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Teachers across the country are demanding better pay and support

Underfunded schools aren’t because of a shortage of government money, unions say.

Teachers on strike rally while wearing face masks and holding signs.
Minneapolis teachers on strike rally at the Minnesota state capitol for lawmakers to put some of the state’s projected $9.3 billion budget surplus toward education funding, a living wage, and safer schools.
Michael Siluk/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

After weeks-long walkout, a major teachers’ strike in Minneapolis has ended — at least for now — with a deal between the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) and the Minneapolis school district.

As the Minneapolis strike ends, however, another is starting: Public school teachers and support staff in Sacramento began their own walk-out on Wednesday, which has shuttered schools for 40,000 students across the K-12 district. Other teacher strikes in Sonoma County, California, and Illinois also took place earlier this year as part of a wave of protest against underfunded classrooms, low wages, and Covid-19 protocols.

Much of the fighting between educators and district officials have been squarely rooted in the issue of funding. Teachers and school support staff, like those who’ve been striking in Minneapolis, are demanding better salaries, mental health support, and safer in-school pandemic protocols. In response, district officials tend to argue they don’t have enough money to make those kinds of investments.

Some educators and advocates say those statements are just an excuse.

“We’ve been talking about this for years. This is not new,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teacher’s union. “And here’s the reality. When you consistently underfund our public schools, it compounds.”

According to Pringle, the underfunding of the country’s schools became even more profound in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. As with other school districts across the country, Minneapolis has struggled with school reopenings during the pandemic, with educators bearing the brunt in class as they encounter a lack of support from school administrators with implementing Covid-19 health protocols and providing mental health support for both staff and students.

“I think if you ask anyone, it has been the hardest two years in education that anyone has experienced,” said Sara Anderson, a teacher at Whittier International Elementary School who has been on strike in Minneapolis.

School teachers holding placards walk in line.
Minneapolis school teachers hold placards during the strike in front of the Justice Page Middle school in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on March 8, 2022.
Kerem Yucel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

To help schools revitalize and rebuild, the federal government allotted $122 billion to school districts across the country as part of the American Rescue Plan. But a lack of collaboration and transparency at the local district level in how these funds were being distributed and invested has kept schools and teachers struggling, prompting strikes by educators.

Still, these teachers’ strikes are more than a symptom of the country’s growing labor movement spawned from the inequities wrought by the pandemic. They may be a sign of a education system in dire need, and educators across the US are raising their voices to be heard.

The Minneapolis teachers’ strike is over, for now

On Friday, after 14 days of school closures, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers announced it had reached a deal with the school district which could reopen schools as Monday and see classes resume for the district’s more than 30,000 students on Tuesday.

The strike — the first in more than 50 years in Minneapolis — is among the longest recent labor actions by teachers in a major city, including the Chicago teachers’ strike that made headlines in 2019.

The tentative agreement announced Friday covers the district’s teachers and education support professionals, or ESPs, which includes support staff like guidance counselors and school nurses.

“We sat at the table with these folks for hundreds of hours to hammer out this deal and we are very pleased with the outcomes of what we’ve seen,” Shaun Laden, president of the education support professionals chapter of the union, said at a press conference following the announcement of the agreement.

Provisions in the union’s tentative deal for ESPs include increased work hours and workdays, and increased pay rates of $2 to $4 per hour — bringing the annual salary for many ESPs closer to the union’s original ask of $35,000 per year as a starting salary. The agreement also secured seniority and placement rights for associate educators, who are largely people of color, according to Laden.

Beyond that, the new agreement provides more mental health support for students and outlines a return-to-work agreement, which would replace the 14 missed school days during the strike by extending school days starting next month.

However, how things will play out in Minneapolis remains uncertain. According to Anderson, significant parts of the tentative agreements have not been well received.

“The contract is not at all what we hoped for,” Anderson said, referring to both the return-to-work terms and the union agreement.

“I do believe this is the best our negotiation team could get. I do think they worked very hard, and I am happy the ESPs got closer to what they deserve. It was just silly to think we wouldn’t be punished for our action,” Anderson added, calling the return-to-work deal “punitive.”

Anderson said many of her colleagues hadn’t expected the strike to go on for as long as it did, nor had they expected the cavalier attitude they saw from school district officials once the strike had commenced, which only prolonged the strike.

“They actually refused to come to the negotiating table, I think four or five out of the 13 days, 14 days that we’ve been out,” she recalled. Anderson plans to discuss the agreement terms with her colleagues before making her decision on the union vote.

Minneapolis union members will vote on the tentative agreements through the weekend. If a simple majority is not reached to accept the deals, the teachers’ strike will likely resume.

Covid-19 exposed a broken education system in the US

The Minneapolis teachers’ strike isn’t the only walkout by educators this year. California and Illinois have both seen similar protests, including a January walkout by the Chicago Teachers Union over Covid-19 protocols in classrooms.

As educators striking in Minneapolis vote on the tentative agreements reached this weekend, school teachers in Sacramento are just getting started on negotiations with district officials. On Saturday, after four days of strikes, district officials agreed to meet with the teacher’s union.

According to Pringle, the issues raised in the Sacramento strike are similar to those that were pushed by educators in Minneapolis.

“The school district has the resources to address the concerns and issues that educators have raised around the same kinds of things,” Pringle said. “We hope certainly that the [Sacramento] district will bargain in good faith and see what the teachers and other educators are asking for are things that we have been talking about for years that our students need.”

Sacramento also has a particularly acute problem with labor shortages. “On some days, at some schools, it’s hard to even run the schools because there are so few adults on campus,” David Fisher, the president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, told the New York Times on Friday.

These overlapping teachers’ strikes follow a surge of teacher activism in 2018 and 2019, which resulted in a number of walkouts around the country as part of the Red for Ed movement.

They also reflect a wider trend of growing labor movement activism that has gripped the country and spans various professions, from teachers and health care professionals to factory workers and retail employees.

But an increasingly disenchanted workforce, particularly among educators, could spell disaster for the country’s public education system in the long run. A February survey by the NEA found 55 percent of responding members are considering leaving the teaching profession earlier than they had planned, representing an increase from 37 percent of educators saying the same thing in August.

Moreover, a disproportionate percentage of Black (62 percent) and Hispanic or Latino (59 percent) educators — groups already underrepresented in the teaching sector — were considering early exits, according to the NEA survey.

According to union leadership, however, Friday’s Minneapolis teachers deal shows it’s possible for school districts to prioritize their staff.

“What we’ve said all along is that we don’t have a budget crisis, we have a values and priorities crisis,” Laden said in his Friday press conference. “I think what our members have proven is that is the case.”

Pringle agrees. She points to historic funding from the American Rescue Plan for the country’s schools, which has been distributed to all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

“It was a historic investment, and then we ran into roadblocks as it was being distributed and being implemented,” Pringle said of the federal funding boost. “It’s unacceptable that we were able to at least fight and get that money, and then we’re having these conversations at district levels about ‘oh, we can’t spend it to hire more mental health professionals.’ ... Our kids need that [support] now.”

A lack of funding, Pringle said, “is not an excuse that we are willing to tolerate.”