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Why do Teachers Strike? Understanding how Policy Makers can Help

July 7, 2020

When teachers in Los Angeles banded together to strike in 2019—fighting for smaller class sizes and more nurses, counselors, and other support staff—they were successful in getting their demands met. Other strikes, such as those in Arizona and Oklahoma in 2018, were able to influence state legislative authorizations for more school spending and higher teacher pay.

These successes, and the continued absence of sufficient educational funding in many US states, is fueling an ongoing groundswell of teacher strikes. Actions that have occurred so far in 2020 include strikes in St. Paul, Minnesota and a state capital rally in Florida. While a growing majority of citizens in the US support teacher demands for higher wages and better working conditions, teacher strikes can also disrupt educational, social and economic activity, creating dilemmas for public policy makers.

State and local legislators have the power to improve conditions for workers, but must also ensure that educational services for students are not interrupted. While some strikes have helped teachers and public policy makers see eye-to-eye on collective bargaining and legislative agreements, others have resulted in the passage of tighter protesting laws for public workers. Policy makers must walk a fine line in support of teachers without harming the greater good for state residents.

Why do Teachers Strike?

There are a number of reasons why teachers strike, but the most common is inadequate financial resources, including low pay and crumbling infrastructure. Other strikes might address social justice issues, such as low-income housing or the establishment of charter schools that may pull funding away from traditional institutions.

Inadequate Financial Resources

The lack of adequate funding on a district level leads to low teacher pay, aging facilities, understaffing, poor work schedules, inadequate support staff, aging educational materials, and a host of other problematic working conditions. Wages are the biggest concern: US teacher salaries shrunk 1.6% between 2000 and 2017 when adjusted for inflation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This trend is especially consequential in areas where the cost of living is skyrocketing, such as Oakland, California, where a teacher strike took place in early 2019.

Other areas that struggle with insufficient school funding—often poor or rural communities—face low resources not only for wages but for building improvements, proper student/teacher ratios, school supplies, and support services for students. State education budgets were hit hard during the 2008 recession, and many states have yet to lift their per-student spending levels back to pre-recession levels, according to The Conversation.

Teachers will often organize strikes during state budget planning periods, when there is opportunity to influence politicians to channel more funds into education. They might also strike during contract negotiation periods that involve collective bargaining agreements between school district authorities and union representatives.

Inequitable Social Support

Socioeconomic factors that hinder school districts’ success are beginning to play a factor in teacher negotiations as well. A recent teacher strike in Chicago included demands for more affordable housing for teachers and students. Some teachers feel that after-school resources need to be enhanced for students whose families can’t afford services such as tutoring or internet access. Others are fighting for undocumented students to receive sanctuary protections. These educators feel that students are better able to succeed in school when they face fewer social and economic challenges outside of school.

Public Support

Another reason why teachers strike or hold rallies is to bring public attention to their issues. Improving the quality of education in the US to better prepare future generations is something that touches all community members, not just parents. Currently, more than three-fourths of Americans believe teachers are not compensated well enough, according to CNN. Increasing public awareness of teacher grievances can influence the decisions of policy makers, who don’t want to lose voter support.

How Policy Makers Can Help

The ultimate goal of teacher strikes is to influence public policy makers. State legislatures and governors have the greatest authority as far as allocating resources to local school districts. State policy also governs how much local taxes can be raised for educational purposes. Teachers look to influence school board members on area-specific policies, such as allocating more district resources to special ed or extracurricular programs.

The outcomes of strikes vary by location and political atmosphere. In some states, officials take teacher concerns into greater account when making public policy decisions. Strikes in other states, however, result in little to no policy change. Some result in laws that ban teachers from walking off the job. This can help prevent classroom disruptions, but could also result in increased dissatisfaction among teachers, some of whom may move to other states with fewer regulations.

Public officials must take a number of factors into account when considering teacher demands during a strike.

  • What is the current level of educational funding? Is it below or above the national average?
  • What are the state’s current educational outcomes compared to national standards?
  • Where does public sentiment lie in regard to higher teacher wages and other funding topics?
  • What are the state’s/district’s other pressing budgetary needs?

To avoid strikes altogether, public officials must understand why teachers strike and anticipate teacher concerns before they escalate. Steps to avoid strikes, walkouts, and rallies might include the following.

  • Proactively ensure that educational funding is sufficient to meet program needs and avoid dissatisfaction.
  • Provide educators the opportunity to voice concerns.
  • Organize activities that improve teacher morale.
  • Gauge public sentiment and keep tabs on teacher satisfaction rates, especially during contract negotiation periods.
  • Watch for triggers, such as abnormal staff turnover, increased complaints, or defeat of teacher-supported legislation.
  • Establish orderly grievance procedures to avoid work stoppages.

Providing high-quality education to ensure the social and economic success of future generations is a key policy issue for all government agencies. Improving educational resources must remain a top priority on the federal, state and local level, with educators and policy makers working together to achieve change.

Earn a Doctorate in Education

Pursuing an advanced degree in education can help educators enact meaningful change for students and communities. American University’s School of Education online provides a number of degrees that empower teachers to take on leadership roles and provide enhanced classroom experiences. The school’s Doctorate in Education Policy and Leadership provides a strong foundation in delivering equitable learning environments, providing educators with the tools to transform learning spaces and make a difference for vulnerable student populations.