Images of red-clad educators filling city streets and crowding into state capitals over the past year have displayed a unified effort among affiliates of the nation's two teachers unions to demand higher salaries and more funding for schools.
But members of non-union teacher organizations — who feel the same effects of stagnant teacher salaries and increasing class sizes — represent a wider array of views on the goals of the strikes, protests and statewide walkouts that have continued into the waning months of the school year.
“I’m sure we’ve had members participating,” Colin Sharkey, executive director of the 22,000-member Association of American Educators, said in an interview about the variety of rallies and other local and state actions. The latest took place across Oregon Wednesday, with the Oregon Education Association holding rallies in multiple locations and several districts closing. Two upcoming rallies — May 16 in Massachusetts and May 22 in California — are scheduled after normal school hours.
Many teachers who choose not to join and pay dues to a National Education Association (NEA) or American Federation of Teachers (AFT) affiliate — a right that was upheld last summer by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — disagree with unions in general and are opposed to the unions’ positions on many political issues.
“They have their members support certain stances that are not education related. I have a big issue with this,” Lydia Dillon, a 2nd-grade teacher in the Little Rock School District in Arkansas, wrote in an email. Members of the Little Rock Education Association came close to striking last fall over a fair dismissal issue. If that had happened, Dillon said she had planned to come to school and teach anyway.
“Students can't learn if their teachers don't come to work,” she said.
Don’t want to ‘shut the school down’
Sharkey added, however, that AAE members also include plenty of teachers who feel conflicted about the strategies unions use to press for contract provisions, ranging from raises and class size reductions to more student support personnel and pension benefits.
“You’ve got this mix of people that say, ‘I don’t support strikes,’ but they are not disagreeing with their colleagues,” Sharkey said. “These are folks that are saying, ‘I agree with you, but I don’t think the right way is to shut the school down.’”
Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, added that these teachers think unions “have other levers to pull,” such as using their influence with policymakers.
In April, Angela Sheffield, a 7th-grade English language arts teacher at Tecumseh Junior High in Lafayette, Indiana, participated in a #RedforEd “walk-in” at her school over funding issues.
“I attended to show support for my fellow educators and because it was held before school contract hours, thus taking nothing away from my students,” she said in an email.
Sheffield agrees with the unions on a few key points, such as teachers having a voice in school decision-making and the complaint that teachers are required to participate in “massive amounts of professional development to maintain our licenses” but are paid less than those in other professions. However, she doesn’t view walking off the job as the answer.
“Our profession is one whose goal is to produce critically thinking, life-long learners,” she said. “When we choose to strike or walk-out, we are not being part of that goal; we are hindering it.”
Sheffield's statements echo those of U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who said this week that "it's important that adults have adult disagreements on adult time and not ultimately hurt kids in the process, and I think too often they're doing so by walking out of classrooms."
A ‘front row seat’ to teacher turmoil
Other teachers, Sharkey said, aren’t necessarily opposed to strikes, but don’t support the way protests have expanded to include policy and legislative issues such as charter schools. In the Los Angeles Unified School District and Oakland Unified School District strikes this year, the negotiations included agreements from the school districts to ask state lawmakers to put limits on the growth of charter schools in California.
“Where will they draw the line if it’s not just about working conditions?” Sharkey asked.
But Marianno suggested that taking on broader issues such as state funding and school choice might be the unions’ way of attracting more members.
“The broader message with all of the strikes is that we need more education funding for schools,” he said in an interview. “A lot of groups, regardless of whether they are a formal union or more a professional association, align with that message.”
Finally, Sharkey said, there are those teachers who think the actions — particularly at the state level — haven’t been effective at increasing funding for education.
You’ve got this mix of people that say, ‘I don’t support strikes,’ but they are not disagreeing with their colleagues. These are folks that are saying, ‘I agree with you, but I don’t think the right way is to shut the school down.'
Executive director, Association of American Educators
Luke Henke, a high school math teacher in the Columbus Unified School District in Kansas, tends to fall into that category.
“We haven't had teacher strikes in a long while, but we have had front row seats to Oklahoma and the turmoil there,” he said in an email, adding that union and non-union colleagues across the state border agree that the nine-day strike in Oklahoma in April 2018 did not accomplish as much as teachers had hoped for.
“There were minor changes but nothing to the extent that needs to happen to help Oklahoma make a robust educational system that supports teachers and students adequately,” he said.
A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report, released in March, showed that while formula funding per student increased by 19% in Oklahoma, spending on education still sits at 15% below pre-recession levels. The pay increases for teachers and other public employees also rely on revenue sources that may not be sustainable, such as cigarette and gasoline taxes, the authors wrote.
Almost a year after Janus
In the Janus case, the Supreme Court ruled that requiring non-union members to pay agency or “fair-share” fees is unconstitutional. The decision applied to the 22 states where labor laws still allowed the practice. The unions had argued that all teachers benefit from salary increases and other benefits negotiated as part of the collective bargaining process, whether or not they are union members.
Some observers have characterized the increase in strike activity as the unions’ effort to show strength in the face of a decision that many predicted would weaken them.
“By causing teachers unions to return to collective action on behalf of their members, the Supreme Court decision may, in the end, invigorate the unions that these court cases and the groups that sponsored them intended to incapacitate,” Marianno and Katharine O. Strunk of Michigan State University wrote in an article last fall for Education Next.
While some reports have shown a drop in union membership, others point to stable or increasing numbers.
Sharkey noted AAE has also seen growth in all the states where the Janus decision had an impact; he did not, however, provide data to support this statement. While such groups don’t participate in collective bargaining, they do provide liability insurance, legal representation and other professional benefits.
He added that when strikes occur, AAE advises members to “follow the directive” given to all teachers, such as staying out of the building, and not to cause additional disruption. “No school needs that on top of what they are dealing with,” he said.