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Teacher strikes continue to spread: from West Virginia, to Kentucky, to Arizona, to Oklahoma, and now to Colorado. However, they are not just about pay – they are a result of systematic tax cuts designed to decimate public education, says Negin Owliaei of the Institute for Policy Studies

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GREG WILPERT: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. Teachers are striking, or walking out, as some call it, in states around the country: West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and this week in Colorado. Until now the walkouts or strikes have been in solidly Republican states. But with Colorado a mostly Democratic state joins the movement. The big issue in all of these states is that teachers generally earn less and have fewer benefits than other college graduates. But is low pay the main issue here, and why is the movement gaining momentum now.

Joining me to explore these issues is Negin Owliaei. Negin is a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies, and edits the blog, where she recently wrote an analysis of the teacher strikes. Thanks for joining us, Negin.

NEGIN OWLIAEI: Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So first off, just how bad do teachers in the U.S. have it? Lawmakers in some of the states where strikes have taken place have tended to dismiss the seriousness of the situation. For example, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin compared them to a teenager who wants a new car. What’s your response to such comments?

NEGIN OWLIAEI: So, to Mary Fallin’s comments, I’d say that’s just patently ridiculous. So first of all, the Economic Policy Institute has pointed out what they call the teacher pay gap, which is to say that in every single state in this country teachers make less than other workers with a comparable education. Teachers are more likely than other workers to hold a second job. And when you look at those comments that are coming from people like Governor Fallin, there’s, there’s pretty direct correlation between that and some corporate funders who are looking to remove public funding for education.

So for example the State Policy Network, which is a conservative, it’s a series of conservative think tanks that are active in states, they have this, they issued this, like, messaging platform that’s suggested, you know, calling out things like this and creating language like this, when it’s just not true. Teachers really are getting paid less. And I would say that it’s not just about teachers’ pay, it’s also about public education funding as a whole. So for example, in Oklahoma, teachers haven’t gotten a raise for a decade. But in addition to that, classes are only four days a week in many of those districts. So it’s not just about salaries, it’s not just about benefits, but it’s really about the priorities that these state legislators have. And they’re not really interested in funding public education, or letting teachers have a livable wage.

And meanwhile, they’re also expected to contribute more towards their health care. In West Virginia which is where some districts really start to take off. One of the kind of like the straw that broke the camel’s back was that they requested the legislators toss out an idea that would have teachers putting on like a Fitbit downloading an app that would track their movements to reduce their cost of health insurance and if they didn’t do so then they’d have to pay an extra charge at the end of the year. So they’re really getting creative and desperate to try and find ways to cut teacher salaries.

And it’s, it’s, it’s quite offensive for Governor Fallin to say something like that, when there’s plenty of evidence that says that teachers are really being underpaid.

GREG WILPERT: It’s really quite amazing. How did it happen, though, that teacher pay and benefits and public education cutbacks have been so extreme? Has it always been this way, or is this a recent development?

NEGIN OWLIAEI: I think it’s quite some time in the making. A lot of people point to around 2008, the numbers of, the education funding numbers from around the time of the recession. And to be honest, a lot of this is really about tax cuts that are, kind of pre-date that as well. So for example, in Oklahoma they really gave oil and gas companies major tax cuts decades ago, and they just, they decided to go back on that after the teacher protest. But they really slashed their budgets so hard, and that’s really what caused all these education funding shortfalls. In West Virginia, where the the current, this current bout of strikes really took off, they slashed the corporate rate and they did away with several other taxes, which led to, which brought down their revenue by about $400 million a year. More than that, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

And then to top that off, in West Virginia the governor is the richest man in the state and he’s not even paying his own taxes. So his companies have have had liens on them for not paying taxes in both his home state and in states like Kentucky, which is also seeing teachers’ strikes. So it’s really a choice. It’s a priority to give tax cuts to the wealthy and to give tax cuts to corporations and to companies that are interested in exploiting natural resources, and not give those to public education. So it’s not like this is like a budget crisis that is not by design. This is a political choice.

GREG WILPERT: You mentioned that this recent wave of strikes began in West Virginia, which was back in February. But in your article you also talked about a longer history of resistance to these kinds of, or to these kinds of cutbacks and to the miserable situation of teachers. Can you tell us a little bit more about how far back this movement goes?

NEGIN OWLIAEI: Yeah, absolutely. I really want to point out the 2012 Chicago teacher strikes. When those teacher strikes happened, a group within the Chicago Teachers Union, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, kind of took over and they really forced the union and politicians to expand their idea of what teachers’ strikes look like and what an education movement could look like. So rather than just focusing on issues like salary, benefits, hours, they expanded it to look at things like afterschool programs, to look at investment in the community, and where that money could come from, as well.

And that was really momentous. It really changed the idea of what collective bargaining could look like within a community. And they brought the community into the process as well . So they had the backing of parents who were out there marching with them and they saw some really great gains. And that’s kind of continued. That idea has continued on in recent years. Another, another example I would like to point out is the Detroit teacher sickouts in 2016, where they left the classroom because the classrooms were infected with black mold, they had rats, they didn’t have heat in the winter. And so they made this about educational justice. It wasn’t about salary. This was about the working conditions for themselves and the learning conditions for their students.

And even in St. Paul, where just before the West Virginia teachers went on strike they decided that, they voted to authorize a strike. They didn’t ultimately end up going on strike. One of the things that they really pointed to was that the Super Bowl was about to happen in their city, or in the Twin Cities. And the amount of money that was going into the, funding the Super Bowl and building a brand new stadium for the football players, that could have been invested into the communities. And they really called out some specific companies that could be doing more, to pay more taxes, that could invest in the students.

GREG WILPERT: Lawmakers generally respond to teacher demands for better pay by saying that there just is not enough money in the state budget to pay them more. How can can and do teachers respond to this?

NEGIN OWLIAEI: One of the really interesting things coming out of this wave of teacher strikes is that they’ve been looking at some of the, they’ve been, they’ve been offering some revenue raisers. So for example, in Oklahoma, long before the strikes actually happened teachers have been pushing to raise the oil and gas production taxes that had, and the lowering of these taxes was really what underfunded the education sector in that state in the first place. Same thing in West Virginia. When they were, when the strikes were happening there was some talk about going out of the Medicaid budget, and the West Virginia teachers said, that’s not going to happen. And they provided some other options, like capital gains taxes, or reducing capital gains deductions.

And while that’s still sort of being worked out, it’s been something that is interesting to watch because it’s not just about saying that we want more money for us, it’s about having more equity in the community. And so they’ve been , all these teachers in all of these states have been kind of pointing out that corporations have the money to pay for the, to fully fund this education sector. The states have the money. As I mentioned, it’s a choice. It’s a choice to underfund these areas. It’s a choice to underfund these public services and public education. And so they’ve really made that clear.

GREG WILPERT: Well, unfortunately we’re going to have to leave it there for now, but we’ll definitely want to come back as these strikes continue to develop. I was speaking with Negin Owliaei, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies, who edits the blog Thanks again for being here.

NEGIN OWLIAEI: Thanks so much for having me.

GREG WILPERT: And I’m Greg Wilpert for the Real News Network.

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Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.