Conservatives Work to Undermine Oklahoma Teachers’ Raises After Walkout

Originally published in Rewire News on May 7, 2018.
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When Oklahoma educators headed back to school in mid-April after their historic nine-day walkout, they did so with mixed feelings. They hadn’t won all of their key legislative demands, but they didn’t return empty handed either: Teachers won salary increases of roughly $6,100 each, and raises of $1,250 for school support staff. The pay increases, set to take effect on August 1 would be paid for by new taxes on cigarettes, motor fuel, and oil and gas production. “We achieved something that we all thought might be impossible,” declared Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) when she signed the tax legislation into law.

But some conservative activists are saying, “not so fast.”

Members of Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, an anti-tax group, filed paperwork last week to get a veto referendum on the November ballot. The group has until July 18th to collect about 41,000 signatures. The new taxes to fund the salary increases are scheduled to go into effect on July 1, but there’s debate over whether those would need to be put on hold if activists collect enough ballot signatures before that date.

A representative from Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite did not return Rewire.News‘ request for comment, but a member of the group, Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, told Oklahoma’s local NBC affiliate that they “believe very much that teachers need a pay raise” and that her group’s ballot initiative is “not personal.” Vuillemont-Smith argued that legislators should conduct statewide audits to eliminate waste from agency budgets before raising taxes.

Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, told Rewire.News there’d be “no way” the referendum would pass if it were voted on today. “There’s zero chance, I’d put big money on that,” he said. But Allen acknowledged that “a lot of things could happen between now and November” as anti-tax groups start raising money and doing advertising. “It’s a shame that we have to spend some of our attention and resources on defeating this when we want to defeat those representatives who don’t lift a finger to help education,” he said.

The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the largest teacher union in the state, is also gearing up to fight the ballot initiative.

Lawyers for the union believe the salary increases are locked in, and the veto referendum addresses only a funding mechanism for those raises. But a provision in the teacher pay bill stipulates it will not become law unless items from the tax increase bill are enacted.

“There are probably going to be conflicting views on this,” an OEA attorney told the Associated Press. “At the end of the day we’ll need some determination, from either the courts or the attorney general.”

Educators did manage to stave off a separate challenge last week, defeating what some public education advocates were calling a Republican “revenge bill.”

Taking aim at a bill designed to protect children from abuse and neglect, Oklahoma state Rep. Todd Russ (R-Cordell) introduced a last-minute amendment to prevent school districts from automatically deducting union dues from teacher paychecks. Educators instead would need to make other arrangements to handle membership payments. Russ’s amendment would have also mandated that a majority of educators in each school district vote every five years on whether they want to keep their collective bargaining unit; if a majority did not vote in favor, the school district would be stripped of union representation.

Doug Folks, a spokesperson for OEA, told Rewire.News that teachers, police officers, firefighters, and state employees inundated legislators’ phone systems and “in about 18 hours, we were able to get enough promises of no votes that the [amendment] was never heard.” The bill, SB 1150, was approved by lawmakers without the anti-union provisions. It now awaits the governor’s approval.

It wasn’t the first time state Rep. Russ has introduced legislative language like that and union leaders say they would not be surprised if he tries again in the future. “He’s just union-busting,” said Allen. “Plain and simple.”

Rep. Russ did not return Rewire.News’ request for comment, but he told NewsOk that he was looking out to protect teacher fairness.

State Rep. Forrest Bennett, a first-term Democrat representing Oklahoma City, told Rewire.News he did view Russ’s amendment as strike retribution on the part of the GOP leadership.

“Those of my colleagues in the legislature who are frustrated with teachers and other education advocates are showing their true colors,” he said. “They’re saying they are frustrated with the ‘tactics’ of the teachers and the unions, but in reality I think they’re pretty sore from being exposed. For years, legislators have been able to go home to their constituents and claim they’re all for education. But teachers across the state learned that their legislators talk about better schools out of one side of their mouth and then advocate for tax cuts out of the other. We can’t fund core services like education while we cut, cut, cut.”

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Politicized By Trump, Teachers Threaten to Shake Up Red-State Politics

Originally published in The Intercept on April 17, 2018.
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THE TEACHERS STRIKES that have roiled red states across the country burst onto the national scene seemingly out of nowhere. But a closer look at the people who make up this movement reveals the distinct Trump-era nature of the uprising.

