current 3,400 classrooms host teachers who lack the credentials and previous experience, according to a report from Arizona Central. “Arizona is in a mass exodus of educated, dedicated teachers and future teachers leaving the field due to a lack of support from our state. In my school alone, I have seen, over the last several years, three male coworkers leave their classrooms,” Cox said. She continues, commenting that last year two young and newer teachers in her school left for financial jobs, where the two would make almost triple their salary teaching.
As for Cox’s salary next year, her 25th year teaching, is set around $48,000. Cox is fortunate enough that her salary is not her family’s only source of income, but she notes that many of her coworkers are working multiple jobs to survive. She is hopeful that Arizona is setting up to be the next West Virginia. “You can imagine our excitement watching the teachers of West Virginia take a stand and make their voices finally be heard! Their success was instrumental in motivating educators of Arizona and lighting a fire we always knew we had,” Cox said.
Meanwhile in Kentucky, where teachers are facing proposed cuts to their pensions, and in Oklahoma, where teachers have not received a pay raise in over a decade, strikes may be following suit. Oklahoma teachers promised to strike on April 2 if the state government does not increase pay and educational budgets. Following the success of the strike in West Virginia, this status quo may no longer be acceptable.
With the uprising of teachers against low wages comes an examination of funding for education. Location often determines how much money schools are able to spend on students. In states where the cost of living is high, like the District of Columbia and New York, spending in schools is higher. Other factors that determine state funding for education include property taxes, class sizes, and local policies.
Some of the discussions surrounding pay for teachers and budgets for schools have originated not from West Virginia, but from the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland, Florida. After Trump suggested that some teachers should be armed and Florida lawmakers approved a $67 million program to train teachers to carry guns, teachers created the hashtag #ArmMeWith, which suggests different classroom supplies they would rather be equipped with for teaching.
The number of teachers in schools is decreasing, not just in Arizona as Cox explained, but countrywide. In 2015, The New York Times reported that the past few years have seen nationwide shortages of teachers due to the lack of appeal for the job due to low pay. According to the Associated Press, around 700 classrooms in the state lack full-time teachers. Some public school districts even asked their teachers to train on the job and accepted candidates lacking credentials. Free public schooling is a major advantage, open to people of all income and background. Public school teachers hold a significant influence over the future of America, specifically in states like Cox’s Arizona, where around 90 percent of students attend public schools.
Now, as teachers showcase dissent and raise their voices, they become more like role models for their students, as Cox is for her 32 students. Students, seeing this demand for change and refusal to comply with subpar standards, have joined the campaign. In an open letter to the people of West Virginia, student organizers at Capital High School in Charleston wrote to ask for “support in our movement to #SecureOurFuture by ensuring that our educators are compensated fairly and reasonably.” When these students joined their teachers during the strike, the message of unity was clear through their concluding statement, “We understand that this strike is not just a day off from school for us; it is not about pay, it’s about what’s right.”
Now, school budgets and pay raises should be top priorities, especially in drastic times for states like Oklahoma, where one-fifth of school districts are trying four day weeks to save money and teachers are donating blood plasma and driving as Uber drivers to make ends meet.
The teaching profession’s financial troubles are not appealing to future teachers. Less people are becoming teachers in states like Arizona, where students studying to be teachers at the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and Northern Arizona University dropped 18 percent between 2008 and 2016. Classroom conditions are crumbling, especially in places like Detroit, where in 2016, photos of mold, crumbling roofs, and roaches went viral and brought national attention to teachers not having classroom supplies or pay raises in a decade.
These are indications of changing times for America’s education system and showcase the need for educational reform. The role of teachers is transforming from being solely educational to becoming more—teachers are role models, political activists, and leaders. Cox embodies this spirit, remarking, “Arizona teachers will be heard, it is our time.”