Teacher protests across the US reflect deepening malaise

Teachers have taken over Oklahoma's Capitol building to protest budget cuts and low salaries
AFP

Oklahoma City (AFP) – Recent protests by thousands of teachers in far-flung parts of the United States reflect a deepening malaise in American education after years of budget cuts and stagnant salaries that have left many instructors feeling their work is not valued. 

“We’ve never seen a brushfire like this,” National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia told AFP.

In the central and southern states of Oklahoma and Kentucky, thousands of public school teachers — supported by students and their parents — have been occupying the halls of state legislatures since Monday.

The last time Oklahoma saw such a teacher protest was 1990, and that lasted only four days. But now, hundreds of schools have been closed and the strikes are expected to continue into the coming week.

Teachers in the southwestern state of Arizona are expected to join the protest movement. 

The various protests have taken their inspiration from a similar — and successful — movement in West Virginia.  

School administrators and a majority of parents appear to be supporting the protests, while celebrities like singer Carrie Underwood have turned to social media to proclaim their solidarity.

“Yes, I expect we’ll see this movement spreading to other states, because the school conditions, as well as the stagnant pay, are very widespread,” said Darleen Opfer, an education analyst at the Rand Corporation think-tank.

She compared it to the exasperation of teachers and high school students whose impassioned “enough is enough” calls for gun control, after the mass shooting on February 14 at a Florida high school, prompted mass demonstrations nationwide. 

“We’ve been seeing conditions in schools deteriorate, stagnate or increase school violence,” Opfer said. “The conditions are widespread enough we’d consider schools being in crisis.”

In several states governed by Republicans, schools have suffered serious budget cuts as politicians seek to keep electoral promises to lower taxes. The trend grew rapidly after the 2008 financial crisis. 

In the United States, public schools are funded mainly by state and local governments, with the federal government offering only targeted subsidies to help, for example, with the education of handicapped children.

– Vast inequalities –

The schools thus reflect vast funding inequalities across the country. 

Affluent areas feature gleaming school buildings with all the bells and whistles, from immaculately groomed football fields with high-tech scoreboards to well-stocked libraries and amply supplied science labs.

Schools in poorer regions struggle on paltry budgets, with underpaid teachers sometimes having to take second jobs to make ends meet.

A brain-drain of teachers moving from low-wage states to others where they can earn far more has left the poorer states struggling to recruit even marginally qualified replacements.

The overall result is chronic underperformance by American students on the international student assessment tests known as PISA, organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 

American students place far behind Finland, South Korea and Estonia, among others.

Nor has the veritable mania for standardized testing in American schools done much to help. 

Many states rely on the results of such exams — often involving the controversial use of multiple-choice questions — to weigh the work of schools and teachers, with potential consequences on pay and careers.

In the face of the public schools’ serious challenges, many parents opt to send their children to private schools — but these can cost around $20,000 a year per student, or even more.

In this country passionately attached to individualism and free choice, so-called charter schools have steadily gained popularity. 

These schools receive public funding and must apply local standards but generally have greater freedom from certain laws and regulations, and face less accountability than do public schools.

Some of these schools offer old-style approaches — requiring students to wear uniforms, applying strict discipline and employing classic methods — while others experiment with progressive teaching methods, including interdisciplinary teaching and individual projects designed to stimulate creativity.

Some parents swear by these schools, but others — and the major public teachers’ unions — accuse them of siphoning off resources, and sometimes the more talented students, from public schools.

This has been a key complaint against Education Secretary Betsy Devos, who is accused of favoring charter and private schools to the detriment of public education.

Faced with American students’ poor results on international tests, a state-based movement arose several years ago to try to raise education standards through a program known as “Common Core.”  

A majority of the 50 states have now adopted Common Core standards, setting objectives for students from kindergarten through high school — a dramatic change for a country where education is highly decentralized and standards in some places have been low. 

But some states — notably Massachusetts and New York — already have high-performing school systems.

New York offers specialized public high schools — in arts, science, politics and literature — that are highly prestigious and merit-based.

And they are free.

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