Value teachers, unions to better education

By Editorial Board

Teachers are rising up, and they need all the support they can get.

A wave of protests for better public school funding ignited in multiple states. In Oklahoma, teachers staged a walkout beginning April 2, demanding pay raises for themselves and support staff, funding for elective courses, and enough money to replace old, battered textbooks.

Oklahoma teachers’ salaries have remained stagnant since their last raise in 2008, according to the National Education Association. Because of insufficient budgets, 20 percent of the state’s school districts were forced to cut the school week to four days. After years of being undervalued, teachers have swarmed the state Capitol and have pressured their lawmakers to better fund education.

Oklahoma lawmakers passed a bill March 31 providing $50 million in public school funding, but the increase was nowhere near matching teachers’ demands for $200 million. Teachers already have pressured state politicians into considering other means of funding public schools including two new tax measures.

On the same day Oklahoma teachers walked out of classrooms, teachers in Kentucky staged a massive rally near the state Capitol to protest education budget cuts and pension changes. Teachers in Arizona, who are among the lowest paid in the nation, also threatened to strike and asked for a 20 percent pay increase. After teachers have protested for a month, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey introduced a proposal April 12 to meet teachers’ demands for the pay increase.

These movements were largely inspired by a nine-day statewide teacher walkout in West Virginia that began Feb. 22, resulting in their winning the 5 percent pay increase they wanted. Teachers in other states saw what could be gained by protesting a system that hurt them and were emboldened to fight for student necessities and fair wages and benefits.

It is not a coincidence these movements took place in Republican-led states in which tax cuts take precedence over funding education. An example is Kentucky House Bill 366, which would cut taxes of the state’s wealthiest residents while increasing taxes of low-wage earners, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

These states have also enacted anti-labor legislation such as right-to-work laws, which prohibit employers from making union membership a condition of  employment. Under these laws, workers are able to enjoy the benefits of a union contract without having to pay union dues. Right-to-work laws greatly affect unions’ bargaining powers, making it harder to negotiate for better working conditions.

Unions are instrumental in improving public education. The Oklahoma Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, has spoken for the thousands of educators throughout the walkout. Not surprisingly, lawmakers who serve corporate interests want to reduce unions’ power and membership.

Young workers do not have to be told how important unions are. In 2017, union membership grew by more than 260,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and more than 75 percent of new union members were under 35 years old. Even as politicians throughout the country try to weaken unions, workers are still drawn to the needed leverage they provide.

As teachers continue to mobilize across the country, it is even more necessary to support the unions that are fighting alongside educators to improve the state of public schools.

When education is devalued, representation can show how rich of a resource it is.