In the four states where teachers movements have erupted over the past few months — Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma — educators and community members are encountering broadly similar circumstances. In all four states, residents are reacting to years of Republican-controlled legislatures, a decline in state funding for students and teachers, an expansion of private school vouchers and charter schools, and an increasingly galvanized electorate that is motivated by all sorts of other organizing efforts that have emerged since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.

And while the ranks of the educators are stocked with progressives, the strikes would have flopped had they not been joined by conservative Republican teachers who are, in significant ways, manifestations of what Washington pundits have begun to believe are purely imaginary people outside of the Beltway: folks who remain ardently conservative but are rejecting the direction the party has taken in the White House, back home or both.

“This whole effort has helped shake people from a slumber, and more people are asking, ‘Well, how is my representative voting?’” said Noah Karvelis, a public school teacher in Phoenix and a #RedforEd organizer.“People are asking if they need to rethink their votes. On our Facebook page, we even have a lot conservative teachers writing about how frustrated they are with our Republican legislators.”

Adelina Clonts, an educator in Oklahoma for more than 20 years, marched with her ten-year-old daughter from Tulsa to her state capitol, more than a hundred miles, motivated by the chance to give her students with special needs a greater shot at life.

Clonts, a Republican, said when she arrived in Oklahoma City she was disappointed to learn what her legislators had been up to. “I physically went out there to do my own research, and I found out this was basically Republicans not wanting to do their jobs, not wanting to really represent us,” she said. “It really upset me because I’m an active political party person, and it just felt like they were not hearing us.”

Clonts said she and her colleagues are prepared to vote out both Republicans and Democrats. “Everyone wants these problems fixed, and the question for our leaders is, are you trying to do something about it?”

Another Tulsa-area teacher, Cyndi Ralston, went from the sidelines to the protest and now to the campaign trail, running to take on her incumbent state representative after his viral rant against the teachers.

Were it not for Trump, it might not be happening. Kathy Hoffman, who is in her fifth year of teaching in Arizona public schools, decided to run for state superintendent after watching Betsy DeVos’s shambolic Senate confirmation hearing. “That was really the tipping point, the day it hit me [that] we really need more educators to run,” she told The Intercept. “I’m sick of people who never taught in schools leading them, and that’s also what we have in Arizona.”

Over the past year and a half, Hoffman has marched for science, for women, for DREAMers, for gun control, and, she said, for “everything.” Most recently, she’s been rallying with the newly formed #RedForEd movement, a grass-roots effort in Arizona to better fund public schools.

Edwina Howard-Jack, a high school English teacher in Upshur County, West Virginia, has spent the past 18 years in the classroom. When West Virginia teachers walked off their jobs in late February, Howard-Jack made the two-hour drive to her state Capitol on eight of the nine strike days to protest in solidarity. “The labor organizing went right along with what I was already doing,” she explained, calling the election of Trump “a wake-up call” for her. Howard-Jack marched for women in January 2017, and, soon after, decided to found an Indivisible chapter in her hometown. “There have just been so many people who were apathetic before, but now want to get involved, and the teachers strike took it all to a whole new level,” she said.

Sarah Gump, a 33-year-old teacher in Kentucky, has taught for six years in the public school system. About two years ago, she got involved with Save Our Schools Kentucky, a grass-roots effort to protest the entrance of charters into their state. (Kentucky became the 44th state to allow the formation of charter schools in 2017.) This year, as Gump has taken some time off to care for her young daughter, she’s continued to organize for public education, but has also gotten more involved with the BlueGrass Activist Alliance, a hybrid Indivisible and Together We Will chapter.

In West Virginia, educators who went on strike won a 5 percent pay raise, the first pay increase in four years. In Oklahoma, teachers won raises of about $6,000, and more in education spending, though most of their other strike demands were not met. Last week in Arizona, after more than 1,000 schools participated in a statewide “walk-in” to call for more education money, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey announced that he could give teachers a 19 percent pay increase by 2020. Ducey’s offer revealed the pressure he faced to avoid a full-blown teachers strike, but so far, educators have voiced skepticism about the governor’s proposal. And in Kentucky, where teachers have been protesting pension and education cuts, activists convinced their legislators this weekend to halt spending on new charter schools through June 2020.

