Recent teacher strikes in school districts nationwide put a spotlight on the need for good pay, smaller class sizes and resources for youth. Some community leaders say more can be done to improve schools so they can better serve families in all parts of the U.S.
Across the country, public schools do more than just educate students. In Chauncey, Ohio, the public preschool shares space with a food pantry. In Chicago, schools have washing machines for students and parents. And in West Virginia, the high school is a vital part of the community, said teacher Corinne Full.
“The high school is the centerpiece of a lot of the social gatherings, and everyone is invested in it,” she said.
Full said people call the school to ask about seemingly small things that happen, such as new trees being planted.
“They see it as their school,” she said.
West Virginia was one of many states where teachers went on strike in 2018 and 2019. Teacher strikes also occurred in Arizona, California, North Carolina, Washington state and Oklahoma. Teachers walked out for improved pay and benefits, for more school funding – and so they could better serve students.
The strikes across the nation set a clear message that school funding and helping families in need are linked.
Teachers in Colorado recently returned to the classroom and Kentucky teachers mounted a “sick-out,” but the long-term outcome of those and other strikes remains unclear. Still, the strikes accomplished one major result: building greater support for schools and teachers.
The picket lines also revealed the essential connection between public schools and families, especially lower-income families.
“Beyond the big walk-out [in Arizona], which was very visible and intense and involved so many people, there are many, many things that have emerged – ways for parents and community members to take control and be able to make a difference,” said Dana Wolfe Naimark, president and CEO of Children’s Action Alliance, a Phoenix-based community organization that works to improve conditions for children and families.
In many remote or rural places, the public school is the largest building around, a centrally located place where families can gather for information, services and social events. And in areas of high poverty, where a school may be a point of pride, families may turn there to fulfill basic needs such as food and health care.
A teacher and parent in Kentucky described her school as a family hub in a low-income community.
“Our school grounds are open to the community, including our wheelchair-accessible playground and outdoor classroom areas,” said the teacher and parent, who asked to remain anonymous because of job security. “We also have a Family Resource Center, which offers food and clothing to all families, as well as connecting parents to health and community services.”
Naimark said: “It would be helpful for more communities if more schools were able to function” as hubs.
In Arizona, many public schools are “very challenged,” said Naimark of Children’s Action Alliance. “We are a state with high needs for kids, very high poverty rate, a lot of kids who lack stability in their lives and who really need extra supports in the education system.”
Naimark said those needs are in conflict with a public education system that’s dramatically underfunded.
“We have a severe teacher shortage in our classrooms,” Naimark said. “We have school buses and facilities that are outdated and crumbling and dysfunctional. We have classrooms that are overcrowded, not enough desks, 20-year-old textbooks.”
Naimark said “the impact of the disinvestment” in Arizona schools is evident in the low graduation rates and high numbers of disenfranchised youth.
In 2018, Arizona’s teacher strike ended in a pay raise and much-needed money for education.
“The Legislature and governor voted for significant restored funding when they weren’t planning to do that at all,” Naimark said. “They actually started a whole new budget during the teachers’ strike.”
For other states, whose teachers went on strike, changes may not be as clear or come as swiftly. West Virginia teachers recently went on strike again, almost exactly one year after their 2018 strike.
By bringing issues affecting schools and communities to the forefront, the strikes revealed the difficult working conditions many teachers face, as well as the effort – even activism – they put in on behalf of students and low-income families.
Full and her husband both teach, but their work doesn’t end in the classroom. Like many school teachers, they buy snacks for their classes and help students with clothing and school supplies.
“We have paid tuition and test fees for students, helped get them basic services, collected and delivered furniture to students in need,” Full said.
“Every teacher I know keeps snacks in their room for kids who arrive hungry,” the teacher and parent in Kentucky said. “Most of us also keep a quiet corner where students can rest if they need sleep.”
How much teachers do to improve the lives of students and families was a revelation for many, including some parents. Before the strikes happened, many people also didn’t realize how many legislative roadblocks schools face when seeking funding and other support.
“For parents who were feeling frustrations about seeing things missing in their kids’ schools, [the Arizona strike] helped them understand the root causes,” Naimark said. “That it wasn’t the principals being stubborn or the district not doing things well – the root cause is the lack of investment from the state Legislature. So, I think it really helped parents connect those dots.”
Although striking teachers in West Virginia had support from families – and public goodwill that extended well beyond that state – Full said she still struggles to be hopeful about the future.
“Officials 100 percent don’t get what we do and don’t respect us enough to ask,” Full said, expressing her opinion.
She added: “I like what I do, and I get good results from students. I just don’t know how long that will be enough.”
Alison Stine is a writer and editor, based in Appalachia. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Guardian and Longreads. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included. Photography from The Associated Press is copyright protected.
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