Eating the Seed Corn

Sprouts

Last month, the teachers of West Virginia went on strike, shutting down every school in the state’s 55 counties for over a week. Their walkout was in protest of years of low pay (West Virginia teachers’ salaries rank 48th out of 50 states), meager or no raises, and steadily rising health care costs, plus other assaults from the state government.

Although it’s illegal for public employees to strike in West Virginia, the teachers held strong in the face of threats, and their unanimity apparently took the government by surprise. Gov. Jim Justice made a settlement offer that included a pay raise – an unlikely concession in a deep-red state – and the union leaders were prepared to support it. But the majority of the membership rejected the deal and returned to their strike. Astonishingly, they won a second time, even more decisively. The state capitulated, agreeing to all their demands.

It seems like a story out of a movie – too improbable to be true. But the mood has spread, and now teachers are striking in Kentucky and Oklahoma, where conditions are, if anything, even worse.

In many red states, education budgets have been more than slashed, they’ve been decimated. In some places, the school week has been cut to four days because there isn’t enough money to keep the schools open. Others use ancient, crumbling textbooks, sometimes older than the students they’re being used to teach, that mention “this new thing called the Internet”. And teachers themselves have been forced to take second and even third jobs, sell blood or rely on soup kitchens just to survive.

With the wave of strikes finally drawing media attention, we’re hearing about the brutal poverty that teachers have endured for years, as well as the heroic lengths they’ve gone to to keep the schools functioning in the face of utter neglect and contempt by Republican-controlled statehouses:

Landing in Oklahoma, I immediately started hearing anecdotes about the hardships of local educators: from the friend who gets her hair cut by a high-school history teacher who works in a salon two days a week for extra money, or the Lyft driver who says that her kid’s school always has flyers in the hall asking parents to donate paper and pencils and other supplies, or the acquaintance who told me that the teachers in her family joke about developing “teacher bladder,” the ability not to go to the restroom all day because there aren’t enough staff members in the school to allow them to leave their classrooms for a few minutes.

…One of those who plans to keep walking this week is Kendra Abel, an elementary-school art teacher in Oklahoma City. Abel, who told me that she teaches five hundred and fifty-three students, and the funding she receives for their art supplies comes to about two dollars per child per year. She has spent more than five hundred dollars of her own money to outfit her classroom this year. She also does things like soaking dried-out markers in water to make watercolors, or melting down broken crayon bits at the end of the year to make new ones. (source)

Or this firsthand account from an Oklahoma teacher:

Teachers in my state haven’t had a state pay raise in a decade. This, coupled with a multi-million dollar cut to the Tulsa public school district’s budget last year prompted me to literally stand on the side of the highway, begging passing motorists for donations. I never thought it would come to this; I never thought when I first became a teacher that I would literally be forced to panhandle for school supplies. But I was tired of not having enough money for my classroom, of being expected to always use my limited cash reserves to pay to enrich my curriculum.

Part of the problem is typically short-sighted Republican policy – like the Oklahoma rule that it takes a 75% supermajority to raise taxes but only a simple majority to cut them, with the predictable result that funding gaps get worse and worse. Another part could be the Ayn Rand ideology that education is irrelevant because true genius will always reveal itself.

However, I think there’s something deeper at work here, something that goes beyond mere callous neglect. It’s not just censoring American history or pushing creationism, as bad as that is. Those are targeted attacks, but this is an across-the-board assault on the education system itself, with the aim of bleeding the schools until they collapse.

This is consistent with surveys that find American conservatives are increasingly hostile to education itself (and, of course, the Republicans’ religious fundamentalist base has always distrusted science). It’s become more widely known that more-educated people tend to be more secular and more liberal. I’ve often said that atheists should care more about good education for this reason. It’s possible that the GOP is making the logical countermove.

But if so, it shows the self-destructive, collectively suicidal nature of Republican policies. As Paul Krugman says, the states being swept by the teachers’ strikes are “failed convergence” states. They were originally among the poorest, but in the decades after World War II, they made rapid progress. It was assumed they’d catch up to the wealthier states. Instead, that convergence ceased and then went into reverse. They’re becoming poorer relative to their blue neighbors. Longstanding hostility toward education is bound to be part of this.

In a globalized, technological economy where lower-skilled jobs are being outsourced or taken over by machines, highly skilled knowledge work is more vital than ever. For that, we need a robust education system and teachers who are given the resources to do their jobs well. In the face of this trend, the red states are voting to make themselves poorer and more ignorant – and it’s not just themselves, but their children that they’re consigning to lives of poverty. Like starving people eating next year’s seed corn, they’re devouring their own futures.

It’s more than welcome to see resistance awakening, especially from women (three-quarters of teachers are women) marching in the streets and fighting back against hostile conservative legislators. It’s doubly encouraging that the labor movement, which seemed moribund, is springing back to life and reasserting itself in a huge way. Still, it’s discouraging that things had to get this bad before the populace was roused to action. They’re trying to undo decades of damage, and even if the teachers’ demands are granted, it seems unlikely that they’ll do more than keep their states from falling further behind.

Image credit: Cheryl DeWolfe, released under CC BY 3.0 license

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