Blog: The Educated Reporter

Teachers Turn Focus to Ballot Box, But Threat of More Strikes Looms Large

In May, after massive teacher strikes shook up politics in a half-dozen states and thousands of teachers returned to the classroom fresh off the picket lines, a central question lingered: Was the “educator spring,” as the teacher walkouts were dubbed, a one-off event or just a taste of what’s to come?

Last month, teachers in more than a dozen Washington State school districts went on strike over contract negotiations, as The Columbian’s Katie Gillespie reported. And in Los Angeles, educators in the country’s second-largest school district could go on strike as soon as this month.

But so far this school year, teachers have yet to stage the type of statewide walkouts that occurred last spring in six states — West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina — when thousands of educators descended upon state capitols to demand better pay and more money for schools.

In West Virginia and Oklahoma, the actions led many districts to shut down schools for nearly two weeks. In North Carolina, they closed for one day. The walkouts demonstrated a level of organization and collective action not seen in recent memory in these, mostly conservative-leaning, states with strict restrictions on labor unions.

Now, with a new school year underway and pivotal elections around the corner, there are signs that the grassroots, teacher-led movement that began in West Virginia and quickly spread is poised to remain a potent political and organizing force.

From the Picket Line to the Ballot Box

In states that saw widespread walkouts and some that did not, organizers have set their sights on the ballot box — riding the momentum of the strikes to mobilize voters in support of candidates and ballot initiatives that align with what they consider a “pro-education” agenda.

Most notably, many educators have stepped forward to run for office (mostly as Democrats). Education Week compiled a database of 158 current teachers running for state legislative seats. Of that original list, 101 have advanced to the general election.

It’s all part of a plan to deliver on the promise that teachers made to remember in November. Having had mixed success securing pay raises and school funding increases during the walkouts, union leaders and organizers vowed to defeat the elected officials who opposed their agenda and elect candidates that would support pay raises, funding increases, and protect teacher pensions.

In many states, they’re positioning themselves to do just that.

In Arizona, organizers collected nearly half a million signatures for a statewide ballot initiative that would have raised millions of dollars for public education by raising income taxes on the highest-earning taxpayers. Just a few weeks ago, however, the Arizona Supreme Court kicked the Invest in Education Act off the November ballot over a dispute about the wording of the initiative. (The Arizona Republic has more on this controversial decision.)

Despite the setback, organizers are vowing to double down on their efforts to make their voices heard at the ballot box. Those efforts include knocking on doors, calling potential voters, and organizing rallies to support candidates.

“We are now in the process of going back to the movement and explaining that we need to change the policymakers, even though the initiative is off the ballot,” Marisol Garcia, the vice president of the Arizona Education Association, told me.

A similar story is playing out in West Virginia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and other states where teachers mobilized last spring. With enthusiastic rallies and impassioned press conferences, block walks and phone banks, educators are working to sustain their momentum and keep teachers front of mind as voters head to the polls.

In some ways, these are typical election season activities for teachers’ unions. What makes this year different, organizers say, is the number of educators running for office and the activity of new teacher-led groups not directly affiliated with unions. Teachers who had previously sat on the sidelines or tuned out state politics are finding ways to make their voices heard.

“There have just been so many people who were apathetic before, but now want to get involved, and the teachers strike took it all to a whole new level,” Edwina Howard-Jack, a high school English teacher in West Virginia, told The Intercept’s Rachel Cohen earlier this year.

The issues the #Red4Ed movement is championing, in elections and beyond, aren’t uniform across the country. In some states, there’s a greater emphasis on resisting teacher pension reforms. Elsewhere, the fight has broadened to other issues, such as limiting the expansion of charter schools and opposition to private school vouchers, common stances for teachers’ unions.

Perhaps the most lasting effect of last spring’s activism is the organizational infrastructure it created. After the dust settled and the trampled lawns surrounding the state capitals sprung back to life, many educators didn’t simply go back to the classroom as before.

In Arizona and elsewhere, educators are still wearing their red Invest in Ed shirts. They are following local and state elections more closely. And, perhaps most significantly, they are still talking to one another.

The Facebook groups that were critical to coordinating the walkouts remain active. Indeed, the organizational infrastructure created by the grassroots movement seems here to stay and, at least in some states, organizers are ready to deploy their resources as educators deem necessary, as journalist Dale Russakoff notes in a New York Times Magazine story.

More Strikes Ahead?

At the same time that organizers are focused on this year’s elections, the threat of future walkouts remains. Motivated by the relative success of the strikes earlier this year, educators in other states are showing an openness to walkouts.

In Louisiana, just over 60 percent of educators surveyed by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers said they would support a statewide walkout, reports Wilborn P. Nobles III for the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans.

In Texas, the Houston Chronicle reports that the state’s largest teacher union is mobilizing voters for the November elections but is also prepared to support walkouts if the elections don’t go their way.

“If the legislature chooses to ignore the needs of the public schools and antagonize educators, there’s going to be a strike back,” Louis Malfaro, the vice president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers told the Chronicle’s Fernando Ramirez.

Win or lose in November, these are signs that the “educator spring” could spark the “year of the educator.”

Should educators in these places decide to strike, they may well win public sympathy. As Education Week’s Madeline Will reports, a pair of recent national polls indicate that Americans are generally in favor of higher teacher pay and support teachers’ right to go on strike.

Overall, 53 percent of poll respondents said they support the right of teachers to strike, compared with 32 percent who oppose it, the Education Next poll finds. Notably, when respondents are told average teacher salaries in their state, support for pay raises declined from 67 percent to 49 percent.

Still, there are limits to how far the teacher walkout movement can spread, according to The New York Times’ Dana Goldstein. States that are ripe for walkouts are those in which the “state government plays an unusually strong role in funding education and setting its priorities, often superseding the influence of school districts,” Goldstein reports. On the flip side, in states where financing decisions are made on the local level, mass walkouts are unlikely.

EWA will explore these developments — as well as the impact of a high-profile Supreme Court decision that dealt a blow to teachers’ unions — during a seminar on the teaching profession in on Oct. 18-19 in Chicago.