Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Teacher Strikes: What Reporters Need to Know

Teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky are on the picket lines this week, pushing for better compensation for themselves and more money for schools in their respective states.

These strikes come just weeks after West Virginia’s schools were shuttered statewide for almost two weeks in March, eventually sparking the legislature there to award teachers pay raises.

Such work stoppages are historically rare, but the teachers involved say they were necessary to force resolutions to months - or even years - of stalled negotiations.

(The recent spate of teacher strikes also comes on the heels of student walkouts and marches across the nation protesting gun violence, in what some pundits have suggested is “a perfect storm of activism.”)

Workers’ rights to collective bargaining — and to stop work in protest — vary from state to state. Union leaders say actions such as “walkouts” are among the only tools teachers have to counter years of inadequate resources for public education. Some lawmakers, school administrators and policy analysts take a different view, saying these kinds of actions do more harm than good by dividing communities and keeping children from school.

Teachers in some cases are trying creative ways to draw attention to their situation. After Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin described the protesting teachers as akin to teenagers begging for a new car, educators flooded the state capitol building to jingle their car keys at Fallin as she made her way into her executive offices.

What they’re asking for: West Virginia teachers returned to work only after Republican Gov. James Justice signed a bill guaranteeing an across-the-board 5 percent pay hike.

In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation in early April that boosts teacher pay by about 15 percent and increases funding for some educational items like textbooks. But some teachers say they will continue the protests because  they need bigger raises, reported Andrea Eger of The Tulsa World.  Oklahoma’s teachers’ union is seeking $10,000 pay raises for its members, and $5,000 raises for their support staff colleagues. They also are also pressing for a combined $700 million increase in education funding.

Kentucky teachers are protesting changes to their pension plans, as well as statewide cuts to education.

And teachers in other states, including Arizona are considering similar actions for similar demands: pay raises and increased educational funding.

Why it matters: Students can’t go to school when teachers are on strike, which can mean losing valuable instructional time. But in Oklahoma, teachers contend, student learning has already been compromised by inadequate funding for public education.

Writing for The Washington Post, Moriah Balingit describes Oklahoma schools with crumbling ceilings, outdated textbooks, and teachers working second, and even third, jobs to make ends meet. The superintendent for Tulsa Public Schools, Deborah Gist, said she supports her district’s striking teachers, which could be a tipping point, according to the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s education blog.

“Our teachers in Oklahoma are going above and beyond every single day for an unacceptable and unsustainable salary that doesn’t even provide them with a living wage,” Gist told The New York Times’ Dana Goldstein.

Finding and using stats: Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk and Madeline Will have a roundup of teacher salaries and benefits by state. Chad Aldeman, a policy analyst with Bellwether Education Partners, urges journalists to be careful with charts that focus solely on teachers’ paychecks. “Without looking at all forms of compensation or adjusting for cost of living, average teacher salary rankings don’t tell us all that much,” Aldeman wrote on his blog.

Want to know more? Start with EWA’s Topics Page on the Teacher Workforce. The Times’ Goldstein wrote the book on the history of the teaching profession and how unions have shaped its evolution. Bellwether’s Aldeman tracks teacher pension issues, including the looming risk of insolvency of underfunded plans.

At a recent EWA National Seminar, we looked at challenges facing the teacher workforce, and the rising costs to states of pension programs. And this EWA Story Lab explains how to dig into spending by local teachers’ unions. The U.S. Supreme Court is also considering a case over whether unions can compel employees to pay dues if they benefit from collective bargaining, even if they don’t opt to join. Education Week’s Madeline Will looks at the case’s potential ramifications for teachers’ unions here.