AS THE FOUR teachers movements all progress at different speeds — though summer vacation looms ahead for them all — educators and activists say they are under no illusion that the battles will end with the school year. Leaders have been urging for more attention to be paid to the upcoming midterm elections. “We’ll remember in November” has become the teachers’ rallying cry and warning to politicians.

The teachers in West Virginia are happy because they won this fight, but they know it’s not over,” said Richard Ojeda, a progressive state senator running for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District seat. “If you talk to any teacher out there, they’ll tell you 5 percent is not enough, and they’re absolutely planning on removing these people in our state leadership who fought their efforts.”

“Teachers are definitely getting more engaged in the upcoming election,” said Howard-Jack. “They’re really looking at who supports unions, who supports education, and our Indivisible chapter is the same. We’re holding candidate forums, endorsing candidates, writing op-eds. I haven’t seen anything like this energy in the past.”

In a statement released Thursday, Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, declared that as classes resume, educators “must turn our attention towards the election season. Instead of making our case at the steps of the Capitol, we have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box. The state didn’t find itself in this school funding crisis overnight. We got here by electing the wrong people to office. No more. … This fight is not over just because the school bell rings once more and our members walk back into schools. We have created a movement and there’s no stopping us now.”

Liberals across the country are hoping for a massive “blue wave” this November. In deep red states, progressives are similarly hopeful, but they are also trying to temper expectations and promote some more modest electoral objectives.

“Our goal is balance,” said Anna Langthorn, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, in a recent interview with The Oklahoman“We know that when our legislature is balanced, when our statewide offices are balanced, that we see more moderate governance and more effective governance, and so that’s what we’re aiming for. We want to break the supermajority in the House. … We want to win the governor’s race. And we want to pick up some seats in the Senate, too. The exact number may not be more than 10 in each house, but we saw that having 28 [Democratic] members made a real difference in budget negotiations, and if we can get to 34 members, that would make an even bigger difference.”

Christine Porter Marsh, a first-time candidate for office in Arizona and the state’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, says she also hopes her candidacy can bring some balance to her state’s red-leaning legislature.

“The Democrats are only two seats down from creating a tie in the Arizona Senate, and in our state, there is no tiebreaker,” she explained. “A tie loses. The seat I’m running for, against an incumbent Republican, is the most purple one in our state. If we can create a tie in the senate, not even a majority, it will be a game-changer for Arizona, because then everyone at the Capitol will have to negotiate compromises, and, to me, that is really motivating.”

Marsh, who has taught for 26 years in the classroom, says she decided to run for office after realizing a little less than a year ago that her lobbying efforts at the state Capitol just weren’t having much of an effect. “My generation of teachers, the ones who have been in it for a long time, we kind of dropped the ball,” she told The Intercept. “We were too focused on staying within the walls of our own classroom — which is so noble and wonderful and that’s what kids deserve — but so many years of doing that has created the situation in which we find ourselves, where students are directly and indirectly harmed by these bad policies.”

John Waldron, who has spent the past 20 years teaching high school social studies in Tulsa, Oklahoma, ran for office for the first time in 2016. He says his race was motivated by what he felt were terrible anti-education policies coming out of his state’s legislature. Waldron lost his race, but he feels more optimistic this time around, not only because he has increased name recognition, but also because of how much more progressive organizing there’s been in his state since Trump took office.

“Our county party has been revitalized as people got back into politics after the 2016 election, and I think if there was a Democrat in the White House, the mood in Oklahoma would be very different,” he told The Intercept. “With Trump, a lot of people who would be voting are staying home out of frustration, and a lot of people who would not be so active are now being quite active.”

Waldron knows his state is conservative, but says his legislature leans even more conservative than its voters, due to special interests funding far-right candidates in uncompetitive districts. While he doesn’t really expect a blue wave that wholly flips his state’s political balance this November, he says he’s optimistic about a decade-long process where voters “move the conversation from the far right, where it is now — where politicians want to arm teachers and to get government out of everything except a woman’s uterus — back to the center.”

According to Waldron, the highly covered Oklahoma teachers strike has “given a lot of oxygen” to his political campaign, because voters, he says, are now well familiar with the demands and frustrations of educators across the state. He says he’s been offering mentorship to other first-time teacher candidates running in Oklahoma.

