In 2011, when the second edition of this pamphlet came out, public education was under ferocious attack by corporate interests and their politicians. Public education was portrayed as broken, public school teachers were relentlessly demonized in the media, and the only solution we were given was the privatization agenda. This included relentlessly pushing high-stakes testing, creating more and more charter schools to give students and parents “choice,” and radically diminishing the power of teacher unions. This campaign was not just being waged by right wing politicians but was relentlessly promoted by the Obama White House and its education secretary, Arne Duncan. Behind the scenes were the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and other ruling class interests who saw both the ideological benefits of radically changing education as well as the opportunity for massive profits in privatization.
The effect of decades of austerity and privatization, dressed up as the reform of our broken education system, was a predictable one: that the states, neighborhoods, and schools most impacted by budget cuts were those already struggling with poverty. Combined with mass layoffs of educators that were never reversed, rising student populations are stretching classrooms to their limit. As of now, it would require 400,000 new educator positions to return to 2008 staffing levels. One reason educators in Oklahoma moved into struggle during the educator uprising of 2018 was to fight against part of their pension being turned into a 401(k), in a state where nearly one third of the education budget has been gutted since the 2007-09 recession, according to the Wall Street Journal (4/1/18).
The process of privatization has been sharpest in areas that experienced severe natural disasters. New Orleans saw a sharp decline in students served by public schools around Hurricane Katrina, from 97.5% of students in 2004 down to 14% just a decade later! This process was again seen clearly in 2017 with the tragic and abhorrent refusal of the US to rebuild the public institutions of Puerto Rico, which has closed hundreds of public schools since Hurricane Maria while opening the door to charter schools.
Under a global economic system that will use natural disasters as cover to squeeze every dime possible out of the public coffers, it will take nothing short of a massive movement of students, parents, and educators, along with the support of broader working class communities, to win the investment in our public schools that they so desperately need. In the meantime we must fight for every gain we can, in the bargaining room and on the streets.
Resistance to education reform, until the recent revolt by teachers beginning in Appalachia and spreading to other states in the South and Southwest, had been centered in the disproportionately Black and working class schools facing inadequate funding and threats of closure in large, Democrat controlled cities. Meanwhile, opposition to the Common Core standards rose from 16% to 51% between ‘12 and ‘16. Opposition to the current testing regime began as a largely middle class revolt, notably with a mass boycott in New York, and has since spread across the country.
Though initially many working class people were attracted to charter schools as a solution to the real problems of public schools, reformers are losing the battle of public opinion. Support for charter schools dropped 12 points in just one year, from 2016 to 2017! Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has largely been forced to continue the agenda of privatization in secret. Additionally, Democrats are trying to present themselves as defenders of public education, pushing back on the Republicans. This has all meant that significantly less anti-teacher rhetoric has been coming from the media and other mouthpieces of the ruling class than during Obama’s administration.
The Teachers Revolt
Between the first publication of this pamphlet and February 2018 when educators in all 55 of West Virginia’s counties voted to strike, the labor movement was largely dormant. There were notable exceptions, including the Wisconsin public sector workers revolt in 2011 and important strikes involving nurses, educators and telecommunications workers. The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) in Chicago, which gave us the slogan “our working conditions are our students learning conditions”, showed the way for how an opposition caucus can take the leadership of a union and use it to a positive effect. CORE led a strike in 2012 against the austerity budgets of Obama’s right hand man, Rahm “Mayor 1%” Emanuel, to win a 17.6% raise over a three year contract. Unfortunately, Rahm subsequently succeeded in pushing through a wave of school closings with devastating consequences.
In 2015, the Seattle Education Association put racial justice demands at the forefront of their ten day strike. This is a school district in a Democrat-controlled city, one that prides itself on the sheen of progressivism, and yet disciplines Black and brown youth disproportionately at a rate four times that of white students!
As resistance to school closures and testing boycotts spilled out of large urban centers and into all corners of the US, 2018 was a watershed moment for educators in predominantly Republican states. Educators rose up against decades of privatization and cuts, and took to the streets and halls of power after the years of rising health care costs and attacks on pensions and pay in a mass revolt against austerity. It was not enough to simply demand adequate school funding; specific demands were aimed at the wealthiest few. In West Virginia, educators called for taxes on oil and coal to fund their healthcare while Jim Justice, the governor and heir to a coal fortune, owes $4.5 million in unpaid taxes. It was on the backs of the coal miners that Justice’s company was built and now educators, including the children and grandchildren of those miners, are demanding their due!
It was also in West Virginia, the site of many famous labor battles going back to the coal miners of the early 20th century, that the memory of workplace struggle lives on today in teachers who took a stand. Meetings were held in every school building and all 55 counties where workers voted to strike against years of austerity. It was not just members of the educators’ union that voted but also the myriad of staff in the building with different affiliations and even those unaffiliated to any union at all! This is a model for how the public sector can organize in the face of the new national right-to-work era, by inspiring non-members through common struggle and proving that the benefits of an active fighting union far outweigh the cost of dues.
The struggle of educators has also opened up new fronts such as social media and the political arena. Strikers in Seattle, 2015, found themselves supported by a number of parent Facebook groups, notably one named “Soup for Teachers” that supplied food to many of the picket lines. This concept, of solidarity groups was developed significantly by the tens of thousands of educators, parents, and community members who used Facebook groups like Arizona Educators United and Oklahoma Teachers United to build a pro-educator counter narrative against the right wing media. Though these groups played a key role in organizing outside bureaucratic union structures and winning public opinion, they are not a substitute for building rank and file organizations within labor unions.
