Across the Nation, More Teachers Are Protesting With a Broader Set of Demands
Teacher strikes and walkouts have dominated the headlines in the past year. And that activism has continued to spread across the country—even when schools remain open, teachers are speaking out for an investment in public education.
Teachers in Texas and Maryland will rally outside their state Capitols on Monday for more state funding. Earlier this week, teachers across the state of Florida held protests for increased teacher pay and school funding and against vouchers and charter schools. And teachers in Kentucky have called out sick to protest a slew of proposed legislation, forcing schools to close for a second—or even third—time this month.
This activism comes on the heels of at least five major teacher strikes in 2019—Los Angeles, Chicago charter schools, Denver, West Virginia, and Oakland, Calif. While the latest bursts of activism are not prolonged work stoppages, they are a signal that teachers across the country are fired up and staying politically engaged.
The Jefferson County school system, the largest school district in Kentucky, was forced to close on Wednesday because too many teachers had called in absent to protest several proposed bills, including one that would change the board that oversees the state's pension fund and one that would establish a tax credit scholarship program for private schools. Another bill would give the Jefferson County superintendent the power to hire principals, rather than school-based decisionmaking councils. (The councils would still select principals, but the superintendent would have the final say.)
On Thursday, even more teachers called out sick, forcing at least four school districts, including Jefferson County, to close. "Teachers are severely concerned that if they don't stand up and come out of their classrooms for a moment, even today, to have their voice heard, then we're not going to be able to effectively do our jobs," said middle school teacher John Calhoun, according to the Associated Press.
Last week, several districts across the state closed after an orchestrated sickout by a major grassroots teacher group, KY 120 United. Interestingly, the latest school closures were planned by a separate, local grassroots group and through social media. The teachers' unions and KY 120 did not condone the sickouts this week.
Meanwhile, in Maryland, the state teachers' union is projecting that more than 5,000 educators will march in Annapolis on Monday for an increase in school funding—potentially the largest rally in the state capital in nearly a decade. The march will be in the evening, in order to prevent disruption to the school day.
Teachers there will be urging legislators to increase school funding by $325 million for fiscal year 2020 and by $750 million in fiscal year 2021. That proposal—which has been introduced by Democratic leaders in the state House—would include money to provide a 1.5 percent average teacher pay raise and expand services for at-risk learners. These are recommendations from a statewide commission studying how to best improve public schools in the state, according to the Baltimore Sun.
In Texas, the two main state teachers' unions have organized a rally outside the state Capitol on Monday to call for more school funding and meet with state legislators. The event is not intended to be a work stoppage, since many districts across the state will be closed for spring break.
The Texas state House has proposed a school finance plan that would add $9 billion in school funding—but would not include a guaranteed across-the-board pay raise for teachers. Meanwhile, the state Senate has passed a bill that would give teachers a $5,000 pay raise. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the teachers' unions are holding out for the across-the-board pay raise. Legislators are hoping to resolve differences and "produce a potentially historic school finance overhaul before the legislature adjourns on May 27," the newspaper reported.
And in Florida, teachers rallied before and after school earlier this week to show support for more school funding and better pay. The legislative session convened this week. Florida teachers are also worried that lawmakers will expand voucher programs, which allow parents to use public money to send their children to private schools, and support more charter schools, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
See also: How Teacher Strikes Are Changing
These teacher protests are a show of educators' increased political engagement, experts say. Instead of focusing on a single issue, like stagnant wages, teachers are speaking out against other education reform policies, such as school-choice measures and performance-based pay.
Perhaps because of the surge in teacher activism, nearly half of governors have proposed raising teacher pay in their State of the State addresses, according to an Education Week analysis. That includes Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, who wants to raise pay through a performance-based system, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, who wants to provide merit-based bonuses of up to $10,000 to teachers.
They are the only governors who have proposed tying pay raises to performance this year; the other 20 governors calling for increases have proposed across-the-board pay raises. Both the Texas and Florida proposals have been unpopular among teachers, who say they want across-the-board pay raises.
The spreading protest movement signals that "teachers' concerns are national and not simply a product of big-city unions," Jeffrey Henig, the director of the politics and education program at Teachers College, Columbia University, said in Education Week.
Image: Members of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association march to Orlando City Hall on March 4. The teachers and supporters were raising awareness for local and state education concerns on the eve of the 2019 Florida Legislative Session. —Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP