As mass teacher walkouts and protests ebb in Arizona and Colorado, bold new actions are ramping up in North Carolina. This spring’s teacher uprisings may well last through the end of this school year.
On the whole, teachers across the nation have strung together an impressive series of victories, including salary raises, pension reforms, and school funding increases. And teachers have vowed to take their unmet demands into November elections to contest their opponents at the ballot box.
But the instincts of retribution that tend to drive rightwing politicians and their operatives have already spurred them to craft ways to strike back against teachers.
Even during the walkouts, Republican lawmakers and their supporters have tried to intimidate and silence teachers. But these teacher uprisings have a widely accepted moral standing that will be very difficult for their opponents to undermine, despite the big money aimed at opposing teachers.
Leading into the two-day teacher walkout in Colorado, Republican legislators introduced a bill that would lead to fines and potentially up to six month’s jail time for the striking teachers. The bill was pulled, when it became clear even some Republicans weren’t too keen on the measure.
In Arizona, a libertarian think tank sent letters to school district superintendents threatening them with lawsuits if they didn’t reopen closed schools and order striking teachers to return to work. It’s unclear how or whether the threat will actually be carried out now that teachers are back on the job.
In West Virginia, where teachers used a nine-day strike to secure a five percent raise, Republicans have vowed to get their revenge by cutting $20 million to Medicaid and other parts of the state budget to pay for the increase. No doubt, when the axe falls on these programs, Republican lawmakers will be quick to blame the “greedy” teachers.
In Kentucky, Republican Governor Matt Bevin accused striking teachers of leaving children exposed to sexual assaults or being in danger of ingesting toxic substances because teachers weren’t at school. Now that the uprising has ended, Bevin has turned his revenge against teachers into an effort to take over the largest school system in the state and take away local control of the schools.
A Zero for DeVos
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, in her contribution to the right-wing backlash against teachers, has spurned the strikes as being about “adults’ interests,” and scolded teachers for not thinking about “what’s best for kids.” In her recent, closed-door meeting with Teachers of the Year from across the country, she “expressed opposition to teachers going on strike for more education funding,” HuffPost’s Rebecca Klein reports.
When the Arizona Teacher of the Year asked the Secretary about her views of the strikes, DeVos reportedly told her she preferred that “adults would take their disagreements and solve them not at the expense of kids and their opportunity to go to school and learn.”
“For her to say at the ‘expense of children’ was a very profound moment,” one of the teachers told Klein. “That is so far from what is happening.”
The Rightwing Messaging Guide
Indeed, the Right’s counteroffensive to teacher uprisings extends beyond the affected states.
The Guardian reports about a “messaging guide” conceived by a network of libertarian think tanks that conveys tips for how to portray the walkouts as “harmful to low-income parents and their children.”
The manual, entitled “How to Talk About Teacher Strikes,” has “dos and dont’s,” including the claims, “Teacher strikes hurt kids and low-income families,” and, “It’s unfortunate that teachers are protesting low wages by punishing other low-wage parents and their children.”
The guide is provided by the State Policy Network, a network of 66 rightwing think tanks funded by the Koch brothers, the Walton Family Foundation, the DeVos family, the Bradley Foundation, and other conservative megadonors.
Other talking points included in the guide are to “emphasize the damage done to ‘good’ teachers by the strikes” and counter claims of education funding cuts by calling out money being spent on “red tape and bureaucracy” and “administrators and other non-teaching staff.”
This advice from SPN is already being taken to heart by conservative operatives like the Center for Education Reform, a pro-privatization organization and SPN member pushing for charter school and vouchers.
In a press release, CER warns of the “true nature of these protests and ramifications of supporting union backed rallies, walkouts, and strikes.”
The release quotes CER leader Jeanne Allen saying, “the real fight” is not whether teachers are paid well enough and schools are adequately funded but how to “ensure money follows students and doesn’t continue to get wasted on a bloated bureaucracy and top-heavy school districts that have grown dramatically faster than enrollment.”
Allen also riffs off the SPN manual by claiming walkouts are “union-building activities, pushing charter school teachers to follow them, while at the same time fighting to limit the growth of charters, impose restrictions and, worst of all, fighting to make sure charters are funded at lower levels than traditional schools.”
In its weekly newsletter, CER smears the walkouts as “union-led shenanigans” and argues, “The unions want to make teacher pay a defining issue. But it’s not, or at least it shouldn’t be.”
The Real Defining Issue
What is happening, which is hard for these critics to undermine, is that teachers are not making their pay the defining issue of their uprising. Contrary to what Betsy DeVos asserts, they’re focused on improving the lives of their students.
Indeed, they are asking for what their students really need: Teachers who aren’t distracted, stressed out, and spiritually spent because of poor wages and lack of affordable healthcare or retirement security. Schools that aren’t bereft of teaching materials, textbooks, and safe and functioning facilities; and full support of public services that have positive impacts on how well students achieve in schools.