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How Democrats learned to stop worrying and love teachers


In the first major policy announcement of her 2020 presidential campaign, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) last week unveiled an ambitious plan to give every American teacher a raise of about $13,500. Billed as the “largest investment in teachers in American history,” the Harris plan would cost an estimated $315 billion over 10 years with the goal of closing the teacher pay gap and reducing turnover, especially in high-needs districts.

How times have changed.

{mosads}Just a decade ago, Democrats were lining up to blame teachers and their unions for most of the problems in our public schools. Prominent voices like Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Cory Booker embraced privatization and promoted policies that pushed high-stakes testing and the growth of charter schools.

These days, most of the leading Democratic presidential candidates are supporting teachers and their unions during strikes, such as the recent walkouts in Denver and Los Angeles. Democrats are no longer pushing an expansion of charter schools or controversial value-added measures of teacher performance. And now comes the Harris plan to give teachers a long overdue and much needed raise.

Polls show the public strongly supports higher pay for teachers and the right of educators to strike. The news is that Democratic politicians are finally jumping on the bandwagon. What caused such a dramatic shift? Two major factors.

First, the rise of Betsy DeVos brought the influence of deep-pocketed donors into stark relief. Funders like the DeVos, Broad, and Walton families had quietly thrown their money into charter schools, school choice, and attacks on teacher tenure for many years, largely unnoticed. The divisive tone of the Trump era and the scrutiny of DeVos’ nomination as Education secretary shined a light on the role of private philanthropy in education reform.

Second, teachers’ unions have grown much more skilled at telling their stories. For years, educators had kept quiet about their stagnant salaries and rising health care costs, all the while losing key battles with elected officials from Scott Walker to Jeb Bush. But historically low levels of education funding, combined with widespread organizing—especially by women—after Trump’s victory created a perfect moment for teachers to finally start speaking out.

Instead of hiding their financial woes or blaming their own individual choices, teachers began to share stories of working second and third jobs, living with multiple roommates, and struggling with the crushing burden of student loan debt. The public started to realize just how much our educators were struggling.

Starting with the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012, teachers also began more clearly articulating their “common good” demands—those that benefit the wider community, not just the teachers themselves. In campaigns across the country, teachers pushed for neighborhood schools, smaller class sizes, adequate numbers of school nurses and counselors, checks and balances on the charter schools that siphon money away from neighborhood public schools, and more. Teachers and their unions advocated for, as the Chicago teachers put it, the schools their students deserved. And they built broad alliances with parents in their communities.

Labor history shows us that when workers are under attack, they tend to grow increasingly militant.

As right-wing philanthropists and political donors funded twin attacks on public services and unions, teachers grew more willing to think and act in a radical and militant manner. The left flank in many teachers’ unions became tired of acquiescent leadership. Rank-and-file caucuses, hungry and organized for progressive change, took over union leadership in Chicago and Los Angeles. In West Virginia, teachers without collective bargaining rights took matters into their own hands, not waiting for their unions to take the lead.

It turned out that when teachers were bolder, they had the support of parents. The strategy, backed by the hard daily work of organizing, was a success. 

It’s remarkable that in a few short years, teachers’ unions have gone from being the easiest target for Democratic candidates to an important ally as the presidential field takes shape. The divisiveness of the Trump era, the stark image of an impoverished, largely female workforce struggling to improve children’s lives, and some smart organizing and framing by unionized teachers have brought about a rapid shift.

Rebecca Kolins Givan is Associate Professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

Tags Arne Duncan Betsy DeVos charter schools Cory Booker Privatization teachers

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