They should not have messed with teachers

They should not have messed with teachers
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While all eyes were on a special election for Congress in southwestern Pennsylvania, something much more significant was unfolding in a trio of deep red states. First in West Virginia and now in Kentucky and Oklahoma, teachers and other public employees have been strategizing, organizing and scaring the tar out of their mostly-Republican elected representatives.

In Kentucky, thousands gathered in the state Capitol Building to protest a plan to break the pension promises made to teachers and public employees. And starting this week in Oklahoma, teachers are “working the contract.” This means that instead of working the many extra hours above and beyond their contract that they typically do, these educators will instead devote those extra hours to political action.

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Teachers in more and more places are calling B.S. on the idea that there’s no money to provide them with a decent wage or keep their pensions solvent, when there always seems to be money for another favor to politicians’ big donors and corporate benefactors. Teachers are fighting for their livelihood and for public education. But at a more basic level, they are fighting for a reordering of priorities. They’re fighting for politicians to actually prioritize the middle class for once.

 

It’s no accident that this movement is bubbling in some of the reddest parts of the country. Legislators have starved the public coffers and refused to ask their wealthy friends to pay a little more. In Oklahoma, this has left local budgets so stretched that many districts are only operating schools four days per week.

Overall, red-state teacher pay is at the bottom of the barrel. The five worst states for high school teacher pay are Oklahoma, Mississippi, South Dakota, North Carolina and West Virginia — traditionally red states. The five best are New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California and Alaska — all blue states, with the exception of Alaska, which is an anomaly because of the oil industry.  

Teachers in West Virginia watched legislators push another costly tax break for business and rush to give away the store to the natural gas industry before telling teachers there was simply not enough money to give them a raise. Funny how, after a teachers strike shut schools down statewide for 10 days, the governor managed to find some money for a raise after all.

What happened in West Virginia didn’t stay in West Virginia. Teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky were watching closely as their brothers and sisters in the Mountain State stood in solidarity and notched a rare victory for working people against what had seemed like impossible odds. Teachers with whom I spoke in both states said they were emboldened by what unfolded in West Virginia. They were inspired. They saw what was possible. They studied their tactics. One Kentucky teacher who has been organizing her school over the past few days told me that her colleagues are in support of following the West Virginia model of direct action by a margin of about 99-1.

The Republican Party’s cynical playbook has met its match in these teachers. Normally what happens when a group of citizens dares ask for more is that they’re derided as lazy or stupid or greedy or otherwise unworthy of decency. The GOP essentially has weaponized the American Dream. “This is the land of opportunity,” they’ll say. “If you are struggling, there must be something wrong with you.” West Virginia’s Republican governor referred to teachers as “dumb bunnies” for listening to their union leadership. Teachers responded by wearing bunny ears to the Capitol.

In Kentucky, teachers are posting condescending responses from GOP representatives to their secret Facebook groups. The thing is, teachers aren’t some abstract group of moochers. Everyone knows a teacher. In small towns, especially, they are pillars of their communities. The local public school often is one of the largest employers in town. Political attacks on teachers — and education more broadly — are seen as an attack on the entire community. And teachers can’t be caricatured as a liberal, Soros-funded group of outsiders bused in to cause trouble. The GOP tried that trick in West Virginia too. It didn’t work out so well.

What’s really exciting, though, is not just teachers getting what they have earned — and deserve. It’s the stirring of a sleeping giant. Something big is happening here: a cross-state, multiracial, coalition of working people who are taking matters into their own hands. Messages of solidarity are flying back and forth across state lines. Tactics and ideas are being learned and implemented.  A movement of unstoppable power is building.

Mountain State teachers may be back to school and savoring their victories, but make no mistake about it, there is no returning to “normal.” Now they’re organized. Now they know their power. They see who their true allies are, and as they said repeatedly when gathering by the thousands day after day at the state Capitol, they will remember in November. Politicians shouldn’t have messed with the teachers.  

Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of a bipartisan morning video show being launched by The Hill this spring. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.