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Teachers Are Still Striking, But Their Demands Have Changed. Here's How

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The teacher activism movement has come full circle, with West Virginia teachers launching their second statewide strike in two years this week. 

Last year, the nine-day teacher strike in the Mountain State launched a wave of teacher protests across the country, which is still going on today. Teachers in Oakland, Calif., will be the latest group to head to the picket lines on Thursday.

But the flavor of the teacher strikes has changed. Unlike last year, when teachers across the country shared a similar narrative of crumbling classrooms and stagnant paychecks, the strike demands now are far-reaching. Now, teachers are pushing back against education-reform policies, like charter schools and performance-based pay. They're also fighting for social-justice initiatives, like sanctuary protections for undocumented students. 

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"This isn't a fight just for a pay raise," said Oakland Education Association President Keith Brown of the districtwide strike there. "Yes, it is a fight to retain teachers, to keep teachers, to provide teachers with a living wage, but it's also a fight to give more resources to our students. It's a fight to save public education."

There's no clearer evidence of the shift in teacher activism than in West Virginia. Last year, teachers went on strike because they were frustrated with stagnant wages and rising health-insurance costs—and ultimately went back to their classrooms with a 5 percent pay raise. But this year, teachers went on strike again over an education bill that already included a second 5 percent pay raise. Instead, they were fighting against the provisions in the bill that would have established charter schools in the state and created up to 1,000 education savings accounts, which would allow parents of students with special needs or students who have been bullied to use public money to pay for private schools.  

Just hours after the strike began, lawmakers tabled the bill, showing the power that protesting teachers still have. But teachers remained on strike for a second day in order to make sure the bill was truly dead—a sign of both the lack of trust between teachers and lawmakers, and the increasingly militant direction unions are taking. Teachers will return to school on Thursday, but have given union leaders the power to call for further action if legislators pursue those measures in future bills. 

Here's what to know about this new wave of teacher strikes. 

How have teacher protests changed? 

In 2018, there were a half-dozen statewide protests over low pay and changes to pensions: West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina. Teachers across Washington state went on strike against their districts for higher pay, too. 

But as the teacher activism moves from mostly red states to some blue cities, the heart of the demands has started to shift. While the statewide labor actions last year were mostly organized through grassroots Facebook groups, the strikes in major cities have been led by strong unions. Teachers have begun pushing back against education reforms, like school choice and performance-based compensation. 

For example, the Chicago Teachers Union launched the nation's first-ever charter school strike in December, with teachers there winning pay raises, smaller class sizes, and sanctuary for undocumented students. Teachers in Los Angeles waged a six-day strike in which they didn't get the full pay raise they wanted—but they got smaller class sizes, more support staff in schools, and a resolution from the school board asking the state to put a pause on charter school growth.

The Denver teacher strike was focused on pay—but it was a more complicated conversation on whether all teachers should get across-the-board raises, or whether teachers who work in the highest-poverty schools deserve an extra bonus. Teachers' unions generally back pay raises based on tenure, not performance or type of teaching position.

Teacher strikes last year were focused on pay. What are they fighting for now? 

The strikes recently have centered around the idea of "bargaining for the common good." Union officials have said they want to put student conditions—as well as social and racial justice—at the heart of teachers' protests. In many places, teachers have been fighting for smaller class sizes, more support staff in schools, and for other student-centered demands. 

For example, the United Teachers Los Angeles ended the teacher strike there with commitments from the district to eliminate random searches of students in 28 schools, look for ways to create more green spaces on school grounds, and provide legal support and an informational hotline to students and families facing immigration-related concerns.

Brown, the teachers' union president in Oakland, said the impending strike there was a "fight for the soul of public education" in the city. The cash-strapped school district is considering closing up to 24 schools, even as the number of charter schools in the city grows. 

"They're basically pitting schools against each other for needed resources, while also closing neighborhood schools," he said. 

What's next? 

This week, teachers in Sacramento are beginning to vote on whether to authorize a strike. The district is fighting bankruptcy. 

Meanwhile, there could be even more activism on the horizon. The Chicago Teachers Union, for instance, has started bargaining with the city's school district, and officials there have said they were inspired by what happened in Los Angeles. The union is asking for better pay and benefits, smaller class sizes, more support staff, and "improvements on social demands," like more sanctuary schools and investments in affordable housing.  

Image: Mary Jane Helgren, an art teacher in Pleasants County, W.Va., hugs Parry Caster of Huntington Explorer Academy, as teachers and school personnel celebrate after the state House postponed indefinitely a vote on Senate Bill 451, which would have established charter schools in West Virginia. Teachers there went on strike Feb. 19 to protest the bill. —Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP

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