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Disruptor of the Year: Striking teachers in West Virginia

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By: Roger Riddell, EducationDive

When its over, 2018 may go down as the year teachers finally had enough — and brought public support along with them. After years of shouldering the blame for schools' challenges to the point that former U.S. Secretary of Education John King felt the need to issue an apology, all while facing increasing pay gaps and ongoing debates over their benefits, educators nationwide headed to the picket lines.

And the fire was sparked on Feb. 22 in West Virginia.

"We had enough of the broken promises and broken commitments made to public education, and when the healthcare issue came up, too, it was really the last straw in West Virginia," Dale Lee​, president of the WestVirginia Education Association told Education Dive. "I think across the nation, when other states saw the strength and unity of the educators in West Virginia, it made them believe."

The demonstrations shut down schools for nine days, with schools closing their doors as red-shirted teachers vowed not to return until they received better pay. Ultimately, state lawmakers gave in, and Republican Gov. James Justice signed a bill raising their pay, and that of other state employees, by 5%.

 

The public, too, seems to have reached its breaking point with the declining respect afforded to the nation's educators. Headlines in recent years have frequently drawn attention to the average amount of funds teachers spend out of their own pockets each year on supplies (around $530), the difficulty of living in certain metropolitan areas on a teacher's salary, and the resulting need for many to find additional income streams — from selling lesson plans online to virtually tutoring foreign students in English to bartending

It's no surprise, then, that a recent EdNextPoll showed 49% of the public in support of teacher pay increases, up 13% from last year, with 63% of respondents in teacher strike states supporting a pay boost.

"Right after our actions, a survey came out that said 78% of Americans think teachers don’t get paid enough, and that 50% would even raise their own taxes to increase teacher pay," Lee adds. "I think if you would have done the same survey six months earlier, the numbers wouldn’t have been that high."

 

That many of these protests happened and gained public support in red states is of equal importance, at least in part due to a lessening of power for organized labor in these states. Despite deep partisan political divides, there's one thing voters on both sides of the aisle can agree on: They want their children to receive a quality education that affords them better opportunities to succeed in life. And many of these states have seen some of the most dramatic education funding cuts in an environment where the funds available still haven't returned to pre-recession levels.

Lee proudly recounts that, when asked if West Virginia's teachers gave their counterparts in his state hope, Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said, "No. They did more than that. They made us believe."

With more demonstrations sure to come in the current school year, the pressure is now on lawmakers to heed these calls and reconsider funding priorities.