Teachers Protest In The Oklahoma State Capitol

TL;DR: Teachers Featured, Something Syriasly Wrong, And Got Fake Milk?

Teachers Featured, Something Syriasly Wrong, And Got Fake Milk?

Teachers Protest In The Oklahoma State Capitol

Here’s what you need to know…

Educators across the country have been emboldened by the teacher’s strike in West Virginia that resulted in a 5% pay raise, and although it ended last month, since then, teachers in red states like Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona have followed suit – in some cases shutting down schools – to pressure lawmakers to respond to their concerns. As with most public policy issues that gain notoriety, grow quickly, and feed into a larger narrative, it can be difficult to untangle the particular concerns of different stakeholders from whatever focus the media and organizations with their own agendas latch onto. Here is what you need to know about these teacher protests:

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  • What Are Teachers Protesting? Teachers in different states have raised different concerns. For example, in West Virginia, where teacher pay ranked 48th in the country, the focus was on a pay increase for the coming school year to help control rising healthcare costs. Teachers in Arizona have also targeted pay as their key issue, while those in Oklahoma have focused on a broader set of demands pertaining to an increase in teacher pay, public school funding, and health care funding. In Kentucky, teacher protests are in response to recently approved legislation that reforms their pension system, which has ranked as one of the worst pension crises in the country.
  • Why Now? In the wake of the Great Recession, many states and districts cut costs by reducing spending on education, which has naturally impacted teachers. As the economy has improved and the labor market has tightened, teachers that accepted pay freezes and budget cuts are less inclined to continue doing so now. There is also speculation that political considerations are to blame for the protests, which some in the media and among progressive activists are framing as a backlash “to Paul Ryan’s conservatism” and the “GOP austerity mindset” that predominates in those states. However, this appears to be projecting by partisans seeking to simplify this complex issue into “us vs. them” political tribalism, as exhibited by the fact that both West Virginia and Kentucky had Democratic governors as recently as 2017 and 2015, respectively.
  • Have Teachers Been Successful In Obtaining Their Objectives? While teachers in West Virginia succeeded in receiving their desired 5% increase, and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey announced a plan to increase teacher pay by 20% by 2020, teachers in Oklahoma have obtained only 60% of the pay raise they wanted. The results are likewise less clear in Kentucky, where pension reforms enacted by the state legislature were considered mild but necessary to move the system back from the brink of financial collapse, suggesting that the teachers’ particular concern there will not be solved anytime soon. But, the relative success overall thus far seems to showcase the power of “unseemly teachers’ strikes” in achieving public policy objectives.
  • What Happens Now? The West Virginia strike was just the beginning of more teacher protests across the country, as demonstrated by professionalized activists and organizations coming into the fold to boost localized protesters voicing their concerns on specific policy issues. Predictably, such politicization by professionals has catapulted state policy issues into larger political ones, as Democrats hope to use the protests to mobilize support ahead of this year’s midterm elections and center-right groups work to counter this momentum. When protest movements get further and further away from the original, concrete policy issue, the narrative being propagated at the national level may only loosely resemble the facts. Going forward, teachers at the local level may want to keep this challenge in mind as the temptation to raise the profile of their particular concerns present itself.

It remains to be seen whether this year’s wave of protests will be different from those experienced in Wisconsin in 2011 or Chicago in 2012, or if protests like these will become more common as there is greater demand for increasingly scarce public funds (and the midterm elections grow closer). Already, teachers in places like Colorado and California are continuing the wave of protests, and as developments unfold there and elsewhere, remember that the sum of a larger protest narrative is often different from its parts.

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