Striking up a Conversation: Discussing the Relevance of Teacher Strikes

Striking up a Conversation: Discussing the Relevance of Teacher Strikes

Photo illustration by Alison Oh

Feb. 22, it was West Virginia. April 2, it was Kentucky and Oklahoma. April 26, it was Arizona. April 27, it was Colorado. May 16, it was North Carolina.

In each of these states, striking teachers walked out to protest stagnant wages, continual decreases in per-student spending and other problems in public education. The teachers on strike cite years of budget cuts and deteriorating classroom conditions as reasons for their dissatisfaction. In Arizona, for example, teachers protested to gain more funding and ultimately won a 19 percent pay raise after a five-day walkout.

“A lot of people are finally understanding what’s going on,” English teacher Charles Berezin said. “What’s been happening with [the so-called] attempts to reform schools hasn’t been talked about as an attack on teachers, which is what it really is. But, what we’re seeing all around the country is that a lot of people are becoming active who haven’t been, and I think teachers are leading that charge.”

The teacher strikes follow a recent series of activist movements, such as the gun control and #MeToo movements. Unlike gun control and sexual harassment, however, education is primarily a local and state responsibility, which has led to varying requirements and curriculums nationwide. The day-to-day operation of most public schools is controlled by individual school districts.
In each of the states facing teacher strikes, however, there are a few key similarities: most are historically anti-union and all have faced severe budget cuts in the last few decades. In Oklahoma, for example, “right-to-work” legislation restricts the power of unions, and inflation-adjusted per-student funding in the public school system has dropped by almost 30 percent over the last 30 years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Teachers on strike in the state asked for an additional $200 million of funding.

“[The strikes] are happening, for the most part, in states with Republican governors and legislatures,” Berezin said. “What these governments have been up to is making massive tax cuts and promising that this is going to make everything better. School budgets are a major part of any state’s budget, and so it’s the education that gets affected most by these kinds of cuts. It’s all about these budget cuts.”

Berezin said he and his students discussed the strikes and why they were happening in one of his classes, AP Language: The Language of Protest. Their discussion centered around the broader trends behind the strikes, Berezin said.

“The teachers have historically always sort of been on the forefront of labor activism,” Berezin said. “I’m very cheered to see this sort of revival of labor activism at this time. I think it’s terribly important.”

Although Harvard-Westlake students have participated in other political movements, such as the “March for Our Lives” movement, the school is uniquely removed from the teacher strikes given its situation as a private school in a state with a pro-union government.

“Along with many other Harvard-Westlake kids, I haven’t really heard much about the strikes because the issues that we do focus on tend to be more about national politics, like the political debates about gun control and stuff like that,” Leo Kwok ’20 said.

Berezin, however, argued that education is a national issue.

“I have friends who teach in the public school system, and what they’re going through is just horrifying, even in Los Angeles,” Berezin said. “There’s an attack on teachers’ organizations and on teachers’ unions led by what passes for the school reform movement. It’s an attempt to introduce for-profit companies into public education. So, this kind of activism is happening even here [in California], where we’re not having the massive budget cuts that red states are going through.”

Berezin said the lack of awareness about the strikes was just another symptom of students’ general political apathy.

“For the most part, I think that Harvard-Westlake students are not that politically-oriented, which I think is unfortunate,” Berezin said. “I would like to see more of that, but I just don’t think they’re that politically concerned, and I would like to see some more concern about that.”

On the other hand, Julia MacCary ’19 said that she believes most Harvard-Westlake students are interested in current events and drew a connection between the teacher strikes and student activism at the school.

“I find it interesting that the strike in West Virginia was started on Facebook,” MacCary said. “We as Harvard-Westlake students use Facebook pretty extensively to communicate with each other, and movements such as ‘March for Our Lives’ and ‘Women’s March on Washington’ are organized largely with the use of Facebook.”

Members of the school community also said they could understand the motives behind the strikes.

“I support the strikes because I believe teachers have a right to collectively bargain for higher wages,” Emmanuel Zilber ’19 said. “They are one of the most important factors in educating the next generation, and so they ought to be compensated [more], both as a greater incentive for more to join the workforce and because of the necessity of their work.”

Conversely, Spanish teacher Sephora Escarpeta-Garcia said that while she generally opposes strikes, she could empathize with her fellow teachers.

“I don’t like the strikes, [but] I don’t understand why more respect is given to other professions than to us, the teachers who are working to shape and inspire multiple generations to be excellent and passionate in every area of their lives,” Escarpeta-Garcia said. “Really, we are here to make positive change, since the students in our classes are the leaders of the future. There always has to be a balance in what we want as teachers, what is fair for not just the students and the community, but also for us teachers who work very hard.”

Shirleen Garcia, a special education teacher at Johnson Elementary School in Arizona, however, said that she did not participate in the Arizona strike.

“I wasn’t in favor of the strike,” Garcia said. “It is for a good reason, but I personally felt like a political pawn. Both sides had agendas under the surface.”

Garcia also explained that teachers’ strikes are not a simple black-or-white issue, as there are many different factors in play, including the impact of striking on students.

“I was mad as a parent,” Garcia said. “Because with such short notice, what was I supposed to have done with my kids if I hadn’t been a teacher? I [also] didn’t think it made sense to strike near the end of the school year rather than at the beginning when the impact would have been felt more.”

Overall, the strikes have had mixed results, with varying degrees of concessions made. In West Virginia, for example, teachers won all five of their major demands, including a five percent pay raise and the elimination of a proposal to create more charter schools. In Oklahoma, teachers received a raise but did not win any significant legislation to increase school funding. However, MacCary expressed hope that voters would ultimately be able to improve the situation.

“I look forward to seeing how those states and others will change in response to [teachers’] complaints,” MacCary said. “I hope that voters will consider candidates’ views on education and taxes when casting their votes.”

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