As U.S. President Donald Trump meets Wednesday at the White House with the 2018 Teachers of the Year, public school teacher strikes are escalating across the country while the administration is emphasizing private alternatives to public education.
The latest strike is underway in the southwestern state of Arizona, where most schools were forced to close after thousands of teachers walked off the job last week, demanding higher pay and more funding for public education.
When the walkout began April 26, some 50,000 educators demonstrated at the state capital in Phoenix.
The Arizona strike follows others in recent months in Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Many of the strikes have occurred in Republican-controlled “red” states, evolving into the “Red for Ed” movement that has surprised the nation’s education community and intensified pressure on state legislators.
Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have made their top education priority an expansion of alternatives to the public schools that are attended by a large majority of children.
DeVos, in a meeting Monday in Washington with Teachers of the Year from states across the country, reportedly engaged in a “verbal sparring match” during an exchange of ideas.
Oklahoma’s Teacher of the Year, John Hazell, a Republican who voted for Trump, told DeVos that her preference for alternatives to public schools were draining resources from public school systems, according to the Huffington Post.
When DeVos responded that students may be selecting alternatives to escape low-performing public schools, Hazell said, “You’re the one creating ‘bad’ schools by taking all the kids that can afford to get out and leaving the kids who can’t behind,” a reply that reportedly drew supportive responses from others at the meeting.
DeVos has spent decades promoting the growth of charter schools, which are funded with taxpayer money, but run by private companies. She has also championed other private education programs that are funded with public money.
Striking teachers contend the administration’s approach siphons funding from resource-starved schools and impedes their efforts to secure better pay and benefits.
Pay is unexceptional for college-educated teachers, according to the National Education Association. Teacher pay dropped two percent between 1992 and 2014, after adjustments for inflation. In the 2016-2017 school year, the average teacher salary in the United States was $59,660. In states where teachers have gone on strike, average pay was considerably lower. In Oklahoma, for example, average teacher pay was just under $45,300.
Teachers also complain they have to use personal funds to buy supplies for public school students, further diminishing their salaries.
For concerned teachers, however, their complaints are not limited to teacher pay, as indicated by the non-profit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Its latest report, which covers 2015, said most of the 50 U.S. states cut funding after the 2008 Great Recession.
The organization, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, found it took years for states to replenish funding to levels prior to the recession. The report also noted that 29 states continue to provide fewer total school dollars per student than they did in 2008.