Written By: Brian Preece
It is important for critics of public educators to realize just how desperate things are for public school teachers in America. Consider that teachers have NEVER walked out or went on strike in Arizona. Again, the key word is NEVER. In Utah, there was a statewide walkout in 1989. We have plenty of teachers teaching in our Utah schools born way after that date. I’m sure it was rare, if it happened at all, in states like Kentucky, Oklahoma or West Virginia.
Many in the general public often see public educators as a monolithic voting bloc, and that being liberal or Democratic. But I would bet that in these states where teachers have fought back by walking out and/or making marches on their state capitols, that a good fair share are actually conservative Republicans. Even in Utah, a good share of our teachers find themselves very right of center on the political spectrum.
But there does become a tipping point. The GOP has been firmly in control of the state houses and gubernatorial mansions of these states (and certainly here in Utah) for quite a while. The crises in education these states find themselves in is primarily the result of cutting taxes combined with many austerity measures. Teachers, by and large, just want to do their jobs. They are not political creatures. In fact, it is really difficult for teachers to be all that political, the demands of the day job are just that–demanding. Add in job two or three, plus family, church and other civic commitments, teachers don’t have a lot of spare time.
And sorry education critics, this isn’t about union politics or union anything. Most of these states where teachers are marching and striking don’t have strong unions and are right-to-work states. In the Utah the “U” in UEA doesn’t stand for Union. It is the Utah Educators ASSOCIATION.
In a nutshell, things have got so bad in these states for so long where earnings have decreased and benefits slashed while the demands placed on teachers have hit new levels of absurdity, that teachers have had enough.
My father had a saying, “that many people can’t be wrong.” The photos of tens of thousands of teachers marching on the Arizona Capitol and filling the streets in a sea of red speaks for itself. It isn’t just one district or just a vocal minority of teachers making some noise and getting on TV. It is a movement, not by teachers wishing to be political, but by teachers pushed to their brink. These teachers are like a wounded animal that finds itself cornered. And there is no choice, as they see it, to fight back and take a stand.
The problems and issues facing teachers in Arizona aren’t too much different than say what teachers face in Utah. Some could even argue that the issues of say underfunding and class size in Utah is even worse than our neighbor to the south or has gone on for a much longer time. And the Our Schools Now movement was one way teachers, and their supporters, were fighting back against the GOP-controlled legislature in Utah.
In my view, the one thing that has prevented Utah from going Arizona has been our governor first and foremost. Yes, Gary Herbert is a conservative through and through, but one that truly values public education and the public educator. I think most Utah teachers recognize this. And the relationship between teachers and the legislature here in Utah isn’t quite as toxic. And while I support the REDforED movement in Arizona, I would rather not go there in Utah. Strikes and walkouts aren’t fun for anyone. Finally, that’s where I see a group like the Utah Teachers Fellows (as sponsored by NNSTOY and Hope Street Group) as a valuable organization that can push for positive changes for teachers and public education before Utah teachers feel completely backed into that metaphorical corner.