Out of the Classrooms and Into the Streets

Teachers Stand Up for Public Education From Coast to Coast


Photography, DJ McInturff

Teachers across the country are walking out of their classrooms to demand better wages and benefits.

Article, DJ McInturff, editor

From West Virginia, to Kentucky, all the way to Arizona, on the cover of TIME magazine, and even as close as Murphysboro, Illinois, teachers across the country have spoken out to demand action.  Many of these teachers have even walked out of their classrooms, choosing to strike over stagnant wages and cuts to pension plans and benefits. This could possibly become a reality in Murphysboro, if the teacher’s union and the school board fail to reach an agreement soon.


The reason for the outcries of many educators is simple, they are unhappy with their levels of compensation for the service they often go above and beyond to provide.  In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers make 18.7% less than other professionals in the workforce with a comparable education. The estimated average salary of a teacher in the United States was $58,950, which is not always adequate compared to the cost of living in all areas.


Another reason some teachers decide to take such a serious stand is because of the lack of support for public education in some areas.  In the year 2015, the governments of 29 states still spent less per student, adjusted for inflation, than before the Great Depression, which can make it extremely difficult for educators to teach their pupils on such a meager budget.  


West Virginia, a state which has been a battleground for this issue, approximately 20,000 teachers striked for a total of nine school days, asking for the complete funding of their insurance benefits and salary increases.  The union and the state were finally able to reach an agreement, and the states’ teachers were granted a 5% salary increase. However, this skirmish was hard-fought and hard-won; and victories for teachers’ unions will only become more difficult than they already are to obtain now that the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that public-sector unions are not allowed to mandate fees– known as “fair share dues”– from nonmembers, which is expected to cost unions much needed money and power in the bargaining process.


Blows such as these not only push school teachers to the breaking point, but they have also frightened prospective teachers away from the field.  From 2008 to 2016 the number of new educators who complete preparatory programs has dropped 23%, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.  Just as worrisome, studies show that 17% of new teachers decide to quit the profession within their first five years of teaching. Such looming teacher shortages not only mean that already damaged unions membership levels will drop, but also that class sizes will increase, resulting in less students receiving the individual attention they may need to succeed.


These deep-seeded issues are coming to fruition in nearby Murphysboro, Illinois, where, on September 21, teachers, who have worked without a contract since the beginning of the year and taken several salary freezes, have voted to strike as early as October 1 unless a contract is finally agreed upon.  The Murphysboro Education Association, or MEA, claims in a recent Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board Posting that “over the last ten years, the base teacher salary has only increased an average of $415 per year while the superintendent has received an average salary increase of $1518.” This MEA is demanding an end be brought to their stagnant salaries, and have proposed a 3% salary increase and yearly step increases.  However the district, which claims that it simply is unable to afford the requests made by the MEA without making further staff and program cuts or being slammed by massive fees in the form of penalties for breaching a 3% salary raise cap, which includes step raises, slyly passes through the state legislature, has countered with an offer of a 1.3% salary increase and yearly step increases. At the time of publication, no new information had become available concerning the state of negotiations in Murphysboro.


Unrest occurring so close to home raises the question that if a possible strike is on the table in nearby Murphysboro, what would a similar situation look like if it were to happen here at HHS?


But there is no need to fear, Mrs. George, who has served on the negotiating committee for the last three contracts, assures that the Herrin Education Association has a “good working relationship” with the board, which she says is supportive of the community’s teachers, and feels that she is “compensated satisfactorily.”  Compared to other districts across the country, George states that she thinks “we have a pretty peaceful environment here.”


However, that is not to say that George is oblivious to the problems educators in Herrin schools and other communities face.  She points out that it is simply impossible to implement new curriculums and smaller class sizes without additional funding, and some educators are put into a position where striking is their only option to be heard.  


Yet even this situation is far from ideal.  Many steps must be taken for a teacher’s union to strike, and the consequences are real for students in the community.  “A teacher strike is simply going to mean that students lose classroom instruction,” says George. Even so, she insists that “the ability to strike is necessary, because that’s the whole [purpose] of being in a union,” not to mention that the ability to strike provides teachers’ unions with more leverage when bargaining to create a better learning environment for students as well.  But even in the event of a strike, the goals might not be completely attainable and the results could fall short of expectation. George points out that “a 1.3% salary increase is not that much when you have taken a freeze for several years prior.”


Since the needs of so many school districts and teachers throughout the country have been and in some cases are continuing to be neglected, and strikes have failed to sufficiently bring an end to all legislative stalemates, education has understandably become a key issue in elections across the country.  Fueled by this sense of political action sweeping the nation in regards to public education, many teachers have made the decision to run for public office. To be a bit more precise, 159 teachers have filed the proper paperwork to run for state legislatures, act approximately 300 members of the American Federation of Teachers are running for office at some level.


One of these educators turned politicians is Charlotte Goddard, a third grade teacher in western Kentucky who is now running for the Kentucky State House of Represents in Kentucky’s second district.  Goddard, who’s only been active in the political arena for almost two years now, and has never run for public office before, says that “being a teacher in America is pretty difficult,” and that “everyday people don’t realize the amount of work we put in… It’s not uncommon for me to work a 75 hour work week.”  


Education has pecularily come under attack in the state of Kentucky, which has not totally recovered from the 2008 recession, and Goddard points out that “one of the first places they often cut is education.”  The defunding of education not only means less money is available for teacher salaries, the development of new curriculums, and education resources such as computers and textbooks, but also vital services such as counseling, professional development programs for current teachers, transportation, and occupational therapists; and the cuts in Kentucky affects students in pre-k programs all the way throughout university age students.  


Goddard is running to remind her constituents and representatives “how fundamental education is to our economy.”  She states that she doesn’t “think they should be able to cut funding for education without research backing up what they are doing.”  If elected, Goddard vows that “the first place that we need to start is restoring education funding.”


In terms of support, Goddard says that her former students “have been excited for me.”  However, she happily says that both former teachers who she has worked with her current peers have been “really supportive,” and pleasantly surprised!  “They’re pleased that someone in our profession has stepped up to speak out for us. So, I’m just proud to be a part of that.”


She’s not alone either.  Many teachers are proud to be a part of this movement, and thrilled that their voices are finally being heard, not only for their own sakes but for the sake of their students as well.  However, George also warned that “Murphysboro is not going to be the only school that deals with this.” This movement is growing, and their demands are starting to be met, but this election is only one of the critical moments during this never ending fight for public education.

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