What Teacher Strikes Can Teach Democrats About Education Politics

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant Associate Fellow, Our Future

The momentum of this spring’s teacher uprising is growing, as Oklahoma teachers extend their walkout into a second week and teachers in Kentucky and Arizona are increasingly eager for some kind of disruptive action. It’s too early to gage the full impact of this movement, but that hasn’t stopped pundits and reporters from commenting on what the strikes mean for education politics and policy.

Because the rebellions are occurring in “red states,” Democrats are already capitalizing on any perceived advantage the strikes could give their party.

“Democrats nationwide are hoping to turn momentum from recent teacher protests into political gains this fall,” reports Education Week. “Democrats have framed themselves in political ads and candidate talking points as the party that will rescue financially struggling public schools from the grip of fiscally conservative Republicans.”

Teacher Strikes Aim to Change Politics

“We’ll remember in November” is what angry teachers are chanting in West Virginia. Their statewide strike has sparked sister uprisings across the nation, and made the their rebellion all about defeating Republican majorities.

Talk of possible “blue wave” elections in  Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona are filling Democrats with hope the strikes will mobilize support for their candidates in midterm elections.

National Democrats have been cautious to back the striking teachers, but that is changing now that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have voiced support for the teachers.

But if Democrats are going to attempt to take electoral advantage of the teacher uprising, they’ll need to change their typical education message.

What Partisan Divide?

For years, national education policy has been characterized by a “Washington Consensus” between Democrats and Republicans that public schools are effectively broken and only a market-based “reform” agenda will fix them.

The reform agenda mandated during the George W Bush presidential administration and intensified by President Barack Obama never won widespread support among teachers or the public. But that persuaded few Democrats to push for alternatives.

“Teachers have felt as if they were under assault by policymakers,” writes longtime education policy observer Valerie Strauss. She points to a myriad of bipartisan education policy mandates that irked teachers while austerity measures imposed by state governments forced teachers to take second jobs due to their declining pay and “resulted in dire school conditions for students and educators.”

Indeed, striking teachers in red states have focused a white, hot light on the lack of funding for their schools, the negative impact of education budget cuts on teacher salaries and healthcare, and the dilapidated state of textbooks, learning materials, and physical conditions in many schools.

Their protests have cast the strikes as mostly “a response to the decimation of state spending on education since the 2008 recession,” writes E.J. Dionne for the Washington Post. But the policy implications likely don’t stop there.

As Dionne notes, “The focus on school funding could also transform our education debate.”

But transform the debate to what?

Room for Disagreement

Democrats and Republicans have sharply differed on school funding.

A 2014 survey conducted by a rightwing education policy shop found that Democrats and Republicans split sharply – with nearly three-fourths of Democrats favoring more spending, and 54 percent of Republicans opposing – while they expressed less disagreement on other education issues. As strong supporters of the reform agenda, these Beltway policy analysts used the survey findings to argue that funding is the only partisan conflict in education policy.

But policy wonks at Brookings caution against jumping to that conclusion, noting that any “lack of polarization on school issues probably has more to do with confusion than consensus. The opinions that most Americans express on school issues are not well-informed,” Brookings experts wrote, “not organized in any coherent way, and not consistent over time.”

For instance, two big education issues – Common Core standards and charter schools – remain complete enigmas to most Americans. Nearly two-thirds of respondents to the 2014 survey had either never heard of the standards or answered “don’t know” to the factual questions. Another survey the Brookings analysts cite found half of the respondents could not answer factual questions about charter schools and another 20 to 30 percent gave the wrong answers.

Funding Not the Only Problem

So if Democrats can differentiate themselves from Republicans on school funding, surely there are other issues where Democrats can claim to be the ones who are on the side of teachers.

Strauss, in her explanation of why teachers strike, points to long-brewing resentments teachers have had with their evaluations being linked to student standardized test scores and the attacks on their job protections and collective bargaining rights. “Teacher surveys show extremely low morale, and teacher shortages are common,” she notes.

“Teachers have been engaged in a slow-motion strike for about a decade, walking off the job one or two at a time,” says public school teacher Peter Greene. “But instead of recognizing this as a work stoppage, we’ve labeled it a ‘teacher shortage,’ and policy makers have never addressed the reasons teachers are walking off the job.

Wrong Messages on Public Education

Not only have Democratic party leaders ignored the growing discontent among teachers; they’ve been actively complicit with Republicans in spreading a false message about what’s been plaguing public education.

“If Democrats want to take advantage of the red-state organizing capacity teachers have demonstrated over the past few weeks,” argues Osita Nwanevu for Slate, “they’ll have to jettison antagonism for a rhetoric making the case that the people who educate our kids deserve workplace advocates.” That would mean, for instance, Democrats support teachers’ unions rather than undermine them, and stick up for public schools instead of spreading the false argument that the best way to “fix” schools is to provide parents with “choices” other than their public schools.

Democrats should note that fans of school choice are attacking the striking teachers, arguing that the teachers’ actions expose “several flaws that are part of a much larger, broken system.” They contend unions “force teachers to walk out of schools,” when in fact these are wildcat strikes and walkouts where union leaders often follow rather than lead rank and file teachers.

The school choice argument is going to get particularly sticky for Democrats when teacher unrest in Arizona strengthens, as it seems to be doing. That’s because while charter schools are nonexistent In West Virginia and Kentucky, and in Oklahoma charters make up less than 2 percent of schools and educate only 2.5 percent of students, in Arizona charters make up nearly a quarter of all K-12 public schools and educate about 17 percent of students.

Any Democratic politicians who let their allegiance to school choice sideline their support for protesting teachers will likely be called out for being no friend to public school teachers.

After all, that promise of “We’ll remember in November” applies to Democrats too.

The Lesson for Democrats

“Teacher … still have a lot of political power,”rightwing Beltway operative Michael Petrilli grudgingly observed when asked to comment about the political impact of teacher strikes.

Maybe what striking teachers may finally teach Democrats is that while the party of the left has often repeated the right wing mantra of more “reform” and “choice,” it’s long past time for it to shift its rhetoric to talking about “funding” and “support” for public schools and teachers instead.


Reposted from Our Future