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What A Surge Of Teacher Strikes Nationwide Do And Don't Have In Common

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Five percent won't pay the rent. Five percent won't pay the rent.


Five percent won't pay the rent - the chant of teachers on strike today in Oakland, Calif. Around 3,000 union members are picketing for better pay, smaller classes and more nurses and school counselors. Now, this should sound familiar because earlier this week, West Virginia teachers went on strike, their second time in less than a year.

And since their first time going on strike, we've seen similar action from teachers in Denver, Los Angeles, Oklahoma, Kentucky. We could go on. There have been several more. But instead, Anya Kamenetz of NPR's education team is going to connect the dots. Hey there, Anya.


CORNISH: So what do these strikes have in common?

KAMENETZ: Briefly - budget cuts. The statewide walkouts took place either in red states like Arizona or swing states like Colorado that have all seen a lot of cuts to public ed. And California, of course, is a blue state, but it also has pretty low funding for public schools, below the national average. And that's especially compared to, you know, the cost of living there, in part because of its property tax laws.

You know, almost everywhere, teachers, of course, are asking for raises. And they're asking for more for their schools, like we heard from this English teacher, Sharonne Hapuarachy, in Los Angeles last month.


SHARONNE HAPUARACHY: Full-time nurses, full-time librarians, full-time college counselors at every high school. These are not luxuries that we're asking for. These are the basic needs of our students.

KAMENETZ: But what also links these strikes in many places is that teachers are coming out against education reform, against charter schools in LA and Oakland and West Virginia, against performance and incentive pay in Denver.

CORNISH: So is this, in part, a backlash against education policies that were once seen as innovative?

KAMENETZ: You know, you could say that. I mean, starting back with No Child Left Behind in 2001, there was kind of a bipartisan consensus across both the Bush and the Obama years that the way to make schools better for kids was competition from charters, from - more testing, more accountability. And as the years have gone by, you know, we haven't really seen that huge performance improvement for students. Achievement gaps are still large. And that consensus is really on the rocks now.

I think Betsy DeVos obviously - the education secretary - a big champion of school choice, but she's such a polarizing figure that she may also herself be contributing to the breakdown of that once-bipartisan consensus.

CORNISH: How much coordination is there between these teachers unions in these different places?

KAMENETZ: You know, actually, a lot of the statewide walkouts took place in "right-to-work" states like Oklahoma, where the teacher unions are relatively smaller, weaker. Instead, what you saw was a lot of true grassroots face-to-face organizing. And then you also have teachers getting together over social media, and that's where a lot of the national coordination and messaging is taking place.

So, for example, the hashtag #redfored was used widely last year and also picked up this year in Denver and LA. And the scholars that I've been talking to, if you take a step back, they've noted that overwhelmingly, you know, teachers in America, they are educated. They are overwhelmingly women. They skew a bit older.

And that is the same demographic profile that makes up the backbone of what sometimes is called the resistance to Trump, the people who were out for the Women's March, the organizers and the small donors who brought, you know, 40-some House seats to Democrats last November. So what these political scientists are saying is there's some overlap in energy between the teachers unions and other social movements that we're seeing - political movements.

CORNISH: In all of these places where they've gone on strike, have they had the support of the community?

KAMENETZ: You know, it's interesting. We actually did a poll last year about this. And we found across the country strong public support for teachers right to strike no matter your political leanings. You know, teachers are really close to their communities. People in polls in general really support their public schools. As you heard from that teacher in LA, teachers have been really careful when they're asking for more money for themselves. They're also asking for things that are for the kids. You know, we're doing it for the kids.

And so I talked to a parent organizer yesterday in Oakland who's really supportive of the strike, and she said, you know, we're raising money to make sure that kids who need free and reduced lunch are going to get it. There's also a solidarity school for parents who need childcare, but they don't want to cross the picket lines.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Anya, thank you.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.