Teachable Moment

Democrats should do more to support striking teachers.

Protesting teachers hold up signs saying things like, "Last is not OK!"
Teachers rally at the state Capitol on Tuesday in Oklahoma City. J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Thousands of teachers and sympathetic demonstrators in Oklahoma gathered on Tuesday, for a second straight day, at Oklahoma’s state Capitol to demand higher teacher pay and increased education funding. The protests were sparked by Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Mary Fallin, signing a bill last week that increased teachers’ pay by 15 to 18 percent—not enough, walkout supporters say, for teachers who are often stuck paying for school supplies out of pocket, in a state that pays teachers well below the national average.

There were similar scenes in Kentucky on Monday, when thousands of teachers and sympathetic demonstrators rallied at the state Capitol in Frankfort in opposition to significant changes to public pensions attached to a sewage bill and passed speedily Thursday night by Republicans in the Legislature. Efforts to overhaul the state’s pension system have been contentious for some time. In October, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin said that opponents of his pension reform efforts lacked “the sophistication to understand what’s at stake” in negotiations.

The demonstrations in Oklahoma and Kentucky followed a massive wildcat strike in West Virginia—the longest in the state’s history—that ended in a pay hike for teachers; a brief strike over health benefits by teachers in Jersey City, New Jersey; and last week, a rally that brought thousands to Arizona’s state Capitol to demand better teacher pay and education funding. Buttons worn by many of the protesters in Phoenix bore a warning: “I don’t want to strike, but I will.”

Coverage of all this among commentators in the press has been uniformly rosy, unlike the criticisms leveled at the Chicago Teachers Union during that city’s strike in 2012, as Brooklyn College and CUNY professor Corey Robin pointed out Tuesday morning. “Even though their cause was just as righteous as that of the teachers in these southern states … the hostility from media outlets, including liberal media outlets, was palpable,” he wrote. “One has to wonder if these strikes were happening in blue states, with Democratic governors and state legislatures, what the reception might be. One also has to wonder if the strikers and/or students were of color, what the reception might be.”

As positive as the media reception might be this time around, Democratic leaders, aside from perfunctory supportive statements from leaders like Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, have been relatively muted on the demonstrations. And during the West Virginia strike that kicked off this wave, national Democrats mostly kept their distance, as the Daily Beast’s Sam Stein and Gideon Resnick noted:

Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee and the former Secretary of the Department of Labor, has sent several tweets in solidarity with the striking teachers. But he has not joined them on the line. Nor has his top lieutenant, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) a high-profile progressive and vocal labor champion. A spokesperson for the DNC said that they had been working with the West Virginia Democratic party but did not elaborate further.

… The distance has fed the perception, for some, of a wasted opportunity for the Democratic Party. At a time when local activism is demanding—and potentially producing—tangible political gains, the political party most closely associated with those demands and those activists has remained afar, not associating itself too closely with the teachers or capitalizing organizational on their movement.

This is largely because there remain deep, substantive fissures within the party over the role of teachers unions and the project of education reform. “People are still scared shitless in the Democratic Party of being connected to teachers unions and strikes,” a labor activist told the Daily Beast. “There was a period where the [former D.C. public school chancellor] Michelle Rhee’s of the world beat the crap out of teachers doing anything, even if we were fighting for more money for schools. We are in a transition period but we’re still scarred by that.”

That transition period has likely been smoothed by the election of Donald Trump. Had Hillary Clinton won, there may have been a pitched fight to define the party’s agenda on K–12 education, which wasn’t the center of Clinton’s education proposals. Instead, Democrats have largely closed ranks in opposition to President Trump and Betsy DeVos, who has become one of the most reviled figures in the administration even though her views overlap considerably with the technocratic, competition-centric reform agenda the party pursued during the Obama administration and endorsed in the Bush years. “Broadly speaking, the regime of compelling competition between schools by creating charter-school or school-choice programs and by rewarding those whose students do well on standardized tests was launched at a federal level by the No Child Left Behind Act; the NCLB was co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy and passed the Senate in 2001 with 87 votes,” our own Ben Mathis-Lilley wrote in March. “When Barack Obama became president, he created the Race to the Top program, which the Washington Post described at the time as a ‘competition for $4.35 billion in grants’ that would ‘ease limits on charter schools’ and ‘tie teacher pay to student achievement,’ i.e., direct extra funds to already-successful schools.”

Were Trump and DeVos not on the scene, continuing to pursue that agenda would prompt confrontations with the very teachers unions now agitating against Republicans and who raged against Education Secretary Arne Duncan during Obama’s tenure. One sticking point was the initial ruling in the case Vergara v. California, a lawsuit advanced against union-negotiated employment protections that reform advocates argued hurt minority students by keeping ineffective teachers on the job. A statement from Duncan upon the initial ruling said it “presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve.” Teachers unions ultimately prevailed in the courts, but Duncan’s move and the approach taken in the Race to the Top program deeply upset union activists.

Animosity to teachers unions, and the ineffective teachers they’re said to protect, among the party’s centrists is quite old at this point. In the Baffler in November, Jennifer Berkshire described the Clintons as early adopters of rhetoric against teacher largesse, rhetoric taken up in support of competency tests pushed while Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas:

Hillary made the cause her personal crusade in 1983, trotting out anecdote after anecdote about teachers she’d heard about who couldn’t add or read. The reform package passed, cementing Bill’s reputation as a new breed of Democratic governor, one who wasn’t afraid to take on entrenched interests in order to tackle tough problems. “Anytime you’re going to turn an institution upside down, there’s going to be a good guy and a bad guy,” recalls Clinton campaign manager Richard Herget. “The Clintons painted themselves as the good guys. The bad guys were the schoolteachers.”

Reform rhetoric now is generally aimed at establishing a conceptual division between teachers and the unions advocating on their behalf. Provisions like those that protect teacher tenure have become a prime target for reform advocates who argue they make bad teachers incredibly hard to fire, keeping more qualified potential teachers out of schools. Some recent research complicates this view. A 2014 report by Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution studying fourth- and fifth-grade teachers in North Carolina—a state where teachers could earn tenure after four years on the job at the time—found that administrators were not substantially likely to fire teachers deemed ineffective by state metrics when they had the chance pre-tenure. “There are a number of potential explanations for this finding,” he wrote, “including a limited supply of effective teachers (it’s rational to keep a mediocre teacher if the likely replacement will be no better), a lack of administrator ability to discern teacher quality (their observations are less predictive of value-added than those of outside observers), or a simple unwillingness to make the unpleasant decision of firing someone.”

A 2016 paper from University of Utah economist Eunice Han found that unionized school districts fire more bad teachers than nonunionized ones. “By demanding higher salaries for teachers, unions give school districts a strong incentive to dismiss ineffective teachers before they get tenure,” she told Jennifer Berkshire. “Highly unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers because it costs more to keep them.” A November study by researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Connecticut suggested that tenure reforms passed in that state in 2011 made it particularly hard to keep teachers in schools with lower test scores and more impoverished students. And a January paper by researchers at Brown University, the University of Connecticut, and Syracuse University also found that tenure reforms passed under Race to the Top sharply, if temporarily, reduced the number of teaching applicants. The researchers failed to find evidence that those dissuaded were underqualified. They did find, though, that fewer black candidates applied.

The prevailing narrative about tenure has nonetheless been useful to reformers in the project of casting union advocates as villains. But if Democrats want to take advantage of the red-state organizing capacity teachers have demonstrated over the past few weeks, they’ll have to jettison antagonism for a rhetoric making the case that the people who educate our kids deserve workplace advocates, and that better pay and protections for teachers are worth taking to the streets for.