Teachers across the country are walking out of classrooms for better pay and support from their state governments. Starting in West Virginia, where a nine-day strike resulted in a 5 percent pay raise for teachers, and spreading to Oklahoma and Kentucky, teachers are mobilizing to protest poor pay, bad benefits, and cuts to school budgets.
This editorial board supports these teachers and their right to strike, as well as their demands for better pay and school funding. Their actions intersect with issues on our own campus as the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (GAGE) recently made an agreement with the university to be able to organize and be represented by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a union that represents more than 1.7 million school employees across the country.
These teachers’ grievances include low wages, which are a result of poorly structured pay scales for experience and advancement, and pay freezes. In many cases, teachers have to work in classrooms with textbooks that are decades out of date and chairs and desks which are just as old. They often have to pay for other supplies with their own money.
These challenges have led to teacher shortages in some states, as the job is unappealing even to those who want to educate. Instead of improving pay and school conditions, states like West Virginia have floated proposals to lower the requirements to become a teacher to expand the applicant pool. Not only would decisions like this make schools worse for the children who attend them, they ignore the problems that drive people away from teaching in the first place.
These problems are symptoms of a larger phenomenon of state school budgets facing cuts where politicians do not want to raise taxes. In an attempt to appease the teachers before the strike, the Oklahoma state legislature recently passed a tax increase. It was the first time Oklahoma had passed a tax increase in 28 years.
Other legislative practices keep teacher wages down. Right-to-Work laws weaken the power of public employee unions to collectively bargain and negotiate better wages and benefits in their contracts by allowing people to not pay dues if they do not wish to join the union. Oklahoma adopted this policy by referendum in 2001, while West Virginia and Kentucky instituted it more recently, in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
It is easy to let the struggles of these teachers slip from our minds given that these states are smaller and more rural, and that few Georgetown students call these places home. In 2017, four students from Kentucky enrolled at the university, as did three students from West Virginia, Oklahoma had no students enroll that year.
While there might not be many Hoyas from these states, what happens there can affect every state in the country. Oklahoma and Kentucky teachers took their cues from the success of the walkout in West Virginia, and this type of action could continue to spread.
The ability of teachers to collectively bargain also could have impacts on the Georgetown community as GAGE works towards AFT representation. As this board has supported GAGE during its campaign, we will support teachers and other public employees across the country who wish to organize.
The challenges that teachers in these and many other states face, and that prompted these walkouts, serve not only as a detriment to the teachers, but to their students as well. Teaching is a noble profession, and one that does not receive the respect or compensation it deserves. Investments in public education are investments in the future of our country. We will support these teachers until their demands are met and they can return to their classrooms with the resources to do their jobs to the best of their ability, and give every one of their students the best education they can receive.