Kristoffer Tripplaar / The Atlantic

A wave of protests, beginning in West Virginia, and continuing to Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and Colorado, has drawn teachers out of their classrooms. The protests have yielded better pay in several states, but teachers say that’s only part of what they’re striking for. The protests loomed large as teachers, students, administrators, and policy-makers gathered to discuss the future of American education at The Atlantic’s fourth annual Education Summit in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. In today’s issue, Margaret Barthel, a producer behind the Education Summit, talks to two veteran teachers about what the strikes mean to them. And Abdallah Fayyad reports on the growing disconnect between the teachers who strike and the parents who pressure them to return to the classroom.

—Caroline Kitchener

Longtime Teachers Say This Time Feels Different

This isn’t the first time teachers have walked out en masse. Margaret Barthel spoke to two educators who put the latest events in context.

Across the country, teachers are walking out for better pay and increased funding for public schools. West Virginia teachers started the trend, striking for nine days in late February and early March. A few weeks later, Kentucky teachers called in sick to protest proposed changes in pension funding, forcing more than thirty school districts to cancel school. In April, the spectre of a walkout in Oklahoma made lawmakers pass a salary increase; teachers left school anyway for nine days to advocate for better school funding. A few days ago, teachers in Arizona and Colorado followed suit.

There’s no question that the scale and reach of the protests are significant. What’s less clear is the context. Why now? What do the demonstrations tell us about this moment in the teaching profession?

I asked two veteran teachers—Deborah Cornelison, a former junior high science teacher from rural Oklahoma, and Rebecca Palacios, a former elementary teacher from Corpus Christi, Texas—to weigh in. Palacios and Cornelison spoke at The Atlantic’s Education Summit on Tuesday. They were invited in part because of the perspective they’ve gained from their long work in education. Each has more than three decades of teaching experience. To put that in context, according to a 2017 analysis from the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1987, the typical elementary and secondary school teacher had 15 years of teaching experience. By 2007, the typical teacher was in his or her first year of teaching.

Teachers, they said, have reached a tipping point, and the walkouts are a last resort. “We tried all the other avenues [for speaking out],” Palacios said. “You know that when teachers band together on their own, it’s gotta be bad.”

Cornelison and Palacios have been in the field long enough to draw comparisons to earlier education protests. Cornelison participated in the last major teacher walkout in Oklahoma in 1990. “I can remember being up there walking around the Capitol in the rain with picket signs,” she said. “It was my second year teaching in the public schools.” The demands then were very similar, she said: a teacher pay increase and more funding for public schools. That year, they won both their demands. But this year, while Oklahoma’s teachers got a raise even before the walkout took place, a significant addition to funding for public education still eluded them after nine days of protest.

Cornelison was struck by Oklahoma teachers’ insistence on walking out even after they’d been granted a salary increase, demonstrating that their concerns went beyond their own pay. “When they were at the Capitol, they were talking about funding for their classrooms, funding to meet the needs of all students in our state,” she said. “It’s more intense this time, and the push to keep the advocacy going is much stronger than it was before.” Palacios agreed, citing teachers speaking out about school infrastructure and outdated textbooks in addition to their compensation. “Seeing this happen on that kind of a widespread note just gives me the goosebumps.”

Palacios noted that these protests have been driven by the grassroots and supported by teachers’ unions, not the other way around. “[It] shows you how important this message is, that teachers are willing to come out on their own time and do this,” she said, pointing out that social media has enabled teacher organizing to reach rural communities in West Virginia and elsewhere.

Cornelison and Palacios described these walkouts as a symptom of the uphill battle the education system will have in attracting new teaching talent if it continues to be under-resourced. “The school where I used to teach, we used to have people lined up for new job openings,” Cornelison said. “That doesn’t happen anywhere in our state now.”

At the end of our interviews, I asked both teachers to reflect on whether or not they had felt their voices were heard during their time as educators. I was surprised that they both answered with an unequivocal “yes,” citing supportive administrators and a number of statewide and national opportunities to share their perspectives. But I left the interviews wondering just how different a newer teacher’s answer to that question would be.

—Margaret Barthel

Want to hear more about Rebecca Palacios? She began teaching in Texas just after a landmark ruling mandated the integration of Latino schools. She was profiled for The Atlantic’s new On Teaching series. A profile of Deborah Cornelison is coming soon.

The Tensions Between Teachers and Parents

Abdallah Fayyad reports on the strains that are separating the two groups.

Cornelison and Palacios told Margaret that they found support within the education system, locally and nationally. But as protests continue, some teachers are finding themselves in conflict with another important constituency: parents. While many parents agree that their children’s educators aren’t getting paid enough for their work, the school shutdowns have left unprepared working parents in need of childcare, which can be costly. “I’m mad at the teachers for walking out, but I’m more mad at the government for forcing them to do this,” an Oklahoma parent told Reuters.

Economic tensions often create strains that divide parents from teachers, as happened in Wisconsin a few years ago during Governor Scott Walker’s battle with his state’s public-sector employees. Amy Goldstein chronicled this effect in one Wisconsin community in her book Janesville, about the struggles residents experienced after the auto factory that served as an economic engine for the city was shut down. “In a community in which so many had lost so much, some people were starting to regard public workers, including the city’s teachers, as fat cats in comparison,” Goldstein wrote.

So as the strikes continue, parents and teachers are likely to see a growing disconnect between their views on what schools need. Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, points out that parents often struggle to see how increasing funding for schools—and paying more in taxes—results in improvements for their children. “You can pay a lot more taxes and not make that big of a difference in what teachers see in their take-home pay,” he told me. While parents “are aware that they are paying a lot per pupil,” he said, teachers don’t see any of that spending turn up in their paychecks.

Teachers’ wages are often too low to comfortably support a family, Hess argued, in part because their benefits packages are generally far better than average. “[Teachers are] getting benefits packages that were standard 50 years ago or so, but are now remarkably generous compared to the alternatives,” he said. For Hess, part of the solution would be to reform teacher benefits, and redistribute the funds so that they can have better take-home pay at the cost of smaller pensions. Hess also suggested that governments should make schools leaner by cutting down on non-instructional staff, for example.

But not only would benefits reform be widely unpopular with teachers, reducing funding elsewhere can put heavy strains on classrooms. As The Atlantic’s Alia Wong recently found in Chicago, a lack of support staff means the many needs of the typical school can go unattended—from “managing special-education cases ... to sharpening pencils for testing to distributing medication when the school nurse isn’t around.” Simply shuffling the budget around would not fully address the concerns of students and teachers.

Educators and parents may agree that more investment in schools is needed overall. But if it’s not forthcoming, another parent in Oklahoma told Reuters, “I’ll say screw it and home-school my kids since we can’t afford to move.”

—Abdallah Fayyad

Today’s Wrap Up

  • Question of the day: To the teachers in the audience: Do you feel your voices are heard outside of the classroom? To the parents: Do you feel you’re heard when your desires don’t line up with teachers’?

  • What’s coming: On Friday, we’ll look into why women are so much less likely than men to write letters to the editor.

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