We might have seen this coming, given last year’s report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In that report, researchers laid out how 29 states, including North Carolina, continued to fund their public education systems below pre-recession levels.
Now, with teachers in Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia rallying over educator pay, left-leaning ThinkProgress says the states in question have more in common than the fact that they tend to vote for Republicans like President Donald Trump. They’re all so-called “right to work states,” meaning employers cannot require that workers join a labor union or pay dues.
Whether teachers prefer to call them walkouts, work stoppages, or strikes, all of these states have a number of things in common. Yes, these states all went toDonald Trump in the presidential election — something many journalists and pundits have focused on.
But more importantly, they are also all states with right-to-work laws who have cut public services.
All of these teachers are organizing in similar ways. The strikes’ message goes beyond the teaching profession and extends to better salaries for other state employees and funding for public education as a whole. Teachers also aren’t being entirely led by their unions in the strikes, and they’re working with their school districts, nonprofits, and other state employees to ensure that they have as much public support as possible.
The chronic underfunding of education, sustained tax cuts, and right-to-work laws have created this environment, bringing the fight for education and labor rights to a boiling point in all of these states.
In many of the states where teachers are striking or considering taking action, school funding is still far below what it was before the Great Recession.
This chronic underfunding hit the majority of states. A 2017 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report shows that in 2015, 29 states provided less education funding per pupil than in 2008. In 19 states, local funding also decreased from 2008 to 2015. In states where local funding increased during that period, it still didn’t make up for state cuts.
Most of the states now protesting are the ones that experienced the worst cuts. That includes Oklahoma and Kentucky, where teachers are currently striking. New Jersey, where there was a one-day strike in Jersey City last month, also had their education funding per pupil drop during that time period.
It also includes, Arizona — where we could see teachers take action next. Teachers in Arizona are discussing the possibility of a strike. Although Texas teachers may not strike, they have been unhappy with education funding in the state for a long time and anger is “bubbling beneath the surface,” Louis Malfaro, the head of Texas American Federation of Teachers, told Austin American-Statesman. In Florida, the teachers union has discouraged striking, but some teachers are still interested in a strike.
The cuts to education spending are hurting students’ quality of education and teachers’ quality of life. Oklahoma teachers have posted photos of old books that are falling apart and have panhandled for school supplies. Teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky say they are taking on second jobs and that they have considered leaving their states.
All these strikes are public backlash to years of Republican-led efforts to push for more tax cuts, which has squeezed funding for education.
West Virginia’s tax cuts began more than a decade ago. The states reduced its corporate net income tax and got rid of a corporate charter tax and alternative minimum tax — to name just a few of the cuts — and ultimately lost $425 million in state revenue each year since 2007.
Oklahoma has offered tax breaks to oil companies that diminished revenue from 2008 to 2014, according to WTOP, and led to a 24 percent reduction in per pupil funding over that time period. Twenty percent of Oklahoma school districts are open for only four days a week to cut down on costs. As Kentucky teachers demanded more education funding, state lawmakers considered a proposal that would cut income taxes and result in $114 million less revenue for the state. That legislation — which will result in higher taxes for most residents while corporations and the wealthy pay less — passed the legislature and is heading to the governor’s desk. It’s unclear if Gov. Matt Bevin (R) will sign it.
Oklahoma and West Virginia teachers are some of the lowest paid teachers in the country.
“A lot of our students don’t come to school ready to learn math and to read. They come to school and they’re hungry,” Laura Hartke, a teacher at Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, told ThinkProgress when Kentucky teachers went to the state capital on Monday. “They may have been abused. The programs and things that they want to cut for these children are detrimental to their education. They need more than just a teacher. They need support systems and those are the things that they’re cutting.”