Teacher Strikes: The Backlash Against Years of Far-Right Economic Policy

It's no coincidence that teachers are striking in states where lawmakers have gutted public education investment while handing out tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy.

[Photo: Teaches march with signs that read
Across the United States, public school teachers are angry and exhausted, worn out by the negative effects of austerity budgeting on their classrooms over the past decade. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Being a teacher requires an extraordinary amount of patience. Whether helping an overzealous first-grader get glue out of her hair after a craft-project-gone-awry or supporting students in standing up to the class bully, teachers’ ability to remain calm—while excelling at teaching academic subjects—is nothing short of a marvel.

How bad does it have to be, then, for educators to get fed up?

Answer: Pretty dire.

Across the United States, public school teachers are angry and exhausted, worn out by the negative effects of austerity budgeting on their classrooms over the past decade—an economic program that has slashed tax rates for corporations and wealthy people, leaving education investment to stagnate. Deep budget cuts has led to a ballooning of the number of kids in each classroom, as teacher salaries have remained flat. And some educators—like those in West Virginia—have decided to strike. Many more are fighting the battles locally each day, attempting to provide for their students within the constraints of state-level austerity programs.

While state lawmakers have routinely leapt at the opportunity to enact public spending cuts to fill the budget shortfalls they created, there’s little data to support these policies. In fact, economic austerity measures rarely do anything but further harm local and state economies in times of fiscal hardship.

In a study conducted in 2012 by the Center for American Progress (CAP), researcher Adam S. Hersch examined the issue of state-level austerity budgeting since 2008. He found that in the 20 states where public spending was cut since the start of the recession, the economic situation has deteriorated—both short-term and long-term—more than the 30 states that expanded public spending. Hersch notes that, in 2009, GDP growth in expenditure-expanding states was 2.4 percent below pre-recession growth, as compared to austerity states, where the rate fell “much deeper into the recession hole,” at 4.6 percent on average.

Public sectors cuts also hurt private sector jobs, where job losses in expenditure-expanding states were only two-thirds of the losses felt by their fund-cutting counterparts.

“Economists have long known that when an economy turns south, public spending … can make all the difference between robust recovery and prolonged stagnation,” Hersch wrote in his white paper, Austerity is Hammering State Economies. “A fragile economy can be buttressed and boosted by increased public spending on investments like education …. Dramatically cutting spending in a fragile economy, however, can pull the rug out from nascent economic growth …. The economics of this fact have not changed, but the politics have. And Americans are worse off for it.”

New Jersey is one of the states that embraced public spending cuts under former GOP Gov. Chris Christie. Christie took office in 2010 and quickly launched a campaign against New Jersey teachers and their unions. “I love the public schools, but the fact of the matter is there is excess and greed there,” Christie told CNBC in 2010 as part of massive effort to paint public school teachers as being overcompensated.

And in 2011, largely in response to the post-recession climate and pressures from Christie, the state legislature passed a brutally austere measure known as Chapter 78, a massive public benefits reform bill which mandates public workers, including teachers, pay a percentage of their own health insurance.

New Jersey educators quickly felt the financial burden of the law, which resulted in an overall reduction in take-home pay and turned the expenses of day-to-day life—rent, food, car payments—into serious financial burdens. Despite Christie’s claims that teachers were overpaid, analysts found the opposite is true: New Jersey educators are paid 16.8 percent less in weekly wages than other full-time workers in the state.

The one-two punch of being underpaid and saddled with ever-inflating health insurance led teachers in Jersey City to stage a walkout in March, demanding higher salaries and a reduction in health insurance payments. The walkout worked, and the school district’s first strike in 20 years led to a new contract agreement.

Much like the negative effects of Chapter 78 on teachers in Jersey City, the effects of state-level austerity cuts on local school districts have been grim across the United States. State aid is integral for all K-12 schools and accounts for, on average, 47 percent of revenue, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Since the Great Recession, which began after the housing market meltdown in 2008, austerity measures and reductions in state-level public school funding have forced local districts to make nearly impossible decisions. This includes an increase in last-ditch-effort fundraising measures (including bake sales and phone-a-thons) and dramatic, to-the-bone programming cuts.

Such heavy blows to school resources have become a common phenomenon and are poised to have a deeply negative effect on student achievement, especially in low-income communities.

In Oklahoma, where teachers staged a two-week walkout until the state’s GOP-majority legislature conceded to most teacher union demands, this comes as no surprise.