“I think most of us would rather stay in the classroom, but what we’ve learned from the Oklahoma experience is that teaching is a political act,” said Waldron. “I think us teachers feel ready to handle the legislature, because we deal with teen-aged kids all the time.”

In Kentucky, 40 educators have also recently filed to run for office, organizing under the banner of A Few Good Women (And Men). David Allen, former Kentucky Education Association president, told The Intercept that the majority of these educator candidates are classroom teachers, but some work in higher education, and some have retired. “It’s a statewide kind of movement, if you will,” he said. “I’ve been pleased. We’re nothing without public education. Nothing.”

The Teachers’ Movement Goes Virtual

Originally published in The Atlantic on April 11, 2018.
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When West Virginia teachers initiated a nine-day labor strike this past winter, they secured national attention and a 5 percent pay raise. Oklahoma and Kentucky educators followed suit, with Arizona teachers threatening to do the same. Amid all this organizing was another strike threat, not previously reported, last week in California: between teachers in online classrooms and the organization that employs them.

Students enrolled in virtual schools (sometimes called “cyber schools” or “virtual academies”) take their classes online. It’s a small phenomenon, representing less than 1 percent of students, but a fast-growing one. According to the National Education Policy Center, about 279,000 students enrolled in virtual schools in 2016, up from roughly 200,000 in 2012. Education experts have been concerned by the growth of virtual K-12 education, especially virtual charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately managed. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has touted virtual charter schooling as a particularly ripe area for expansion, emphasizing its flexibility and potential to offer courses that a student’s traditional school might not have. But, in practice, virtual schools, especially charters, have tended to deliver significantly lower academic results than brick-and-mortar ones. “Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule,” wrote the authors of a 2015 report from the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

While some teachers gravitate to virtual charters because of the flexibility it offers, salaries can be low, and class sizes are, on average, much larger than in brick-and-mortar charter schools or traditional public schools. (Though virtual teachers don’t have to manage physical classrooms, large class sizes still equate to a heavier workload.) The overwhelming majority of virtual teachers are not unionized. But in 2014, educators at California Virtual Academies (CAVA), California’s largest network of online charter schools with more than 10,000 students and about 450 teachers, decided to create a union, California Virtual Educators United, under the umbrella of the California Teachers Association. After two years of legal battles, CAVA recognized the teachers’ union, and starting in September 2016, the parties began negotiating their first contract over salaries, class sizes, and other issues.

The negotiations represent an important test case of how educators might wield power in a future where online education becomes even more common. According to Brianna Carroll, a high-school social-science teacher in Livermore, California, and president of the teachers’ union, bargaining had been slow-going, especially in recent weeks, when negotiators hit an impasse over class size. Educators said the number of students under their supervision had spiraled out of control, with some teachers stuck overseeing virtual classrooms exceeding forty students, and demanded class sizes be capped. “Either you have teachers who are burning themselves out because they’re trying to meet the needs of everyone, or you aren’t meeting the needs of everyone,” Carroll told me. “It’s really one or the other.”

April Warren, CAVA’s head of schools, declined to comment on many details of the negotiations. “CAVA is dedicated to working together with CVEU to reach a fair and equitable settlement so that we may continue to build upon CAVA’s unique and special achievements in support of the students and families across California,” she told me in an email.

While virtual schools across the country face some of the same struggles roiling traditional public schools, namely decreased state funding per pupil even after local economies have rebounded since the recession, virtual teachers also have to reckon with a newer threat: the involvement of for-profit companies that seek to deliver profits to their investors. CAVA, for instance, is a nonprofit network, but its operations are deeply intertwined with K12 Inc., a publicly traded company based in Virginia. K12, founded in 2000 by William Bennett, the education secretary under Ronald Reagan, and Ronald Packard, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is the nation’s largest supplier of management services and curriculum for virtual charters. The company, according to Education Week, has built a powerful lobbying operation in more than 20 states.

While CAVA describes its schools as independent, Jessica Calefati of San Jose’s The Mercury News, who investigated the arrangement back in 2016, found tax records showing that K12 employees themselves had established more than a dozen online schools in California. CAVA contracts with K12 for all sorts of services: The company provides the schools’ curricula, oversees their budgets, trains teachers, offers technical assistance, and even handles media communications. Calefati wrote, “Accountants and financial analysts interviewed by this newspaper, including several who specialize in school finance, say they’ve never seen anything quite like the arrangement between K12 and the public online academies.” (A CAVA official called The Mercury News investigation a “gross mischaracterization” of the organization’s work.)

