Teachers across the country demand better pay and support

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After a weeks-long walkout, a major teacher strike in Minneapolis has ended — at least for now — with an agreement between the Minneapolis Teachers’ Federation (MFT) and the Minneapolis School District.

As the Minneapolis strike ends, another begins: Sacramento public school teachers and support staff began their own walkout on Wednesday, which closed schools for 40,000 students in District K-12. Other teacher strikes in Sonoma County, California and Illinois also took place earlier this year as part of a wave of protests against underfunded classrooms, low salaries and Covid-19 protocols.

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

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

“We’ve been talking about it for years. This is nothing new,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. “And here is the reality. When you consistently underfund our public schools, it gets worse.

According to Pringle, the nation’s school underfunding has gone even deeper in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. As with other school districts across the country, Minneapolis has struggled with reopening schools during the pandemic, with educators hardest hit in the classroom as they encounter a lack of support from school administrators to implement Covid-19 health protocols and provide mental health support for both. staff and students.

“I think if you ask anyone, it’s been the toughest two years of education anyone’s ever had,” said Sara Anderson, a teacher at striking Whittier International Elementary School in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis school teachers hold signs during the strike outside Justice Page High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota on March 8, 2022.
Kerem Yucel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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

Yet these teacher strikes are more than a symptom of the country’s growing labor movement spawned by the inequalities caused by the pandemic. They can be a sign of an education system in need, and educators across the United States are raising their voices to be heard.

Minneapolis teachers’ strike is over, for now

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

The strike — the first in more than 50 years in Minneapolis — is one of 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 teachers and district education support professionals, or ESPs, which includes support staff like guidance counselors and school nurses.

“We’ve sat at the table with these people for hundreds of hours to get this deal done and we’re very pleased with the results of what we’ve seen,” said Shaun Laden, president of the support professionals section at education of the union, to a press conference following the announcement of the agreement.

Provisions in the union’s tentative agreement for ESPs include an increase in hours and days of work, as well as an increase in pay rates from $2 to $4 an hour, bringing many ESPs’ annual wages closer to the union’s initial demand for $35,000 a year as starting salary. The agreement also guaranteed seniority and placement rights for associate educators, who are largely people of color, according to Laden.

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

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

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

“I believe this is the best our negotiating team can get. I think they have worked very hard and I am happy that ESPs have come close to what they deserve. It was just silly to think we wouldn’t be punished for our action,” Anderson added, calling the back-to-work agreement “punitive.”

Anderson said many of his co-workers didn’t expect the strike to last this long, or the cavalier attitude they saw from school district officials once the strike began, which didn’t 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 we had,” she recalls. Anderson plans to discuss the terms of the agreement with his colleagues before making his decision on the union vote.

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

Covid-19 exposed a failing education system in the United States

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

As striking educators in Minneapolis vote on tentative agreements reached this weekend, Sacramento teachers are just beginning negotiations with district officials. On Saturday, after a four-day strike, district officials agreed to meet with the teachers’ union.

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

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

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

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

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

But an increasingly disenchanted workforce, especially among educators, could spell disaster for the country’s public education system in the long run. A February survey by the NEA found that 55% of members surveyed planned to leave the teaching profession sooner than they had planned, up from 37% of educators who said the same. thing in August.

Additionally, a disproportionate percentage of black (62%) and Hispanic or Latino (59%) educators — groups already underrepresented in the education sector — were considering early exits, according to the NEA survey.

According to union leaders, however, Friday’s agreement on Minneapolis teachers shows that it is possible for school districts to put their staff first.

“What we’ve always said is that we don’t have a budget crisis, we have a crisis of values ​​and priorities,” Laden said at his Friday press conference. “I think what our members have proven is that it does.”

Pringle agrees. She points to historic U.S. bailout funding for schools nationwide, which has been distributed to all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

“It was a landmark investment, and then we ran into some hurdles in distributing it and implementing it,” Pringle said of the increased federal funding. “It’s unacceptable that we were able to at least fight back and get that money and then we have these conversations at the district level about ‘oh, we can’t spend it on hiring more mental health professionals. … Our children need it [support] now.”

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

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