“Like in every other state, Oklahoma cut education substantially after the Great Recession. Since then, the money has never really come back,” said Gene Perry, director of strategy and communications for the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OPI). “Year after year, education got either flat funding, more cuts or small increases, but it was never enough to recover what had been cut.”

State funding for public schools remains $179 million below 2008 levels—while enrollment has increased by more than 50,000 students, according to an analysis released last month by OPI. Oklahoma had to issue more than 1,800 emergency teaching certificates to cover growing classrooms.

“Across the board, funding from the state has gone down, leaving schools on the district level to have to make hard choices,” Perry said. “One-fifth of all Oklahoma public schools are on a four-day school week. In some districts, they’ve been forced to choose between either an arts program or a music program. A lot of schools have ended Advanced Placement (AP) and foreign language classes—anything that could be characterized as ‘extra.’ Teachers’ jobs have just gotten substantially harder over the past few years.”

Oklahoma’s budget crisis is thanks to declining revenues from fossil fuel companies after lawmakers passed tax cuts on the oil industry and refused to raise those rates even as education funding reached alarming new lows. The sharp drop off for extraction of these resources has resulted in the erosion of a heavily relied upon tax base, as well as a loss of income taxes for those employed. Fellow striking state West Virginia is in a similar situation, as is Texas, where school districts laid off a whopping 25,000 workers—including 10,700 teachers—in 2012. Republican leaders in West Virginia, who have long received campaign contributions from oil and gas companies, have stood firm against raising taxes on the industry.

States that have seen the double whammy of a declining tax base and budget cuts for education have struggled disproportionately, even compared to those exclusively affected by deep budget cuts. Since 2008, legislators in 12 states have cut income taxes, a major form of revenue for school funding, along with enacting economic austerity measures. Unsurprisingly, a number of these states—Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia and Kentucky included—are places where striking teachers have made headlines.

“The protests have already had a substantial impact on legislation,” Perry says. “In the week before the walkout, when it was still just a threat, the legislature finally passed a revenue deal similar to ones that, for the past two years, couldn’t pass. Legislators are feeling the pressure from teachers, and it’s having a real effect on what bills are passing and being pushed.”

For Dr. Cynthia Lane, superintendent of public schools in Kansas City, Kansas, the power of pushback—both in the voting booth and the courts—hits close to home.

“It’s been a decade-long journey of struggle. Kansas City is an urban school district, and 80 percent of our kids are on free or reduced lunch,” Lane told Rewire.News. “We also have more than 50 languages spoken in our schools, and students who need more resources in order for them to be successful. Today, there are large class sizes, and no resources for tutoring or extra support. Then, there’s the difficulty in keeping technology up-to-date, along with materials and resources. We’ve been able to do much of that through ensuring that, on our [district-level] end, every penny we’re spending is impacting our kids.”

Kansas educators—particularly those serving low-income communities—have been at odds with elected officials since the start of the Great Recession over how budget cuts violate the state constitution, which calls for equal and equitable funding for public schools. Several school districts, including Lane’s, sued the state in 2010 due to underfunding, which disproportionately impacts students of color. Now in its eighth year, the lawsuit continues as the Kansas Supreme Court rules that the state has not yet met its constitutional obligation to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

“We’re at about the 2010-2011 levels of funding for schools, and it’s 2018,” explains Lane. “We’re still not able to meet the needs of our kids. We need counselors, social workers and teachers to get class sizes down.”

And while austerity measures were par for the course before Gov. Sam Brownback (R) took office in 2011, his policies devastated investment in Kansas’ public services. One of the most dramatic slashes came in 2015, when Brownback cut $44.5 million from the state’s education budget in an effort to make up for a failed income tax reduction plan Republicans enacted in 2012. Soon after, Kansans took to the polls in massive numbers, ousting a number of the conservative Republican legislators who had backed Brownback’s plan in favor of more moderate Republicans and Democrats who acknowledged the devastation of Brownback’s austerity agenda.

And Sunday morning, the Kansas legislature finally passed a $534 million increase to public school funding over the next five years in hopes it would satisfy the courts. The Kansas Supreme Court, in the aftermath of Brownback’s gutting of the state budget, had ruled that public school investment was unconstitutionally low.

“A beginning teacher starts out at $41,000. For a family of four, that’s poverty level. It’s hard to attract talent when they know they can’t take care of their family,” Lane said. “Part of the challenge, too, is this overt message [from the legislature] that ‘We don’t care about our teachers.’ So, at the local level, we do everything we can to send the opposite message: That they’re being valued and being celebrated.”