CAVA teachers say they organized a union in part to push back on K12’s corporate influence over their schools. “For so long it’s been focused on how to use this charter-school concept to turn a dollar, rather than how to use online tools to support more students,” said Carroll, the union president. “We’re really using the union to push CAVA to have different goals.”

The virtual charter network might benefit from some new goals. In 2016, then-state Attorney General Kamala Harris alleged that K12 and CAVA had used false advertising and inflated their student-attendance numbers to collect extra state funds. Harris also alleged that K12 had trapped the network in debt by saddling cava with an unfair contract. CAVA and K12 agreed that year to settle with the state for $168.5 million. K12 emphasized it had admitted no wrongdoing, and said the attorney general “grossly mischaracterized the value of the settlement just as it did with regard to the issues it investigated.” In an email to The Atlantic, the K12 spokesperson Michael Kraft disputed the AG’s characterization of the schools as indebted. Also in 2016, The Mercury News reported that fewer than half of  CAVA’s high-schoolers earned diplomas, and almost none were qualified to attend the state’s public universities. (K12 disputes this, noting the state does not always have reliable data for nontraditional schools with higher student mobility rates.) CAVA was also hit with a nearly $2 million fine in 2017 after California’s Department of Education found continued issues with attendance reporting and other practices. (CAVA disputed this, releasing a statement that CAVA schools “demonstrated they were consistently operating in full compliance with all state laws and regulations” and planned to appeal the financial penalty.)

Last fall, faced with a stalemate with CAVA over salaries, workday length, and class size, the teachers authorized a strike: More than 90 percent of the 450-member union voted to back their bargaining team if it called for walking off the job. Shortly after that, CAVA administrators tentatively agreed to some new concessions, according to copies of signed agreements provided by the union: a pay raise, a shorter work year, and fewer employment duties, among others.

Still, the fight around class size remained unresolved. CAVA teachers argued that class-size limits would improve academic quality. Carroll said the charter network maintained during negotiations that caps would hinder their needed flexibility. (CAVA declined to comment on its position on class sizes.) When they were still unable to reach an agreement, following a two-day fact-finding mediation last week, union leaders announced they were preparing for a first-of-its-kind strike. A virtual-charter strike would have meant that all online classes would be canceled, and teachers would meet in person to picket at locations such as the CAVA offices in Simi Valley. The strike was to be held in late April or early May.

But the day after the teachers’ strike announcement, April Warren, CAVA’s head of schools, proposed a compromise resolution: Classrooms could be capped at about 30 students, according to a copy of the signed agreement provided by the union, and if a classroom were to exceed that threshold, the teacher would be compensated accordingly. The teachers agreed. “I think the strike played a huge role in helping us resolve this, because that’s what CAVA was constantly saying—‘well, we don’t want a strike,’” Carroll said. Warren declined to comment on the strike threat, but on Monday, she confirmed the parties had reached a tentative agreement and were “working on a timeline for full ratification.” A spokesman for K12 declined to comment.

Carroll says teachers at other virtual charter networks have been reaching out to her, intrigued by her and her colleagues’ union work. While the West Virginia and Oklahoma teacher strikes demonstrate how educators at traditional public schools can still assert formidable collective power, just 11 percent of charters in the United States are currently unionized, and among virtual charters, that number stands at 9 percent. There are several reasons for this: Most charter-school backers and funders take a relatively anti-union stance, asserting that unions will impede a school’s flexibility, and therefore its ability to deliver the best education possible for students. Unions have also been slow to organize charter-school teachers, long viewing them as scabs who threaten their livelihoods. Labor groups have softened their stance towards charter teachers in recent years, but tensions remain as unions continue to work politically to halt charter-school growth.

A successful contract negotiation for cava teachers, though, could help ignite similar efforts elsewhere. The anything-goes approach to virtual education has made it alluring to operators trying to cut costs or make a buck. But if their workers have any say in the matter, online charters’ freewheeling days may be numbered. That would be good not just for educators but for the students entrusted to them.