As Teacher Strikes Grow in California, Red State Educators Are Seeing a Backlash

Red for Ed teachers face retribution in Arizona, even as strikes grow next door.
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Yevgeniya Pokhilko was one of thousands of teachers who marched in the rain through Los Angeles, California, on January 14th, 2019.

Yevgeniya Pokhilko was one of thousands of teachers who marched in the rain through Los Angeles, California, on January 14th, 2019.

The historic Los Angeles teacher strike is now in its second week, with some 30,000 teachers across 1,000 schools marching for pay raises, smaller class sizes, and increased funding for counselors and nurses. An action of this magnitude is without recent precedent; Los Angeles is home to the second largest unified school district in the nation, serving over 600,000 children, and it's been nearly three decades since the city's teachers last walked out.

They aren't alone. Already, teachers at a half-dozen schools in nearby Oakland, California, staged an unauthorized walkout as well, while teachers in Denver are preparing for a possible strike vote today. Teachers in Chicago, too, have prepared to walkout of five area charter schools in early February.

The strikes represent the continuation of 2018's wave of educator labor actions known as the #RedForEd movement, a series of walkouts last spring that occurred across six states, most Republican-controlled, including West Virginia, Arizona, and Kentucky. The demands of Los Angeles' teachers are largely shared by their red-state forebears: higher wages, smaller class sizes, increased funding for staff and support, all of which saw sustained cutbacks in the wake of the Great Recession. Los Angeles' teachers have even adopted the #RedforEd slogan and the same red shirts that striking teachers donned during 2018's strikes in West Virginia.

"Last year, public school educators in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, and charter school educators in Illinois, walked out for their kids," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who participated in Los Angeles demonstration, said in a statement. "Now, in L.A., a big, wealthy city, educators are doing the same, and for the same reasons: They're tired of the pattern of starving our schools and our students of the resources they need for their success."

Though this second wave of strikes is similar in motivation, the particulars differ. The average Los Angeles Unified School District teacher makes $75,000, compared to the roughly $46,000 teachers make in West Virginia, where #RedforEd began. (Cost of living differences help explain part of this disparity.) And while 2018's #RedforEd strikes largely ignored the role of charter schools, outside of a small delegation in Chicago, Los Angeles' teachers have made it a central plank, calling for a hard cap on the expansion of the charterization program, which has the backing of some of the city's most powerful billionaires. (Teachers at The Accelerated Schools, a network of three L.A. charter schools, also joined in striking, for the first time in California history.) The location of such strikes in liberal cities and Democratic-majority states marks a significant departure as well, as those governments have already shown a greater willingness to negotiate on funding increases in particular.

While this next chapter of strikes has captured the national spotlight, the sustained progress of #RedforEd in those original red states where strikes began last year has been thrown into question, with policy proposals thwarted or bogged down. Some states, like Oklahoma, have seen significant pay raises. But in Kentucky, a spending bill signed in the wake of the walkouts increased per-pupil funding for schools while simultaneously cutting back or eliminating some education programs in their entirety. And in Arizona, where teachers went on strike last year in part to redress per-student funding cuts of 36.6 percent over the decade prior, a number of judicial and legislative decisions have all but snuffed out the accomplishments of last year's strikes. In late October, the Arizona Supreme Court voted 5–2 to remove from the ballot the education tax proposal that came out of last year's walkouts, stating in the majority opinion that the wording of the proposition might confuse voters on the associated tax hikes. That initiative, referred to as #InvestInEd, would've resulted in a $16 tax increase for the average Arizonan. (Legislators are now considering an education sales tax hike.)

Meanwhile, Arizona state legislators have proposed bills for the coming session that critics have said might amount to retribution for last year's actions. Two House bills—HB-2002 and HB-2015—have been introduced for the 2019 legislative term that would strongly curtail political speech by teachers. HB-2002, proposed by Republican representative Mark Finchem, would, among other things, call upon the state to create a code of ethics to prevent political speech, and ban teachers from any perceived attempt to "endorse, support or oppose any pending, proposed or enacted legislation, rule or regulation regardless of whether that legislation, rule or regulation is pending." The bill would grant cause for termination if teachers talk politics in the classroom. Mark Finchem, who was a vocal detractor of #RedforEd, called the strike "an incredible show of bad faith" at the time, and has said that his bill is "bigger" than #RedforEd.

Even without these laws on the books, teachers in Arizona have faced punitive action in the aftermath of the walkouts. Two teachers in Phoenix, including the 2019 Arizona Teacher of the Year, were fined and disciplined in December for advocating for the #InvestInEd ballot measure while on school time.

Other states, by contrast, have introduced legislation that could facilitate future teacher strikes. Despite a Republican-controlled state legislature, Virginia, where teachers are gearing up for a possible strike of their own, a new bill proposed by Democratic Socialist state delegate Lee Carter seeks to repeal laws prohibiting strikes by government employees in the state. (Virginia was not among the states that saw teacher walkouts in 2018.)

The possibility remains that none of these bills will be passed into law; the GOP maintains just a slim majority in both chambers of Arizona's state legislature, while previous legislative attempts to allow state employees to collectively bargain in Virginia have failed to be enacted. But with teacher strikes set to continue nationwide well into 2019, starting with the action in L.A., the legacy of the #RedforEd movement remains embattled.

Back at city hall in L.A., ongoing negotiations between the school district and the teachers union continued through the weekend, mediated by Mayor Eric Garcetti. Striking a pose somewhere between goodwill ambassador and advocate, his involvement has been far from acrimonious. Teachers "deserve justice and we will get it this weekend," he told a group of strikers on Saturday. "Let's hear it for the teachers."

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