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Teacher strikes inspire education fight

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Today’s lesson: Teacher strikes can make a difference. - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
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  • Today’s lesson: Teacher strikes can make a difference.
West Virginia’s monumental wildcat teachers strike has given a big signal boost to Save Our Schools Arizona, the next high-profile organizing effort against the destruction of public schools. As with all good organizing efforts, the team behind SOS Arizona may seem a little rag-tag. There’s an English professor, a fifth-grade teacher, a retired Petsmart CEO, a Microsoft retiree, and a consultant for youth summer camps. And then there’s the group’s spokesperson Dawn Penich-Thacker, another English professor who was an Army officer before she taught.

“Four of us have kids at home ranging from 5 years old to 17 years old, and the two retired folks have adult children long gone from the house,” Penich-Thacker says. “Some of our children attend public schools and some attend charter schools.”

These are just facts, but pointed ones: The people of SOS Arizona are multitudinous, regular, mired in public education and management. They’re far different from the elected, deregulation-friendly ghouls running Arizona or President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has accelerated the death of public education for most so a few have more “school choice.”

“We see chronic neglect, or in some cases outright assault on public education in the state,” Penich-Thacker says. “Neglect in that over a billion dollars that was cut from public education a decade ago during the recession has never been restored, and indeed our governor and Legislature have expanded the number of tax cuts that make restoring the education budget all but impossible without robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

That SOS Arizona counters “choice” rhetoric and voucher schemes via a fairly slick website, an organized “team,” and on-point, unforgiving talking points is as much a sign of where the fight over education and labor is going as West Virginia’s bolder, scrappy, game-changing efforts. Further mobilized by West Virginia as well as Oklahoma (where a walk-out on April 2 seems nearly guaranteed), SOS Arizona announced a Day of Action for March 28 and anticipates thousands at the state Capitol in Phoenix to “give lawmakers a visual, physical sign that their constituents demand solutions to a statewide issue that is at crisis level,” Penich-Thacker says.

SOS Arizona has been battling deeply insincere, pro-voucher Republican Gov. Doug Ducey for a while now, though post-West Virginia, striking enters its playbook.

“Most newly mobilized teachers aren’t ruling out a strike, but feel it needs to be the last option on the menu,” Penich-Thacker says. “In the wake of increased attention to public education and the threat of privatization that DeVos’ confirmation instigated as well as strikes in West Virginia and talk of strikes elsewhere, Arizona teachers, school employees and education advocates have felt emboldened.”

Teachers in Arizona have some of the lowest pay in the country, the state’s near the bottom nationally in per-pupil spending, and charter schools are considered public schools though they’re allowed to be far less regulated. (Colorado is also a low spender on education, and our public charters are also less regulated than other schools.)

DeVos’ approach to schools is a familiar Republican move: Defund something public so that it doesn’t work anymore, declare it broken, and shut it down. What is different about DeVos, at least amid the know-nothing Trump regime, is a smiling, magical thinking sort of neoliberal nonsense. In her infamous 60 Minutes interview last week, she discussed “investing in students” rather than “institutions,” which sounds good but means little — equal parts meme-ready inspiration and Orwellian doublespeak.
DeVos referred to historically black colleges and universities as “pioneers” of “school choice,” ignoring the founding of those schools as a daring, necessary response to white supremacy. Instead, she retrofitted racism as an obstacle for a certain cluster of narrow-casted students, which led some to create a school that fit their needs better.

“There are constant individual and class-action lawsuits in Arizona around charter schools that discriminate against students on the basis of income, disability, academic ability, religion, and more,” Penich-Thacker says. “None of this is new or sudden — it’s all been at least a decade in the making, all while millions and millions of tax dollars have been funneled out of the general fund for public education and into private school tuition organizations and voucher programs.”

Now, with West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona organizing at the same time as massive student rallies against gun violence, public schools are reentering the organizing vanguard. Post-Parkland walkouts and the wildcat strike in West Virginia represent another victory for those advocating breaking the rules and being ungovernable.

“You look back in history, it was unlawful what Martin Luther King did but they knew the consequences and knew the rewards and the rewards outweigh the consequences,” Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said during West Virginia’s strike. “So we know that it is unlawful, but we also know that we have a right to have our voices heard.”

Union activist Lois Weiner observes that public educator mobilization also counters simplistic “red state” narratives maintained by outlets such as The New York Times who, post-Trump, have bent over backward to talk to anybody whose politics are fascist-adjacent or just plain awful. (See: the Ohio dork who has shut off the news because he doesn’t like Trump.) All the while, these outlets have mostly ignored the biggest labor story in years, which has been developing in those red states they admit they woefully under-cover.

“The Times just carried an article that portrayed [West Virginia] as a deep red state. And I think that that is a really dangerous, misleading oversimplification about the politics,” Weiner said last month. “And the walkout shows that. The walkout and the fact that West Virginia voted for Sanders in the primaries.”

Oklahoma is also a state Trump won that went for Sanders in the Democratic primary. In Arizona, that’s not true — Trump won, Clinton took the Democratic primary — but the state’s movement shows how organizing and labor concerns related to education are potentially a uniting force for fed-up leftists and cautious liberals alike. Two more “right to work” states floating strikes should be a far more heartening victory than right-of-center Democratic clod Conor Lamb’s special election win in a Pennsylvania Congressional race.

“West Virginia shows Arizona what may become necessary and what it may need to look like,” Penich-Thacker says. “Again, no one in Arizona is eager to strike, but I can tell you that teachers from West Virginia have reached out to us via social media to offer guidance, and we’re appreciatively taking good notes.”

Additional reporting by Jaisal Noor.

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