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Long read: What’s behind the US teacher walk-outs?

Will Hazell asks if teachers protesting against funding cuts in the UK can learn from walk-outs across the Atlantic

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Will Hazell asks if teachers protesting against funding cuts in the UK can learn from walk-outs across the Atlantic

The following may feel very familiar. Angry teachers take to the streets to campaign against stagnant pay and education cuts. Inadequate funding means they are relying on ancient textbooks because their schools simply can't afford new ones.

In some areas schools have even been forced to shorten their teaching week to save money. Supported by their unions, the teachers want to send a message to politicians that austerity economics has gone too far. And finally, fearful that public opinion is turning against them, government coughs up extra money.

But this is not England in the summer of 2017, when a shock election result and the School Cuts campaign persuaded the Conservatives to give schools a £1.3 billion boost.

It's the USA in 2018, where a remarkable series of teacher walk-outs have shut down schools and forced politicians to think again about the amount of money they set aside for education.

But what is behind the movement that some commentators have called a "Teachers’ Spring”? And could teachers in England learn anything from it in their ongoing fight to extract further concessions from the government?

So far, the US walk-outs have convulsed five states. The movement started with West Virginian teachers calling for a pay rise in February, before quickly spreading to Oklahoma and Kentucky. More recently Arizona and Colorado have been affected, with both states experiencing walk-outs at the end of April.

Dana Goldstein is the education correspondent for the New York Times, and has crisscrossed America reporting on the disputes. She says there’s a common thread linking each of the five states. “These are places that, when the recession hit, pursued policies of fiscal austerity, so they cut, cut, cut,” she says. “Then when the economy started to pick back up again, they did not reinvest, for the most part.”

Teachers' falling pay

As a result, schools received less money for classroom resources and teachers saw their pay deteriorate in real terms. “What you see is that, adjusted for inflation, teachers have not only not had a raise, but are maybe doing worse than they were in 2008,” she says.

At the same time, many of the states cut taxes – another grievance of the teachers, who believe that rates are too low to adequately fund schools.

Adam Gamoran, an education academic who now leads the William T Grant Foundation – a foundation that funds research to combat inequality – believes that the walk-outs reflect “years of frustration with lack of resources for public schools”.

“We’ve seen this especially in the Republican-dominated states that have fallen under the spell of a false mythology that says, 'If you cut taxes, you will spur economic growth and generate more revenue,'” he says.

“That has not happened and it has been a disaster for public services generally and for public schools in particular. Teachers just cannot operate under those conditions and so they reach a tipping point and they boil over.”

Of the five states that have experienced walk-outs, four of them are "red" Republican-voting states that sided with Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election and where Republicans dominate state-level politics (Colorado is the exception). This explains the location of the walk-outs – the Republican Party has generally backed austerity in recent years – and it also makes them surprising.

“One thing that is interesting is that many of the states that have experienced these teacher protests are conservative states,” says Goldstein. “Teachers are really no different than the rest of the population where they live – there are many conservative teachers and teachers that vote Republican, teachers that support Donald Trump for president.”

Teachers 'pushed into taking action'

Gamoran says that to see teachers taking industrial action in right-leaning states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky is “shocking”. “Those are not places that have had great success with unions, they are not places that have traditionally had teacher mobilisation and I think they’ve just been pushed to it.”

Roberto Rodriguez, who advised Barack Obama on education policy in the White House and now leads the Teach Plus leadership development body, agrees. “These are not states that have traditionally had very strong teacher union representation pushing forward policy change,” he says.

Indeed, teachers in England would be amazed by some of the restrictions placed on teachers' organisations in some of these states. America has a striking degree of diversity in its union regulations. While some states effectively operate a closed shop where teachers are required to join a union, in others it is against the law for teachers to go on strike – individuals have actually been jailed because of it in the past.

Teacher strikes are considered unlawful in Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia. In Colorado, teachers can legally strike in some circumstances, but Republicans in the state senate have recently introduced a bill that would allow school districts to seek an injunction against would-be strikers (though with Democrats controlling the state House of Representatives and the governor’s mansion, the measure has little chance of coming into law).

These barriers explain why the term “walk-out” has come to define this movement, rather than the legally iffy “strike”. Those leading the walk-outs claim they are not striking against employers but protesting against state policies, with many teachers using sick days and leave days to attend protests and rallies.

While the impact of austerity on education is the primary reason for the walk-outs, there are other factors at play. Goldstein thinks it may be part “of a broader dissatisfaction with the direction of our country”. “There is an incredibly divisive president and people are angry about all sorts of things,” she says.

Victories on pay


Social media has also catalysed the action, with teachers organising via Facebook and drawing inspiration from other social media-driven movements, such as the March for Our Lives protest against gun violence in schools.

Teachers have already achieved gains because of the action. It was the sight of West Virginian teachers winning a pay rise in March which helped galvanise the walk-outs elsewhere. In Oklahoma teachers won a pay rise, a smaller increase for support staff and a promise by lawmakers to levy new taxes. And in Kentucky, legislators met the demand of protesters to override an attempt by the governor to veto the state budget, which he had criticised for being insufficiently austere.

But teachers may have achieved an even wider impact beyond these tangible gains. “At one level they’ve achieved their aims by taking a stand – they’ve brought attention to a major problem,” says Gamoran.

Goldstein, too, thinks the movement may have broader political repercussions. “I wouldn’t make the argument that this is going to turn the country [Democrat] blue,” she says. “But I would say that it may open up a space within the Republican Party for people to stand up and say, 'This has gone too far.' We are beginning to see that.

"We are seeing some Republicans that are running for office in some of these states saying, ‘I think it is time to make a bigger investment in schools and teachers and kids.' It has gone too far and these austerity policies have to have some kind of natural limit and if they don’t then there is going to be some state consequences educationally.’”

Authenticity and parental support

Gamoran certainly thinks the movement could spread further still if politicians in other states fail to take heed. “There’s a strong chance that we’ll see this continue in other parts of the country unless state legislatures take a proactive stance to try to head this off by entering into good-faith negotiations with teachers and increasing their funding for public education,” he says.

“If we don’t see that, if we see other states avoiding the issue, then there’s every likelihood they will continue.”

So what can teachers in England learn from across the pond? The first thing is that the walk-outs have succeeded because they are a genuinely grassroots campaign. As previously noted, the movement began spontaneously with teachers connecting on Facebook and demanding change. While state and national teacher unions swiftly stepped in to provide valuable coordination and support, the movement was not union-led or inspired.

“I think the lesson here is that there is an authenticity in teacher voice and teacher leadership, absent in any one particular organisation,” says Rodriguez. “The teacher unions have been wonderful partners and a voice alongside these teachers, but these are not demonstrations organised by the unions.”

The second major lesson is the importance of having parents and the broader public on-side. While the walk-outs have, of course, been disruptive for parents forced to make alternative arrangements for their children, teachers have been boosted by their support.

A poll in Oklahoma showed that, five days into the walkout, seven in 10 people supported a continuation of the action until all of the protesters' demands were met, and in Arizona thousands of parents have joined teachers at “walk-in” protests outside schools.

So if teachers want to win more money for schools in England, the American experience suggests that authenticity and parental support could make the difference.

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