Wednesday, May 15, 2019

TEACHER ACTIVISM TAKES ON RACIAL AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

words by Charles Brooks

TEACHER ACTIVISM TAKES ON RACIAL AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

Photo credit: Charles Edward Miller
You may have noticed in recent months that teachers across the nation have been engaged in the sort of activism that fiercely challenges the status quo with their renewed vision for public education.  The sleeping giant has been awakened in 2018 with 8 what’s officially called “work stoppages” in educational services affecting 379,000 workers.  Teachers drew a line in the sand as a wave of teacher strikes hit Arizona, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and Colorado.   The trend continued into 2019 with teachers engaging in various forms of protest activities with walkouts, rallies, and yes, strikes in school districts in Los Angeles, Oakland, Denver, and Virginia.  In fact, Mississippi took action to pre-empt a possible teacher strike with pay-raises for teachers and assistant teachers.   

Photo credit: Emory Maiden
But this recent wave of teacher activism is unprecedented, not only because of the number of educators who went on strike but more importantly, the significance of linking their advocacy for students to racial, environmental and social justice.  Because of the policy positions involved here, there may be subsequent implications to the upcoming 2020 elections that are less than two years away to consider as well.  

Rebecca Tarlau researches education and labor issues and this is what she observed: “In my view as a researcher who deals with issues of education and labor, the current teacher strike wave in the United States is the result of three factors. First is the acceleration of market-based education reforms, including the expansion of charter schools. Second is networks of teacher activists organizing and transforming their unions to focus on broader social issues.  Third is the framing of teacher union action as part of the struggle for racial justice,” Tarlau goes on to say: “These factors have led teacher unions to form alliances with community organizations, enlist students and parents to join the activism, and speak out against efforts to expand charter schools and privatization.”          

As a result, striking educators are crafting demands extending beyond higher pay to include lower class sizes, less testing, more accountability, more support staff and related service providers such as social workers, and psychologists.   "This failure to fully fund our schools, at the levels our students deserve is undeniably a racial justice issue, in a school district that is overwhelmingly students of color,” said Oakland Education Association president, Keith Brown during a press conference.

The strikes also triggered a display of support from fellow labor unions as witnessed with American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) solidarity with striking Denver teachers, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1277 pledged their support for striking educators in Los Angeles as well as the California Nurses Association and Minnesota Nurses Association National Nurses United – both affiliated with the largest union of registered nurses in the United States donated $30,000.  

In their analysis of the teacher strikes, The Center for American Progress wrote: “The 2018 strikes mainly grew from organic teacher actions explicitly protesting low pay and state disinvestment. In contrast, the 2019 strikes have been organized by local unions that are concerned about issues beyond pay and state funding, including rising health care costs, lack of guidance counselors and social workers in schools, and large class sizes”.   

The emerging teacher activism also included running viable candidates for public office to better position themselves to realize their demands to address critical educational needs as well for social and racial justice.  For instance, out of the 158 current classroom teachers that Education Week confirmed were running for their state legislature, 101 have moved on to the general election. Thirty-seven of those teachers won their primaries, while 59 ran unopposed.   Take for example Jahana Hayes, the 2016 Connecticut and National Teacher of the Year who now represents the 5th District in Connecticut in Congress. 

With so many issues on the table now facing today’s educators, such as quality of education, school funding, privatization, along with racial, environmental and social justice issues, there’s the potential for the makings of a new teacher movement with profound political implications.  For example, with less than two years away from the 2020 elections, 11 states will be holding elections for governor, and nearly all will hold elections for lawmakers in state legislatures according to Ballotpedia.

Considering the number of strikes that have taken place as well as the groundswell of teacher activism, this could possibly be a pivotal moment. Educators across the country, with their renewed sense of purpose, are in position to politically leverage their ability to mobilize thousands and pressure state officials with their socially conscious vision for public education in America. 


Suggested Readings:

PBS has a page with a number of stories/articles on nationwide teacher strikes

Open letter from Oakland Education Association President to the Oakland community that also includes a copy of their Fact-finding Report and their recommendations for settlement as of February 2019. 

This is a link to an lengthy interview with the Chicago Teachers Union President to discuss the issues that led to the teacher strike along with their pursuit of racial and social justice