In fact, education workers at all levels have moved into struggle. Graduate school student workers recently unionized at Columbia and the New School in New York City, and struck for healthcare at the University of Washington in Seattle. School bus drivers employed by First Student, which holds the contract for Seattle Public Schools transportation, struck and won gains in pay and healthcare. Food workers struck at schools on the both the East and West coasts. Hospital workers and nurses employed by the University of California fought for compensation and a freeze to healthcare premium increases after educators in West Virginia were able to do the same. Struggles on campus were not limited to fighting austerity, with a renewal of student protests against racism and sexism. Internationally in the past year student strikes took place across the Spanish state against cuts to education and sexual violence.
Not four months after West Virginia set off a wave of strikes that began to shake the giant that is American public sector labor from its slumber, that same giant was dealt a major blow by the Supreme Court when it lost “agency fees” or fair-share dues in the Janus decision. The “agency fee” model, where new hires are not obligated to join the union but must pay a reduced rate as they benefit from the collective bargain, had remained a bulwark of union funding in many states up until now. The Janus v. AFSCME case that has ushered in this extension of “right-to-work” across the whole public sector nationally is only the most recent in a long litany of attacks on the labor movement.
Meanwhile, an emboldened right wing has further intensified attacks on the labor movement. We are entering a new period where the defensive tactics of the past decades are woefully insufficient. We must build on real victories at the picket line and ballot box, like Missouri voting 2-1 to overturn statewide right-to-work. We need a fighting leadership to take practical steps to rebuild the labor movement building on the teachers revolt, such as a concerted unionization drive of charter schools.
Defending Education Is A Political Struggle
In Arizona, the slogan “we’ll remember in November” showed the movement’s recognition of the need for a political expression, and this is also reflected in the increased number of educators running for elected office. While most are standing as Democrats on a pro-teacher and pro-public education platform, those who succeed in winning seats will soon face immense pressures from within and without the Democratic Party not to disturb the privatization model. Even high school students are grappling with the questions of political representation for the movement against gun violence. Whether or not they have drawn the conclusions of the need for independent politics, what is clear is that the younger generations represent a distinct shift to the left and towards a strong interest in socialism.
Educators looking to make change through electoral politics should look to the model of Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant, the community college economics professor and rank-and-file member of the American Federation of Teachers Local 1789 elected to Seattle City Council as an open socialist in 2013. Sawant was at the forefront of historic victories like the first ever citywide $15/hr minimum wage law and pushed for a “People’s Budget” which led to millions of additional dollars in funding for Seattle’s most vulnerable. Because she refused large corporate donations and ran with an independent organization behind her, Sawant has been able to use one council seat more effectively than decades of Democratic Party control of the whole council.
It is not just the years of public education being gutted that led to the enormous events this year. In no small part it is the changed political situation since the 2016 presidential election when a self-proclaimed democratic socialist became the nation’s most popular politician. It was by making calls for free higher education and Medicare for All that Bernie Sanders made his meteoric rise from an independent Senator from Vermont to folk hero.
Though the Republicans tend to go further in savage cuts to education and attacks on unions, the state of public education is undeniably dire even in Democrat-led city governments, where schools are being shut down even while funding increases. For this and many other reasons Socialist Alternative has called on Bernie to break with the Democrats and launch a new party based on the interests of working people. After he was shut out from the Democratic nomination in the 2016 primary, over one hundred and twenty thousand people signed a petition that he should keep running all the way to November as an independent. Had Bernie done so, hundreds of thousands would have responded to the call to build a new party. Just imagine if now, in West Virginia, where in 2016 all 55 counties of its counties voted for Bernie in the primary but Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in the general election, there was an independent party ready to pick up the torch of striking educators. Extending this nationally, it could grow into the millions!
In the place of the development of a new socialist party, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has been one vehicle for those inspired by Sanders but dissatisfied with the Democrats. It has grown to fifty thousand members, many times its own size just two years ago. The recent victory of DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over Joe “the King of Queens” Crowley and followed up by the primary victory of Julia Salazar within the Democratic party, shows the potential for strong socialist campaigns. Although many on the left still aim to turn the Democrats into a ‘people’s party’, any such movement from below will eventually run into the hard obstacle of the party’s corporate leadership.
Though the uprising of educators that began in West Virginia is a high water mark in recent labor history, this pamphlet – at less than a decade old – still stands as a comprehensive indictment of the underlying drive to privatize education which provoked initial resistance and then full scale revolt. We have added two articles from our website on the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012 and the West Virginia revolt to supplement the narrative.
At this moment, it is urgent that the labor movement root themselves in the concrete struggles for a better today – for fully funded public education, for an end to for-profit prisons and the school-to-prison pipeline, and for affordable housing and Medicare for All. Socialists have a key role to play by linking this struggle to a fundamentally different vision for society, where all young people are free from the material constraints that divorce a natural love of learning from the task of preparing to labor for a wage the rest of their lives. That is why we must not only fight to save our schools, but for a socialist world.
Matthew Maley, member of Seattle Education Association, September 2018